©1997 by Heather Rose Jones. All rights reserved
Last updated 25 Sept 1997
To summarize the evidence presented below: 1) There is no evidence that the name Branwen or Bronwen was used in Wales for anyone other than the literary character before the 19th century. 2) The spelling variants that substitute wyn for wen are modern Americanisms and are not valid Welsh variants for the feminine name. 3) There is a single example of the ordinary use of Brangwayna as a woman's name in 1250 in Suffolk. This almost certainly derives from a name in French literature, not directly from the Welsh literary name. 4) There is a Welsh surname deriving from a place named Bryngwyn (white hill) that appears in English records as Brangwayn (among other spellings), however this is unrelated to the given name Branwen and was never used as a given name prior to modern times.
In these sources, the name appears primarily in the spelling Branwen (and its lenited form Vranwen), however the White Book also has one example each of Bronwen and Branuen while the Red Book adds Brannwen and Branwenn.
Later appearances of this character's name lean more toward the o spelling. A late 18th century antiquarian mentions a cromlech known locally as Bedd Bronwen (Bronwen's grave), and the mid- 15th century poet Tuder Penllyn refers to one of the towers of the (English-built) castle at Harlech as Twr Bronwen (Bronwen's tower). But the a spelling is also found in sources outside the story itself. A poem included in the Red Book (i.e. very roughly ca. 1400) makes reference to neithaur vranwen (Branwen's wedding), and in the mid 14th century, the poet Dafydd ap Gwilym uses the heroine as a standard of beauty, referring to her as Branwen [3, p.287].
There seem to be few clear arguments for choosing either Branwen or Bronwen as original. One could postulate that Bronwen was original, but influenced in some sources to appear as Branwen to match the name of the character's brother Bran. Alternately, one could argue that the names Branwen and Bran originally appeared as this matched pair, and that the Bronwen form evolved from a judgement that a woman would be likelier named white breast than white raven. One thing is clear, however: All the pre-modern Welsh uses of the name are references to the literary character or to objects popularly associated with her. Rachel Bromwich attests that the name does not occur in Medieval Welsh other than in reference to this character .
Rachel Bromwich notes that the French forms are what would be expected if the Old Welsh spelling Branguen had been borrowed from a written source and then interpreted as if it represented a French word . If it had been taken from the Welsh pronunciation of the period, the g would not have been in evidence, as can be seen already in 9th century Anglo-Saxon representations of the pronunciation of Welsh names with the same gu element [5, p.388]. Bromwich notes that several parallels between the (relatively minor) character of Branguain in the Tristan romance and the Welsh tale of Branwen support the theory that Branguain represents a borrowing, not just of the name, but of the character herself.
This location may also be the origin of the following surnames. In London records:
In Suffolk records:
Despite the overlap in given names, it isn't certain if any of these are the same people, or what relationship they may have to each other, however it is tempting to tie most of the references in to a single family. In the Suffolk records, Thomas is mentioned as co-suitor with Avelina FitzRobert and Alicia her sister against one William Nol regarding a tenement in Orford. The Suffolk Robert is given as the father of an Alice, who is also suing a William Nol regarding a tenement in Orford. It is plausible that she is identical with the Alicia in the other record and that her sister's surname FitzRobert is a true patronym. Thomas may be a brother or uncle. Perhaps not by coincidence, the 1287 London Robert is married to an Alice. And the will for the London Thomas is dated well within the possible lifespan of the Suffolk Thomas. The London Thomas and William both had connections with the parish of S. Martin de Oteswich. This leaves only the Suffolk Adam, for whom I have no further information. It is certainly possible that all the examples represent a single family -- possibly with Monmouth origins? -- with property in both Suffolk and London.
Reaney & Wilson connect the surname Brangwayn with the given name Brangwayna -- perhaps understandably, given the Suffolk connection and the extreme similarity of the spellings . The London example of de Brangweyn, however, brings an obvious locative into the same context as several of the surname examples. Whether or not the London and Suffolk Brangwayn families are connected, the locative origin seems a simpler explanation than a metronym (a mildly rare practice) derived from an extremely rare given name. The similarity in spellings is, most likely, nothing more than a very startling coincidence.
 Flutre, Louis-Fernand. Table des Noms Propres avec Toutes Leurs Variantes Figurant dans les Romans du Moyen Age écrits en Français ou en Provençal et Actuellement Publiés ou Analysés. Poitiers: Centre d'Études Supérieures de Civilisation Médiévale, 1962.
 Thomson, Derick S. Branwen uerch Lyr. Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1968.
 Bromwich, Rachel. Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978.
 Bromwich, Rachel. Some Remarks on the Celtic Sources of 'Tristan' in The Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion 1953.
 Jackson, Kenneth. Language and History in Early Britain. Edinburgh: The University Press, 1953.
 Rye, Walter. A Calendar of the Feet of Fines for Suffolk in Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and Natural History Vol. X (1900).
 Morgan, T. J., & Morgan, Prys. Welsh Surnames. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1985.
 Reaney, P. H. & Wilson, R. M. A Dictionary of English Surnames. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Problem Names Project articles are published by Sharon L. Krossa (contact), with the assistance of The Academy of Saint Gabriel.
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