The subject of how surnames are adopted and how they change over the centuries is a large one. Although surnames had been used in ancient Rome and China, in Europe, most people were referred to by their first name until the 12th century. Generally, as populations grew, surnames were adopted to distinguish people of the same name. Common sources of this distinction are from their father (eg John, the son of John), their trade (eg John the Tailor), the place they are from (eg Richard of the Hill) or personal distinctions (eg Peter the Young). Since few people could read and write, surnames were often passed on verbally and changed over time, so Richard of the Hill would become simply Richard Hill. Like many others, our family surname has evolved over the centuries to become the modern ‘Bowdler’.
To trace the origin of the name Bowdler, we go back to one Baldwin de Boulers in the Welsh Marches.
Baldwin was a Fleming from Boelare, Flanders and was son of Stephen, Baron of Boelare. He came to England in 1105 when he was granted the Lordship of Montgomery by Henry I King of England in marriage with Sybil de Falaise. Sybil was the illegitimate daughter of Henry.
Baldwin would have spoken one of the Flemish dialects, akin to Dutch, so he would have been Baldwin van Boelare (Baldwin of Boelare). The Normans however spoke French so to them he was Baldwin de Boulers. He is recorded as several other phonetic variations on this such as Baldwin de Boullers, de Bollers or de Bullers.
Baldwins’ son Stephen (slain by Llywelyn ap Madog of Powys in 1152) and grandsons Robert and Baldwin succeeded him. The family lost the Lordship after they were overrun by the Welsh in 1207. The lordship was eventually sold by Stephen de Stanton, a son of Sybil, daughter of the first Baldwin, to Thomas de Erdington, of Erdington (Warwickshire) in 1214-15. The sale was confirmed by King John who, however, handed the lordship to Gwenwynwyn, Prince of Powys, in 1216; but he was almost immediately driven out by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great), Prince of Gwynedd. It is believed that all modern Bowdlers come from Robert de Bollers (c1140-1203). His descendants settled on the English side of the border in Shropshire, where they remained for many generations.