Welsh Names and Surnames

 

 

Written by and ©1979-2000 to J. B. Davies, Cardiff. All international rights reserved.

Published here with permission of the author and Glamorgan Family History Society.

It is well known that the 20th century Welsh have inherited a very restricted range of surnames.

The choice is predominantly between Jones, Davies, Evans, Williams, and Thomas, not one of

which is a Welsh name.

Almost certainly, the most significant factor in determining the final outcome was the persistent

survival, in Wales, of the system of naming. This traditional method, common to most pastoral

peoples, involved identifying a man by his father's Christian name and sometimes by his

grandfather's, too. It was the practice of all the Celtic nations in Britain: the Welsh, the Scots, and

the Irish. If a man's name was Cawrdaf, and he decided to call his son Dogfael, the young man

would be known as Dogfael son of Cawrdaf. His son, in turn, might be Carwed son of Dogfael son

of Cawrdaf.

The Welsh word for son is mab or map, depending on whether it precedes a vowel or a

consonant. The Irish and Scottish word is mac. The small difference illustrates one of the main

distinctions between the two surviving branches of the Celtic Language: 'q' Celtic and 'p' Celtic.

Gaelic, i.e. Irish, Scottish and Manx are 'q' Celtic languages; hence Maq = Mac. Welsh, Cornish,

and Breton are Brythonic, or 'p' Celtic languages, hence Map = Mab.

Welsh usage, the 'm' in map was dropped, leaving the truncated ap, which gives us the style

Carwed ap Dogfael ap Cawrdaf. The ap has survived as initial 'p' or 'b' in a number of modern

Welsh surnames. For instance, Bevan comes from ap Evan, meaning mab Evan, or "son of Evan."

Similarly, Bowen comes from ab Owen; Price from ap Rhys; Powell from ap Hywel; Prichard from

ap Richard; Prothero from ap Rhydderch; Prosser from ap Rhossr; Proger from ap Roger; Pugh

from ap Hugh; Parry from ap Harry; Penry from ap Henry; and Probert from ap Robert, etc. These

are the Welsh equivalent of the Scottish and Irish Mac- names. A number of instances of the ap

form will be found in use in Wales today, but these are all modern revivals.

What particularly distinguished the Welsh situation was the gradual process of adopting

surnames beginning in the 15th Century, but not effectively finished until the later 18th Century. This

protracted changeover, with a majority of the changes taking place during the 17th and 18th

Centuries, more than anything else determined the limited range and linguistic poverty of modern

Welsh surnames.

Had surnames been universally adopted in Wales during the 10th-14th Centuries, which is when

they were largely taken up in England, there is no doubt that the sources, as for English surnames,

would have been fourfold: (a) father's given name; (b) personal nickname [often arising from a

distinguishing physical feature]; (c) trade or occupation; or (d) place of origin [or residence]. The

result would have been as rich a variety of surnames as is available to the English and common

among them might have been names based on the personal names in use in 10th-14th Century

Wales, but now quite obsolete: Aeddan, Aelhaearn, Arthfael, Bledrus, Breichiol, Brachwel, Cadfael,

Cadwallon, Cadwgan, Caradog, Cynddylan, Ffernfael, Gwaethfoed, Gwynllyw, Llywarch, Meirchion,

Mynwyedig, Peibio, Rhirid, Rhun, Tallwch, Yneigr, etc.

But it was not so. A very few of the most ambitious Welsh families adopted surnames in the 15th

century, perhaps not more than a dozen or so. Examples from Southern Wales are Morgan of

Tredegar and Mathew of Llandaff with the great Herbert kindred following suit a generation or so

later. In these cases, "father's name" was adopted though the practice was certainly not unanimous

within the kindreds and later branches were often prone to revert to the Welsh forms. In the case of

the Herberts, the senior branches of the family chose not to adopt a surname early on with the result

that they eventually became Jones, not Herbert. On the other hand, one branch in the 15th Century

became known by their place of origin as Raglan.

