There are probably an equal number of opinions on the origin of the name of Ashe as there are variations of the spelling of the name. While the “e” was sometimes dropped and the name became Ash, other variations have included Aysh, Ayshe, Aish, Aisshe, Esh, Essye, etc.
The 1838 edition of John Bernard Burke’s “A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Extinct and Dormant Baronetcies of England” links the names of Esse, Ashe, and d’Essecourt, and indicates that the family accompanied William the Conqueror from Normandy to England:
“The ancient and eminent family of Esse, Ashe, or D’Essecourt, which came over with William the Conqueror, appears by certified extracts under the seal of Ulster King of Arms, by the authority of the College of Arms, and from the pages of our old historians, to have held large estates in the county of Devon, so early as the eleventh century.”
The Rev. John Prince, in his “Worthies of Devon” (1810) links the names of Ash and Esse to the River Exe in Devon:
“The very ancient and genteel stock of the name of Ash, otherwise Esse, derived its name, saith Mr. Hooker, from the River Esse, a more ancient compilation than Ex, by which it is called at present, as if this family was more ancient in this shire than the present name of the river, from which our famous city and several hamlets do fetch their pedigree, as Exeter, Exminster, and Exmouth.”
The Rev. Pat Ashe (1915-2009), who spoke several languages and had travelled widely around the world, offered the following opinion about the variations in the spelling of the name:
“Speakers of several European languages are not able to pronounce the English ‘a’ (as in cat or in mate), nor the ‘sh’. In France, I was known as Patache (coach), as the English ‘a’ does not exist in French. In Greece, I was called Pet Es, the nearest they could get to the ‘a’ and the ‘sh’. As Spanish is totally phonetic, Ashe became Ese. My belief is that Ashe and Esse are different pronunciations of the same name. I might add that I suspect the name at one time was pronounced ‘Aish’, as on several occasions it is spelt Aysh or Aysshe.”
In 1882, Hugh Norris wrote the following in “South Petherton in the Olden Time”:
“The Ashes (sometimes spelt Aysshe by our branch) were descended from a very ancient Norman family, and curiously enough all Genealogists appear to have concurred in the error that the modern ‘Ashe’ is simply a corruption of the older designation of d’Esse or Esse. Lysons says ambiguously that the Manor of Ash in Musbury gave name to the family of de Esse or Ash who possessed it by gift of the Courtneys at an early period (History of Devon, Vol 88, p. 359). In confirmation of the muddle into which genealogists have drifted as to the surname of this family, let me mention that in the Visitation of Devon 1620 are given the names of Nicholas Ashe or Esse of Clist Fornyson, his son Richard Esshe and his grandson Henry Esshe, whilst the latter who subscribed the pedigree signs his name Aysshe. In the Visitation of Somerset 1623 the above named Richard Esshe’s brother is called James Esse alias Ashe; this latter being the first representative of the family who lived at South Pemberton. The truth is that at the Conquest, a noble Norman named Hubert Bellesme, Lord of the two estates of Fresne and Essaye, joined the invading army of Duke William and was rewarded by the gift of large estates in Devonshire. Himself and his descendants, as long as the Norman conquest lasted, bore the territorial title of de Esse. When they became Lords of the Manor of Ash in Musbury above referred to, they bore both titles de Esse and Ash (communicated by the Rev. R.M. Ashe of Langley Burrell). I presume as time flowed on and as the family became more thoroughly naturalised on English soil, the awkwardness of having two names led to the adoption of the more recent designation of Ashe. In support of this opinion, I may add that a manor held by Ralf de Esse in the reign of Henry III and once called Esse Ralph and Ralph Asse is now Ralph Ash or Rose Ash (Lyson History of Devon, Vol. I, p. clxxxiv, and Vol. II, p. 429).”
A Dictionary of English Surnames (P.H. Reaney and R.M. Wilson – 1958) attributes the names of Ashe and Ash, as well as several variants, to a person who was a ‘dweller by the ash-tree’, taking its meaning from the Old English of aesc. It is perhaps also worth noting that the Latin word ‘Fraxinus’, meaning an ash-tree, was also associated with at least one of the Ashes – Simon Ashe de Esse (Fraxinus). John Prince, in his “Worthies of Devon” wrote: “Ash, Simon, commonly called, among the learned, Simon Fraxinus, (which signifieth in Latin, an ash-tree) was born in this county.”
Research on the origin of surnames reveals that, in England, family names were introduced after the Normans arrived. Surnames were first adopted among the feudal nobility and gentry and then slowly spread to other parts of society. Some of the Norman nobles arriving from France chose to differentiate themselves by affixing ‘de’ (of) in front of the name of their village or town in France. This was known as a territorial surname but, in time, Norman nobles often dropped the French derivations and called themselves after the name of their new English holdings. This therefore would lend credence to Hugh Norris’ assertion that the family was originally known as ‘de Esse’, and eventually dropped the Esse title and used Ashe from the name of their estate in Devon. This is also supported by Bernard Burke’s “A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland for 1852” in which he writes: “The estate of Ashe, situated in the parish of Musbury, in the hundred of Axminister, gave name to the family of De Esse, or Ashe, who possessed it by gift of the Courtenays at an early period.”
This, of course, does not negate the possibility that the Ashe Estate in Musbury was so named because it was full of ash trees!