You can call yourself whatever you want, unless you’re trying to commit some kind of fraud. But certain professions have jealously guarded the power to assign real names: clerics, lawyers, parents, and physicians.
Even before I became an English Major, then a lawyer, then a father, then a cluster of DSM-5 mental illness symptoms, I already knew names have magical power. As a child I was drawn to Ursula K. LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea books. LeGuin described a world of dragons and islands where merely knowing someone’s true name gave you power over them. In the real world, naming someone is an extraordinary privilege. It’s one of the challenging blessings of being a parent.
I’ve finally found a mobile voice recognition app that fits into my writing process. Walking on the Boardwalk the other day you would have seen me pretending to be Dick Tracy, or a normal person with a job or friends, as I whispered to my wrist:
“Roger” is my name. “Papa” is my title. “Leishman” is my clan. “Gay” is my tribe. “Vancouver” is my home. “English Major” is my philosophy. “Writer” is my vocation. “Lawyer” is my profession. “Mormons” are my people. “Jews” and “Anglicans” are my ‘people.’ “LGBT” or “Queer-identified” is my community. “Disabled” is my new community….
Bear interrupted me. “What’s ‘Ashley’?”
Nothing came to mind immediately. I thought for a couple of seconds.
“‘Ashley’ is just my middle name.”
“Ashley” originally was a topographical Anglo-Saxon surname. It comes from the Old English word aesc, which means “ash.” When folks started using last names during the Dark Ages, the original Ashleys probably lived near ash trees. The Ashleys in the earliest historical record were a wealthy family that owned Ashley Place in Wiltshire even before the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066. However, some Ashleys may also have a Norman connection. A 1198 census identified a “Walter de Esseleia” as residing in both Normandy and Gloucestershire. In 1273, the second edition of the Domesday Book listed Robert de Aslegh of Devon; Henry de Assele of Norfolk; and Walter de Asseleghe of Somerset.
“Ashley” showed up for the first time as a male given name in sixteenth century documents. A female variant appeared three centuries later, but was spelled “Ashleigh.” The boy’s name Ashley became popular during the eighteen century after the career of Lord Ashley, the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury. We share the same middle name, and fathers named John.
Anthony Ashley Cooper was born exactly four hundred years ago, in July 1621, to John Cooper and Anne Cooper, née Anne Ashley. John was a landowner and a Member of Parliament. As a fundraising device, King James I had recently created the new hereditary dignity of “knight-baronet,” a category below nobles but above knights. In 1622, toddler Anthony’s father became Sir John Cooper, 1st Baronet of Rockbourne.
Sir John’s wife Lady Cooper was the only child of Sir Anthony Ashley, the 1st Baronet of Wimborne St. Giles, and the sole heir to St. Giles House and the ancient Ashley family fortune. Lady Cooper’s grandfather, also named Sir Anthony Ashley, had been a mere non-hereditary knight. He was one of a long line of wealthy Ashley gentlemen who served the Plantagenets, Tudors, and Stuarts. In 1622, King James named Anne’s seventy-year-old father a knight-baronet in the same round of desperate royal fund-raising as his son-in-law’s title. Sir Anthony Ashley, Bt., the first and last Baronet of Wimborne St. Giles, was evidently gay. His contemporaries described Grandpa Ashley as having “never loved any but boyes.” See Young, “James VI and I: Time for a Reconsideration?” Journal of British Studies, 51(3), 540-567 (2012).
As a condition of their marriage, John and Anne agreed if the family were ever raised to the peerage it would take the Ashley name. The couple also agreed to name their son after his maternal grandfather. When young Anthony became an orphan at age eight, he inherited both the Ashley and Cooper fortunes, and succeeded to his father’s non-peer title as Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper, 2nd Baronet of Rockbourne. Sir Anthony enrolled at Oxford at age 15. Despite his privileged station he never graduated, leaving the university after fomenting what Wikipedia describes as “a minor riot.” Instead, Sir Anthony became a lawyer.
Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper, Bt.’s five-decade career in politics began with his election to Parliament at age 19, and spanned the entire English Civil War. Sir Anthony initially supported King Charles I. He raised a regiment of infantry and a troop of cavalry and personally led them in the royalist army, as well as accepting various governmental positions from the crown. A few years later Sir Anthony switched to the winning parliamentary side, claiming that he’d become concerned about the king’s increasingly papist tendencies. He served on Oliver Cromwell’s Council of State before eventually switching back to the royalist faction a decade later.
