Welsh Surnames: Why are there so many Joneses in Wales?

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?

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?

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.

Comments (16)

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Dr Roger Hacker
25 January 2022, 20:32
Many years ago I read a book by an academic who was at what was then called Caerleon Training College, near Newport in Wales, but which later went on to become part of the University of Wales. Sorry is this is all a bit vague but it was a long time ago and I lost that book many years ago! The explanation given in the book for there being so many Jones , and it is a very plausible explanation, was that Henry VIII was having trouble keeping tabs on the Welsh so that they could be taxed. Henry sent a General Roland to Wales to sort this out and the solution was to convert names like "Ap Hugh" which could be anglicized easily to "Pugh", "Ap Robert" to "Probert", and so on. However, when the scribes came to a real tongue twister in Welsh, which could not readily be anglicized, they rather cynically gave up and just stuck it down as "Jones', meaning "son of John". I think that's probably the correct explanation. It would have been hard to tax a family if the surname changed with each generation.
Iolo Jones
22 January 2022, 19:25
Surprised at Prys Morgan. ‘Asked’, my foot. He should know that the Welsh were, in reality, forced to take English names when Wales was subsumed into England following Henry VIII’s the Wales Acts. (Wales legally remains an English colony in the much same way Puerto Rico is a US colony.) The Welsh were ‘asked’ to drop their tradition of paternal naming, and were ‘encouraged’ to adopt Biblical or Anglicised names to get on in society. Hence Jones, when there is no J in the Welsh language. Much the same thing happened on slave plantations in the Caribbean and elsewhere where slaves were required to take the name of slave owners.

It’s time for an honest reappraisal of the damage English colonialism has inflicted upon the Welsh people, and continues to do so.

Iolo Peredur ap Iestyn ap Amos
Alan King
6 January 2022, 10:06
But does not explain how it came to be, when there is no letter J in the Welsh alphabet.
Benjamin Lewis jones
13 December 2021, 07:10
For family ancestry connections need to find his fathers name and any newspaper reports on his football carrer
21 November 2021, 10:46
This article mentions no women at all!
Dawn Williams
25 July 2021, 07:11
My family history name is bona, from St davids carmarthenshire, any information on that surname
Martin Jones
24 February 2021, 00:27
During these changes in names where did the "J" come from?
Lowri Jenkins Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
4 January 2021, 14:56

Dear Ollie,

Many thanks for your enquiry. The article on our website was written by a now retired Professor of Welsh History, Prys Morgan. He wrote a book in 1994 on the subject of Welsh surnames and It is a comprehensive guide to this subject. I’d advise you to try and gain a copy of this book either through your local library or I include a link to the University of Wales Press website where you can purchase a copy https://www.uwp.co.uk/book/welsh-surnames.

Kind regards,

Lowri Jenkins,
(Assistant Archivist, St. Fagans: National Museum of History)

Nia Evans Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
18 November 2020, 14:59

Dear OIlie Lowe,

Thank you for getting in touch with us. I have contacted my colleague within the Social and Cultural History department to advise further on this. Hopefully we'll be able to get some more information to you soon.

Many thanks,

(Digital Team)

David Thomas
11 October 2020, 12:34
In St Clears in the 1950s we had Dai Begonia (because he was keen on these flowers) and Dai Arfathou (as he was always boasting about having £500 in the bank). My brother, Robert, later became a bank manager and of course was known as Rob the Bank. But as far as I know none of these became surnames - and more the pity. The long suffering teachers in my primary school had to cope with several David Thomases, and Lord knows how many in the Cardif phone book.