"Combs of the
Old World Families
When one considers the extensive use of Combs in place-names, and when the origin of family names is understood, it becomes evident that the family, or families, of COMBS became numerous at an early date, especially in France and the British Isles. It is also no assumption to say that these early families were prominent in matters of Church and State, and otherwise, as many in the list to follow, in this chapter, will indicate. I go across the Channel, first, to the Continent.
ITALY. I do not know whether or not the family is numerous in Italy. At least one family of the name is well known down in the "boot": I refer to Emilio Comba (1839-1904), who was a writer, and a professor in the Instituto Valdese, at Florence.
SPAIN. I have no record of the family in Spain; but an old Spanish yarn would indicate that the family is known in the Iberian Peninsula: "Fue a matricularse en la antigua Universidad de Alcalá un estudiante de la Alcarria.
-?Como se llama Vd.? -le preguntó el secretario.
-Juan Bautista Combé, -dijo el estudiante.
-?Viene Vd. a ensenarme ortografiá, señor novicio? ?Cómo se llama Vd. ?
-No sea impertinente; yo sé que Bautista se escribe con b.
!Quiero el apellido!" ("One day a student from Alcarria came to matriculate at the old University of Alcalá. 'What is your name'?
the registrar asked him. 'John the Baptist Combé,' said the student. 'Look here, Mr. Freshman, do you come here to teach me how to spell? What's your name?' 'Baptist Combé. . . . .'
'Now don't get impertinent; I know that Baptist begins with a B. What is the name?'"
The point of the story is that Combé (pronounced (Comb-ay) is very similar in pronunciation to con b (pronounced cone-bay), which means "with b." Incidentally, the Alcarria was the old province of Cervantes, and is now a part of the modern Guadalajara. One of my correspondents insists that Gomez is a form of the name in Spain; I don't think the philological basis is sound here, since Gomez lacks the b, so common to the Romance forms. The name turns up in the Philippine Islands in the form of Combes (two syllables), where it is undoubtedly of Spanish origin.
GERMANY. There is almost nothing to report from Germany. I list Kooms, which I have heard is found in Germany. If the family does exist there, a form of the name without b would be logical, since the Germanic dialects dropped the b long ago, from the common nouns kumb, kumbo, etc. In 1928 one John R. Comes died in Morrilton, Arkansas. Father Schwab conducted the funeral services. One of Comes' daughters married a Beschemer, and one of his stepdaughters married a Vogler. It is evident that this Comes was of German ancestry; he probably had Anglicised his name.
FRANCE. As a cognomen, the name is old in France, perhaps older than in the British Isles, since family names began in France before they did in the British Isles. Here the name is almost always spelled Combes, and the family is found from the Pyrenees to the English Channel. As already stated, we know that certain French noblemen were granted castles, manors and estates by William the Conqueror - estates named Combe. These gentlemen thus became the founders of some of the Combs families in England; which means that certain descendants of the families in England (and in the New World) are of French origin. They are not necessarily all related.
Prominent-French families of the name live in Languedoc and Franche-Comté, in Geneva, and one named Des Combes, in Lausanne. A few of the prominent names follow: Combe, Marie-Madeleine de Cyz de, born in Leyden, Holland, died in Paris, 1692; founded the communauté des Filles du Bon Pasteur, for fallen girls. Combes, Dounous (1758-1820), philosopher and politician; wrote several books; authority on Plato; a Revolutionist in 1789; member of
the famous Council of Five Hundred.
Combes, Michel (1787-1837), a colonel in Napoleon's armies. Combes, Charles Pierre-Mathieu (1802-1872), engineer, professor in School of Mines, Paris, member and president of the French Academy (Sciences). Combes, Edmond, (1812-1894), traveler and explorer. Combes, François (1816-1890) professor in various colleges; wrote four or five books on history and diplomacy. Combes, Justin Louis Emile (1883-1921), President of the Council of Ministers (Premier), 1903; anti-clericalist, and instrumental in separating Church and State in France. A diminutive form of the name is found in Combelle, Jean-Antoine- François (1774-1813), a general under Napoleon, and who lost his life in the Battle of Dresden. It will be noticed that the particle, de, is still used by some of the French families; it was, of course, originally a sign of nobility, or, at least, that the family possessed landed estates. We shall watch its development in England.
ENGLAND: The adoption of surnames did not happen all of a sudden in the British Isles, nor in Europe, in general, for that matter. That is, after the fall of the Roman Empire. (See Introduction). The habit in England may be said to have begun in the time of William the Conqueror, being thus imported from France. There are but few, if any, instances of it in England prior to his time. The few cases mentioned (see Place-Names) before the Conqueror were used as a matter of convenience, largely to avoid confusion among given names, also to indicate that the families possessed estates. Certainly, Eduardus de Cumbe  (Edward the Elder) was not known as "Mr. Combs," as "one of the Combses," or as "His Majesty Combs." Nor were any of the holders of Combe manors, etc., during the reign of the Conqueror, and for some time afterward, known or called by the family names as we now know them.