In northern Wales, there was a greater apparent tendency to adopt place names, as Mostyn,

Pennant and Nanney, while, in mid-Wales and border regions, nicknames were in several cases

adopted in this early period. Llwyd, meaning "grey," became Lloyd; Fychan, meaning "small" (or

younger") became Vaughan.

This small selection of names: Morgan, Mathew, Herbert, Mostyn, Pennant, Nanney, Lloyd and

Vaughan, all of which were in one instance or another adopted as surnames during the 15th and

early 16th Centuries, are very different in character from the selection of 10th-14th Century personal

names listed above. Three of them are personal names; three are place names; and, two are

nicknames. This is probably not very different from the ratio of such classes of names that would

have been adopted in England at the same period -- but none is an occupational name. That is

surely because to adopt a surname in 15th Century Wales required such wealth, power, ambition,

and degree of anglicization that, by definition, the aspirant could not have been a smith, carpenter,

or ploughman.

But, of the personal names, only one is Welsh: Morgan. Matthew, the Apostle's name, was

universal throughout Europe, and Herbert was probably due to some English or Flemish influence.

The Norman invasion in the 11th Century opened Wales up to wider continental influences during

the following centuries and consequent changes in fashion had a marked effect on the choice of

personal names. The archaic ones were not quite discarded, but the following selection from a list

of persons born between 1350 and 1415 indicates some of the foreign intrusions:

Dafydd Fychan ap Dafydd (Dafydd = David and was very common at this period)

Gruffudd ap Ieuan (Ieuan=John)

Gwilym ap Thomas Hen (Gwilym=William)

Jenkin Llwyd (Jenkin=a diminutive of John)

Matthew ap Gruffudd Gethin

Meurig ap Thomas ap Hywel (Meurig=Maurice)

One of the most important factors at work here was the Church influence. Insistence upon the

use of Saints' names at baptism had spread widely; the universal European names of Matthew,

John, and Thomas (a Becket, not the Doubter, gave rise to the latter's popularity). Strangely, the

many 5th-6th Century Welsh Saints Illtyd, Cadog, Teilo, Tyfodwg, Tathan, Dyfrig, Ellteyrn, Beune,

Garmon, and others, have rarely given rise to a surname, although many of them appear to have

been in use as Christian names in later medieval times. In some localities, Illtyd and Cadog were in

use as late as the 18th Century. The one great exception to this, of course, is the Patron Saint, 6th

Century St. David. From the very frequent use of Dafydd, we have derived Davies, one of our

commonest and most evenly distributed surnames.

However, it was no more than a minority who adopted surnames during the 15th Century, and not

until the end of the 16th Century had the great majority of the more substantial gentry done so. By

that time, the common European Christian names -- John, Thomas, William, etc. -- had gained the

overwhelming ascendancy; and, while a fair mixture of Howells, Morgans, Llewellyns, Lloyds and

Vaughans remained, the predominant pattern was one of Williams, Thomas, Jones, Evans and

Davies.

Again, because it was still only the gentry who were adopting surnames at this period, there were

few if any trade and occupation names creeping into use. The older and more 'barbarous' names

had, understandably, simply gone out of fashion. Few children were baptized Gwalchmai or

Gwaethfoed in the 16th Century. But, there was a short list of indigenous Welsh personal names,

which had and have persisted in common use, usually, perhaps, because they were the names of

greater or more recent Welsh kings, but also, no doubt, because they are shorter and more

euphonious then most of those that fell out of fashion. These are Llywelyn, Rhys, Hywel, Morgan,

and Gruffudd. To these can be added less-common survivals, such as Meredith, Gedrych, Gronow

(from Goronwy), and Cadwallader. In one locality, due to the popularity of a local 13th Century hero,

Cadwgan hog y fywall ("Cadwgan wield thy battle axe"), his name continued in use as a Christian

name among his descendants to be adopted eventually as a surname by some individuals.

