Bernard Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Bernard Surname Meaning

The root of the Bernard and Barnard surnames is the Germanic personal name Bernhard, meaning “hardy bear” as it was comprised of the elements bern meaning “bear” and hard meaning “hardy” or “brave.”

The name was popular among Old Frisian speakers along the German/Dutch coastline.  In the 13th and 14th cewnturies it vied with Arnold as the most popular personal name in the Netherlands and northern Germany.  Bernhard then spread in different spellings across Europe.

As Bernard the name became particularly widespread in France, largely because of the popularity of two 11th century saints – St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of the Cistercian monastery at Clairvaux, and St. Bernard of Menthon, the founder of Alpine hospices and the patron saint of mountaineers.    

Bernard and Barnard are the principal surname spellings in the English speaking-world.

Bernard Surname Resources on The Internet

Bernard and Barnard Surname Ancestry

  • from France and England
  • to Ireland, America, Canada and South Africa

Bernard is the second most common surname in France after Martin, with numbers around 65,000 today.  It is spread widely across the country.  Bernard was brought by the Normans to England after 1066 and by the French to Canada in the 17th century.

Barnard also came to England and later to America and South Africa.  The origins here were Dutch and, in some cases, Jewish.  One Dutch Barnard family began with the marriage of Izaak Barnard and Johanna Vogelenzang in Scheveningen, Holland in 1751.  Barnard is the 30th most common surname of European origin in South Africa today.

England.  In England Bernards, perhaps because of their French Norman connections, have the older history.

Bernards.   A Bernard family dates from the mid-13th century, and parhaps earlier, at Wansford in the East Riding of Yorkshire where they were landowners.  By the late 14th century these Bernards had settled at Abington in Northamptonshire and they were to remain there until Sir John Bernard sold Abington Hall in 1669.

“Sir John had married as his second wife Elizabeth Hall of Stratford, the last of William Shakespeare’s direct descendants, in 1649.”

Sir Robert Bernard, who grew up at nearby Kingsthorpe, was an MP for Huntingdon and made a baronet in 1662.  Sir Francis Bernard, the unpopular Governor of Massachusetts in the 1760’s, was a descendant.  He too was made a baronet.  The family history was recounted in Napier Higgins’ 1904 book The Bernards of Abington and Nether Winchendon.

The Charles Bernard, a theater manager who had married the actress Annie Allen in London in 1880, was the forebear of a remarkable Bernard family.  After he died in 1896 at the young age of 36, his son Oliver was able to make his mark in the interwar years as an architect and interior designer.  He had three remarkable sons:

  • Oliver Bernard, poet and translator of Rimbaud’s verse into English  
  • Bruce Bernard, photographer and art critic   
  • and Jeffrey Bernard, Soho resident and long-term writer of the column Low Life in the Spectator.

Barnards.  The Barnard name was mainly to be found in London and East Anglia.  Francis Barnard appeared in the Visitations of Essex of 1612.  John Barnard departed Ipswich for New England in 1634.  A later John Barnard started a shipbuilding business at Ipswich and Harwich in the mid-1700’s.  His son William continued his father’s shipbuilding at Deptford on the Thames. 

Another William Barnard was a farmer at Harlowbury in Essex from 1807 to 1823.  His diary of those years has been preserved.  A Barnard family were blacksmiths in Brighton for nearly two hundred years between 1700 and 1900.

One family of Anglican ministers began with George Barnard who was rector of West Heslerton in Yorkshire from 1615 to 1639.  His grandson William was appointed Bishop of Derry in Ireland.  William’s son Thomas was the Bishop of Limerick and his grandson Andrew an early Governor of Cape Colony, South Africa around the year 1800.

Another line of Anglican ministers – five in this case – began with the Rev. Thomas Barnard, born around 1765, who was the vicar of Great Amwell in Hertfordshire.

There were Jewish Barnards as well.  The first recorded was Philip Barnard, son of Solomon, who was born in Rochford, Essex in 1766.  Many Barnards have descended from Rabbi Daniel Barnard of Canterbury in the early 1800’s. 

Ireland.  The Bernards in county Cork had originally come from Essex in England and first appeared at Bandon in 1659.  Francis Bernard, who became the first Earl of Bandon, demolished the old O’Mahony castle at Bandon in 1788 and built a castellated mansion instead on the site.  The fourth Earl, nicknamed Buckshot Bandon, had this home burnt by the IRA in 1921.

One line of these Bernards settled in London in the late 1700’s and was active in British colonial service.  Francis James Bernard was a founding pioneer of the colony of Singapore.  He left in 1827, abandoning his native-born wife and five children there.  He died sixteen years later in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).

