The Origins of the Name

In the early part of the twelfth century there lived a man called Maccus. He was not called Maccus, that was the way in which a scribe wrote down his name in Latin. He was called ‘Max’ or if you prefer ‘Macs’, both are pronounced the same but we shall refer to him as Max. A surviving charter of Melrose Abbey shows that this Max was a son of Unwin or Alwyn.  Max lived in relatively peaceful times and was of noble stock, Scots, English, Celtic or Norman, we cannot say. The etymological evidence indicates Scots or northern English. Max had power and held land, by all accounts, a great deal of land and importantly, land close by the royal residence of Roxburgh Castle. Max died about 1152 but his name lived on in two places. One was a small town on the banks of the river Tweed called Maxtown and the other was at a fishing pool at the place were the rivers Teviot and Tweed meet and this was called Max’s weil or the Maxweil. Both these places survive today, the first as Maxton and the other in the village of Maxwellheugh on the high river bank above the ancient fishing pool (a heugh is a mound or embankment).

There lived at also at this time a man named Herbert. Herbert was the Great Chamberlain of Scotland, a very important role, therefore we must assume that this Herbert was an important person in the middle of the twelfth century. Herbert is not a local name, it is of Norman origin. The Normans had invaded England in 1066 and had imposed themselves as the nobility in that country. In the hundred years that followed, opportunists Normans had come north to Scotland to establish links with the nobility of the northern kingdom. This gentle invasion of Scotland established a great many lords of Norman stock in the Scottish royal court.

In 1124,  David, Earl of Huntingdon, a man who had spent most of his life in the English court came to Scotland to claim his throne as David I, younger brother to his predecessor, the late Alexander I. David brought with him a nearly wholly Norman court and perhaps, either as a child or young man, Herbert came to Scotland. This is a purely speculative supposition but would seem reasonable in light of Herbert’s position and the seats of power occupied by his descendents.

At some point before 1159 Herbert came to hold the land at Max’s weil or Maccusweil or Macchwel as the scribes of the day wrote it and in this year Herbert’s name was applied to a charter of confirmation as Herberti de Macchwel. Herbert then signed the document ‘Herbto Camerario’ (Herbert, Chamberlain). So Herbert is identified by others as Herbert who has the land of Max’s weil and identifies himself by his important position as Chamberlainr.

There is confusion over the identity of the first Maxwell in light of the fact that the same charter carries the name of Liolpho fil Macc who’s name appears on other papers a Liulpho filio Macchus. Clearly, this Liulpho (Philip) is the son of Maccus or to us Max. Other charters carry the name of Robert, who also identifies himself as another son of Max (filo Maccus), but Herbert is always ‘de Maccwel’ or ‘de Maccusweil’ (of Max’s weil) never filio Maccus (son of Max). If Herbert had been a son of Max it would be reasonable to assume that he would be designated as a son and not as 'of a territory'.

That Herbert was related to Max one fails to discover. I believe that he was not, he could have been married to a daughter or granddaughter of Max such as Cecelia, the daughter of Liulphus but this is pure speculation. Such a marriage could bear with it a portion of land such as Max’s weil but equally the land which Max held, was held for the King, and on Max’s death would have been resigned back to the crown for disposal as the King saw fit. Perhaps the King saw fit to reward Herbert with the land of Max’s weil. What we do know is that Herbert took his landed designation as his identity, his surname and it is a ninety nine percent certainty that if you were born with the name Maxwell you have Herbert’s blood flowing in your veins.

We know of only three of Herbert's children, but there may have been more. Sir John de Maccusweil succeeded Herbert in the barony and was from 1200, Great Chamberlain of Scotland; he also served as Sheriff of Teviotdale. His services to the kingdom brought him the barony of Cćrlaverock in Dumfries. John died before 1241 and was succeeded by his younger brother, Aymer de Maxwell. the first use the modern spelling of his surname. Aymer married an heiress, Mary, daughter of Sir Roland de Mearns. She brought with her that great Renfrew barony that was to be the  base of the Clyde side Maxwells, the Maxwells of Pollock and Calderwood, and from these the Irish Maxwells of Farnham, Finnebrogue and Ballyrolly. Sir Aymer's eldest son Sir Herbert Maxwell carried the line of Cćrlaverock and the younger, Sir John Maxwell founded the Pollock line. A third known son of Herbert the progenitor was named Robert, but history carries just a glimpse of him as he witnessed a charter in 1210.There is little doubt that these earliest Maxwells were very important people in their time, they held high office and were greatly rewarded for their services. What is so surprising is that so much information about their lives has survived the eight centuries until modern times. Researching the ancient archives has given us an insight into the origins of our name; perhaps there is yet more be learned and identified from these ancient papers. What is certain is that our Maxwell ancestors were influential in shaping the Scottish nation in her infancy.

( This article was originally composed for the house journal of the Clan Maxwell Society of Canada)

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