The generations of Dennis that I know about, including what my father told me, were characterised by red hair, blue eyes and fair skin. A more distant relative from Chesterfield tells me that his family has the same characteristics. The common ancestor would be William Dennis 1784, third great grandfather.
A quick place name study of the area of outh Derbyshire and north west Leicestershire where Henry and his forebears lived in the early nineteenth, through the eighteenth and (at least) the late seventeenth century reveals a number of settlements apparently with Danish connections, such as Oakthorpe and Donisthorpe. Further east, especially in the Wreake Valley, there are many names ending with “by” or “thorpe” or including “thor” or “knut”, which imply Danish connections. The Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names supports this:-
DENNIS. DENIS. A baptismal name : the patron saint of France. Sometimes, however, as Ferguson observes, it may be from the A.-Sax. Denisca, Danish, and this is confirmed by the Le Deneys of the H.R.1
The Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames cites similar derivation, and includes Old French daneis, meaning Danish or the Dane, and Old English denisc and Middle English denshe.
Following the battle of Edington in 878 a treaty was concluded in 886 between Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, and Guthrum, a Danish warlord. This effectively divided England along a line between the rivers Thames and Mersey, with Danish law (Danelaw) and custom holding sway to the east and north. The boundary is indistinct, and perhaps shifted from time to time, but the settlements of Measham, Oakthorpe and Moira were near to it. Further east and north, especially in the Wreake valley, through Melton Mowbray and Grantham, Danish place names are much more frequent. Between 1500 and 1700 there were many Dennis baptisms in these areas (source: FamilySearch). In more ancient times access to these areas would have been via the river Humber and its tributaries.
The Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames gives two origins for the name Dennis. First from Dionysos the Greek god of wine (and other things), after whom a number of saints were named, and second from Danish or the Dane. It seems far from unlikely that Saxon folk would refer to Thomas the Dane or Thomas Danish and eventually Dennies or Dennis to distinguish him from (say) Thomas Burton, the local man from West Mercia.
Taken together, these imply a strong likelihood of connection to the Danish Vikings who invaded England in the ninth century.
Martin Littler reminded me that his grandfather, Dad’s uncle Jack Dennis, used to say that “we are all Vikings”, but whether he was simply going on personal appearance, or whether there was some family folk memory will not now be discovered.
In late 2015 I decided to submit a sample of my DNA to Ancestry to see if it would bear out my instinct that my Dennis ancestry was sometime Danish Viking.
And, of course, it is not that simple! It must be borne in mind that the pool of DNA available for analysis is necessarily limited to a representative sample of each regional type, but the analysts do not have access to the DNA of people in my family tree, what I call Andrew’s Kindred. With that knowledge it ought to be possible to test the results against what I have discovered about those people from whom I could have inherited genes.
What do these regional types mean to me?
Great Britain: Roughly half. There is some Welsh ancestry. Father’s mother’s name was Evans and they can be traced back to Flintshire, so this makes sense. My Brown ancestors were from Shropshire and may well have derived much of their DNA from darker colouration in their ancestors.
Europe West: About 17%. From what I have read this seems to relate to the Anglo-Saxon migration into Britain, so that makes sense, too.
Ireland: About 14%, but ranging from 0-28%. I have found only one connection to Ireland in my ancestry. This was via Medlicott, who, it is said online moved to Shropshire from Ireland in medieval times. Prior to this, however, they were associates of William the Conqueror and therefore from Normandy. In turn the Normans were Northmen or Norsemen from Scandinavia. So, while my DNA indicates about 14% Irish, there is no family tree evidence to back that up, and I therefore suggest that this component is towards the lower end of the range.
Scandinavia: Also about 14% and range 0-30%. Light colouration (LC), that is the red hair, blue eyes and fair skin, characteristic of my father and his three brothers and their father, is more likely to occur if both parents carry the relevant genes, even though they may not be active in every generation. If that is true it follows that my father’s parents were more likely to have carried LC genes, that is half of my grandparents. It must also follow that it is more likely that at least two grandparents in each generation carried LC genes. Coupled with analysis based on the identities and abodes of my Dennis forebears, it appears likely that this component is towards the upper end of the range.
From the analysis above, I suggest that an adjusted balance would be more like this:
Clearly, no hard and fast proportion can be established, but adding intelligence to the raw analysis suggests less Irish and more Scandinavian.