Concerning the Names Rowena, Rowan, and Rhonwen

by Sara L. Friedemann and Josh Mittleman
known in the SCA as Aryanhwy merch Catmael and Arval Benicoeur

Last updated 10 Aug 1999

The names Rowan, Rowena, and Rhonwen are widely believed to have been used as women's names in the medieval British Isles. However, we have found no evidence that any of them was used as a given name before modern times except in literature.

The name Rowan

In modern English, Rowan is used as both a feminine and masculine name. The feminine name probably derives from the name of the tree: It has been fashionable at several times in recent centuries to name girls after plants. This modern coinage appears to be the first use of Rowan as feminine [1].

The masculine Rowan may be older, though we have not yet found an example before the mid 20th century [2]. It is an English spelling of the Gaelic masculine Rúadhán, pronounced \ROO-ahn\ [*]. This Gaelic name is recorded in early medieval Ireland, though it was not common, and may also have been used by Scottish Gaels [3, 4]. The Irish family name Ó Rúadháin "[male] descendent of Rúadhán" appears in English records c.1600 as O Ruane, O Roiwane, and O Roan. *O Rowan would not be at all surprising [5]. However, we have not found the given name Rowan in any language until the 20th century.

We found another origin for Rowan, at least as a surname, as a Lowland Scottish variant of Roland. A man is recorded as William Rowan in Aberdeen in 1513. His surname appears as Rolland and Rowand in 1509. Other examples of the surname Rowan are recorded in the Lowlands in the 16th century, and it has survived to modern times [4]. We should note that we have not found Rowan used as a variant of the given name Roland, but only for the surname and only in a period when Scots surnames were generally inherited. Inherited surnames often evolve spellings that never occurred for the root words from which they derived.

The English and Scots surname Rowan may also occasionally derive from the French place name Rouen. The city's name appears in English as Rowane 1488, Roen, Roan, and Rone 1418-20 [1, 6]. A Frenchman David Rowane is recorded in the Scottish Lowlands in 1557-8 [4].

The names Rowena and Rhonwen

The name Rowena first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, written in the mid 12th century. His Rowena was a Saxon woman, the daughter of Hengist and the wife of Vortigern [7]. The story itself appears earlier in Nennius, but there is no mention of a Rowena [8].

Although many scholars have speculated on the origin of the name, they have reached no consensus on one of their conflicting hypotheses, or even on the language in which the name originated. Some authors have proposed a derivation of Rowena from Old English Hröðwyn or from British ron 'spear, lance' + (g)wen 'bright', but both theories appear to be guesses based only on similarity of pronunciation [9, 10]. We have found no evidence that either of the proposed root names even existed, let alone that Geoffrey used them as the basis for his Rowena [11].

In various manuscripts of Geoffrey's work, the name appears as Ronwen and Renwein [9]. In Middle English Arthurian literature, it is spelled Rouwenne, Rouuenne, Rouwen, Reowen, Rowenne, and Rowen, while medieval French Arthurian literature has it as Ronwen, Rouen, and Rowen [12, 13]. The name appears in 15th century Welsh versions of the story as Rhonwen, Ronnwen, Ronwen, and Rronwen. In Welsh literature, Rhonwen was a symbol of English treachery and aggression, so her name was particularly unlikely to have passed into common usage [14].

The modern popularity of Rowena arose from Sir Walter Scott's use of it in Ivanhoe, published 1819 [10, 15]. By 1850 the name was already in use in the United States [16].

Another similar name

A feminine name Roana is recorded once in England in 1212 [6]. We believe that this name originated from the color adjective roan, first used as a byname describing hair color and later as a given name [17]. It is worth noting that the early 13th century saw a fashion in England for inventing fanciful women's names, most of which never occur again [18].


Although many people believe that Rowan, Rowena, and Rhonwen were common medieval given names, we have found no evidence that any of them was used by real people before modern times. Rowena and Rhonwen appear medieval literature, but were not adopted for normal use, perhaps because the literary Rowena was considered a negative character. Rowan has several possible origins, and appears in 16th century Lowland Scotland as a surname, but we have not found it as a given name, masculine or feminine, until the 20th century.


[*] Pronunciation guides appear between backslash brackets, \ \, and are intended to be read as if they were modern standard American English (except where noted) with the emphasis placed on the capitalized syllables.
<ð> The fourth letter, <ð>, in <Hröðwyn> (and <Hröð->) is an "eth". It looks like a curved, lowercase <d> with a line through the stem. (Some computers and web browsers do not properly display <ð>)


[1] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), s.vv. rowan-tree, rowan. The single word rowan is only a relatively recent name for the tree: It was called a rountre in the early 14th century [6], but rowan only appears after 1804. The tree was also called the quikentre in the 14th century.
[2] Dunkling, Leslie and William Gosling, The New American Dictionary of First Names (New York: Signet Books, 1983), s.n. Rowan.
[3] Ó Corráin, Donnchadh and Fidelma Maguire, Irish Names (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1990), s.n. Rúadhán.
[4] Black, George F. The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning, and History. New York: New York Public Library, 1986. Original edition, 1946.
s.n. Rowan.
[5] Woulfe, Patrick, Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall: Irish Names and Surnames (Kansas City: Irish Genealogical Foundation), s.n. Ó Rúadháin.
[6] Reaney, P. H., & R. M. Wilson, A Dictionary of English Surnames (London: Routledge, 1991; Oxford University Press, 1995), s.nn. Roan, Rowntree.
[7] Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain (New York: Penguin Books, 1966), p.159ff.
[8] Morris, John ed., Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals (London: Phillimore, 1980), p.28f.
[9] Hutson, Arthur, Personal Names in the Historia Regum Britanniae (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1940), pp.57, 120.
[10] Withycombe, E.G., The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), s.n. Rowena, offers this derivation, but the standard references on Old English names contain no example of <Hröðwyn> [19, 20].
[11] Less scholarly authors present even less substantial theories for the origin of <Rowena>. Yonge glosses it as "Eng. Kelt. white skirt", but she also claims to have found it in the Welsh Gododdin, where it does not appear. Loughead explains it as "Celtic 'white-blossomed'". Charlotte Yonge M., History of Christian Names (London: MacMillan and Co., 1884). Flora Haines Loughead, Dictionary of Given Names: with origins of meanings (Glendale, Calif.: A. H. Clark, 1966).
[12] Robert W. Ackerman, An Index of the Arthurian Names in Middle English (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1952), p.208.
[13] Louis-Fernand Flutre, 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), p.165.
[14] Williams, J.E. Caerwyn, "Misc. Notes -- Ronwen: Rhawn Gwynion" in Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, vol.21 (1966), pp.301-3.
[15] "Scott, Sir Walter, 1st Baronet" in Encyclopædia Britannica Online (Accessed April 3, 1999).
[16] Buckner, Ben, Analysis of occurrence of feminine given names in the 1850 US Census (WWW: Privately published).
[17] Talan Gwynek, Feminine Given Names in A Dictionary of English Surnames (SCA: KWHS Proceedings, 1994; WWW: J. Mittleman, 1997).
[18] Withycombe, op. cit., p.xxvii.
[19] Boehler, Maria, Die altenglischen Frauenamen (Nendlem, Liechtenstein: Krauss Reprint, 1967 [1930]). Boehler has only one name with the prototheme <Hröð-> and two with a modified form of it.
[20] Searle, William George, Onomasticon Anglo-Saxonicum (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1897).