As the land of Dylan Thomas and medieval castles, Wales has a fascinating history rooted in Celtic origins. That history lives on in the country’s chapels, cathedrals, and rolling green hills. If you’re curious about your Welsh heritage, the first step is to learn more about the most common surnames.
About 500 years ago, Welsh families started passing their surnames from one generation to the next. That wasn’t always the case. Previously, Wales used patronymic surnames, which means that a child’s last name was based on the first name of their father. Due to this practice, people of Welsh origin share a limited number of surnames.
Common Welsh Last Names
Close to 50% of the people living in Wales share one of ten last names. While the most common Welsh last name is Jones, the meaning of the surname may surprise people.
Jones is actually one of many patronymic Welsh surnames of Celtic origin. This means that it derives from a person’s father’s name. In this case, John. Thus, Jones means “son of John.”
Davies, second on the list of the most popular Welsh last names, is another patronymic name of Celtic origin and means “son of David.”
The surnames Williams, Evans, Roberts, and Hughes are also of patronymic origin and refer to a person’s father. Williams means “son of William” while Evans means “son of Evan,” and Roberts means “son of Robert.” Hughes also means “son of Hugh” and is notably common in Anglesey.
Lewis is another on the list of common Welsh surnames that is not a patronymic name. It’s an Anglicized version of the Welsh name Llywelyn.
Morgan is a traditional Welsh name that has slight variations in meaning. The surname is also a common gender-neutral first name and can mean “circling sea,” white “sea dweller,” “sea song,” or “sea born.” In contrast, Belth is a traditional Welsh last name that’s rarely used today.
The 10 most common Welsh last names are:
Old Welsh Last Names
Old Welsh last names looked different from the surnames that are common in Wales today.
Although they used the patronymic naming system, adding an “s” as some of the examples above depict wasn’t how the Welsh started their patronymic surnames. Instead, they used the prefix “ap” or “ab” ahead of their father’s first name to create a Welsh last name.
“Ap” and “ab” act as contractions of the word “mab” which is Welsh for “son.” An example could be “Morgan ab Dafydd”, which translates to “Morgan son of David.” This naming practice was common until the 15th century when Wales began the process of converting to a fixed naming system, completing the transition by the 18th century.
This makes it challenging for genealogists who are attempting to trace Welsh surnames back several generations. In many cases, there is no concrete way to connect the Welsh surnames to the ancient Welsh last names held by ancestors prior to the 15th century.
Welsh Last Names and Meanings
A Welsh last name today is likely to have a patronymic meaning, which is why so many people in Wales share surnames despite having no relation to one another. Common Welsh last names and meanings derive from adding an “s” or “es” to the end of a first name and this suffix gives the person a “son of” surname.
For families who possess a patronymic Welsh last name, there is likely to be a family member somewhere with a first name that is the origin of their last name. For example, a Welsh family called Jones may be able to locate a father figure in their history (pre-15th century) named John, creating the surname “Jones” for his descendants.
Finding Your Ancestors Through Welsh Last Names
Other Welsh families who do not have a patronymic surname may find that their surname is historically connected to certain locations within the country. This can be a good place to begin your ancestry search. For example, the Welsh last name “Bowen” (which comes from “ab Owen”) is most commonly associated with the county of Glamorgan. People with Welsh heritage and the surname Bowen may want to focus their ancestral search in this county for a starting point.
Start Your Search with Ancestry®
Welsh surnames and how they’re passed through generations have changed dramatically over the centuries, but the theme of patronymic origin remains intact. Although the shift in Celtic and Welsh naming conventions in the 15th century complicates tracing your Welsh heritage, there are still ways to go about doing so.
You could also take an AncestryDNA® test which could help you narrow your search to specific communities within Wales.
From castles to the poetry of Dylan Thomas, the Welsh descend from a fascinating history rooted in Celtic origins. If you believe you have Welsh heritage, find out whether your surname is one of the most common in Wales today. Your last name might lead you to potential relatives through Ancestry®. Simply create an account and start your free trial to build your family tree.