Wren Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Wren Surname Meaning

The root of the surname Wren is the old English wrenna for the bird wren.  The name probably started out as a nickname for someone of wren-like characteristics, a small, busy and quick-moving person.  The wren is also seen as wily, as the tale of the wren boys of Corksuggests.

There are two spellings of the name, Wren and Wrenn.  Wrenn was probably more common until the 17th century. Although Wrenn has persisted, Wren is more usual now.  In Ireland, the Wren name may have come from England.  It is also the anglicized form of the Gaelic O’Rinn, from the personal name Rinn.

Wren Surname Resources on The Internet

Wren Surname Ancestry

  • from England and from Ireland (Kerry)
  • to America and Australia

England.  Family tradition has it that the Wrens of Durham came originally from Denmark and settled in an area along the Wear river sometime in the 14th century.

Durham  The main line started at Binchester and William Wren at Billy Hall.  The Wren name appeared frequently in the early recorded marriages at Witton-le-Wear. One branch of the Durham Wrens migrated to Cambridgeshire and thence to Ireland.  Another line came to London.

The pedigree of Sir Christopher Wren, the famous architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, dates back to Geoffrey Wren of Sherburn House (the will of his widow Margery Wren in Durham has survived).  Christopher’s grandfather Francis came to London and was said to have kept, as a haberdasher, “the corner stall next unto Cheap Cross.”  He prospered as a mercer.  Descendants of Sir Christopher are numerous, with many of them to be found, from his son Christopher, in Wroxall, Warwickshire.

While the early Wrens may have come from Durham, there is little trace of that name there today.

Cumbria  More Wrens are to be found west in Cumbria.  There were Wrens in the village of Crosthwaite just outside Keswick from the 1600’s and the name later cropped up in Kendal, Cockermouth, and the Newlands valley.

Elsewhere.  However, the main Wren presence has on fact been in the south of England.

One cluster of Wrens was in Hertfordshire, particularly in villages in the eastern part of the county:

  • Joseph Wren was a yeoman farmer in Standon in the 1670’s
  • another Joseph Wren was a farmer in Sawbridgeworth
  • and a Joseph Wren again a wheelwright in Wheathampstead in the mid/late 1700’s.

A Wren cluster was also to be found in the southeast.  Felbridge on the Surrey/Sussex border has had a Wren family since the early 1700’s.  They were village blacksmiths who later took over Golards Farmhouse.   Local newspapers recounted the tales of two Wren unfortunates.

Ireland.  Captain Thomas Wren came with Cromwell from Cambridgeshire to Meath in Ireland in the 1640’s and was later said to have appropriated for himself Littor House in county Kerry.  Later Wrens were High Sheriffs of Kerry in the 18th century.  There were said to be 118 Wren families in Ireland in the mid 19th century, of which 42 came from Kerry.

The Gaelic O’Rinn name, found in west Cork and Roscommon, sometimes anglicized itself to Wrynn (as with a Wrynn family in Bantry) and to Wrenn and Wren.

America.  Nicholas Wren was an early settler in Virginia, first recorded as marrying Margaret Bell in Lancaster county in 1670.  Then there was William Wren, probably his son, who married Elizabeth Steptoe in the same county in 1698.  They were the forebears of many of the Wrens in America.  Their history is recounted in John Howard Wren’s 1992 book A History of the Wrens of Virginia and its sequel.

Wrens in South Carolina in the early 1800’s moved onto Henry county, Tennessee and to Dallas county, Alabama.  Nicholas Wren left Tennessee after a split with his family and joined Sam Houston and his cause in Texas.

“Sam Houston suspended Lieutenant Wren.  But we all liked him and knew that no power on earth could have held those terror stricken animals after the Indians had made their dash.  So we unanimously petitioned the President to reinstate him, a petition which was granted.  There was no braver or better man in the service than Lieutenant Nicholas Wren.  When his term expired he left and we never knew where he went.”

William Wren was a cattle rancher and sheriff in Lampasas county, Texas in the 1870’s.  He got embroiled in the notorious Horrell-Higgins family feuds of that time.

Irish Wrens  A sizeable number of Wrens in America are of Irish origin.

The most prominent of these Irish immigrants was probably Edward Wren from Littur in county Kerry.  He came to Springfield, Ohio in 1874, started a dry goods store, and later opened Springfield’s first department store.  At the other end of the economic pile were Patrick Wren and his wife Ann from county Leitrim.  They had fled the famine in Ireland and made it to New York in 1850.

Australia.  John and Margaret Wren were poor Irish immigrants in Melbourne in the 1860’s.  Two sons came to nothing, one a drunkard and the other sentenced to flogging and imprisonment for aiding and abetting a rape.