America.  Early English arrivals tended to be Barnards:

  • John Barnard and his family from Ipswich in Suffolk who came to New England on the Elizabeth in 1634 and settled in Watertown, Massachusetts.  
  • Robert and Thomas Barnard, brothers from Lowestoft in Suffolk, who came to New England in the 1640’s.  Both met unfortunate ends.  But their lines continued.  
  • Francis Barnard, the maltster from Hadleigh in Suffolk who was one of the first settlers of Hartford, Connecticut in the early 1640’s.
  • while Richard Barnard was a Quaker from Yorkshire who came to Chester later Delaware county, Pennsylvania in 1680.

Robert and Thomas’s descendants, many of whom were whalers, stayed on Nantucket until 1773.  There was then an exit of Barnard families to Guilford county, North Carolina.

Francis’s descendants were to be found in Hadley and Deerfield, Massachusetts.  One line extended to Sheffield, Massachusetts where Frederick Barnard, later President of Columbia University, and John Barnard, a Union general during the Civil War, were born. Some were Loyalists who crossed the border into Canada.

Bernards.   Some early Bernards in America were Huguenot.  Peter and Mary Bernard came to Virginia around the year 1700.  Their son John made his home in Albemarle county.  Later Bernards of this family migrated to Kentucky, Indiana, and Texas.

The next Bernards came to Louisiana from Acadia in French Canada.  The forebears here were two Bernard brothers – Michel and Pierre – who arrived around 1765, although separately with different parties.  These Bernards became a major presence in south Louisiana.

They were joined, in the period until the Civil War, by Bernards from France and elsewhere who had arrived at the port of New Orleans.  Louis Bernard from Brittany, for instance who had fallen in love with an Acadian girl, came in 1785 and stayed.

Canada.  The first Bernard in Canada was probably Andre Bernard, a mason from Poitou who went to work for the French Governor at his fort on Riviere St. Jean in 1641.  Rene Bernard may or may not have been his son.  Rene made his home at Chignecto in what is now Nova Scotia.  From him the Acadian Bernards were mostly descended.  They were still mainly in the Chignecto area in 1765 when the forced evacuation to Louisiana began.

Acadian Bernards also resettled in Prince Edward Island.  Three Bernard families were reported there in 1828.  Samuel Bernard from a Huguenot family was a Loyalist in New York who had come to Canada in 1787 and later settled in PEI.  His son John became an inn keeper in Wilmot Creek.

Canada had some Barnards.  One line were Loyalists from America, descendants of Francis Barnard.  They established themselves in Quebec City and then moved, in 1859, to British Columbia.  Frank Barnard founded the Barnard’s Express freighting company there in the 1870’s.  His son, Frank Barnard Jr, became the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia.

South Africa.  Several Barnards came to South Africa, including a few from England.  But the most numerous have been the Barnard descendants of Johannes Bernardt of Cologne in Germany.  He had come to the Cape colony in 1708 and farmed in the Mossel Bay area.  The line from his son Adam and Adam’s son Hendrik extended to Dr. Christiaan Barnard, the man who performed the world’s first human heart transplant in 1967.

Bernard and Barnard Surname Miscellany

Bernards and Barnards Today

‘000’s Bernards Barnards Total
UK    15    13    28
America    17     9    26
Canada    20     1    21
South Africa    24    24
Australia/NZ     3     3
Total    52    50   102

Possible Origins of the Bernard Family at Wansford in Yorkshire.  There have been many suggestions for the origins of the Bernard family at Wansford in Yorkshire.

Inevitably there was a linkage with a valiant knight who accompanied William the Conqueror to England in 1066.  In this case the knight was Sir Theophilus Bernard of German origin whose descendants settled in Westmoreland, Yorkshire and Northamptonshire.

Another source has these Bernards of Danish descent, a Border family based in Northumberland.  Then these Bernards might have been Norman FitzBernards coming from Kingsdown in Kent.

Robert and Thomas Barnard of Nantucket.  Robert and Thomas Barnard were brothers from Lowestoft in Suffolk who came to New England.  Robert arrived first, around 1640, and settled in Andover, Massachusetts.

Thomas came about ten years later.  Thomas was one of the original ten owners of Nantucket island purchased from the Indians in 1659.  These ten were allowed to pick another and Thomas picked his brother Robert.

Thomas was killed by Indians in Amesbury, Massachusetts in 1677. He left behind a son Nathaniel.  Robert lived on in Nantucket.   He and his wife Joanna had five children.  Their son John drowned in a canoe in 1669.  In 1682 both Robert and Joanna drowned in a canoe in the Sound when it capsized as they were coming back to the island after having shopped for furniture on the Cape.  The third person on the canoe managed to hold onto the canoe until he could stand up on a shoal and right it.