Interestingly, it remains in use in the district to this day as a Christian name.

By the end of the 17th century, most of the minor gentry and yeomanry had adopted surnames,

but it was mid-18th Century, or even later in more-Welsh areas, before a majority of lesser yeomen

and tenant farmers had conformed. It was in this later period that the majority of the population

made the change, and, whether it was due to fashion, bureaucratic expectation, or the precept of

the gentry I cannot say; but, the almost-invariable rule by this time seems to have been to adopt the

patronymic. The result was once more no trade or occupation names, no further place names, and

very little extention in the variety of Christian names chosen.

There were some new ones. If early adoption had favoured Welsh surnames and 15th-17th

Century adoption favoured universal European names, 18th-19th Century adoption gave rise to the

entry of many Biblical names. The Methodist religious renewal of the 18th Century resulted in many

children's being given old testament names like Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Daniel, etc., which

subsequently became surnames in many cases. Many lesser Biblical names, such as Salathiel,

became rarer surnames, too; one parish in the early 19th Century can boast of a Mishak, a

Shadrach, and an Abednego.

So far, I have emphasized the time span over which the change took place. But, place had its

effect as well as time. Thus, towns and districts adjacent to England took to surnames earlier and

more permanently than did rural and inland districts. There was also the irony that Welsh names

often stood a better chance of surviving as English surnames (in mutilated form) than as Welsh.

This was because a man who stayed at home in Wales in the 15th Century was most unlikely to

adopt a surname. But, if he migrated to England, he was certain to do so. This has given rise to a

number of Welsh names that have been modified into English surnames: Caradog became

Craddock; Einion became Onions; ab Einion became Bunyan; Guto (a diminutive of Gruffuth)

became Gittins; Coch (red) became Gough; and Ddu (black) became Dee.

Most of the borrowed names, which have found their way into the Welsh surname stock, are in

English forms. The reason for this is quite simple. Although, until 70 years ago or so, Wales was

predominantly Welsh-speaking, all official records, until very much more recently than that had, by

law, to be kept in English. Thus, whatever spoken forms may have been in use, it was only English

forms of the names that became registered. But, there are exceptions. William was taken into

Welsh from the Latin form as Gwilym and, in some cases, Gwilliam has resulted. Some Norman

names were adopted in Welsh forms. Rhossr for Roger has resulted in the surnames Rosser and

Prosser (ap Rhossr), as well as Rogers and Prager. Maurice became Meurig in Welsh, so that we

now have Meyrick and Merrick, as well as Morris. A Welsh merchant in Bristol, Richard ap Meurig,

who appears in the Customs roll as "ap Meryke," was supposed to have been the heaviest investor

in John Cabot's expedition to America in 1498. It is, therefore, very probable that America had its

name from the Bristolian version of this man's name: Richard Ameryk. [But, Amerigo Vespucci of

Italy published one of the first maps of the New World and was, thus, thought by many to be its

discoverer-Ed. (1979 journal)]

But, of all the European male names, John is the most common. Welsh, like Latin had no 'J,' so

John came to us originally in the form of Ieuan, which became one of our most common surnames,

Evans. To this, we have added ab Evan to become Bevan. In its later English form, John has

become one of the commonest of all British surnames, Jones. Also in Wales, we have a

considerable number of people who use the English form, "John," without mutilation as a surname.

And, as if this were not enough, the early English or Flemish diminutive for John, Jankin, gained

much popularity in 15th Century Wales alongside Ieuan, with the result that Jenkins now (1979) runs

to six pages in the South East Wales telephone directory.

None of this holds any comfort for the genealogical searcher in Wales. Seekers after the

more-common surnames are doomed to failure unless they have a great deal more information than

"William Thomas from Wales." And, even with their quarry traced and identified in the 19th Century,

sooner or later the parish register entry will appear, which says "Evan son of William Thomas

baptized," and no more. If it is late in the 18th Century, he is likely to be Evan Thomas; if it is early in

the century and in a fairly Welsh area, he is probably Evan William. If it is a town or other Anglicized

area, he might be Evan Thomas as early as the 17th Century, or, indeed, very much earlier than that.

