The surname Hughes is extremely common in Wales. Both the Cardiff and Newport telephone directories contain several hundred entries under this name. At first sight it is difficult to understand why the forename Hugh should have become commonly used in medieval Wales and then adopted as a fixed surname. Hugh is not a name of Welsh origin and was in fact associated with a family of a certain notoriety in Wales.
The Norman French Hugh le Despenser (the younger) was lord of Glamorgan in south Wales in 1318. His father, another Hugh, used his influence with King Edward II to assist his son's depredations in Wales. One of the younger Hugh's first acts was to ensure the transfer of the Welsh prince Llywelyn Bren from the Tower of London to his castle in Cardiff. Llywelyn Bren had led a rebellion in south Wales but had ultimately given himself up to Humphrey de Bohun and others in order to save his people from the sword once they became surrounded by the forces of the king. Llywelyn had been promised safe conduct but Hugh le Despenser had him suffer a traitor's death once he had been brought to Cardiff.
In time, the fortunes of Edward II and his favourites were to take a turn for the worse. In 1326, Hugh le Despenser, the elder, was indicted of "high crimes and misdemeanors over many years" and sentenced to die on a gallows 50 feet high. But I digress ...
It is safe to say that Hugh (giving rise to the surname Hughes) became a Welsh name simply because it bore a resemblance to the common native name of Hywel. Hywel, often spelled as Howell in English (and the origin of the surname Powell), posed a problem for medieval scribes. These would typically be proficient in Latin and Norman French but the spelling of Welsh names posed a challenge. It seems as though Hugh was at first just a convenient way of writing Hywel, but over the 15th and 16th centuries it gradually displaced the native name.
There are, of course, several other well known examples of this sort of name substitution. Llywelyn became Lewis, Gruffydd became Griffith(s) and the old Welsh name of Iorwerth often became Edward(s).
| John Weston