The word Comes appears in documents during the reign of the Conqueror, and later. It appears at least thirty-five times in the Doomsday Book (Index Nominum Personarum, Libri vocati Exon' Domesday, p. 606), beginning with such names as: Comes Alanus, Comes Albericus, and so on. Comes in this case has sometimes been mistaken for a family name. Let's see what is wrong with this assumption: firstly, either English or French would require a b in the name, even this early; secondly, s does not occur in the family name, in English, this early; thirdly, in the list of thirty-five names, the spelling of the name is identical; fourthly, surnames had made no
headway late in the eleventh century; fifthly, the language of the Doomsday Book is Latin, the official language of documents of the time; sixthly, Comes, therefore, in this instance means simply Earl (also a follower, or companion). The pronunciation is Co-mes, in two syllables.
Still another reference looks more convincing, but it breaks down for similar reasons. I quote from an old charter in Quimperle (Brittany) [Bretagne, FR], dated 1069: "Cujus rei testes sunt Houel Comes et uxor eius Hadevis," etc. ("The witnesses to this instrument are Earl Houel and his wife, Hadevis.")
I quote one more case of mistaken identity. It is said sometimes that certain Combses were in the army of the freebooter, William the Conqueror, at the Battle of Hastings (1066). Now, this medievel, Norman hijacker, to commemorate his victory, founded Battle Abbey (in the small town of Battle, near Hastings [eastern Sussex - old kingdom of Wessex]), in 1067. About three centuries later, some enthusiastic Benedictine monk took it upon himself to compile a list of the families whose descendants made the foray with William. This document is known as the Battle Abbey Roll. The Roll is in all probability a huge piece of fiction, much of it, whose only purpose was, at the time, to fire the imagination of certain pretentious families, thereby enriching the coffers of the Abbey. Incidentally, the name of a Coumbe appears in the Roll; by the fourteenth century Combses had become more or less numerous. Our only interest in this form of the name is the spelling, which would indicate that even that early there were variations in the pronunciation of the name; the spelling here is of course a variation of Cumbe, which spelling and pronunciation vied with Combe for at least three hundred years after the Conquest. I shall have more to say about spelling and pronunciation later.
While generalizing among these early families, I return to Comes. Although the early use of this word signified Earl, yet it became the spelling of the family name in a few cases. As such it is of course pronounced as one syllable, as are all other forms of Combs. In a list of Northumberland [most northerly county in EN] worthies in the twelfth century we find the name of one Jones de Comes; the name is apparently a family name here. In the same list is one Guido Comes de Warr, in which instance Comes is probably not a family name. Finally, we may safely dismiss the followers of William the Conqueror and the Doomsday Book in our study. This is a cruel blow, I know, for some of the more pretentious members of my clan; not that Combses were not with the Con-
queror - only, we do not know; not that numerous Combses are not listed in the Doomsday Book - only, for the sake of brevity, their names are not listed in full, only as Comes (Earl) Haroldus (Harold), etc., the names of their estates, chateaux, manors, etc., being omitted.
I must mention what we may call certain "prepositional descriptions" used with the name Combs in the early and later records. De has been seen time and again, above. Before the Conqueror it was doubtless the Latin preposition, from, as in Eduardus de Cumbe. But after the Conqueror, and the advent of Norman French, it becomes the French de (pronounced duh), meaning about the same thing, and which, in French, is a sign of nobility. Since Combe is feminine in French, certain Combs families of earlier times in England preceded the name with de la, as in John de la Combe. These particles, or prepositional descriptions persisted for a long time, because family names were slow to become established. But the French influence, politically and linguistically, waned after three centuries, and, by the sixteenth century, de and la had passed out.
In the fourteenth century we begin to notice such place designations as ate (at) cumbe (in Kent), atte combe (Devonshire), etc. As we have already noticed in place-names, certain prefixes were often attached to names. The same development occurs in some family names, and we find Lipscomb, Whitcomb, and so on. And there is the old Scottish (Celtic) patronymic, McCombs. By the mid-sixteenth century we begin to meet a- and o - , as in John a-Combs, John o-Combs. A- is a clipped form of at, and o- for of, which has replaced the French de; but h [??] particles do not outlast this century.
The spelling of the name, and a word about pronunciation may now be considered. I have already accounted for the French origin of the e in the various spellings of the name. An excrescent s appears in the name at an early date. We find one William de Combes, a citizen of London, as early as 1302; and John Coombes, also of London, in 1400; the records would no doubt show others. But the tendency was, for a long time, to write the name without s. The habit was borrowed from the French, who always, especially in the late centuries, write the name with s. Etymologically, it has no business in the name. S has slipped into a number of family names in English. As far as I know, prominent English families now usually spell their name Combe, as will be seen from the list which will follow a little later.
