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A worn stone carving of the Morgan gryphon symbol (holding a shield) at Tredegar House, Newport, South Wales. 

Morgan, a Welsh name of great antiquity.

In a recently discovered pedigree of 1612, the Morgans of Tredegar claim that the family had assumed the surname soon after 1334, but the name had already been is use as a Welsh forename for many centuries. In "Welsh Surnames"* the authors note that the Old Welsh form of the name was "Morcant" thus implying that it was in use from at least the 8th century. It became Morgan in the medieval period although the authors note late variants such as Morgant, Morgaine and Morgraunt. 

The Morgans had supported Owain Glyndwr's attempt to free Wales in the years after 1400 but by the 17th century they had long been closely associated with the aims of the English crown. In general, they supported the monarchist cause in the English Civil Wars and could expect little from the ensuing parliamentary regime. They had a long tradition of service overseas as soldiers and diplomats but for the first time some members of the dynasty had to consider the possibility of a kind of exile in distant lands. At the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 some of the Morgans returned to their homelands in Wales and lived to enjoy the fruits of their loyalty. Thomas Morgan was commemorated in a now lost church brass as "Most Faithful to his King, Most Dear to his Father, Most Courteous to All ... Who after sundry Journeys over the sea as far as the Indies exchanged Mortal for Immortal life ..." (in 1672). Henry Morgan of the Llanrhymney branch never returned to Wales, however, and was buried on the island of Jamaica. 

By the time of the 18th and 19th century emigrations from Wales, Morgan had become quite widely used as a surname although, like many of the old Welsh names, it had become numerically insignificant by comparison with the Welsh surnames based on English and Biblical models. 

The Pelagius story - a misleading assumption.

Pelagius was the Latinised name of an early British theologian who was responsible for propounding a doctrine of Freedom of Will deemed to be heretical. The controversy started in 411 at the same time as the Council of Carthage condemned the Donatist movement which had itself riven the Catholic Church since the time of the Emperor Constantine. In 429 Germanus of Auxerre and Lupus of Troyes visited Britain to counteract the influence of Pelagianism. In time, a myth developed around Pelagius. In the 17th century he was claimed to have been a Welshman from the county of Gwynedd  and whose original name was Morgan (this despite the fact that the concept of Wales as a country did not exist at the time of Pelagius). "Welsh Surnames" mentions  Theophilus Evans as one later writer who thought that Morgan meant "sea born" and explains that this is "based on the mistaken view that Morgan was derived from "mor-gen-i". ("Mor" being Welsh for "sea" and "geni" being "to give birth").   

Although "Welsh Surnames" scorns the "sea born" explanation, for reasons of space the book does not comment on the real meaning of the Morgan name. In an attempt to illuminate this question on behalf of Morgans around the world, the writer contacted one of the authors of Welsh Surnames, the historian Dr. Prys Morgan.  I have paraphrased Dr. Morgan's response thus: 

The elements of Morgan can be seen in the earliest spelling of Morcant.  'Mor' is probably from the Welsh word Mawr 'great' and 'cant' is 'hundred' with a secondary meaning of 'herd' or 'throng'. Hyddgant became Hyddgan, which means a herd of deer. The same elements differently mixed up can be seen in the names Morien, Morfudd and Gwygant or Gwrgan (this gives rise to Worgan and Wargent and other names). 'Great throng' with the suggestion of battle throng, seems to be a typical wishful name to give to a boy. 

Dr. Morgan warns of the dangers inherent in explaining the meaning of a name which was probably in use for many centuries before the time of the first surviving Welsh manuscripts but it is safe to say that his opinion must hold great weight. 

©  John Weston / Data Wales, 2002

* "Welsh Surnames",  T. J. Morgan and Prys Morgan, University of Wales Press, 1985. 


Data Wales Index
A brief note on Welsh surnames