Change of first name in law

Your first name — or “first names”, or “Christian name”, or “forenames”, or “given name”, or “proper name” (or sometimes just “name”) — consists of all of your names apart from your surname.

There is no concept or definition of a “middle name” in English law.  Your middle names (if you have any) are a part of your first name.  (See: Evans v King (1745); Jones v Macquillin (1793); Williams v Bryant (1839).)

So, for example, if your full name were “John Fred SMITH” (your surname being “SMITH”), then your first name (in full) would be “John Fred”.  Legally speaking, you don’t have a middle name, so you’d simply have a first name made up of two names (“John Fred”).

Meaning of “Christian name”

Your “Christian name” is normally the name you were baptised in.  However there’s a subtle difference between “Christian name” and “baptismal name”.  The two terms aren’t completely interchangeable, but when a person has been baptised and has never changed their name, their Christian name will obviously be their baptismal name.  So, for most people, the two terms are synonymous, and the courts’ usage reflects this.

However, the courts have always been aware that —

So when the law speaks of the “Christian name” (e.g. see Coke on Littleton), the courts have held that this should refer to the first name that a person is called and known by — even for a non-Christian, or for someone who wasn’t baptised.  (See: Nichols v Shepherd (1695); Walden v Holman (1704); Read v Matteur (1736); Weleker v Le Pelletier (1808); Williams v Bryant (1839).)

When the law speaks of the “baptismal name”, it generally does mean the actual name of baptism.  But often the term is used in place of “Christian name”, with the underlying, or explicit, assumption that the name of baptism hasn’t been changed.  When it has been changed, it’s another matter.

Modern cases and statutes avoid the term “Christian name”, though — and usually use “first name” instead (which has the same legal meaning).

You can only have one first name at a time

Sir Edward Coke wrote (in the first part of his Institutes of the Lawes of England (also known as “Coke on Littleton”), chapter 3.a.) —

And this doth agree with our ancient books, where it is holden that a man may have divers names at divers times, but not divers Christian names.

Coke on Littleton — first published in 1628 — is treated as a “book of authority”, meaning that it can be relied upon in court as a statement of the law as it was at that time.  Although this particular statement has been quoted and applied in many subsequent cases, Coke was simply re-stating the same dictum that courts have held many times previously, e.g. —

  • in Serchor v Talbot (1425) 3 Hen. 6 25a–26a, pl. 6, where Mr Justice Cokayn held that “un home peut aver divers surnoms, & estre conu par l'un & par l'auter; mes del nom de baptisme le Ley est auterment, car on ne peut aver ij noms d' baptime, com Richard & Robert.”  [“One could have various surnames, and be known by one or the other; but of the name of baptism the Law is otherwise, because one cannot have two baptismal names, like Richard and Robert.”]
  • in Disply v Sprat (1587), where the court held that “there is a great difference between a mistake in the name of baptism, and in the sirname; for a man can have but one name of baptism, but may have two sirnames.”
  • in Watkins v Oliver (1618), where all the justices and barons held that “Edward Watkins is obliged, and Edmund is sued; which cannot be intended one and the same person: and no averment can help it; for one cannot have two christian names.”

“Divers Christian names” (or the equivalent) means two different Christian names at the same time.  It does not mean that you cannot have middle names as part of your first name (e.g. “John Fred SMITH”).  It just means that you cannot be legally known as both “John SMITH” and “Fred SMITH” at any one time.  This was clearly held to be the case by Lord Chief Justice Willes in Evans v King (1745) —

For in the case of a bond if the action be brought against the defendant by the name mentioned in the bond, he is estopped to say that that is not his name; and to be sure he cannot say that his right name is not his name; so that in that case he may in some sense be said to have two names.  But the defendant cannot be said in any sense to have two names in the present case, which is an action on the case upon several promises and neither of them on a note.  And therefore as no man can have two names at the same time, this declaration must be wrong.  As to what is said in Salk. 6., that a man may have two names, the one of baptism and the other at confirmation, and that after confirmation his name of baptism does not cease, no more can be meant, but that if before confirmation (for a man may not happen to be confirmed until after twenty-one) he executed any thing by his name of baptism he may be sued by that name after his confirmation.  But after confirmation he has no other name but the name that he then took; otherwise the rule would not hold (which yet is certainly true) that a man cannot have two christian names at the same time.