Sir Anthony was one of the twelve Members of Parliament who traveled to Holland to offer the crown to Charles II. Upon his coronation, King Charles elevated his loyal subject to the peerage as the first Baron Ashley of Wimborne St. Giles. Lord Ashley. All his gay grandfather’s dreams came true.
|Anthony Ashley Cooper (1621-1683)|
For the most part, Lord Ashley successfully timed his flip-flops between royalists, puritans, restorationists, and rebels – other than a brief stint in the Tower of London, and a final exile to the Continent.
During the reign of Charles II, Lord Ashley was one of England’s leading statesmen. He served as Lord Chancellor, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Privy Counsellor, Lord President of the Council, and First Lord of Trade. He was also the Chief of eight Lords Proprietors granted the original Province of Carolina, which according to the king’s patent conveyed to them all the land between Virginia and Florida, plus Barbados, and stretched across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. In Lord Ashley’s honour, the Ashley River and Cooper River join at Charleston Harbor.
Have you political history buffs heard of the “CABAL ministry,” a group of five powerful ministers under Charles II who represented an early example of cabinet-style government? The CABAL also introduced into common usage the word “cabal,” which means a secret clique. The five-letter word actually entered English from the Hebrew kabala, via French and medieval Latin, well before the seventeenth century. But the word conveniently corresponded to the five members of the CABAL ministry: Lord Clifford, Lord Arlington, Lord Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale.
As a member of the House of Commons and then the House of Lords, Lord Ashley was at the center of numerous parliamentary debates, often taking progressive positions. He founded the Whig Party. He authored numerous important public documents with the “assistance” of his secretary John Locke. Ultimately Lord Ashley was outmaneuvered by his peers, lost favor with Charles II, and broke with the Stuarts. He started plotting with the posh freedom fighters who brought us 1688’s Glorious Revolution, William & Mary, and eventually die Windsor dynastie.
Unfortunately, victory for the Revolution came five years too late to vindicate the first Lord Ashley’s final flip-flop. He died in Amsterdam in 1683, two months after fleeing England in poor health.
|Sir Anthony Ashley, Bt. (1551-1628)|
Grandpa’s fabulous tomb at Wimborne St. Giles Church
In 1672, when Lord Ashley was in both royal and political favour, Charles II announced a new round of honours. In addition to remaining the 1st Baron Ashley of Wimborne St. Giles and the 2nd Baronet of Rockbourne, Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper became the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury. As a bonus, the king also named him the 1st Baron Cooper of Paulet.
Each eldest son in the family has been christened Anthony in honour of the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury’s gay maternal grandfather. Only two out of twelve earls had other first names. Both were second sons who unexpectedly succeeded their childless elder brothers: the 6th earl, playground bully victim “Cropley”; and trendily named but strangely fated “Nicholas,” who is the current Earl of Shaftesbury, etc.
To commemorate the first earl-baron-baronet’s straight grandfather, the multi-hyphenated peer also has the title “Lord Cooper,” although generally he goes by “Lord Shaftesbury.” His daughters are referred to by their first names as “Lady _____.” Any younger sons are referred to as “The Honorable ______.” Since 1672, “Lord Ashley” has been the title of the earl’s eldest son and heir apparent.
|Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain in Picadilly Circus|
Like nearby Shaftesbury Avenue, the fountain is named for distinguished Victorian philanthropist Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, etc.
Anthony Ashley Cooper, the first Lord Ashley, died in Holland in 1683. He married three times. His first wife, the daughter of a well-connected baron, died childless. His second wife, who died at age 19 shortly after their son Anthony’s birth, was the daughter of the Earl of Exeter, and the granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth’s chief advisor. Lord Shaftesbury was survived by his third wife, née Lady Margaret Spencer, who came from the same ultra-rich-and-blue-blooded family as Princess Diana.
A couple of centuries later, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 10th Earl of Shaftesbury, 11th Baronet of Rockbourne, etc., married his third wife in Holland in 2002. Like his illustrious progenitor, the 10th Earl also died on the Continent, in 2004. However, this was not the death of a distinguished statesman and freedom fighter.
