Gwen and Other Names

A choice of names for characters is always tricky. Never have too many characters with names starting with the same letter. And never use the same name twice, even though, in real life, you probably know half a dozen Janes and Jameses. Maybe go for names that have a certain significance, athough sometimes the author’s thoughts can be quite different to the reader’s. We all tend to associate certain names with certain types, born of our own experiences. I can’t think of the name Spencer without picturing Piglet (for reasons I won’t explain).

Rather than rely on my own prejudices, I do try to give my characters names appropriate to the period in which they were born. I find websites like Ancestry and FreeBMD invaluable for finding out the favourite names of a year or decade. People born in the 1940s were not called Chelsea or Jason. People born in the 1990s are not usually called Reginald or Hilda. Mary was hardly ever used as a name before the Black Death. Old Testament names became popular with Protestantism. Saxon names had a comeback in Victorian times.

I generally go for names of the time but sometimes I want a name that suggests something. Its meaning may be important, even if ironically. Or its sound may be suggestive. Serena Whinn in The Unravelling is one such example.

My Grandmother Gwen

I do make free with names culled from my own family tree, as I feel I have a proprietorial right to them, but it doesn’t mean I have ever based a character on one of my own ancestors. Some people find this hard to grasp. My grandmother was called Gwen. My first book, A Time For Silence, features a grandmother called Gwen. I had to work very hard to convince one relative that the book was not about my own grandmother. Since there was virtually nothing in it which had any parallel to my grandmother’s life, I thought it would be obvious. For a start, my grandmother’s full name was Gwendoline Maud, whereas the Gwen in my book was Gwenllian Nesta.

My grandmother was Welsh, and when I was a child and very keen on my Welsh links, I supposed that she was called Gwendoline because it was a lovely Welsh name. In reality she was called Gwendoline because it was a lovely Victorian name. She was born in 1892, and in the first three months of that year, there were 137 Gwendolines registered in the births of England and Wales. So her name really had no significance other than popularity.

Nest. If you have a crown, wear it.

By contrast there is a great deal of significance in the choice of Gwenllian Nesta for my Gwen in A Time For Silence, and since I never explain it in the book, I thought I’d explain it here. It’s a matter of irony. Gwen is the daughter of a Welsh bard and early Welsh nationalist, who thought to call his daughter after two famous Welsh princesses. As Nesta, she was named after Nest ferch Rhys, the Helen of Medieval Wales, a notorious beauty who got around a bit, mistress to Henry I, wife of Gerald de Windsor, abducted by Owain ap Cadwgan, mistress of the Sheriff of Pembroke and wife of the Constable of Cardigan. There is a fairly obvious irony comparing the life of the Princess Nest with that of my Gwenllian Nesta.

The choice of Gwenllian is not ironic so much as deeply meaningful, because there were two princesses called Gwenllian.

One was the only legitimate child of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, last Welsh Prince of an independent Wales. When he was killed in 1282, Gwenllian was six months old. She was seized by Edward I and incarcerated in Sempringham priory in Lincolnshire, where she was confined, as a nun, for the rest of her life, thus preventing the line of Welsh royalty continuing. This sad Gwenllian was, from start to finish, a mere pawn in the hands of men, totally impotent, hidden away, with no function but to obey and endure.

Personally I’d wear something less flowing if I planned to wield a sword

But the other princess Gwenllian was no pawn at all. She was born about 1100, the daughter of Gruffydd ap Cynon, King of Gwynedd (North Wales), who taught her to use a sword and far from being given passively in marriage, she eloped with Gruffydd ap Rhys, prince of Deheubarth (South Wales). The couple harried and made war on the Normans who had seized much of the land of Deheubarth and while her husband rode north to raise a larger army, Gwenllian led troops against a Norman force at Cudweli (Kidwelly) castle. She was betrayed, her troops were routed and she was captured and executed on the field of battle. Tragic but triumphant in her defiance. Her death inspired further Welsh revolt and for centuries after, “Revenge for Gwenllian” was a Welsh battle cry.

In my book Long Shadows, Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd is referenced again. Marged secretly christens her doomed baby sister Gwenllian, in the knowledge that her father will mention the name every time he gets drunk.

The two Gwenllians pose alternative fates for my Gwen in A Time for Silence. To submit and endure, or to fight at any cost. Which is, in a way, the same choice offered to many of my leading characters, but they can’t all be called Gwenllian.

2 thoughts on “Gwen and Other Names

  1. Informative, genuinely interesting and perfectly illustrated. Unfortunately, the bit I can’t dislodge from my brain is that delicious comment about the garb and the sword. I’m so shallow.


  2. Yes, Trish. Surely it’s well known that women who fight with swords all wear nothing but thongs, leather basques, lace-up boots and a couple of steel basins on their bosoms.


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