arrow-right cart chevron-down chevron-left chevron-right chevron-up close menu minus play plus search share user email pinterest facebook instagram snapchat tumblr twitter vimeo youtube subscribe dogecoin dwolla forbrugsforeningen litecoin amazon_payments american_express bitcoin cirrus discover fancy interac jcb master paypal stripe visa diners_club dankort maestro trash


Tracing Your Welsh Ancestors

Tracing Your Welsh Ancestors

by Lisa Zaslow

9 months ago


Old Welsh Costume Ancestry

Have you ever wondered if your ancestry was Welsh? Just 8  common surnames make up over 55 percent of names in Wales :

1. Jones (5.75) - John — a biblical name that came as the Latin Johannes and became Welsh Ieuan. John was used after the Normans arrived. It is frequently written as Sion or Shone since the letter "j" is absent from the Welsh alphabet. Evans, Shone, Jones (son of John); possibly derived from both John and James. Jone. 

2. Williams (3.72) - Williams — from the German name Wilhelm, a combination of the words "will and "helmet," brought by the Normans. The Welsh adopted it as Guilielm and Gwilym, becoming Gwilliam and Gullam. Guilielm, Gwilym, Gwilliam, Gullam, Wilson. 

3. Davies (3.72) - David — a biblical name adopted by early Welsh Christians; also the name of the patron saint of Wales, Dewi (David). The Latin version Davidus led to the Welsh versions Dewydd and Dewi, but Dafydd is in use more. Dackins, Dafydd, Dai, Dakin, Davies, Davis, Daykyn, Deakyn, Dei, Dew, Dewi, Dewydd, Dyas, Dykins, Dyos. 

4. Evans (2.47) - Evans — from the Welsh name Ieuan (John), the name originated with the "u" was changed to a "v". Bevan, Evan, Evance, Heavens, Iefan, Ifan, Jeavons, Jevons, Jeavince. 

5. Thomas (2.43) - Thomas — a biblical name derived from Greek didymos "twin". Until the Norman Conquest, it was only a priest's name; it became popular after Thomas à Becket; not listed as a surname in Wales until the 15th C. 

6. Roberts (1.53) - Roberts — a Germanic name that came with the Normans, derived from hrod "fame" + berht "bright". Probert, Robin, Roblin. 

7. Lewis (1.53) - Lewis — from an English variation of Llewellyn, which the English already had the name derived from the French Louise and German Ludwig. The Welsh spelling was Lewys by the 15th C.

8. Hughes (1.23) - Hughes — from the German name Hugh, which came to England with the Norman Conquest. Hullin, Huws. 

How did the Welsh end up with English surnames?

The Welsh only began to have fixed surnames about 500 years ago. Before that, they’d have a baptismal name, a first name and after that would be ‘ap’ or ‘ab’ which means ‘son of’  or ‘ferch’ which means ‘daughter of’ in Welsh and then they would have their father’s name & their grandfather’s name going back nine or more generations. So, if you asked someone their name they would say “I’m John ap Llewelyn ap Dafydd ap Ieuan ap Gruffudd ap Meredydd ap Meilyr ap Gwasmeir ap Rhys and so on. This was based on patronymics, naming derived from the name of a father or ancestor.

These extended patronymics was a genealogical history of the person’s ancestry along the male line. This system came from Welsh Law, a system of law practiced in medieval Wales before Wales was absorbed into England. Welsh people couldn’t own land unless they could prove they were descendants of a forefather, nine to ten to twelve generations back, who held tribal lands.

Although the last Welsh Prince of Wales, Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, had been killed during Edward I ’s war of conquest in 1282 and Wales had faced English rule with the introduction of English style counties and a Welsh gentry made up of Englishmen and native Welsh lords who were given English titles in exchange for loyalty to the English throne, Welsh Law still remained in force for many legal matters up until the reign of Henry VIII.

Henry VIII, whose family the Tudors were of Welsh descent from the Welsh House of Tudur, had not previously seen a need to reform the Welsh government during his time on the throne, but as a result of a supposed threat from the Welsh Marcher lords, Henry introduced the Laws in Wales Acts 1535-1542. 