In fact Coke, and other authorities before him, were to some extent merely observing that — as you can only be baptised once — you can only have one baptismal name (although Coke also pointed out that it’s possible to be confirmed in a different name to your baptismal name).  Bear in mind, that surnames came about naturally, as nicknames — and were originally considered as being looser, less formal, and less important than first names — so you could be known as both “John SMITH” and “John HILL” at the same time, for different purposes or in different contexts.  Over time, of course (and certainly by the 19th century) — after surnames became more-or-less fixed, and it had become the custom to inherit your surname (normally from your father) — the surname became regarded as the more formal and important of the two, and the practice of choosing or adopting your own surname became less and less common.

Nor does Coke’s statement mean (as it has sometimes been interpreted) that you cannot change your first name.  After all, in his very next sentence, Coke pointed out the case of Richard v William (1335), where someone had indeed done just that:

And the court said, that it may be that a woman was baptized by the name of Anable, and 40 yeares after she was confirmed by the name of Douce, and then her name was changed, and after she was to be named Douce, and that all purchases, &c. made by her by the name of baptism before her confirmation, remain good.

The truth is that Coke doesn’t talk very much about change of name law, presumably because it wasn’t very relevant to people in 1628.  At that time, there were no identity cards, passports, driving licences, or birth certificates (or even utility bills) that could have been used as “ID”.  The only kind of civil registration was carried out by churches (for baptisms and marriages), but of course this wouldn’t have accounted for non-Conformists (such as Quakers), Jews, foreigners, or “heathens” (i.e. anyone who wasn’t baptised).  If someone wanted to change their name, they would have just started to use their new name, whenever they wished to — there was no need to update their driving licence, tell their GP, and so on.  Therefore, when people showed up in court, the court had to be satisfied with ascertaining the name that each person was commonly called, and known by, in society.  Of course, the most reliable thing — when possible — was to use the name of baptism, but this created problems whenever they came across someone who wasn’t baptised, or whose baptismal name wasn’t the name they were known (and sued) by.

Changing your first name

As with your surname, there is nothing in the law stopping you from changing your first name at any time, so long as you don’t have any fraudulent (or other criminal) intent.

You can assume any name or combination of names you please in addition to, or substitution for, your existing name.  You can change your name at any time, and as many times as you wish.

The basis in law for changing first name

Bracton (c. 1235)

The doctrine that your legal name is the name you are called and known by has a basis in ancient times.  Henry de Bracton wrote in his De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliæ (c. 1235), on folio 188b —

Latin (original text)

Item si quis binominis sit sive in nomine proprio vel cognomine, illud nomen tenendum erit quo solet frequentius appellari: quia ideo imposita sunt ut demonstrent voluntatem dicentis, et utimur vocis ministerio.

English (translation)

And so if a person has two names, whether in his name or in his surname, that name is to be adopted by which he is more frequently accustomed to be called: because they are imposed for that reason, that they may show the intention of the speaker, and we make use of speech as a servant.

Other early cases confirm that you can be baptised in one name and confirmed in another — and that the name given in confirmation would become your new name.  (See: Grunsard v Rous (1312) 5 Edw. 2 (31 SS) 152–153 pl. 39 ↗, Richard v William (1335), (1372) 46 Edw. 3 22a–22b pl. 2 ↗, and the case of Francis Gawdy (described in Coke on Littleton 3.a.)).

In the case of Richard v William (1335), Sir William Herle held in his judgment that —

Norman French (original text)

Homme poet a divers temps aver divers nosmes mes nemy par baptisme: car poet estre qe son nosme de baptisme fuit Anable, et qe ele fuit de xl. ans avant ceo qe ele fuit confirme, et adonque son nosme change et ele adonque nosme Douce, etc.

English (translation)

A man can at different times have different names but none by baptism: for it could be that her baptismal name was Anable, and that she was for 40 years before she was confirmed, and then her name changed and then she was named Douce, etc.

He thus made clear that it’s possible to change your first name (and that you don’t have to keep your baptismal name), and that confirmation was one of the ways in which your name can be changed — but he didn’t elaborate on how else it might be done (although he didn’t close the door on there being other methods).

Walden v Holman (1704) and similar cases

In the case of Walden v Holman (1704), the defendant pleaded in abatement that he was baptised in a different name to the name he was sued by, and that he’d always been called and known by this baptismal name, formally denying (“traversing”) that he was ever called or known by the name he was sued by.

But the court rejected the idea that the defendant’s name could have no other name than his name of baptism, and held that the defendant could indeed be sued by the name he was called and known by, with Chief Justice Holt saying (per Leach’s report, 6 Mod 115) that —

[The defendant’s traverse] is not immaterial, but would be a good plea in abatement; for it is a good plea in abatement for a defendant to say that he was known and called by such a name, though he never was baptized, as many thousands in England never were: nor is it true to say that one baptized by the name of John cannot be known by another name.

