Spanish ancestors

This page was last updated in 2009

For centuries, Spaniards have sought refuge from repression in Britain. If you're searching for Spanish ancestors, Matthew Hovius may have some answers.

Millions of people in the UK may have Spanish ancestry without realising it. In medieval times, Doña Sancha de Ayala (1360-1418) accompanied Princess Constanza of Castille to England for her marriage to John of Gaunt. Sancha stayed in England and married Sir Walter Blount, and this couple left a legacy of Spanish ancestry throughout the English gentry.

England occupied Minorca for a century from the early 1700s, and when the island was returned to Spain in 1802, there had been a great deal of intermarriage between the island’s natives and the English newcomers. Some of these families stayed on Minorca, others resettled in the British Isles.

In the late 19th century, Spanish liberals found that the freedoms of British society made London an ideal refuge from the despotic policies of Spanish monarchs. Growing trade links between English and Spanish ports led to marriages between merchant families, and English names may be found with regularity in the port cities of Malaga and Cadiz. More recently, the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath led many Spaniards to choose Britain as the place to start a new life, and such well-known figures as politician Michael Portillo, actor Alfred Molina and pop star Geri Halliwell all have recent Spanish ancestry.

Since about 1700 in Spain, most people are referred to in written records by at least two surnames, and it’s important to be clear on the families from which these indicate descent. Someone called Pedro Fernández González, for example, is the son of a father surnamed Fernández and a mother surnamed González. So if you were tracing his male-line ancestors, you’d be looking for the Fernández family, not the González. Be open to all possibilities though – it’s not unheard of for descendants of Spaniards in other cultures to discover that some official mixed up the surname and ever since, the family may have been known by the maternal one.

If your Spanish research reaches back before about 1700, you will find that labourers and tradesmen are customarily only recorded with one surname, while members of the gentry may use three or four.



Matthew Hovius has lived in Spain since childhood and works there as a genealogist. 

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