At the present time there appear to be at least three pronuncia-
tions of the name among Englishmen and Americans, as far as I know: Comb(e), Combs, and Coombs (oo like oo in boot). The third pronunciation is probably a survival of the earlier Cumb(e), and seems to have persisted here and there, down through the centuries. But it is not common. It is practically unknown in the South in America, but is heard in Canada, New England, and other parts of the North, sometimes even when spelled Combs.
I have already remarked earlier in this study that the name COMBS as a study in philology and genealogy is one of the mightiest in the records; perhaps it stands at the top. The varied spellings of the name are extensive and awesome. A Combs fan, the late Fred Coombs, of Madison [Dane Co], Wisconsin, used to maintain that certain members of the Combs clan became too lazy and trifling to write the name with two o's! Well, Fred (requiescas in pace!), etymology is against you. I hereby submit the imposing list:
Come, Comes, Coome, Coom, Coomb, Coomes, Coomess, Coombe, Coombs, Coombes, Comb, Combe, Combs, Combes, Coumbe, Coumbs, Coumbes, Cumb, Cumba, Cumbe, Cumbes, Cooms.
There may be a few more hidden away in the dusty, worm- and moth-eaten archives of the past. At the present time I have noted only five of these in actual use: Combs, Coombs, Combes, Coombes, and Coomes. But there may be others, in the British Isles.
SOME PROMINENT WORTHIES OF LONG AGO: priests, priors and churchmen - Gregory de Cumbe , Canon of Sarum [old borough near Salisbury, Wiltshire, EN] (990 A.D.); John de Cumba , Bishop of Clayme [??]; Dominus Peter de Cumbe , Canon of Sarum; William de Cumbe , Vicar and Canon of Sarum; Peter Combe , Sacristan of Westminster Abbey [London, EN]; John de Combe , Prior at Brodleigh [??] (1342); John de Combe, Bachelor of Canon Law (1350); John de Combe, Prior of Church of Holy Cross, at Reigate [Surry, EN] (1425); John de Combe , of Haccomb [Devonshire, EN], Precentor of the church of Haccomb (died 1499). In France, Otho de Combe , a brother of William the Conqueror, became Bishop of Bayeux [Basse-Normandie, France].
The "Patent Rolls" of Edward III (1312-1377) reveal several Combses: Henry de Coumbe , Theobaldus Coumbe , the Abbot of Combe, Henry Coumartin  (this gentleman probably lived at Combemartin, in Devon), Walter de Coumbe , Francis Combe, of Combe Abbey, in Warwickshire [EN].
There were large and prominent Combs families in Wiltshire [EN]: Adam de Cumba de Fittelton , as early as 1227, John de Cumba , Lord of Fittelton (1250), Ricardus de Cumbe de Fittelton , who owned the
parish of Cumbe (now Combe-Bisset [Wiltshire, EN]) in 1279 (a few miles south of Castle Combe), Simon de Cumba, Lord of Fittelton .
I have perhaps said enough concerning some of the early members of my tribe. Among my notes there is considerable data relating to their families. These early worthies dot the British landscape from the Channel to the Clyde [River, Scotland], and also include Wales and Scotland. Their numbers are legion. Many of them were of course in politics, and enjoyed royal favor: one Thomas Combes was a member of Parliament from Sussex, in 1460; Thomas Combe was clerk to Henry VIII. Combses were more numerous in southwestern England (Devonshire, Cornwall and Somerset) than in any other section of the county. Henceforth I shall speak of COMBS without the particle de, since we may assume that it is now well established as a family name. But another matter must be cleared up.
Most of the Combses mentioned up to this point have been prominent, in one way or another; at least, they have, as a rule, been holders of estate, manors, etc., as their very names indicate. But this fact must not lead us into a common error, namely, that all the Combses now living in the English-speaking world are descendants of these same prominent gentlemen. As far as family names are concerned, our study begins with the age of feudalism, which lasted from the ninth to the fifteenth century. Now, the nobility during this painful and dark period of history was not at all in the majority. What about the reticulum of retainers, serfs, freeman, and all other persons attached to or connected with a manor? How did they come by their family names? To be sure, they had none, at first.
The majority of families in England today are descendants of medieval bondmen, who at one time formed the greater part of the population; they rose slowly through the various classes of tenants in villeinage to freemen, becoming finally farmers and tradesmen, and sometimes country and professional gentlemen. Sometimes, per gratiam regis, by reason of outstanding services to Church or State, they achieved high station, and became noblemen. When cognomens got to be the fashion, it is to be assumed that the majority of serfs et al. on the estates took over the family name of their overlords. I am sure that this is true with respect to some of the Combses. It becomes evident, then, that the majority of people bearing this name today are not necessarily descended from those early, lordly Combses. However, it is only fair to say that quite a number of them do descend from these gentlemen. The law of entail, or primogenityre [primogeniture], helps to bear out the contention.