Acadian Bernards in Louisiana.  Two Bernard brothers came to Louisiana from Acadia in 1765 – one, Michel, with the Broussard party; the other, Pierre, with a later party.

Michel remained on the western prairies of Louisiana where two of his sons, Jean and François, created lines at Carencro and Côte Gelée in the old Attakapas district.  Their descendants spread out along the Teche from Fausse Pointe near New Iberia all the way up to Port Barre, east of Opelousas.  Some remained at Carencro and Côte Gelée in Lafayette parish.  Others moved out into the prairies of Vermilion and St. Landry parishes.

Pierre’s descendants did not remain on the river.  His oldest son Baptiste settled on Bayou Lafourche, creating an important center of family settlement there.  His second son Pierre joined his cousins on the prairies, where one of his sons created a vigorous line in Lafayette and St. Landry parishes.

Louis Bernard Who Married an Acadian.  Louis Bernard, the son of a French nobleman in Brittany, came to America in the early 1780’s as a French naval midshipman.  He served in the Yorktown campaign in Virginia during the American Revolution.

After the war Louis returned to France and fell in love with an Acadian girl at St. Malo.   According to family tradition, Louis’s father refused to sanction his son’s marriage to a lowly Acadian.  Louis persisted in his ardor, however, and when her family chose to emigrate to Louisiana in 1785, Louis became a crewman on La Ville d’Archangel, the ship his beloved took from St. Malo to New Orleans.  Louis followed the majority of the passengers from his ship to the new Acadian community of Bayou des Écores, north of Baton Rouge, where he married Marie-Victoire in 1787.

After a series of hurricanes smashed the Bayou des Écores settlement in the early 1790s, Louis and Victoire joined the exodus out of the community and moved downriver to Baton Rouge where they raised a large family.  Louis died in West Baton Rouge parish in August 1843.  He was 81 years old.  Two of his sons and several of his grandchildren also married Acadians.

Buckshot Bandon at Castle Bandon in 1921.  James Francis Bernard nicknamed Buckshot Bandon, the 4th Earl of Bandon, was the British Deputy Lieutenant in Ireland in the early 1900’s.  His home at Castle Bernard had become known as one of the most hospitable houses in Ireland.  The house parties held by him and his wife Georgiana were legendary.

In an early morning raid on June 21, 1921 during the days of the Black and Tans, an IRA party under Sean Hales called. They intended to kidnap Lord Bandon, but Buckshot Bandon and his staff had taken refuge in the cellars. Apparently disappointed in the first object of their call, the IRA decided to burn the house.  Hales was heard to say – “Well, the bird has flown, so we’ll burn the nest.”

At that the Earl and his party appeared from the cellars, but it was too late. The fire had started.  Ironically the IRA carefully took out all the furniture and piled it on the lawn before setting the building on fire.

Lady Bandon had to sit and watch the flames for some hours.  When the flames were at their height, she suddenly stood up in her nightgown and sang God Save the King as loudly as possible, which disconcerted the incendiaries.  But while they may not have stood to attention, they let her have her say and did nothing about it.

Lord Bandon was then kidnapped by the IRA and held hostage for three weeks.  The IRA threatened to have him executed if the British went ahead with executing IRA prisoners of war.  During his captivity Bandon coolly played cards with his captors who treated him well.  Still, the elderly Earl Bandon never recovered from the experience and died in 1924.

Castle Bernard continued to be the home of the Earl and Countess of Bandon as they built a small house within the castle boundary walls.  The Earl died in 1979, his wife twenty years later at the advanced age of 102.

Bernard and Barnard Names

  • Sir Francis Bernard was the colonial Governor of Massachusetts in the 1760’s.  His attempt to impose new taxes on the colonists was largely responsible for the American Revolution that resulted. 
  • Lady Anne Barnard was a travel writer and artist.  She is best known as the author of the ballad Auld Robin Gray and of the letters she wrote home while in residence in Cape Town around the year 1800. 
  • Frederick Barnard was appointed President of Columbia University in New York in 1864.  Columbia’s sister college of Barnard was named after him. 
  • Christian Barnard was the South African doctor who performed the world’s first human heart transplant in 1967. 
  • Jeffrey Bernard who died in 1997 was a British journalist best known for his weekly column Low Life in The Spectator that covered his chaotic career and life of alcohol abuse.

Bernard/Barnard Numbers Today

  • 28,000 in the UK (most numerous in Surrey)
  • 26,000 in America (most numerous in Louisiana)
  • 48,000 elsewhere (most numerous in South Africa)

Bernard and Like Surnames

These are French-originated names, French Canadian surnames that were brought by French settlers to what was then New France.  Many are found in Louisiana after the Acadian exodus from the Canadian maritime provinces in the 18th century.  Here are some of the French surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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