In Lord Raymond’s report of the same case (Ld Raym. 1015), he quotes Chief Justice Holt as having also held that —

It would not be a sufficient answer for the defendant to say he was baptized by the name of A. without averring also, that he was ever called and known by that name.

This means that the Walden v Holman case laid down two important dictums —

  • it is sufficient to plead that you’re called and known by such a name, even if you’re not baptised (or you were baptised by another name)
  • it isn’t sufficient to plead that you’re baptised by such a name, without also averring that you’re called and known by that name

The upshot of this is that more importance is given to the name that you’re called and known by, than to the name of baptism.

And the same principle has been held in other cases, for example in Evans v King (1745), where Lord Chief Justice Willes held that it wasn’t enough to plea in abatement that your name of baptism be different from how you are sued, because your actual name may not be your baptismal name —

I am clearly of opinion that [the defendant’s plea] is not good, for that it is no answer to the plaintiff’s declaration.  For he only says that his name of baptism is Henry Vaughan, and traverses that his name of baptism is Henry alone, or that he was ever called or known by that name of baptism, which may be true and yet his name may be Henry; for it may be his name of confirmation, or he may be a Jew or a Heathen.

And in Read v Matteur (1736), where the defendant pleaded in abatement that he was “always known and called” by a different name and surname — not mentioning whether or not he was baptised by that name.  Mr Justice Lee held that —

The defendant to be sure may, if he will, plead in abatement that he was baptised by another name … but it appears from the precedents and authorities that it is not necessary to plead so.

And also in Addis v Power (1831), where the defendant moved to amend a recovery, to be in his baptismal name — even though it was accepted that he “had always been called and known” by the name that the demandant had used.  The court refused, and Chief Justice Tindal held that —

If the vouchee be, as it is deposed, known by one name as well as the other, the amendment is unnecessary, and we are not to make it to humour the whims of conveyancers.

The King v the Inhabitants of Billingshurst (1814)

In the case of the King v the Inhabitants of Billingshurst (1814), the court considered whether a person’s marriage was valid, whose baptismal name was Abraham, but had been married by banns by the name of George Smith.

The Marriage Act 1753 directs “a notice in writing of the true Christian and surnames of the parties, to be delivered to the minister,” and the case turned on how the words “true Christian and surnames” should mean in the context of the Act.  In resolving this question, Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough pointed out that the said George Smith had been known by that name alone in the parish where he lived, and thus held —

The object of the statute in the publication of banns was to secure notoriety, to apprize all persons of the intention of the parties to contract marriage; and how can that object be better attained, than by a publication in the name by which the party is known?  … Therefore the publication in the real name, instead of being notice to all persons, would have operated as a deception; and it is strictly correct to say, that the original name in this case would not have been the true name within the meaning of the statute.  On these grounds I think that the Act only meant to require that the parties should be published by their known and acknowledged names.

In other words, the court held that the true Christian name in the context of the Marriage Act was simply the name by which a person is generally known within the parish where they live.

Williams v Bryant (1839)

In the case of Williams v Bryant (1839), T. Williams sued William Bryant, who pleaded non est factum on the basis that his true name was William Francis Bryant.

At the original trial, it was proven that the defendant did in fact execute a bond by the name of William Bryant, and that, at the time of the execution, he was known by that name — and a verdict was found for the plaintiff.  However, the defendant moved to enter a nonsuit.

The court again found in favour of the defendant, and Mr Baron Parke held in his judgment —

[There] are many cases, in which the court have said, and as recently as in that in Willes, 554, that a man cannot have two Christian names at the same time; nor can he, properly and strictly, have two: but, on the other hand, it is certain that a person may at this time sue, or be sued, not merely by his true name of baptism, but by any first name which he has acquired by usage or reputation.  … If a party is called and known by any proper name, by that name he may he sued, and the misnomer could not he pleaded in abatement; and not only is this the established practice, but the doctrine is promulgated in very ancient times [referring to Bracton, 188 b.].  … And if a party may sue, or be sued, by the proper name by which he is known, it must be a sufficient designation of him, if he enter into a bond by that name.  … On a plea of non est factum, where the difference of name does not appear on the record, and there is evidence of the party having been known, at the time of the execution, by the name on the instrument, there is no case cited on the argument, and none that we are aware of, which decides that the instrument is void.  … In the absence, therefore, of any authority to the contrary, and relying upon the law now fully established, as to misnomers in actions, we think a bond is not void which is in the name, whether such name be the first or Christian name, or family name, by which the party is commonly called or known …