Although Wales is part of Great Britain and the United Kingdom, and it has many surnames in common with the English, its history of surname adoption is radically different from that of England. The English tended to adopt surnames from several basic categories: surnames derived from a personal name, a location, an occupation, or from a personal description or a nickname. Not so with the Welsh.
For many generations before fixed surnames were adopted, the Welsh followed a Celtic naming system that was tied into their genealogy and legal system. The Welsh took patronymic names (names derived from their father’s given name) and added a string of their other male ancestors’ names.
A person’s name was strongly tied to his/her pedigree–in fact it was the pedigree–perhaps six to seven generations back. Because of the way their legal system operated, the Welsh had to know their pedigree back several generations. This was a legal necessary, as it played a role in inheriting land, settling disputes, making payments, and in other judicial matters.
Here’s how it worked. The Welsh word for “son” is mab (shortened to ab or ap), and for “daughter” is verch, (pronounced “ferk” and shortened to vch). The patronymic pedigree was tied together using these words, so that “Rhys ap Gruffydd ap Gwilym ap Hywel ap Daffyd ap Hew ab Owain” would be Rees son of Griffith son of William son of Howell son of David son of Hugh son of Owen–in other words, the paternal pedigree several generations back. When fixed surnames were adopted, the Rees above could have chosen any one of his pedigree names. He might call himself Rees Griffiths or Rees Howell or Rees Owen; he didn’t necessarily adopt his father’s given name as his surname.
In addition, women retained their patronymic pedigree name throughout life and did not change it upon marriage. In the records, a widow might be recorded in this way: Ellyn vch Morgan ab Owain, alias Ellwy Thomas, widow of William Thomas ap John (Ellen daughter of Morgan son of Owen, alias Ellen Thomas, widow of William Thomas son of John). Records like these can be found in Wales in the 1600s and 1700s and even beyond.
There are a few matronymic names–derived from the mother’s line–although they are very rare. One is Gwenlan, derived from the female given name of Gwenllian. Another is Gainor/Gainer, derived from Gaenor, which is a variation of the female given name Gwenhwyfar.
Sometimes parts of the prefix ab or ap (son of), or verch (daughter of) became attached to a name. Ab was used before names beginning with a vowel and ap before names beginning with a consonant. Thus ab Owen became Bowen, ab Evan became Bevan, ap Robert became Probert, ap Richard became Pritchard, ap Harry became Parry, ap Rhys became Price, ap Hugh became Pugh, vch Edward became Kedward, and vch Richard became Crichett.
As Welsh surnames became fixed, not everyone in the same family took the same surname. They had a long list to choose from. Also the adoption of fixed surnames was very slow across the country and didn’t take place in some parts of Wales until the early 19th century. Gradually the Welsh given names became anglicized and over time, an “s” was added to the end of many, if not most, of the surnames. Today, the ten most common Welsh surnames, in order, are: Jones, Williams, Davies, Thomas, Evans, Roberts, Hughes, Lewis, Morgan, and Griffiths. Fifty-five percent of the Welsh population has one of these 10 surnames.