Forebears: Cambridgeshire

My last post began an exploration into the early English origins of Our Casbon Journey. I presented data from parish (church) records from 1560 through 1699, showing where baptisms fitting a particular spelling pattern were reported throughout England. Baptisms in Cambridgeshire were recorded earlier and far outnumbered those of any other county. This post will examine Cambridgeshire baptisms in more detail.

Let me begin by explaining a little bit about England’s counties and parishes. Counties can be defined in several ways, but for the purposes of this discussion, they are considered historic administrative and geographic divisions that date back many centuries. The word shire is an older term for county and we frequently see it used as a suffix in the formal names of many English counties. Thus, Cambridgeshire means Cambridge County.

The historic counties of England; Cambridgeshire is highlighted in yellow; this image made use of data provided by the Historic County Borders Project ( (Click on image to enlarge)

Parishes were the basic geographic and administrative unit of the Church of England (and the Roman Catholic church before that). Parishes were associated with individual towns or villages, except in cities, where there could be multiple parishes. Parishes carried out both religious and basic governmental functions within their boundaries. They were responsible for tasks such as law enforcement, maintenance of roads and highways, and relief of the poor. In the nineteenth century, civil parishes were created to take over the secular responsibilities previously carried out by the ecclesiastical, or church-related, parishes. Both types of parish coexist today.

In 1538, during the time of Henry VIII, parishes were required for the first time to record every baptism, marriage, and burial that occurred within their boundaries. Before this, there had been no universal or systematic method for recording vital events. The earliest records were kept on paper and many of them have been lost. In 1558, Queen Elizabeth ordered that the records be written on parchment. These were more durable and more of these have survived. During the time of the English Civil War and Commonwealth, 1642–1660, many records were lost or destroyed. These gaps often make it difficult to trace family connections beyond the mid-to-late seventeenth century.

In Cambridgeshire, most parish records are available online, either as transcriptions or actual digital images (copied from microfilm). I have tried to find and save a copy of every record with the Casb___ spelling pattern that is available. As mentioned in the previous post, I found records of 255 baptisms that occurred in Cambridgeshire between 1560 and 1699. Let’s look at these in further detail.

The following map and table show the parishes where these baptisms are recorded. In addition to the name of the parish, the number of baptisms (in parentheses), earliest year of baptism, and predominant spelling(s) of the surname are provided.

Interactive Google map showing the parishes in Cambridgeshire where Casb___ baptisms are recorded. The red outline is the approximate county border during the 16th and 17th centuries. Click on a marker to see more details. See below for descriptions of color coding and different markers

Parish (# of baptisms)Earliest baptismPredominant Surname(s)
Babraham (2)1595Casbolt(e)
Balsham (1)1691Casbout
Barrington (4)1682Casbolt
Bartlow (1)1699Casebolt
Bottisham (4)1672Casbone
Burwell (52)1565Casburn, Caseb(o)urn(e), Cawsb(o)urn(e)
Cambridge (6)1613Casboll, Casbone, Casbolt
Ely (8)1622Casborn, Cas(e)bo(u)rn(e)
Fowlmere (21)1582Casbolt(e), Casbourne
Fulbourn (3)1661Casbon
Grantchester (2)1584Cas(e)bowle
Great Abington (4)1685Cas(e)bolt
Hildersham (6)1571Casbolt
Isleham (23)1567Cas(e)born(e)
Linton (57)1560Casbo(u)lt(e)
Little Wilbraham (4)1673Causbone
Littleport (3)1686Cas(e)bo(u)rne
Melbourn (34)1578Casbold(e), Cas(t)bolt, Catsbold
Orwell (1)1580Casbold
Stow cum Quy (2)1696Cazborn, Caseburn
Stuntney (1)1653Casborne
Thriplow (15)1575Cas(e)bo(u)lt
Wendy cum Shingay (1)1563Casbolde
A table showing parish (# of baptisms), year of earliest baptism, and predominant surnames

While summarizing this data, I noticed that there are regional differences in how the surname is spelled, and identified four distinct areas. The names always begin with the same Cas(e)b– pattern, but the ending is different in each area. These areas are depicted by the four marker colors on the map.

