Concerning the Name
Revised Edition

by Sara L. Uckelman
known in the SCA as Aryanhwy merch Catmael

Last updated 21 Jan 2007  

Cordelia was the name of one of King Lear's daughters in Shakespeare's play by the same name, which was first performed in 1608. We have found no evidence that any form of this name was used until the end of the 16th century, and all of our examples are English. A similar but probably unrelated saint's name Cordula was used in Germany in the 16th century, but we find no evidence that it was used elsewhere.

There are differing opinions on where Shakespeare got the name.

One hypothesis says that Shakespeare took it from Holinshed's work, published in 1577, where Cordelia appears as a scribal error for the name of a British/Welsh legendary character, Cordeilla [8]. Holinshed in turn apparently found Cordeilla in the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, composed in the 1130s. This is the earliest we can find this name in Welsh literature [3]. In 14th century genealogies of Welsh legendary figures, the name is mentioned twice: in a table of kings, the name is listed after Llyr (i.e., Lear) and before Cunada (i.e., Cunedda), spelled once as Cordiella and once as Cordoylla [6].

Another hypothesis argues that Cordelia derives from Cordula, the name of a 4th century saint who was a companion of St. Ursula. Cordula is found in Germany as Kordula and Kordel and was not unpopular in the 16th and 17th century. It may be a diminutive of the Latin cors or cordis "heart" [1, 2]. However, some experts disagree on this point, and believe that Cordula and Cordelia are not related [2].

A third hypothesis argues that Cordelia derives from the Welsh legendary character Creiddylad, daughter of the god Lludd Llaw Ereint in the Red Book Mabinogi [4]. In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, Creiddylad is mentioned twice. The first example is in a list of names given by Culhwch when he arrives at Arthur's court, where one of these is "Creiddylad daugther of Ludd Silver-hand." The second reference to the name is in the story of Creiddylad [5]. Creiddylad appears to be a modern spelling of the name; in the 14th century, we see it spelled Creidylat [7]. We are skeptical of any relation between Creiddylad and Cordelia; we can find no relation other than the string of consonants C-R-D-L.

Aside from these literary and legendary uses, we have found only three examples of real people using a form of the name Cordelia before modern times. Cordell Dethick was married in 1606, and hence almost certainly was born before 1600. [9] That this is a form of Cordelia is evidenced by Cordell or Cordelia Harvey who died in 1636. [1] A woman who died in 1636 may or may not have been born before 1600. It is also possible that the lady was named after the character in Shakespeare's play, and died young. Our third example is Cordelia Parker who died in 1689 [1].

In summary, we find no direct evidence that Cordelia was used by real people prior to Shakespeare's play, but there is evidence that the variant Cordell was a rare name in England in the late 16th century.


[1] Withycombe, E.G., The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), s.n. Cordelia.

[2] Bahlow, Hans, Deutsches Namenlexikon : Familien- und Vornamen nach Ursprung und Sinn erklaert (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag, 1985, 1990), s.n. Cordula.

[3] Hutson, Arthur E., British Personal Names in the Historia Regum Britanniae (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1940), pp. 25-6.

[4] ibid. Hutson attributes the equation of Cordelia with Creiddylad to J. Rhys in his Hibbert Lectures, 1886.

[5] Jones, Gwyn & Thomas Jones, trans., The Mabinogion (Everyman's Library, 1974).

[6] Bartrum, P.C., Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1966), pp. 50, 109.

[7] Bromwich, Rachel & D. Simon Evans, Culhwch ac Olwen (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1988).

[8] Holinshed's Chronicles (1577) (WWW: University of Pennsylvania Library)., accessed 28 Dec 1999.

[9]Bell, George, Sandra Bell, & Bill Rounce, "Marriages from the Greatham Registers (1564-1837)" (WWW:, 1996), accessed 21 January 2007.