Cornish names before the conquest

Before hereditary surnames there were second names that changed from one generation to the next. Before that, people just had one name. This was the case for most in Cornwall before the mid-1300s.

Go back another 200 years to before the arrival of the Normans and we meet the names chosen by Cornish-speaking natives. Into the 1000s, most ordinary Cornish-speakers, who at that time occupied all of Cornwall apart from the far north, were still given traditional Cornish names. These were very different from later Anglo-Norman names.

Firstly, it was rare for a man (evidence for Cornish women’s names is far sketchier) to have the same name as someone else. A large range of individual names was characteristic of all three southern British speaking areas of Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.

Secondly, names were common across this area. This showed the continuing cultural connections between these British countries to the 1000s. For example, Cenmyn in Cornwall was Cynfyn in Wales, Morcant was Morgan, Grifiud was Gruffudd and so on.

Thirdly, although there was a large range of names, the same elements cropped up consistently. Two elements, sometimes a noun and an adjective, but more often two nouns, were tacked together to make a name.

These elements can be placed into three main groups. First there were those that referred to warfare and martial prowess, such as bud (victory), cat (battle), gwallon (brave), or nerth(strength). Then there were those that were linked to status and power, such as men and iud (lord) or mael (prince). The third main group comprised the names of animals such as bran (raven), bleid (wolf) or (the most common) ci/cen/con (hound or dog). There were also adjectives such as breth (speckled), gwen (blessed or white), mor (great) while the most common element for male names was gur (man) or gor (a prefix used as an intensifier and meaning very or a lot).

Inscribed stone of 6th/7th century – the Men Scryfa – commemorating Rialobranus (royal raven)

These were clamped together to form two-element names, such as Bleidiud (wolf lord), Iarnwallon (brave iron), Matiud (good lord) or Argantmoet (powerful silver). This last name may possibly have been female. Sometimes, female names also had similar warlike elements, an example from Brittany being Herannuen or Heranal, containing the element hoiarn (iron).

The interesting aspect of all this lies in the fact that the main source for Cornish names is the list of freed slaves that was entered into the margins of the Bodmin gospels, dating from the 940s to around 1100. Despite their low status, these possessed the same type of heroic or martial names as did landowners in Wales and Brittany or that were found on some earlier inscribed stones in Cornwall.

It seems that the names, unlike medieval second names, were not descriptive of a person in any sense, but came from a common stock of names. Like first names nowadays, their precise meaning was irrelevant. Instead, the elements in that stock reflected an earlier age, the heroic age of the Celts and a military aristocracy. They were very possibly also indicators of a lost south-western British poetic or bardic tradition similar to the one that survived in Wales into the Middle Ages.