Lady Frances Ashley-Cooper; her nephew Lord Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, 12th Earl of Shaftesbury; and his mother Christina, Dowager Countess of Shaftesbury (2007)
Nowadays the family uses a hyphen in their surname. Just like the Mountbatten-Windsors.
Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 10th Earl of Shaftesbury, etc., was twenty-two years old when he inherited various titles from his grandfather in 1961. Although descended from the oldest of English families, Lord Shaftesbury was only attracted to foreign women. According to his obituary, as a student at Eton he described English debutantes in the school magazine as “round-shouldered, unsophisticated garglers of pink champagne.”
The 10th Earl met his first wife, Bianca Maria de Paolis, on a skiing holiday when he was twenty-seven. Although they divorced ten year later, she continued to use the name “Contessa Bianca Shaftesbury” until her death four decades later.
Lord Shaftesbury’s second wife was the daughter of the Swedish ambassador to Germany. Christina, Countess of Shaftesbury, bore two sons during their twenty-five year marriage. However, in 2000 the earl had a midlife crisis. He divorced the countess, abandoned the family business, left England, and embarked on an impressive career of playboy debauchery.
The 10th Earl met his third wife in 2001 at a tawdry establishment on the French Riviera. The former Jamila Ben M’Barek, who was born in Paris to Tunisian-Moroccan parents, became another Countess of Shaftesbury when the couple married in November 2002. But the couple soon separated, and Lord Shaftesbury found a new exotic girlfriend by April 2004.
In November 2004, Lord Shaftesbury traveled to the Riviera to meet with his estranged wife and discuss their pending divorce. He was last seen checking out of his Cannes hotel on November 5, 2004. The earl’s girlfriend and the lawyer eventually reported the earl’s disappearance to the police. The family and authorities originally assumed he’d been kidnapped, but there were no clues about his whereabouts.
In February 2005, after being admitted to a psychiatric hospital, Jamila confessed that her brother had bludgeoned the earl to death. The 10th Earl’s decomposed corpse was found in a ravine near Cannes on April 7, 2005.
Anthony Cooper-Ashley, 10th Earl of Shaftesbury, etc. (1938 - 2004)
and Jamila M’Barek Cooper-Ashley, Countess of Shaftesbury
“Prostitute wormed her way into Earl of Shaftesbury's life then killed him for his millions.
Now his son vows to strip her of the family title.” Daily Mail
Technically, twenty-seven-year-old Anthony Nils Christian Ashley-Cooper – Lord Ashley – became the 11th Earl of Shaftesbury, etc., when his father died in November 2004. But no one knew for sure until the body was discovered in April 2005. In any event, the unmarried and childless 11th Earl enjoyed the title and estate for only few weeks. He unexpectedly suffered a fatal heart attack on May 15, 2005 while in New York City.
Lord Shaftesbury was visiting his younger brother Nicholas, who had moved to the East Village several years before to become a successful “techno disc jockey going by the handle Nick AC.” Nicholas Edmund Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, etc., subsequently married a German veterinary surgeon. Together the couple restored St. Giles House. They have two daughters and a son. The only person in the line of succession to the earldom is ten-year-old Lord Ashley, whose full name is Anthony Francis Wolfgang Ashley-Cooper.
The Earl and Countess of Shaftesbury and their son Anthony, Lord Ashley (2016)
Photographed in the library of St. Giles House
with a portrait of the first Earl of Shaftesbury
“Ashley” is indeed my middle name. But it’s also part of my own family’s heritage.
Our Mormon pioneer ancestor John Campbell Leishman was born to John Leishman and Jean Campbell Leishman in 1807 in Shield Hill, a small town in Stirling, Scotland. Diligent genealogist relatives have traced our Leishman forebears back Stirlingshire during the sixteenth century and even earlier. Most were farmers who shared common pastures with the rest of the community. Salt of the earth. Unimaginative name-givers.
Unfortunately, miners displaced farmers during the Industrial Revolution when coal was discovered near Shield Hill. By the time John’s younger sister Mary was born in 1816, the Leishman family had moved to Johnstone, a mill town outside of Glasgow. John married a local girl named Jane Allan. In the 1850s the family encountered Mormon missionaries. They were inspired to sail across the Atlantic, walk across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, and join the Saints in Utah. Brigham Young sent the Leishmans north to settle Wellsville in Cache Valley.
