Origin of the Surname Beard
On the face of it the origin of the name Beard seems pretty obvious; the first so named individual had a beard when it was unusual to do so, or had a relatively remarkable example. It transpires that to be clean-shaven was the norm in non-Jewish communities in northwestern Europe from the 12th to the 16th century, the crucial period for surname formation. And the English have always had their own peculiar attitude to facial growth. The Anglo-Saxons used to wear hair on the upper lip only; the Normans considered the beard as an indication of distress and misery and thus actively avoided such growth altogether; and in the 1400 and 1500s it was quite the fashion to have a clean chin. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth I there was even a tax relating to beards.
But there is almost certainly far more to it than that. The word beard for example has a couple of alternative meanings; "one who serves to divert suspicion or attention from another", and "to confront boldly". Could the name have evolved from a personality trait? Although I have never encountered anyone using the term in these ways, perhaps in a post medieval world they had common currency?
And then of course there are corruptions of one name to another. Several commercial companies I have encountered come to quite a precise conclusion about the origins of the name Beard - "an ancient Strathclyde-Briton name for a person who works as a poet, which was originally derived from the Gaelic word bard". Quite feasible in Scotland perhaps, but hardly a likely origin for a name in common usage in farway Essex in the 1500s
In all probability a Beard owes his or her surname to one of several different ancestors; there is no Beard 'primogen', and the surname was not given for the same reason in different or even within the same localities. There are four possible roots to the name that are pertinent to Essex as far as I can determine:
1. The Anglo-Danish Root - Berda
My preferred root lies in the Doomsday survey of Colchester in Essex, where one can find record of the Anglo-Dane "Berda" (Essex Doomsday Survey). This actually is an archaic rendering of the word "beard", and is quite a convenient point of origin for a notional race of Essex Beards
2. The Norman Root
Hugh de Montfort, from Montfort-sur-Risle, Eure, was also called "Hugh Beard". He was Regent with Odo of Bayeux and Earl William FitzOsbern in 1067. He had a castle at Saltwood, with extensive Kent holdings to defend coast, but is also known to have had holdings in Essex. Could he have left these to a male heir who adopted his fathers nickname?
3. The Flemish Root - Baert
Records of the Huguenots Society, list Ghislenus, Jaquemyne and Catherina Baert as members of the Dutch Church dwelling in London in 1561. In the 1580s we find further mentions of Arnoldt, Tobias, Jacob, Cornelius and James Baert, and the family is still regularly listed until the second decade of the seventeenth century. We find that the link with the Low Countries is still alive and well in the 1690s, with a James and Thomas Beard being allocated passes to travel there (Domestic State Papers, 1691,1697). By cross referencing records of the time, it can be proved that the Baerts and Beards in question are from one and the same family. Baerts can still be found to this day, but it would appear that a certain number of the family integrated to such an extent that they either accepted the corruption of their name into an English word by their new countrymen, or adopted the literal translation of their name from Dutch - beard.
These Beards are pertinent to Essex since a number settled in Suffolk, and may have ventured further south. This would make some sense since the family originating in Stoke By Nayland were evidently people of some means and were often refered to as "Beards" rather than "Beard", which phonetically seems closer to "Baert". The descendents of the Great Totham Beards have an oral history which suggests that their Beards were also from overseas; this time France
4. The French Root - Bayard
A fourth explanation has Bayards fleeing France during the French Revolution and becoming anglicised as Beards, living in the Wickham Bishops/Great Totham area.