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Period Welsh Models for SCA Households and the Nomenclature Thereof

copyright © 1994 Heather Rose Jones, all rights reserved

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Some Common Elements Found in Larger Divisions

There is no clearcut differentiation between the names of kingdoms, the names of cantrefs and cwmwds, and the names of smaller units such as villages, but there are general trends that can relate naming style to the structures and elements used. We have seen that kingdoms and similar large regions are often named after ancient tribes or early rulers. Cantrefs and Cwmwds also have some particular trends. There is almost always an element in the name referring to a physical feature (hill, valley), a political division (cantref, maenor), or a manmade structure (llan "church", caer "castle"). And there will almost always be another element either specifying which of the above is being named (Glynrhondda "the valley of the Rhondda river" versus Glynogwr "the valley of the Ogwr river") or noting a physical relation to the feature or structure (Is Coed "below the wood" versus Uwch Coed "above the wood" versus Amgoed "around the wood). While these general rules also apply to the names of many smaller locations, it is convenient to look only at the set of cantrefs and cwmwds and the elements used in them for the time being.

Aber "river estuary"

Although fairly common in habitation names, only one division bears a name including this element. The cantref of Aberffraw was named after one of the principal courts of the kingdom of Gwynedd.

Am "around, at"

In both cases, it appears followed by a simply geographic term (glyn "valley", coed "wood"). Emlyn (am+glyn) is the region surrounding Glyn Cuch, the most notable feature of the area. Richards [1969] also notes two examples of the placename Emlych derived similarly from llwch ("lake" cognate with "loch").

Ar "on"

This is usually interpreted as meaning "overlooking, opposite from".[Author's note: the word ar meaning "on" is a different word from the ar meaning "facing, opposite".] Thus Arfon is across the strait from the isle of Mon and Arlechwedd runs up toward the slope (llechwedd).

Din(as) "fortified town"

This element is most often used for the site of an early fortification (or sites with features that later people interpreted as possible fortifications). Examples are Dinieithen, Dinmael, Dindaethwy, and Dinllaen. The towns of Dinas Powys and Dinas Emrys have traces of fortified strongholds dating to the 6th or 7th century. [Owen 1989 p.170]

Pen literally "head" but also "high place, higher part"

This word is used very idiomatically in Welsh and can mean literally a high place or hill, or simply the area that is thought of as the "top" of a feature as in Penfro (head of the valley) and Penllyn (head of the lake). Examples are Penfro, Penrhyn, Pennardd, Penbuellt, Penweddig, Penllyn, and Penychen.

Rhwng "between"

There are a couple of regions named by a phrase describing their boundaries. Rhwng Gwy a Hafren is a gwlad lying between the rivers Wye (Gwy) and the Severn (Hafren). Usually the two features are rivers mentioned by name, but Richards [1969] notes two towns (I have no idea how old the names are) called Rhwngyddwyafon and Rhwngyddwyffordd ("between the two rivers" and "between the two roads").

Is/Uwch "below/above"

Cwmwds generally come paired, traditionally two to a cantref, and often the names are also paired referencing the areas as above (uwch) and below (is) some feature such as a wood (Uwch Coed, Is Coed) or even the proper name of a place (Uwch Cuch, Is Cuch on either side of Glyn Cuch). By far the most common type of landmark used in these names is a river (Is/Uwch Aeron, Is/Uwch Aled, Is/Uwch Artro, Is/Uwch Conwy, Is/Uwch Cuch, Is/Uwch Dulas, Is/Uwch Gwyrfai, Is Irfon, Is/Uwch Nyfer, Is/Uwch Tryweryn). Also common are simple topographic terms. There are four different regions named Is Coed (wood). Other regions are split by a mountain (mynydd) or waterfall (rhaeadr - although in this case the reference might be to the town of that name). Is Cennen appears to refer to Carreg Cennen. In these latter cases, the concept of "above" and "below" pretty much corresponds to elevation. In the case of rivers, however, the two sides are almost by definition of similar elevations. In the northern and central parts of Wales, is refers to a region that is east or south of the dividing line. In Dyfed, is seems to refer to the region to the west or north of the line. Absolute direction may be less relevant than distance from some local "center of reference".


Medieval Welsh society was not oriented toward towns. Although tref is often translated (or used) as "town", it originally meant a unit of land, not a settlement. Fraser identifies only eight towns as we would understand that term that existed before the 12th century (i.e., before the coming of the Normans) and these were all coastal towns with natural harbors. [Fraser 1967 p.59] Towns were overwhelmingly an English phenomenon in Wales. Usually they were begun as a garrison town associated with a castle, inhabited by English immigrants. Often there were legal barriers preventing the native Welsh from living in them at first. [Davies et al. 1984 p.146]

Thus it is not surprising that many towns have English names, or have names taken from the local castle (which in turn were often taken from the native name for the surrounding region [King 1980]: Pembroke (from the cantref of Penfro), Cardigan (from the gwlad of Ceredigion). Towns of all sizes and similar settlements often are constructed from a generic word referring to the type of settlement (caer, tref, llan, etc.) and a word or words modifying it. Llan will be covered below in the section on religious establishments.