John Campbell Leishman and Jane Allan Leishman gave each of their sons the blandest of first names (James, David, John, Robert, William, and Thomas), and identical middle names (Allan). Their youngest son, my great-great grandfather Thomas Allan Leishman, was born in Scotland in 1843, a few years before the family emigrated to Zion. In 1864, Thomas married Elizabeth Cameron Adamson, the daughter of another Scottish family in Wellsville. They gave four of their daughters and seven of their sons all the same middle name: Adamson. But Thomas and Elizabeth named their eldest daughter Ellen Cameron Leishman, and named their second son John Allan Leishman after Thomas’s father. My great-grandfather was born in Wellsville in 1869, just two months after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the neighboring Utah valley where I went to high school.
John Allan Leishman married Ellen Maria Perkins in 1890. Congenitally lacking imagination, John and Ellen gave their four boys and three girls all the same middle name, including my grandfather Ernest Perkins Leishman, who was born in 1907. His older sister Rosella Perkins Leishman and his older brother Pvt. Carl Perkins Leishman both died in the 1918-19 flu epidemic. Grandpa married Marjorie Sutton in 1932.
Following family tradition, my grandparents gave three of their sons the middle name Sutton. But they they named my father John after his grandfather, who had died a couple of years earlier. They also wanted to give him a middle name that started with an “A.” Rather than recycle “John Allan,” in a surprising burst of creativity my grandmother instead chose “Ashley” – after Ashley Wilkes, Scarlett O’Hara’s gallant suitor in Gone With the Wind. Matinee idol Leslie Howard played Ashley in the blockbuster 1939 movie. Howard died in June 1943 when his commercial airline flight from London to Lisbon was shot down by the Luftwaffe.
|Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) |
and Melanie Wilkes (Olivia de Havilland)
Gazing up at the Ashley-Leishman forehead
I don’t know what magical influence movies have over baby naming nowadays, but most people in North America think “Ashley” is a girl’s name.
Before the release of Gone With the Wind, the last time Ashley cracked the list of Top 1000 boy names was in 1927. Barely – it was #990. Then in 1940, the year my father was born, Ashley reentered the charts at #904, and began a gradual climb. In 1960, the name was #808. When I was born in 1964, Ashley had inched up to the #735 boy name. By 1980 we made it to #282. However, boy Ashley fell out of the Top 1000 list forever in 1995.
What happened? Girl cooties.
Girl Ashley first appeared in the American Top 1000 the year I was born, at #771. In 1970 Ashley was the #305 female baby name. By 1980 the name reached #40, and kept climbing. Ashley remained one of the top three girl names from 1984 through 1997 – even longer than subsequent streaks by “Jennifer,” “Sophia,” and “Emily.” But parents are fickle. Girl Ashley last made the Top 10 in 2005, the year my daughters were born. By 2020 girl Ashley had fallen all the way to #154. Nevertheless, that’s twice as high in the USA popularity rankings as boy Ashley ever reached.
Meanwhile, across the pond “Ashley” remains prominently a male name. A butch one. Most of the famous Ashleys in the U.K. are soccer players. The less uncommon British female name is generally spelled “Ashleigh.”
I’m the eldest of four boys. When I was born in 1964, my parents gave me my father’s middle name. When my oldest nephew was born on my father’s birthday, my brother and his wife named him Michael Ashley Leishman.
By the time my daughter Eleanor was born in 2005, “Ashley” was definitely a girl name. Nevertheless, I thought it would be confusing to use her father’s, grandfather’s, and cousin’s middle name. Instead, we named her Eleanor Eileen – because “Eileen” happened to be both her grandmothers’ middle name.
In 2011 we adopted a son. I’ve already told the story of how Oliver got his new first name. Like my Leishman grandparents, we decided to give him a middle name that started with A. We chose my favorite boy’s A-name: Alexander.
Sometimes baby names simply disappear from fashion, often forever. I don’t expect a fresh crop of Gertrudes. Other baby names become nonbinary, or they transition between genders. The only male “Ashley” in my personal circle of acquaintance sings in Vancouver Men’s Chorus. As with so many other aspects of my life, my middle name is a family-centered outlier.
|Ashley as a percentage of boy and girl baby names|
|Up next: "Hyphenation, or How Eleanor Got Her Name" (8/26/21)|