It seems to me that the most popular names in the English language have historically came from one of two sources. The first is from the various Germanic peoples who either settled or invaded Britain in the Dark Ages, starting with the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. The second is from the Christian Bible.
As might be expected, many of the popular English names come from the Old English language spoken by the Anglo-Saxon peoples who started settling Britain in the middle of the 5th century. I cannot say for certain, but I think the most popular name of all time to derive from Old English may well be Edward. There have been several kings of England who have borne the name, not to mention writers, entertainers, and so on. The name is composed of the Old English words ead "wealth" and weard "guardian, protector." Indeed, the Angles and Saxons seemed to have been overly fond of the word ead when it came to names. To this day we still have Edgar (ead and gar "spear"), Edwin (ead and win "friend"), Edmund (ead and mund "protection"), and several others. Of course, the Anglo-Saxons didn't simply name their children with variants involving the word ead. War was one of the more popular occupations of the Dark Ages and often children were given names that dealt with war. The name Harold appears to have derived from Old English here and weald "power." Herbert might not be the best sounding name now, but in Old English it meant "army bright." The name Egbert comes from Old English Ecgbryht, meaning "edge (as in the edge of a sword) bright." The name Roger was in Old English Hrothgar; it even appears in Beowulf. The name is composed of hroth "fame" and gar "spear." The Anglo-Saxons had their share of names that dealt with "peace" as well--the name Winfred comes from Old English win "friend" and frith "peace." Many of the more popular names to come from Old English were based in the pre-Christian religion of the Anglo-Saxons. The name Alfred, a name borne by the famous Saxon king, comes from Ælf "elf" and ræd "counsel." Among the Germanic peoples, the elves were originally minor deities. The name Oswald comes from os "god" and weald "power." The Old Engilsh word os is cognate to Old Norse Æsir, the word used of the Norse pantheon of gods.
The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were not the only Germanic peoples to settle in Britain. Later in the Dark Ages, the Danes invaded England. Beyond creating the Danelaw, they also brought with them names. Among these was the name Eric, or in Old Norse Eirikr. The name Rudolph, now identified with a certain reindeer, also comes from the Danes who invaded England. In Old Norse it was Hrótholfr. The Norman Conquest of 1066 brought even more names of Germanic derivation, most often their ulitimate origns lying in Old High German. The Normans brought with them some of the most popular English names ever. William, Robert, and Richard were all brought to England by the Normans. In some cases the Norman names simply replaced Old English names that were essentially the same. Redbert is simply a name stemming from the Old English variant of the Norman name Robert. Here I have primarily talked about masculine names. Several feminine names from the Germanic languages have survived in English too, among them Emma, Edith, Isa, Wilma, and so on.
In the Seventh century the Christians began the slow process of coverting the Anglo-Saxon peoples. Not surprisingly, the Anglo-Saxons found a new source of names from the new religion. In fact, I rather suspect the most popular names of all time in the Engilsh language tend to come from the Christian Bible. For the most part, for boys it seems that the names of Jesus' disciples were often favoured. John, Peter, James, James, and virtually every name of a disciple (with the possible exception of Judas) have been popular througout the ages. Among women, perhaps no name has been more popular in the English language than that of Jesus' mother Mary. Of course, the English speaking peoples did not just look to the Christian New Testament for names, they also occasionally dipped into the Old Testament as well. Joshua, David, Jacob, and other Old Testament names have been perennial favourites. Not surprisingly, the names of the angels from Judaism also proved popular. Both Gabriel and Michael have proven popular over the ages. Surprisingly, both have given rise to feminine forms. The name Gabrielle comes from Gabriel, while the name Michael gave rise to the feminine form Michelle (in my opinion perhaps the most beautiful name in any language...).
The Roman Empire was a powerful influence in Europe for centuries. And while the Angles, Saxons, and other Germanic peoples who settled England were never ruled by Rome, their influence is seen in a few English names. Several names stem from Roman emperors and generals. Julius (from Julius Caesar), Claude (from the emperor Claudius), Mark (from Jesus' disciple of the same name, but also perhaps from the Roman general Marcus Antonius), Anthony (also from the general Marcus Antonius), and so on. Of course, emperors and generals were not the only Romans whose names made their way into English. The name Terence comes from the Roman playwright of the same name.
Yet other names in the English language come from other sources. The name Catherine comes to us via Latin Katerina, which ulitimately comes from Greek Aikaterina. George also comes from Latin through Greek, in its case from Latin Georgius, a name which stems ultimately from Greek Georgios. In some cases people have simply invented names. Longfellow developed the name Evangeline for the poem of the same name!
One thing that I have always found curious is the phenomenon of masculine names becming feminine names (as far as I know, it has never happened the other way around). As hard as it may be to believe now, the name Kelly was once a male name, but by the time I was born, there were droves of little girls named "Kelly." The same thing has happened to the name Ashley At one time it was a masculine name--remember Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind? All of this seems to have changed in the past twenty years, when it has become one of the more popular female names--I swear that over half of my oldest great niece's friends (and herself, for that matter) are named "Ashley."
As might be expected, names vary in popularity over the years. I rather suspect the names John and Mary are probably the two most popular names of all time in the English language, although they are not always so popular. In 1918, they were the two most popular names. William and Helen came in second. Acutally, in this area I think Helen may have been more popular as a name for girls than Mary--I swear over half of my mom's friends bore the name Helen! All of this had changed by the time I was born. In 1963, the two most popular names were Micahel and Lisa--John and Mary were now second. Curiously, I can't say I have ever known too many women my age named Mary, so I suppose the name wasn't that popular for girls in Randolph County (I think Jennifer and Deborah wer more popular....). These days John and Mary aren't even in the top ten most popular names. In 2004, the most popular name for boys was Jacob. Indeed, where boys are concerned, it seems that people are looking to the Bible again--Michael, Joshua, Matthew, and Joseph all rank in the top ten. Not being overly fond of Biblical names (my family already has too many Johns and Jameses), if I ever have a son I don't think I'll be naming him any of those names... Among girls, it seems that Bibical names are out of fashion. In 2004 Emily, Emma, Madison, and Olivia were the top four names.
Anyhow, I have always been fascinated by names. And like most people I have given thought to what I would like to name any children I might have. I realy haven't any ideas as to what I would want to name a boy, although I am fond of the name "Edward." I certainly am not going to name any son of mine "John," "James," "Jacob," or any other Biblical name (we already have too many names of the sort in our family). As to feminine names, I would like to name a daughter "Emma." It is a name that goes back pretty far in my family and it is also the name of one of my favourite TV characters--Emma Peel of The Avengers. I certainly will not bestow a boy's name on any daughter I might have. Other people might think that is cute, but I personally would be happy if there are no more girls named "Ashley" in my family (I keep picturing Leslie Howard in my mind....) Call me old fashioned, but I prefer for masculine names to stay masculine.