Towns were English plantations, mainly, and had surnames from their foundation dates -- but were

prone from the 16th Century onwards to be infiltrated by Welshmen who may not always have

adopted town ways at once. Added to this uncertainty is the depressing probability that he is

probably far from being the sole possessor of his name in the parish, whichever it may be.

Once the comforting signpost of a surname is left behind, there is very little hope of making

further progress except in the case of a relatively wealthy family, who may have left written records of

their affairs -- wills, at the very least, are needed. The sort of family, that is, who would have adopted

a surname and is, in fact, on the point of doing so. Thus, it is often possible to go back a further

generation before the surnames. But, to make substantial further progress will be impossible

unless, at the same time, a secure connection can be made with one of the many medieval Welsh

pedigrees, which have been brought down to the 16th-18th Centuries.

To offer guidance on this difficult phase, it is necessary to emphasize that the actual process of

changeover when it does take place was not the simple once-for-all act, which what I have said so

far may imply. I have constantly referred to surnames' being adopted, but, on reflection, I rather

doubt if that is an apt description of what happened. Looking in detail at the mechanics of the

process, it may be better to think in terms of a surname's becoming fixed.

There may have been cases where a surname was adopted as a clear-cut act following a

rational decision, but, more often, it seems rather to have been the balance of social, cultural, and

economic forces eventually tipping in that direction.

When a great family acquired a surname, humbler relations were quick to take the name up and

wear it as a badge to proclaim their kinship with persons of influence. But, they might do so in a

spirit of compromise. The more conservative stay-at-home branches of the Mathew family of

Llandaff style themselves throughout the 15th and early 16th Centuries as "William ap Robert

Mathew" and "Robert ap William Mathew," etc., using the surname almost in parentheses and

obviously seeing it as a kindred badge rather than a name. And, where such branches rose in

affluence and status, so the surname became more securely fixed. But, where they sank, they would

quickly cease to use it at all and disappear from sight in the anonymity of patronymic naming.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, the critical social and cultural pressures were moving far down the

social scale, and the bulk of the population was drifting into the surname condition. Such people

had no great kin already bearing a surname ready for adoption, and we have very many examples

of the confused and apparently haphazard way in which the change took place in these

circumstances.

Again, I dare not attempt to offer rules of guidance, but it is important for searchers to appreciate

the irregularity during the two or more generations over which the change took place. Also, I won't

attempt an explanation, which would only serve to make matters sound more complicated than they

are. But, the table set out below, which is not a real pedigree but a combination of several

well-attested cases, attempts to illustrate the range of irregularity likely to be met within the 17th and

18th Centuries.

Eustance ap Evan

__________________|___________________

| |

Rees Eustance (the ap dropped, but understood)

Richard ap Eustance

|

|

Morgan Rees

Eustance ap Richard

|-------------------------|-----------------------------|

|

Rees Eustance

Joseph Morgan

David Rees

Llywelyn ap Eustance

|

|

|

Child surname

Morgan

Child surname Rees

Child surname Llywelyn

 

There is little recent published work on the subject of Welsh surnames [this has changed since

1979], and most of what there is lies hidden away in Transactions of the Cymmrodorion Society or

the Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies. It is to be hoped that some professional is working away

somewhere on an up-to-date definitive treatise. I believe that someone is doing this [see, i.e., John

and Sheila Rowlands, Surnames of Wales.] Meanwhile, the foregoing notes are the observations of

a practising local historian who has dabbled in the difficult waters of Welsh genealogy. They are

offered on that limited basis in the hope that they will be helpful to new discoverers of their Welsh

ancestry, and in the hope that they will be superseded as quickly as they deserve.

Reprinted from the South Wales Family History Society Journal (Spring, 1979) III:1. SWFHS is

now Glamorgan Family History Society.

 

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