I’ve selected an “epicenter” for each area. This is the parish where the greatest number of—and usually the earliest—baptisms were recorded. The epicenters are represented on the map by the markers with stars.

Here are the four patterns and areas:

  • rn(e) ending: Casborn, Casbourn, Casborne, Casbourne, Casburn, etc. These are the predominant spellings in the parishes indicated by black markers. The parishes are: Burwell, Ely, Isleham, Littleport, Stow cum Quy, and Stuntney. All are located north of Cambridge city. Both the greatest numbers and earliest records of baptisms in this area come from Burwell, the epicenter. Burwell is unique in that Cas(e)b– is usually followed by urn or urne as opposed to orn(e) or ourn(e) in the rest of this area. The –urn spelling is still associated with Burwell today. There is even a Casburn Lane in Burwell!
Number 1, Casburn Lane, in Burwell; Google Street View image
  • lt(e) ending: Casbolt, Casboult, Casbolte, Casboulte, etc. These parishes are represented by the blue markers and are found in the southern and southeastern parts of the county. They are: Babraham, Balsham, Barrington, Bartlow, Fowlmere, Great Abington, Hildersham, Linton, and Thriplow. Linton is the epicenter, with both the most (57) and earliest (1560) baptisms. The Casbolt spelling is most often seen today.
  • ld(e) ending: Casbold(e) and Catsbold; represented by grey markers, the parishes are Melbourn, Orwell, and Wendy cum Shingay in southwestern Cambridgeshire. Although the earliest record is found in Wendy (1563), many more records (34) are found in Melbourn, so I have marked that parish as the epicenter. Surnames ending in –olt are also common in Melbourn. Melbourne is adjacent to the –olt area, so it’s not surprising that there should be overlap between the areas. Linguistically, –ld is much closer to –lt than either one is to –rn, so perhaps the surname in these two areas (-olt and –old) have a common origin.
  • on(e), –owle and –oll endings: Casbon, Casbone, Casbowle, and Casboll. These surnames, indicated by orange markers, occur in Bottisham, Cambridge, Fulbourn, Grantchester, and Little Wilbraham. The parishes are in the near vicinity or a bit east of Cambridge City, which I’ve named as the epicenter. In general the surname came to these parishes later than the other areas, so perhaps the name changed as people migrated. the –n and –l endings seem to be a mix of the northern and southern areas. This area also has the smallest number of baptisms—19 total.

What does all this mean? I can only guess. One possibility is that the surname developed independently in at least two parts of Cambridgeshire—the -rn(e) variant in the north and the -lt(e) and -ld(e) variant in the south. Or maybe there was one point of origin, long before church records came into being, and the spellings and pronunciation changed as descendants migrated to other parishes. I would dearly like to know. It would take a detailed Y-DNA study to find an answer.

Future posts will look focus on individual parishes in Cambridgeshire.

Forebears: England

fore·bear also for·bear  (fôrʹbâr′)
n. A person from whom one is descended; an ancestor.
(American Heritage Dictionary

Who were the Casbon/Casban/Casben forebears?

One thing the COVID pandemic has done is given me plenty of time for online research. I’ve been using this time lately to explore the origins of the Casbon surname in England.

I’ve traced my branch with reasonable certainty to William Casbolt, who married Martha Cauckett at Barrington, Cambridgeshire on 6 November 1692[1] and was buried there in 1714.[2] William’s son Thomas (~1693–1774) was the father of John Casborn (~1721–1796), who moved to Meldreth, Cambridgeshire as an apprentice cordwainer (shoemaker) in 1736 and established the family line there. I’ve also traced the Peterborough line to another William—William Caseborne of Littleport (d. 1699).

