Genealogists and family historians are often frustrated by the limited number of surnames in Wales. Why is this so? Professor Prys Morgan, co-author of the book Welsh Surnames, explains the reasons why...
What was the old Welsh way of naming?
The Welsh only began to have fixed surnames about 500 years ago. Before that period, 4 — 500 years ago, the Welsh simply didn't have a system of fixed surnames at all. Well now, how did they manage without fixed surnames, you will ask. They managed perfectly well by everybody having a baptismal name, a first name, just as we have today, and then they affixed to that, by a little particle ap, which meant 'son of', they just fixed their father and their grandfather's name and their forefathers' name going back to about nine generations.
So if you asked someone who he was and he said, 'Well I'm John.' 'Oh that's not good enough. I mean John who, John what are you?' And he would say, 'Well I'm John ap John ap Gruffydd ap Meilyr ap Llywelyn ap Gwasmeir ap Gwasmihangel ap Rhys ap Gwasteilo and so on.
And the reason why each person in Wales had this long rigmarole of a genealogy instead of a name, he had a genealogy, the reason for it was very very important to society. It wasn't a matter of fancy at all, or snobbishness at all. It was that according to the laws of Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good), Welsh people didn't hold land for example as individuals. The only way they could hold land was by proving that they were descendants of a forefather, nine or ten or twelve generations back, who had held the tribal lands. And so if you couldn't show someone a satisfactory genealogy, well tough! You didn't have any right to farm the lands.
How did the Welsh get surnames?
When about 500 years ago the Welsh were asked to take on a system of fixed surnames on the English pattern of Jackson and Greenfield and so on, they were asked to have a fixed surname and to pass that surname on to all their descendants. The Welsh were asked, 'Well, what is the thing that gives you status in your society?' And they said, 'Well we don't want nicknames, we don't want trade names. The only thing that we think of as important is our father's name.' And so they were asked, 'Well what is your father's name?' And they would say,' Well my name is John and my father is Gruffydd.' 'Alright. Well you will be John Griffiths.' And the other one would say, 'Well my father is John.' So they would say, 'Well you are to be John Jones.'
But why so many Joneses?
In exactly the same period, there was a period of streamlining and simplifying the Christian name. And this happened all over Europe, by the way, not just in Wales. But it had a very, very bad effect upon Welsh names because instead of having this magnificent variety of hundreds of ancient pagan names like Llywarch and Gwalchmai, which were — I mean Llywarch was the name of an ancient Celtic pagan god. And — or having a huge number of Catholic devotional names like Gwasdewi (the devotee of St David) or Gwasmeir (the devotee of the Virgin Mary) or Gwasmihangel (the follower of St Michael the archangel). Instead of having this huge variety of Catholic names and pagan names, people became very frightened and nervous as to what should be given as a name, and people invented a short catalogue of safe respectable names. And there were only about a dozen of them. A few safe Biblical names like John, Thomas and David, and a few safe royal names like Richard, Edward, Henry. That was the only sort of name that was safe to give. About a dozen names.
So the great tragedy was that at the very time that the Welsh were being forced by the clerks of the courts or the parsons of the parishes to take fixed surnames, it was the very time when the Welsh were being forced to take a very very small range of names. So there were hundreds and hundreds of people being forced to take fixed surnames at the very time when there were hundreds and hundreds of fathers being given the name John. So their children, also probably John, landed up in three generations, instead of being Llywarch ap Gwalchmai ap Gwasmihangel, they ended up being John Jones. And that's all. John Jones. Hundreds and hundreds of John Jones.