But a third son John Wren made a fortune in gambling and developed a range of sporting enterprises. His rags-to-riches story was the basis of Frank Hardy’s 1950 best-seller Power Without Glory.  John Wren died in 1953 and, as with many self-made men, he left a feuding family.

Wren Surname Miscellany

The Wren Boys.  The day after Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day, used to be the day in Cork for the “wren boys.”  A Cork paper commented in 1894:

“‘Saint Stephen’s his day’ is a red-letter event in the calendar of Cork.  When the “wran-boys,” as they are locally termed, have captured a wren, the luckless bird is borne through the streets in a sort of triumphal progress, secured in a bush of holly or other evergreen, which is usually garnished with streamers of colored ribbons or variegated papers, according to the resources of tile exhibitors.  In early morning the city resounds with the din of the wren-boys who are making a house to house visitation, singing at each halt a chant.

The origin of this brutal custom is not known.  Professor Ridgeway, writing to the Academy, suggested the theory that the death of the wren symbolizes the death of winter.  Other correspondents traced analogy between the Cork wren-boys and the Rhodian swallow-boys and the crow-boys of ancient Greece who went around with similar begging-songs.  Meanwhile, General Vallancey has asserted that the Druids regarded the wren as a sacred bird, which caused the early Christian missionaries to place it under ban and issue an edict for its extermination.

Another origin of the wren-slaughter was advanced in Hall’s Ireland, which contained a sketch of the St. Stephen’s Day ceremony by the distinguished Cork painter, Maclise.’

As to the origin of the whimsical but absurd and cruel custom,’ wrote Mr. Hall, ‘we have no data.  A legend, however, is still current among the peasantry which may serve in some degree to elucidate it.

In a grand assembly of all the birds of the air, it was determined that the sovereignty of the feathered tribe should be conferred upon the one who would fly highest.  The favorite in the betting-book was, of course, the eagle, who at once, and in full confidence of victory, commenced his flight towards the sun.  When he had vastly distanced all competitors, he proclaimed in a mighty voice his monarchy over all things that had wings.

Suddenly, however, the wren, who had secreted himself under the feathers Of the eagle’s crest, popped from his hiding-place, flew a few inches upwards and chirped out as loudly as he could: Birds, look up, and behold your king.’”

Wrens and Wrenns.  Wren is the more usual spelling of the name today. But Wrenn has persisted.  The table below shows the current approximate numbers of Wrens and Wrenns.

Numbers (000’s) Wren Wrenn Total
UK   6.7   0.6   7.3
Ireland   0.3   0.2   0.5
America   3.2   2.0   5.2
Canada   0.7   0.7
Australia   1.2   1.2
New Zealand   0.1   0.1   0.2
Total  12.2   2.9  15.1

The Will of Margery Wren of Sherburn House in Durham.  “On 19th day of February in the year of our Lord God [1540], I Margery Wren of Sherburn House, widow, whole of mind and memory, make my will:

I give to my daughter Katherine a dozen silver spoons, a silver salt container which lies in pledge of four marks [which is at the pawnbrokers in return for the loan of some money], or else if the money is lost, a set of plates and cups made of pewter [a silvery–grey metal], a basin with a jug of pewter, a dozen small bowls, and cloths from overseas, and my best tablecloth;

Also I give to my daughter [Eleanor] a dozen silver spoons which I made last, a set of plates and cups made of pewter, a piece of cloth from overseas, a thick embroidered cloth for covering a cupboard, and four marks in money to buy a silver salt container;

I give to my daughter Jane a dozen silver spoons, six of which they already have, two silver salt containers with a cover, a set of plates and cups made of pewter, a piece of cloth from overseas, a tablecloth;

Also I give to my son Geoffrey a dozen of my best cushions, a linen tablecloth, a red and green canopy to go over a bed, which he has already, a tablecloth, an iron chimney in the room of the steward [person who managed the household and the servants], a silver salt container with a cover, one silver and gold drinking cup, 13 silver spoons;

Also I give to my sister Wylfett my best skirt for a reminder to pray for me; also I give to my son William Wren £5, 6 silver spoons, a mattress, a featherbed, a pillow, two pairs of linen sheets; and to my daughter Kendall one mattress, a featherbed, a pillow, a pair of blankets, a pair of sheets, and a piece of cloth from overseas, to pray for me.”

Early Witton-le-Wear Wren Marriages

Groom Bride
1562 Thomas Carre Margaret Wren
1580 John Trotter Margery Wren
1585 John Robinson Agnes Wren
1596 William Thompson Elizabeth Wren
1602 Ralph Wren Margery Haddericke
1611 William Dobinson Janet Wren
1621 William Wrenn Mary Cowlyne
1629 Charles Wren Charity Emmerson
1658 Richard Wren Ann Coule
1670 Christopher Miller Katherine Wren

Two Wren Unfortunates

George Wren of Uckfield, Sussex

George Wren was from a pauper family.  He was arrested for sheep stealing in 1830, imprisoned at Horsham, and tried at the Sussex Assizes.  He was acquitted at that time, although it was said that the initial verdict was “guilty.”