Although I’ve traced these two family lines into the late 1600s, the trail goes cold at that point. There are too many gaps in the available records and not enough information contained in those records to connect the families any further back in time.

Nevertheless, there is abundant evidence of families who were probably or possibly related to today’s Casbon, Casben, and Casban lines.

The modern spelling of Casbon, along with closely related surnames of Casbolt and Casburn, arose from a kind of primordial soup of names that had certain elements in common. They all started with the letters C and (almost always) a. These were followed by s and b, which were sometimes separated by an e. B was usually followed by o, ou, or u. The names ended with a limited set of letter combinations: lt, lte, ld, lde, rn, or rne or occasionally just n or ne. Thus, some of the most common variants were:

Casbolt, Casboult, Casboulte
Casebolt, Caseboult, Caseboulte
Casbold, Casbolde, Casebold
Casborn, Casbourn, Casbourne
Caseborn, Caseborne, Casebourne
Casburn, Casburne, Caseburn, Caseburne
Casbon, Casbone

Sometimes there are oddball spellings such as Casbal, Casbell or Casbelt. Many of these variants can be connected through genealogical records.

Why so many spellings? There are two main reasons. First, English spelling was not standardized at that time. Individuals spelled words whichever way seemed best to them. The second reason is that illiteracy was widespread. Most people, especially the working classes, could not write and therefore could not spell their own names. The names we see in older records were written by a select few, such as government officials, clerks, and clergy, who had some degree of literacy.

The spelling of surnames was especially variable because they weren’t common everyday words. Regional dialects might have also resulted in different pronunciations. When recording baptisms, marriages, and deaths, the clergy and church scribes had to puzzle out the best way to spell each name. In old church records, the spelling of a name often changes with changes in handwriting, indicating that a new person had started keeping the records.

Here are several examples of baptismal records showing variant spellings (and handwriting styles!)

An unusual spelling from Burwell, Cambridgeshire, 1565: 22 die July bapt Agnet Cawsbourne (FamilySearch) (Click on image to enlarge)
From Linton, Cambridgeshire, 1599: “Helen the daughter of Wm Casboult bap – 26 August” (FamilySearch) (Click on image to enlarge)
From Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, 1615: “Lott Casbone the sonne of William Casbone baptized the last December” (FamilySearch) (Click on image to enlarge)
From Melbourn, Cambridgeshire, 1631: “Mary daughter of Tho: Casbould – [baptized] 11 October” (FamilySearch) (Click on image to enlarge)
From Melbourn: “William the sonn of William & Ann Castbold, was baptized Januarie the 21th: 1669” (FamilySearch) (Click on image to enlarge)
From Littleport, Cambridgeshire, 1687: “William son of Wm & Alice Casborne bap’d Nov’r.-04” (FamilySearch) (Click on image to enlarge)
From Barrington, Cambridgeshire, 1693: “Thomas the sonn of Will Casbolt was baptized November 26th” (FamilySearch) (Click on image to enlarge)

Searching individual records for each different spelling would be a tedious task. Fortunately, most family history websites—Ancestry, FamilySearch, Findmypast, etc.—allow searches using wildcards—special characters used to represent unknown characters or a sequence of characters in a search term. For example, a question mark “?” can be used to represent a single character and an asterisk “*” can be used to represent one or more characters. Therefore, a search for all the variant spellings above can be accomplished by using C*s?b* as the last name in a record search.

Screen shot of a search result using C*s?b* as the last name in FamilySearch (Click on image to enlarge)

Using this method, I searched online records in England for baptisms of possible Casbon ancestors between 1538 (the first year English parishes were required to keep records of baptisms, marriages, and burials) and 1699. I chose 1699 as the cutoff both to limit the number of records and because I’ve traced the modern lines back to the late 1600s.

