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Welsh Surnames

We often hear from visitors interested in Welsh family names. Queries on this subject invariably involve reference to the classic "Welsh Surnames" by T.J. Morgan and Prys Morgan. (University of Wales Press, 1985, ISBN 0-7083-0936-4). This is essential reading for those with more than a passing interest in the subject and the present note draws heavily on it. 

It is fairly well known that there are relatively few Welsh surnames. In fact Professor Hartmann (Americans from Wales, 1967) concludes that "Some thirty-nine surnames include about 95 per cent of the Welsh, wherever they are found". He notes four categories:  

  • Those derived from Christian names common in England - like Jones, Thomas, Davies and Williams.
  • Surnames which originally contained the prefix "ap" (meaning "son of" in the same way as the Scottish "Mac"). Examples of these are Pritchard (ap Richard) and Bowen (ap Owen with the 'p' hardened to 'b').
  • Surnames derived from pure Celtic sources - like Lloyd, Morgan, Gwynn, Vaughan, Meredith and Llewelyn.
  • Surnames from English sources which became well known in parts of Wales.
One might add a sub-category of descriptive surnames within the Celtic group   (Gwyn is from the Welsh for "white" and means 'fair-haired') and a further place name group (the name Blayney is an English scribe's version of the Welsh town of Blaenau). 

By the 17th Century there had been a decline in the popularity of native Welsh forenames names like Goronwy, Madog and Bleddyn. Some native names virtually disappeared. Names popular in England like John, William, Hugh, Thomas and Richard became commonplace. These became typical Welsh surnames (Jones, Williams, etc) as the patronymic system fell into disuse. 

When did the patronymic system end and the father's name become treated as a surname and passed on to the grandchildren? The Morgans give some examples from early records. William ap John Thomas, standard bearer of King Henry VIII  became known as William Jones. Thomas ap Lewis, the son of Lewis ap Sir David was killed at the battle of Banbury in 1469. His son was the first to adopt Lewis as a permanent surname and in 1487 was lord of the manor of Raglan in Monmouthshire, South Wales. 

The Morgans also give the derivation of the surname Vaughan to illustrate the influence of English customs on a family located in a bilingual border area. "The first great Vaughan family is located in Bredwardine, Hereford. The name of this family has its origins in the Welsh epithet Fychan , attached to the name of Rhosier .... who was killed protecting the body of Henry V at the battle of Agincourt in 1415. This Rhosier's father was Rhosier, therefore the father had to be Rhosier Hen 'the Old' and the son Rhosier Fychan, i.e. 'Young Roger'. Rhosier's sons (not all) are called Fychan or Vaughan, and it is fairly clear that Vaughan in this generation had become the surname." The first known member of this Cardiganshire family to bear the name was Llywelyn Fychan, born around the year 1250). 

By the 17th. century the fixed surname was apparent in most of Wales although examples of the old naming tradition have been found in 19th. century records. 

See also:  Evans - Bevan - Biven - BivinsGriffiths, Hughes, JenkinsJonesMorganRees and Price etcRosser, Prosser - and Prossor? Stackpole , Van, Place names as surnames , names from 1327 and Mysterious names.
 

2002/7  John Weston

 

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