Two years later Wren was arrested for rick burning.  One account said that he was at the Uckfield parish workhouse at the time of the incident and, on hearing the alarm raised, put on his boots and went to help put the fire out.  However, at the trial, it was stated that Wren’s left boot coincided with a footmark at the point where the fire started.  John Markwick, an Uckfield shoemaker, confirmed the match when asked to do so by the constable who had arrested Wren.

Wren was tried at the Sussex Winter Assizes before Judge Baron Gurney. He was found guilty, but the jury recommended mercy. However, the judge, determined to see Wren hanged, ignored the jury.  And George Wren, later to be called the Uckfield martyr, was duly hanged in January 1833.

Margery Wren of Ramsgate, Kent

Margery Wren, a maiden lady of eighty two, kept s small general store in Church Road, Ramsgate, and lived there by herself.  On a Saturday in September 1930 she was found lying grievously injured on the floor of the shop.

“I have just had a tumble, that’s all,” she gasped.

This was plainly untrue.  Something more sinister and terrible than an accident had happened.  Miss Wren had in fact been savagely beaten about the head with a pair of tongs.  There had also been an attempt to strangle her.  Whatever the motive it was certainly not robbery.  All Miss Wren’s small possessions were intact.

The old lady was removed to hospital.  As her life ebbed away there were times when she was not only conscious but was able to stammer out a few disconnected sentences.  She said enough to convince the police that she knew the man who had attacked her and could give them his name had she wished.  She died the next day without uttering it.

In her last moments Miss Wren murmured:

“You say I am dying.  Well that means I am going home.”  After a long pause she added: “Let him live in his sins.”

At the inquest a verdict of “wilful murder by a person or persons unknown” was returned.  Miss Wren had carried with her to her grave the secret of the murder.  There it has remained ever since.

John Wren’s Betting Coups.  John Wren was the third son of illiterate though not indigent Irish immigrants John Wren, labourer, and his wife Margaret in Melbourne.  Leaving school at 12 to work in a wood-yard and then as a boot clicker, Wren supplemented his 7s. 6d. weekly wage by circulating betting cards, bookmaking and small-scale usury. Although short and ‘bandy’ from an ill-set fracture, he was a feisty ‘scrapper’, handy cricketer and prospective Collingwood footballer.

Laid off work during the 1890’s depression, Wren launched his Johnston Street totalizor in 1893 with a stake bolstered, so he boasted, by Carbine’s 1890 Melbourne Cup victory and subsequent gambling coups. This ‘tote’ was later to net him £20,000 per annum.  Wren became a local hero, generous both to the needy and to the Catholic Church.

Even so, a sleazy reputation clung to Wren.  While it is credible that he fixed the ageing ‘Plugger’ Martin’s victory in the 1901 Austral Wheel Race, a similar charge about his £50,000 coup in Murmur’s 1904 Caulfield Cup win is fanciful. The Victoria Racing Club’s temporary refusal to accept Wren’s nominations was based on competition for gamblers’ shillings and distaste for his origin, associations and success.  Wren’s response was to buy into Richmond, Fitzroy and Ascot pony courses which he personally controlled and cleansed.

Wren Names

  • Matthew Wren was a Royalist bishop, a supporter of Archbishop Laud who was imprisoned in the Tower yet survived.  He was uncle to Sir Christopher Wren.
  • Sir Christopher Wren is acclaimed as one of the best English architects of all time.  He was responsible for the rebuilding of London churches after the Great Fire of 1666.  His masterpiece was St. Paul’s Cathedral, completed in 1710.
  • John Wren made it big as an Australian businessman in the early 1900’s from a poor Irish immigrant background.  .

Wren Numbers Today

  • 8,000 in the UK (most numerous in Kent)
  • 5,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 2,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia).

Wren and Like Surnames

Nicknames must have been an early feature of medieval life in a family or community as these nicknames later translated into surnames.  People then lived a more natural life than we do today and the surnames have reflected that.

They could be about color (Brown, Gray, Green etc), whether of hair or complexion or other factors; mood (Gay and Moody are two extremes); youth (Cox and Kidd); speed of foot (Swift and Lightfoot); and actions (such as Shakespeare and Wagstaff).  Then there were likenesses to animals (notably Fox and Wolfe but also Peacock) and to birds (Crowe and Wren for example).  And then there were some extraordinary nicknames such as Drinkwater and Wildgoose.

Here are some of these nickname surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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