This search yielded almost 350 individual baptisms throughout England with names that fit the general spelling patterns described above. The map and table below summarize the results, subdivided by English counties. Each shows the name of the county, the number of baptisms recorded, the predominant spelling variants, and the earliest occurrence of the surname.

Interactive Google map showing the counties (with county seat marked) where baptisms with early variants of the Casbon surname are recorded between 1560 and 1699; click on individual markers to see county name, number of baptisms (in parentheses), predominant surname variants, and earliest occurrence of the surname in that county

CountyPredominant SpellingsEarliest Occurrence
Bedfordshire (12)Ca[s/z]bolt, Cas(h)bolt1579
Bristol (3)Casborn1653
Cambridgeshire (255)Cas(e)bo(u)lt(e), Cas(e)bo(u)rn(e), Cas(e)burn(e)1560
Cheshire (1)Cusball1649
Durham (1)Caseboult1667
Essex (7)Casbo(a)te, Cas(t)bolt1569
Gloucestershire (20)Cosborn(e), Cosburn(e)1619
Hampshire (1)Cas(e)born, Causabon1639
Hertfordshire (17)Cas(e)bo(u)lt, Casebull, Caseball1670
Kent (18)Ca(u)sabon(e), Cas(e)born(e)1605
London (4)Cassabone, Causabon, Cosborne1652
Norfolk (4)Casburne, Cosbon1628
Somerset (2)Caseborn(e)1698
Suffolk (7)Casbo(u)rne1629
Sussex (1)Caseborne1667
Wiltshire (1)Cosburn1691
Yorkshire (1)Casseborne1658
A table showing the data represented in the map above: county (number of baptisms), predominant spellings, and earliest occurrence of the surname in parish records

What does this data tell me about these potential Casbon forebears? First, during this timespan, surnames with the C_s_b_, etc. spelling pattern were fairly widespread, especially in the southern and eastern counties of England. That said, Cambridgeshire accounted for far more of the baptisms—72 percent—than any other county. The percentage goes up to 85 percent if you include five counties bordering on Cambridgeshire—Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, Suffolk, and Norfolk. The earliest record (1560) also comes from Cambridgeshire. These findings suggest that the surname might have arisen in or near Cambridgeshire. The number of baptisms and geographical diversity suggest that the surname arose a long time—perhaps a few centuries—before parish records were being kept. Was there a common ancestor in the Cambridgeshire area? Or was there a common factor unique to the area that led multiple families to adopt a common surname?

It’s likely that the surname arose independently in some counties. I’m most certain of this in the county of Kent, where the name is likely of French origin, possibly brought by Huguenot refugees (more about this in a future post, perhaps). In Gloucestershire, the name is spelled with an initial o instead of a: Cosb___, with the earliest record in 1619. This variant might have arisen independently; or perhaps someone with the Casb___ spelling migrated from elsewhere, with the spelling and/or pronunciation changing in the process. Later dates of first occurrence might also indicate migration from another region.

It’s theoretically possible to test whether the families represented by these baptismal records are related using Y-DNA, which is passed through the paternal line. Doing so would require tracing the families forward and getting DNA samples from surviving male descendants. I have done partial Y-DNA testing on myself and have close matches with two individuals named Casbolt and Casebolt. This might mean that we have a common ancestor, but it would require more extensive (and expensive) testing to find out if and how closely we are related.

In future posts, I will focus on possible forebears in Cambridgeshire, first with a general overview, and then a parish-by-parish breakdown.

[1] Church of England, Barrington (Cambridgeshire), Bishop’s Transcripts, 1692; digitized as “Bishop’s transcripts for Barrington, 1599-1864,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 24 January 2019) >film # 007562691 >image 324 of 1174; citing FHL microfilm 1,818,360.
[2] Church of England, Barrington (Cambridgeshire), Bishop’s Transcripts, 1714; ( : accessed 29 December 2018) >film # 007562691 >image 390 of 1174.