Wales and Place Names

Wales and Place Names

The history of Wales and place names can be traced back to the Iron Age, when it was dominated by the Celts. Whereas Anglo-Saxons and other European invaders settled adjoining areas of Britain, between the fourth and 11th centuries, Wales developed a distinctive entity, with its own language and culture. When Wales was eventually conquered and incorporated into the Kingdom of England, it managed to keep hold of many of its distinctive features, including its language.

As a result, many place names in Wales reflect this distinct history. For example, a number of large Welsh towns have ‘caer’ as a prefix. This is a reference to the importance that town had in previous centuries. ‘Caer’ means ‘fort’, meaning the site would have had a major castle or fortification.

Welsh Wooden Signpost
Welsh Wooden Signpost

The Welsh capital Cardiff means ‘fort on the river’.

Caerleon-on-Usk means ‘fort of the legions’. The ‘leon’ in the name comes from the Welsh ‘llion’, which meant ‘legions’ – a reference to the Roman occupation.

Caernarvon means ‘fortress in Arfon’.

Carmarthen means ‘fort at Maridunum (a sea fort)’

Cardigan has no link to any fortification and means ‘territory of Ceredig’.

Some Welsh place names derive from Scandinavian words, such as Swansea, which means ‘Sveinn Island’ though some believe it also stands for ‘the island of swans’.

Milford Haven is also derived from Old Norse. The ‘ford’ in the name stands for ‘inlet of the sea’ (the Old Norse spelling being fjorther) while the ‘mil’ is thought to mean sand. Therefore a basic meaning would be ‘sandy inlet’. The ‘haven’ part was added later to represent the calm the inlet brought to ships.

Grassholm and Caldy are both of Scandinavian origin meaning ‘grass island’ and ‘cold island’ respectively.

Fishguard has an Old Norse background and means ‘fish enclosure’ from ‘fiskr’ and ‘garthr’. This reflects the practice used by the Scandinavians of keeping fish alive in an enclosure on the seashore and taking them only when they were required.

Beaumaris in Anglesey has a Norman origin. It means ‘beautiful marsh’. Anglesey itself means ‘Ongull’s Island’.

A very common prefix to many Welsh place names is ‘llan’, which means ‘church’. Because some names with ‘llan’ in occur so often, slight variations have developed. Llanfair means ‘Church of St. Mary’.

Llanfairfechan means ‘little church of St. Mary’.

Llanfair Caereinion means ‘St Mary’s Church by the fort (caer) of Einion’.

Llandovery means ‘church near the waters’

Llanbedr Pont Steffan means ‘church of St. Stephen at Stephen’s bridge’. However, the name has been Anglicised and the name is better known as Lampeter.

‘Aber’ is another common prefix in Welsh place names. It means ‘river mouth’ and invariably has the name of the river after it.

Aberystwyth means ‘mouth of the River Ystwyth’. This is probably a reference to the site of the old castle, which is at the mouth of the Ystwyth. The word ‘ystwyth’ itself means ‘winding river’.

Abergele means ‘mouth of the River Gele’ but in this case ‘gele’ means spear and is a reference to the straight course the river runs.

Abergavenny includes a variant of Romano-British in that ‘gavenny’ is from ‘Gobannion’ - the name means ‘river used by smiths’.

‘Pont’ (meaning ‘bridge’) is another common prefix found in a number of Welsh towns. Pontypool means ‘bridge by the pool’ while Pontnewydd means ‘new bridge’.

MLA Citation/Reference

"Wales and Place Names". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.