When the Roman legions withdrew from England in A.D. 410 they left that country practically defenseless against the increasingly frequent attacks of the Anglo-Saxons raiders. Those forays had already caused the Romans to establish a maritime coast guard, which had unsuccessfully tried to protect the east coast of England against the fierce northern pirates. The raiders soon became alert to their new opportunities. Not only did they increase their raids in number and strength against the costal areas; they even sailed up the rivers and gained tribute from the inland settlements. Gradually, over many years, the northmen landed, captured a town and its area, and remained as conquerors. Thus, during the fifth and sixth centuries, the Angles and the Saxons became rulers of almost all of England.
The invasions and conquests were not simultaneous, however, nor were they by the same tribes. The Jutes, from northern Denmark, coming to the south shore of England in A.D. 449, soon had seized all of Kent. they were followed by the Saxons, who came from an area just south of Denmark, and invaded the east and south coasts, beginning in A.D. 477. Finally, much later, in A.D. 547, there came from the southern parts of Denmark -- a region which still bears the name Angeln -- a tribe of Angles, who took possession of all of eastern England not already appropriated, generally north of the river Humber. Eventually, these Angles came to get control over the greater part of the land, and from them all the other tribes took the name of Angles, or English. All of them were known to the Britons, however, under the general name of Saxons.
The Anglo-Saxons spoke dialects of a language which belonged to the low-German linguistic family. At the time of thier conquest the language was not a written one, and it was not until the seventh century that knowledge of the roman alphabet, brought by Christian missionaries, caused Anglo-Saxon to become a written language.
A first indication that these historical events have any connection with a history of the Unthank or Onthank Family comes from the language of those Anglo-Saxons. One of their words was "unþanc" (the Saxon letter "þ" was pronounced "th"), which had various definitions (see our Name Origin section) It was also, in variants, used as a verb, adjective and adverb. Different forms of the word are found in many Germanic and Scandinavian languages.
King Alfred, the learned English monarch of the 9th century, used the work "unthank" in his writings of A.D. 893 and 897, and it was used in various writings and laws in A.D. 960, 1000, 1175, 1200 and later. Present English dictionaries list the word, but as obsolete in use.
Some time during its early usage, the word "unthank" became a name also. This is not surprising, as the development of surnames is directly allied to the words indicating places, things and many other conditions. Probably the most direct connection between the name and the word was the custom of referring to land as "unthank" when it was infertile, unproductive. According to one older author of the mid-19th century, the word is always found in this connection in the North Country of England, where its use as a place name is common.
Indeed, it is in Northumberland, close to the Scottish border, that the name is first found in the records, in A.D. 1231. some years later, the name appeared not only in that one place, but widely spread. How long the name had been established in those places is unknown. as shown by the dates of King Alfred's writings, it is almost certain that the word and the name arrived in England with the Saxons and the Angles, and before the ninth century invasions of the Danes. Those Danish wars of conquest blotted out almost all of the previous records and writings, so that until about A.D. 1000 there is but little written material as reference. for that reason, as well as the backwardness of the northern areas, it is natural that nothing is known of the Unthank Family in Northumberland until a much later date. One fact seems to be fairly established, nevertheless; the earliest persons in England who bore the name "Unthank" were found in and probably settled in Northumberland, and were, therefore, among the Agnles who came from Denmark during the sixth century.
There is an allied question; which appeared first in North Country usage, the word "unthank," or the name? For example, did some sixth century Anglians settle on Northumberland soil which proved to be infertile and unproductive, and eventually acquired a surname based on the quality of their property? Or did some Anglians named "Unthank" (or an equivalent) settle on some land, or on a farm, which later took its name from its owners?
Some conclusions may be drawn from general evidence. Firstly, the Anglo-Saxons were preeminently a rural people who preferred to live in open spaces. They came by ship, penetrated the interior mainly by means of the rivers, and settled in the valleys, usually in small groups which would make up a little village. On both sides of the present Scottish border there would have been many places which were "unthank" in quality of soil.
Secondly, the use of surnames did not develop until much later than the anglo-Saxon invasions. When they did come into use, those descriptive names usually referred to a person as being "of," or "by," or "at" some place or some situation, e.g. John by the hill, William of unthank. The later Norman influences changed many of these prepositions to "de," and thus "William de Unthanc" in 1231 in Northumberland.
Hence, to answer the puzzle of which came first, a word applied to a place, or a name given to a place, it is fair to conclude that the former assumption is initially correct; viz., an unproductive area was called by its owners and others, "unthank"; and that its inhabitants eventually acquired that surname as it became necessary to differentiate between several persons with the same given name. On the other hand, it is also very likely that as Unthank families increased, some members sought new homes afar, and gave their names to the farms or villages which they established. This latter is likely to be more correct after the first few centuries of the Anglian conquest.
There has been some supposition that because the early Unthank names were preceded by "de," the family had a French origin. the history of development of the language, however, seems to rule out the correctness of that conclusion, as indicated above.
The first known mention of the place in English history is in an Assize Roll for 1207, when "Marion of Bolebec demands v. Hugh of Bolebec . . . the third part of the town on Unthanc. . ." which referred to the small village of that name on the banks of the river Aln, near the town of Alnham, in Northumberland. From all indications, this locality was among the earliest, if not the first, settlements of the Unthank family in Britain. It is also possible that it was the focal point from which the family name spread to other "Unthank" places in the North Country of England and in lower Scotland.
Alnham undoubtedly had an equivalent antiquity, for in the reign of King Henry III. (1216-1272) it is recorded as being the lordship and estate of Sir William de Vesey, "including in its thinly-peopled parish, the township of Unthank." Alnham is about twelve miles from the major town of Alnwick, the seat of the Dukes of Northumberland, and is also only eight miles from the Scottish border. In medieval times, being on one of the main routes used by traders from Scotland, it was a place of some importance.
In 1231, the records speak of a William de Unthanc as a resident of Alnham, and also in 1233 and 1234. From that time on, until the middle of the sixteenth century, references to the Unthank family at Alnham are numerous: William de Unthank in 1279; John de Unthanc, who owed land there, in 1290; Roger de Wnthanke (sic), a juror in 1290; Roger Unthank in 1296; Hugh of Unthank, his sons John and Alan, and Gilbert, son of Thomas of Unthank, were sued for trespass in 1300.
Later, by 1460, the Unthank family became well established as the owners of a manor of 172 acres, with Unthank Hall (also called "Unthank House") as the manor house. On 10 October 1532 the neighborly Scots burned the village of Alnham, including the church with its valuable parish records, and probably damaging, at least, Unthank Hall, as the manor was sold to the Collingwood family in 1568. This Unthank family later moved to Newcastle-on-Tyne, and thence to Norwich in Norfolk, where it still remains as senior branch of the Family, at Intwood Hall.
Taken from "The Onthank Family: Its History and Genealogy" A. H. Onthank, 1959