The Act of Union that was drawn up declared that English would be the only language of the courts and that those using the Welsh language would be forbidden from holding public office. While in the past Welsh parents would have named their children after the ancient pagan heroes and gods of Wales, like Llwarch or Gwalchmai, they were now forced to choose from a small group of politically judicious anglicized names like John and David.

These laws meant that the Welsh legal system was completely absorbed into the English system under English Common Law and both the English Lords who had been granted Welsh land by Edward I and the native Welsh gentry became part of the English Peerage. As a result of all this, fixed surnames became hereditary among the Welsh gentry and then spread among the rest of the Welsh people, although the patronymic naming system could still be found in areas of rural Wales until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

welsh ancestry family tree

This had a bad effect on Welsh names because instead of  having a brilliant variety of hundreds of ancient pagan names like Llywarch or Gwalchmai or having a huge number of Catholic devotional names like Gwasdewi (devotee of St. David) or Gwasmeir (devotee of the Virgin Mary) people became very nervous and frightened as to what should be used and they came up with a small list of safe, respectable names. There was only about a dozen of them. They were safe biblical names like John, Thomas, and David and a few safe royal names like Thomas, Edward, and Henry.

So, at the time when Welsh people were being forced to take fixed surnames, was the same time when hundreds of fathers were being given the name John. The popularity of John as a safe apolitical name - the Welsh language doesn’t even have a letter “J” in it - quickly saw Jones (John’s son) spread like wildfire through the valleys. And, instead of being Llywarch ap Gwalchmai ap Gwasmihangel, they ended up being John Jones. 

A poem quoted by Trevor Fishwick (Wales and the Welsh, 1972) sums up the irritation of a 19th-century English judge trying to sort out the Welsh people in his court.

Then strove the judge with might and main

The sounding consonants to write

But when the day was almost gone

He found his work not nearly done.

His ears assailed most woefully

With names like Rhys ap Griffith Ddu.

Aneirin, Iorwerth Ieuan Goch

And Llywarach Hen o Abersoch,

Taliesin ap Llewelyn Fawr

And Llun ap Arthur bach y Cawr.

Until at length, in sheer despair,

He doffed his wig and tore his hair.

And said he would no longer stand

The surnames of our native land.

“Take ten,” he said, “and call them Rice;

Take another ten and call them Price.

Take fifty others, call them Pughs,

A hundred more I’ll dub them Hughes.

Now Roberts name some hundred score

And Williams name a legion more.

And call”, he moaned in languid tones,

“Call all the others (blank, blank) Jones.”

Discover Where In The UK Your Surname Is Popular

If you’re interested in finding out where your name is popular in the UK, there’s a website that will tell you. You just enter your surname and the website maps where there are unusually high numbers of people with that name. What’s interesting is that most individuals and families don’t move far from their ancestral family home, so, 700 or more years later, most names can still be associated with particular localities. Insert your name into the Named website and it will tell you the relative frequency/density of your surname compared with the general population in that area.



If you’d REALLY like to find out if you’re Welsh or not, there is a way! You can order an AncestryDNA kit and find out where your ancestors came from.  

AncestryDNA…what is it?

It’s a cutting edge testing service that combines advanced DNA science with the world’s largest online family history resource to help you find new family connections. It can also help you identify relationships with unknown living relatives through a dynamic list of DNA matches.

What does the test tell me?

It includes information across your ethnicity across 350 regions and identifies potential relatives through DNA matching to others who have taken the test.

When can I expect my results?

Normally it takes about 6-8 weeks to process from the time the lab receives your sample. You must activate the DNA kit online in order to begin processing.

How do I see the results?

When your results are ready, you will receive an email from AncestryDNA notifying you, with a link to view your results. Your results will also be available online in a password-protected AncestryDNA account.

Can I give AncestryDNA as a gift?

Yes! You can order a kit online, create an Ancestry account to track your order and have the kit shipped to either you or your friend or family member. The kit has clear instructions on how to take the test and activate the account.

My friend Alice and her husband took the test for Christmas and found out she was 95% from the British Isles, 2% from Norway and 2% from Africa. Her husband, who is Dutch, found out he’s 51% from England.

Another friend found out she has a 3rd cousin from Wales.

It’s a fun way to discover your ancestry and to find out if you are, indeed, Welsh.

If you’d like to order the AncestryDNA Kit, you can find it here, if you’re from the US, and here, if you’re from the UK.


Shopping Cart