Concerning the Names
Branwen, Bronwen and the Like

by Heather Rose Jones
known in the SCA as Tangwystyl ferch Morgant Glasfryn

©1997 by Heather Rose Jones. All rights reserved

Last updated 25 Sept 1997

There is a wide-spread belief that the Welsh name Branwen or Bronwen was in popular use in the medieval period, and that Branwyn or Bronwyn (or Branwynne or several other variants) are valid spelling variants of this name. Neither of these beliefs is supported by research, although the subject is complicated slightly by an example of English use of Brangwayna, taken from the name of a character in a French version of Tristan and Isolde, whose name in turn is likely derived from the Welsh Branwen. Also complicating the discussion is the unrelated Welsh surname Brangwayn.

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.

The Welsh Branwen/Bronwen

The medieval Welsh story of Branwen appears in full in two surviving medieval manuscripts -- the White Book of Rhydderch, dating to ca. 1300-1325, and the Red Book of Hergest, dating to ca. 1375-1425. A fragment of the story appears in an earlier manuscript (Peniarth 6) dated to ca. 1235. It is most likely that all these copies derive from a version composed around the second half of the 11th century, however the language and spelling of each reflects, to some extent, the period when it was written [2, p.x].

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 [4].

The Arthurian Brangain/Brenguain

In the French versions of the romance of Tristan and Isolde, there appears a character named Brangain or Branguain. (Flutre gives the full list of variant spellings, in various versions of the tale, as: Brangain, Brangein, Brangem, Brangien, Brengain, Brengien, Brengnien, Brenguain, Brenguine, Brengvein, Brengven, Brigvain, Bringvain, Bongien [1, p.34].) These forms have been found only in literature, not in use as personal names.

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 [4]. 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.

English Use of Brangwayna as a Given Name

As a general rule, the medieval Welsh did not borrow personal names from romantic literature for ordinary use. Those names that appear both in literature and in ordinary use show evidence that the use was continuous from an early period, not drawn from the popularity of the literature. However the case is different for the English and French, where we find a number of examples of names -- particularly from Arthurian literature -- being taken into ordinary use. In fact, the title characters of the tale of Tristan and Isolda are typical examples. (There is no other possible source for these names than the French re-tellings of originally Brythonic stories.) And there is one example of ordinary use of the name Brangwayna that has no other plausible origin than the character in the French romance. A legal document from Suffolk in 1250 mentions Ralph de Moughedon [and] Brangwayna [his wife] [6, p.51]. I can find no other examples beyond this.

Brangwayn as a Surname

There is an unrelated surname that appears in Welsh records, deriving from a manor in Monmouthshire named Bryngwyn (i.e. white hill). The placename appears in the following forms: Brengwein 1254, Brangwayn ca. 1291, Brangwayne or Bryngweyn 1312- 13, Brangwayn 1348, and Bryngwyn 1349 (also the modern form of the name). This appears to have led to at least one early record of the surname for John Brangweyn (1292) in the same region as the manor [7, p.56].

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 [8]. 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.

Concerning Branwyn

One modern variant of this name that has become popular is Branwyn (also Bronwyn, Bronwynne, etc.). This variant derives from a serious misunderstanding of the construction of Welsh names. There are a few words and name elements in Welsh that have distinct masculine and feminine forms, and the ending -wen/-wyn is one of these. The ending -wyn occurs only in masculine names in Welsh (e.g., Berwyn) while the ending -wen occurs only in feminine names in Welsh (e.g., Ceinwen). Changing the name Branwen to Branwyn changes the name from a feminine one to one that can only be interpreted grammatically as masculine. (One of the reasons many people are confused on this point is the existence of an Anglo-Saxon feminine name ending that can appear as -wyn.) The use of Branwyn and its variants as a given name seems confined to the United States in the late 20th century, where it is used as a feminine name.


[1] 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.

[2] Thomson, Derick S. Branwen uerch Lyr. Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1968.

[3] Bromwich, Rachel. Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978.

[4] Bromwich, Rachel. Some Remarks on the Celtic Sources of 'Tristan' in The Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion 1953.

[5] Jackson, Kenneth. Language and History in Early Britain. Edinburgh: The University Press, 1953.

[6] 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).

[7] Morgan, T. J., & Morgan, Prys. Welsh Surnames. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1985.

[8] Reaney, P. H. & Wilson, R. M. A Dictionary of English Surnames. New York: Routledge, 1991.