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12 November 2012
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Gwydir Chapel, Llanrwst

Religion and creed in place names

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The religious history of Wales has left a significant impression on the country's place names. For example, consider the most common element seen in the names of villages and towns in Wales - which is of course llan.

'Llan' place names

In place names, llan originally referred to an enclosure, and then later came to mean 'church', especially a parish church.

There are some examples of Llan standing alone as a place name, but it is usually followed by other elements. Sometimes, these elements refer to the location of the llan (e.g. Llanaber, Llanrhaeadr, Llangoed, Llan-gors, Llanfynydd), and in the case of Llangefni, Llanelwy and Llandaf the second element refers to the name of a nearby river (Cefni, Elwy, Taf). Sometimes reference is made to the size of the llan (eg Llanfor, which comes from Llan-fawr, and Llanfechan).

But the element llan can be deceptive. Take the name Llanboidy, for example. The meaning is obvious, isn't it: 'church near the byre'? Well, no it isn't. Nantbeudy was the old name of the place. The same pattern occurs in the case of Llancarfan, which was originally Nantcarfan. In the case of Llancaeach and Llanbradach, glan (bank) is the element that has been replaced by llan. Caeach and Bradach are the names of streams.

References to saints

As a rule, llan is linked with the name of a saint. Most of these are native saints such as Peris (Llanberis), Tudno (Llandudno) and Elli (Llanelli), but the names of Biblical saints such as Peter (Llanbedr), Mary (Llanfair) and Michael (Llanfihangel) also occur.

Reference is made sometimes to more than one saint. Llanddeusant means 'church of the two saints', Llantrisant 'church of the three saints, and Llanpumsaint 'church of the five saints'.

In the case of the most popular saints, further distinctions had to be drawn between different llannau with the same name. For example, Saint Garmon (Germanus) is commemorated in Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog, Llanarmon-yn-Iâl and Llanarmon Mynydd Mawr.

'capel' and 'eglwys' names

Following llan, it is likely that capel (chapel) and eglwys (church) are the most common elements that refer to places of worship.

Although the element capel tends to be associated by now with Nonconformity, many of the names that contain that element are significantly older. It often refers to a chapel of ease, which was a place of worship built for the convenience of people who lived far from the parish church. For example, Capel Curig was originally a chapel of ease for Llandygái, although the village eventually became the centre of its own parish.

As expected, perhaps, names that include capel or eglwys correspond closely with the patterns noted above in connection with llan. Obvious reference is made to saints (Capel Dewi, Capel Garmon), the location (Eglwys-rhos), or both (Eglwys Fair y Mynydd).

How 'beads' became 'betws'

Although betws is a familiar element in place names across Wales, it is possible that fewer people realise that it also refers to a place of worship. It comes from the English word 'bead-house', which is an oratory.

Beads used to mean 'prayers', but the word came to mean 'rosary beads' and then 'beads' more generally.

Once again, in connection with betws, descriptive elements occur which refer to saints (Betws Garmon) or the location (Betws-y-coed, Betws-yn-Rhos, Betws Cedewain). In the case of Betws Gwerful Goch, it seems that the name refers to one of the grand-daughters of the prince Owain Gwynedd, and it was she who established the oratory there.

Other elements of religious life

The name Radur also refers to a place of worship. It derives from the Latin word oratorium, which is an oratory or chapel.

Clear evidence regarding other elements of religious life can be found in place names. For example, take the element cell - a monk's dwelling. This occurs in the name Cellan (small cell) in south Cerdigion, and it is possible that there was religious significance to the cells in Dolgellau.

The element mynechdid, which occurs in the name Efenechdyd (or Y Fenechdid) near Ruthin, refers to a monastery or a building associated with a monastery.

Reference is made to religious people in elements such as meudwy (hermit, as seen in Ynys Meudwy and Porth Meudwy) or ermid (Bodermid), which is an old English form of 'hermit'.

The same is true of Llanddyfrwyr, which has become Llanddowror. The second element here is dyfrwyr, (water drinkers, meaning teetotallers). Dewi Ddyfrwr was a nickname of Saint David himself, of course.

The elements bishop and priest appear in English in Presteigne and Bishopston. Mynach (monk) and the plural forms myneich or mynech (Llanymynech) are more common, but it should be remembered that Mynach is also the name of a river. Take for example Pontarfynach (Devil's Bridge) in Ceredigion, or Abermynach in Meirionydd.

One might think that the element merthyr refers to another kind of religious figure according to its modern meaning: a martyr, namely someone who died for his or her beliefs. However, in place names it means a building constructed near the grave of a saint. It comes from the Latin word martyrium.

Of course, there is no need to go back as far as the Middle Ages to find the influence of religion on Welsh place names. There are numerous examples of towns or villages being named after the local nonconformist chapels, that were in turn named after places mentioned in the Bible. Here are some of them: Bethania, Bethel, Bethesda, Bethlehem, Beulah, Golan, Hermon, Horeb, Nasareth, Nebo, Peniel, Pisgah, Salem.

Sodom, in the parish of Bodfari, offers a different angle on the Biblical nomenclature.

Your Comments

Bryn Walters from Lampeter
Were places with the pre-fix 'Llan' ever called anything else in the pre Christian period? I understand that Wales in pre Christian times had very few towns and villages but are there records of any places changing their names?

Roger Manning from Llandrindod Wells
Love the programme about Welsh place names. Why are there so few secular names in Wales? There are so many Llans. There are almost no villages in England named for example...Church of Saint George.

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