Caer often refers to a site that originally had a Roman fort or settlement (although it is not, as some have thought, likely to derive from the Latin castrum). [Pierce 1989 p.84] Thus we have Caerleon (Caer-legion), Caerseint (from Segontium), Caerfyrddin (from Moridunum). But caer can also be found with a personal name (Caereinion), a saint's name (Caergybi), a location relative to other named places (Caernarfon = caer yn Arfon "the castle in the region named Arfon"), or a type of vegetation (Caerfedwen, bedwen = birch).

Other towns with Roman-era origins include Gwent (from Venta Silurium "the market-town of the Silures") and Conwy (from Kanovium). [Owen 1989 p.167]

Castell, like caer, can be followed by a personal name (Castell Madog), or by reference to the proper name of a nearby feature (Castell Caereinion), but it is often found with a following adjective (Castell Coch, coch = red).

Tref, as noted above, originally referred to a land division rather than a village, and as the smallest of the "official" divisions it is not surprising that it is included in many place names. As an initial element (often shortened to tre) it may be followed by a term indicating relative location (Treberfedd, perfedd = middle) or size (Trefechan, bechan = small), referring to a notable manmade feature (Trecastell), type of community (Treclas, see the religious section for clas), or business (Trefelyn, melyn = mill), a personal name (Trefangharad), title (Trefesgob, esgob = bishop), or job (Tref Wastrodion, gwastrawd = groom), a generic natural feature (Trefaes, maes = field) or one more specifically identified (Trefgarnowen, carn+owen "Owen's stone"), a type of vegetation (Trefonnen, onnen = ash tree) or animal (Trefran, bran = raven). In some cases when the modifier is a structure, natural feature, or occupation it is definite (Tre'r-llan, tref of the church; Tre'r-fridd, tref of the pasture; Tre'r-beirdd, tref of the bards).

Tref can also appear as the second element in names, although normally it is still the element being modified (this inverted order is fairly common in compound words): Melindre (mill-town), Llandre (church-town).

Names from the Church

Llan originally meant simply "enclosure", although it early acquired the meaning of "religious enclosure or building". The earliest llannau were named after the founder or the founder's patron saint [Owen 1989 p.62] or for the mother church if it were the offshoot of an established institution. [Davies et al. 1984 p.16] Many eventually became the nucleus of a village that took its name from the church. The basic pattern of the name is Llan <given name>, but names using the most popular saints multiplied to what must have been a confusing point, and alongside the nine examples of plain Llanfair (Mary's church) in Richards (1969), there are 43 that add some additional modifier at the end. This might be a simple adjective ("big", "little"), an independent place name either of a nearby town (Llanfair Dinbych, "Tenby's Llanfair") or of some geographic feature (Llanfair Nant-gwyn, "White-stream Llanfair"), or a phrase describing the location (Llanfair ar y bryn, "Llanfair on the hill"). It could also be a personal name, perhaps referring to an early landlord (Llanfair Talhaearn, "Talhaearn's Llanfair" or Llanfair Feibion Owen, "Llanfair of Owen's sons"). In addition to churches named for individual saints, there might be a less personal religious reference (Llandrindod, "church of the trinity" or Llantrisant, "church of three saints"). Alternately, the place might simply be called Llan, perhaps modified as above with a following independent place name or adjective.

A less common element is clas, which referred more to the people involved than the building. Originally, a clas was a community of cannons headed by an abbot. [Owen 1989 p.186] Richards (1969) notes examples of Clas alone, followed by an independent place name, or followed by a geographic phrase (Clas ar Wy, "the Clas on the river Wye").

Merthyr is an interesting element in religious place names. Derived from "martyr" it came to mean the gravesite (or reputed gravesite) of a saint. It can be found followed by a saint's name (Merthyr Tudful) or by a simple adjective (Merthyr Mawr).

Betws is a borrowing of Old English bede-hus "prayer house" [Pierce 1989 p.90] and can be found alone, followed by a personal name (Betws Cadwaladr), a reference to a group (clan?) of people (Betws Wyrion Iddon), a simple adjective (Betws Newydd, newydd = new), the proper name of a nearby location (Betws Abergele), or a reference to the area it is situated (Betws yn Rhos, "Betws in the region named Rhos").

Individual Structures

The naming of individual structures is quite traditional, although the names used in period are often quite different from those chosen today. Castles and churches have been discussed above in relation to towns named after them. You can find modern references to Renaissance-era manor houses by name, but I haven't been able to ascertain the age of those names and for the most part they are the same sorts of names that one finds for villages. There is one early reference to a structure by name that is somewhat amusing. The introduction to the Welsh laws describes how Hywel Dda met with his advisors at a place called Y Ty Gwyn (the White House) to compile the laws. [Williams et al. 1961 p.1]The field of structure names is one that clearly needs more study, but I was unable to explore it further at this time.

Some place names include references to man-made structures, usually as a first element followed by a modifier. The modifiers are drawn from the same pool as those for geographic place names in the next section. The structural terms include: bod "habitation, home", croes "cross, crossroad", garth "enclosure", llys "court", pont "bridge" (one very common modifying phrase for this term is ar <river name> "on the river X"), porth "port", tir "land", ty "house".

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