Of a lanthorne and light

Posting, with a few amendments, something on which my pop has been working, since I am not sure where and when else he will get it posted!

From the van Gogh immersive experience (Dallas; September 2021)

In England, evidently, hereditary surnames (as distinct from patronymics and other names that changed with each generation) were widespread by the mid-1400s, after slow spread over the previous four centuries. These appear to have happened by ‘folk’ processes rather than decree or specific documented event, with people adopting place and occupation terms as names (though maybe new tax and census processes were coming into play (?), which warrants more investigation than pop has done so far). A common example is Smith for those working as blacksmiths.

We can, at least, partially track the origin of ‘lanthorn(e)’ to the mid-1500s. Moreover, the surname Lanthorn seems to appear in tandem with the term’s first documentation. A lanthorn is a lantern whose enclosure is made from thin sheets of horn. The existence of lanterns made of horn has been known since at least the time of the Roman Empire, including as pictured in buildings from Pompeii and Herculaneum.  However, these horn-enclosed lanterns were always called just that, ‘lanterns made of horn.’ The contracted form, lantern made of horn, did not appear until much later.

From Pompeii, https://blog.oup.com/2013/08/pompeii-herculaneum-roman-ruins-slideshow/

The Oxford English Dictionary credits the first published use of the term lanthorn(e) to John Heywood’s “Proverbs and Epigrams” published in 1562, specifically, “Of a lanthorne and light” (p.205). Closely following its appearance in Heywood’s works, lanthorn[e] was published in Flemings 2nd edition (1587) of Holinshed’s (Chronicles) History of England, Scotland, & Ireland. This involved a description of the location and ordinances for an almshouse for poor widows, built by David Smith (Smyth), who was master embroiderer to Queen Elizabeth 1, in the ward of Baynard’s Castle in London in 1584.

At about the same time as this description of this almshouse containing a lanthorn[e], the earliest known use of the surname Lanthorn occurred. Robert Lanthorn was baptized on 14 June 1585, as recorded in the Hackney parish register for the Church of St. Augustine (now St. Paul’s Cathedral), in Greater London. The close proximity in time and place for the appearance of the term and surname could reasonably suggest a direct relation between the two.

A potential hiccup in placing the origin of the term lanthorn to 1500s is the Lanthorn Tower in the Tower of London, constructed in the 1220s and 1230s. As generally described now, the Lanthorn Tower had a lanthorn on its top to aid in navigation along the River Thames. As originally built, this tower was the private quarters for King Henry III (1216-1272). One might immediately object to the idea of the tower being topped with a lantern in the 1200s on the grounds of protection for the King; putting a bright light on top of where the King was sleeping would greatly aid enemies and assassins.


London Tower curators took up my question as to whether this tower was originally called the Lanthorn Tower. They found “most of the reliable go-to sources (the King’s Works, Buildings and Institutions of the Tower, etc.) state that the Tower was not always known by Lanthorn[e] – but none illuminate what it was previously known by.” The Tower is not named in the 1532 record of James Nedeham’s alterations to the Tower but it is so named in the 1597 Haiward and Gascoyne Plan (Fig. 1). It is likely the “Lanthorn Tower” was wisely left unnamed until it no longer served as a royal residence and after the lanthorn as a navigation aid was added. This timing is also consistent with the appearance of the term lanthorn[e] occurring in the mid-1500s.

Published by hlanthorn

ORCID ID: 0000-0002-1899-4790

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