The patronymic system

In the old days, being able to name your forefathers was important in Welsh society. This was the way for you to prove your lineage, and was important in legal matters, for example in establishing land ownership. In contrast to much of England, towns were small and only of minor importance. Most English surnames come from four main sources (first names; place names; topographical or geographical features; status or job), and arose from the bureaucratic requirements of medieval towns, in order to distinguish between people in the large urban settlements. The system in Wales was older, and faced less pressure to change because there were no large towns, but the situation was transformed following the Act of Union in 1536, when pressure came from the authorities to conform with the English system.

In the traditional Welsh system, a son would link his father’s name to his own using the word ‘ap’ or ‘ab’ (which comes from the Welsh word ‘mab’, meaning son). ‘Ap’ was used in front of consonants (eg. Madog ap Tudur) an ‘ab’ in front of vowels (eg. Rhodri ab Owain). To show your lineage therefore you would link together a long list of names. One of the most remarkable examples comes from a Welsh debtor in the 18th Century, who signed his bankruptcy papers “Sion ap William ap Sion ap William ap Sion ap Dafydd ap Ithel Fychan ap Cynrig ap Robert ap Iorwerth ap Rhyrid ap Iorwerth ap Madoc ap Ednawain Bendew, called after the English fashion John Jones”. This genealogist included 13 generations in one name!

Women would also keep their father’s name using the word ‘verch’ or ‘erch’ (from ‘ferch’, daughter) eg. Non verch Dafydd. In documents this was usually shortened to ‘vch’ or ‘vz’. This system persisted in some parts of Wales to the early 19th Century.

A similar system operated in many parts of Europe, such as the Scandinavian countries, although it’s likely that the tradition was oldest in the Celtic countries.

After the Act of Union, the Welsh gradually adopted a single surname, partly due to pressure from the authorities to conform, and also because
fashions and habits changed. The tendency developed to take the father or grandfather’s name as a settled surname, so Dafydd ap Ifan ap Gwilym would become known as David Evan or David William. In time, because of the English fashion of putting an ‘s’ on the end (denoting ownership) the surname would become Evans or Williams.

Although there were a wide variety of Welsh names in use in the Middle Ages, by the time the surnames were becoming fixed the tendency was to have names that were popular in England, such as John, Thomas and William, or of Norman derivation, such as Edward, Richard, Robert and Henry. (Although this last name was usually transformed into the more Welsh sounding ‘Harry’).

A late�example of a changeable last name, from North-West Wales: both bride and groom have taken the surname "Williams" from their fathers, who have different surnames.�

Biblical names became popular in Wales, particularly following the Protestant Reformation. Hence Welsh people ended up with surnames of Hebrew origin such as Moses, Abraham, Elias and Benjamin. Some obscure Old Testament names ended up as Welsh surnames, such as Habbakkuk and Job. In general these names are found more often in South and West Wales.

Another development that happened over the generations was that the ‘ab’ or ‘ap’ became part of the surname. Thus a man called Huw ap Rhys became Hugh Price, or Dafydd ap Hywel became David Powell. Other examples are: ap Huw – Pugh; ab Ifan – Bevan; ap Harri – Parry; ap Rhydderch – Protheroe.

Key Points
  • The patronymic system was important in Wales until the start of the 19th Century
  • Change set in gradually after the Act of Union 1536
  • Many Welsh surnames came from the demise of the traditional system as people adopted fixed surnames, using names that were popular at the time