There has been something of an explosion of interest in family history over the past two or three decades as people try to unravel their past and get in touch, historically speaking, with their distant and long-gone ancestors.

Celebrities with Welsh surnames/stage names: Tom Jones, Huw Edwards and Katherine Jenkins.

In England, as far as researchers are concerned, a person's surname might well be a good indicator of family connections. As John and Sheila Rowlands have recently written, with regard to English names, in The Surnames of Wales (Gomer Press):

“it would not be uncommon for a present day researcher to have all 16 great-great-grandparents with different surnames.”

Such diversity undoubtedly makes tracking down a particular relative a lot easier. But in Wales there was, until fairly recently, little variety in the surnames of people so that the same names appeared and were used time after time after time. In some parts of the country, this state of affairs was quite normal up until the beginning of the 19th century.

In England, however, things were very different. By the middle years of the 15th century people had adopted surnames that reflected such things as their place of origin or their trade and profession. So names like Carpenter or Smith were already quite common. Sometimes topographical features - Hill or Rivers, for example - were employed if that reflected the area from which the individual came.

Over the years such names became accepted by the families and by the whole community. They were then passed on from father to son and so on. There are, obviously, many other derivations for people's names.

In Wales, a country which retained its predominantly rural atmosphere or environment (at least until the coming of the Industrial Revolution), the old, well established ways of naming individuals continued. In large parts of Wales, by complete contrast to most of England, people continued to be named mainly in relation to their father.

Deriving from the Welsh word for son - mab - the appellation ‘ab’ or ‘ap,’ meaning ‘son of,’ was in constant use for most of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

Sometimes a man could be named after six or seven generations of ancestors, always with the word ‘ab’ or the mutated ‘ap’ between the different names. Welshmen were inordinately proud of their ancestry but it was hardly efficient or effective to have to use a string of different names when referring to one individual.

It was not just men. Women were also known by their father's names - which made things doubly difficult when they married. Until the final years of the 17th century instead of taking their husband's names - they simply did not have a surname, just a ‘son of’ appellation - women just retained their maiden one. Complicated or what?

It was really the 1536 Acts of Union that began making Welsh people think about their names. It was a slow process but gradually some Welsh families, particularly those who wanted or needed to create roles for themselves at court or government, began to see the advantages of having just one name by which they could be known.

As John and Sheila Rowlands have commented:

“When, from laws in the 16th century (later known as the Acts of Union), some Welsh families found it necessary to take a single surname, they tended to choose from the names in their pedigree. Usually… the name chosen would be the last name in common use, most frequently the forename of the father.”

Christian names also had an influence on the development of Welsh surnames. Just as many English families added ‘son’ to their names, thus creating what are now common surnames like Johnson, Davidson and Williamson, in Wales something of a similar pattern was created.

The addition of the letter ‘s’ to popular Christian or given names created what are now common Welsh surnames. So the Christian name Evan duly became the surname Evans, Robert became Roberts and so on.

One other common Welsh name is also worth a mention - John Jones. It was, in lawless and dangerous times, well known as the most popular incognito used by men who lived outside the law, particularly in bandit-ridden areas like Wales. By adopting the name John Jones an individual could keep his real character and background well hidden. In time, of course, the name simply stuck.

The study of Welsh surnames is a fascinating exercise, one that will repay further study by those who have an interest in family history or Welsh history in general. For anyone who is researching their Welsh lineage, it is a complex but essential pastime.

If you're interested in family history you may enjoying reading genealogist Cat Whiteaway's blog.


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