She’s legendary and literary, but she’s also something of a villain.

Thanks to Emmy Jo for suggesting the medieval Rowena as Name of the Day.

In the 21st century, a character can suffer or sin without tarnishing her given name. Think of how many parents have been inspired by soap opera appellations, or horror films – like The Exorcist’s Regan.

Once upon a time that was simply not the case. Plenty of Biblical monikers were avoided because their bearers’ acts were less than admirable.

In British legend, the beautiful Rowena used her wiles to seduce a king – and claim a large chunk of his lands for her own people. While the modern reader might dismiss Rowena as little more than a schemer, the stories paint her as evil incarnate – a handmaiden of the devil himself.

Rowena’s tale appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, from the early 1100s, but she’s missing from other accounts. So while it is possible that Rowena lived, odds are that she’s more cautionary tale than historical figure.

There’s also a famous swindle attached to Rowena. Back in 1796, the theater world was abuzz with news of a recently discovered work by William Shakespeare. Vortigern and Rowena was performed in public that spring, but experts raised doubts from the first – and quickly proved the play was a forgery.

Given her bad girl status, it’s no wonder that parents avoided Rowena in the Middle Ages. Sir Walter Scott gave the name a second chance when he penned Ivanhoe in 1819.

It’s an adventure chock full of derring-do. Wilfred of Ivanhoe is a Saxon noble in a world dominated by the Normans, including Norman King Richard I. Wilfred loves Rowena, another Saxon, but they’re not free to marry. After much adventure, the good end happily and the bad get their just deserts.

Thanks to Ivanhoe, Rowena was discovered. In the US, she reached #429 in 1893. (That’s 41 newborn Rowenas; more than Lue but fewer than Hortense.)

But even as the tale’s been adapted for the silver screen – in 1913 and again in 1952 – and television – in the 1980s as a mini-series – the name has faded from the rankings. Rowena last charted in the US in 1963. She’s fared no better in Europe.

Some might read ro WEE nah, but ro EE nah appears to be the preferred – and prettier – pronunciation. Her origins are elusive – some cite Old English, while others link her to the Welsh Rhonwen.

Other Rowenas of note include:

  • In Harry Potter, Rowena Ravenclaw is one of the four founders of Hogwarts School;
  • New Zealand-born dancer Rowena Othlie Jackson was part of the Royal Ballet for many years;
  • 20th century painter Rowena Meeks Abdy is considered a significant California artist.

Rowena also appeared in a short-lived 1970s TV series called Arthur of the Britons in the UK, but I can’t confirm if she was good, bad or otherwise.

Today Rowena seems like an appealing choice – not exactly a medieval revival name, but a seldom-heard appellation with plenty of literary style.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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  1. Paige (and others) — Do you think one could get away with pronouncing it ro-WEN-uh/ro-ENN-uh (with a short e), instead of ro-EE-nuh (with a long e)? Even though it’s probably technically incorrect?

  2. I really like Rowena, prn row-ENN-uh, or ro-WEN-uh. It was the mom of the main character in a book I read when I was a kid (“Just as Long as We’re Together” by Judy Blume, in case you were wondering 😉 ) and I liked it the moment I saw it. I also like Rowan/Rowen for girls too, but that’s another story.
    Rowena immediately conjures the Ivanhoe character and Rowena Ravenclaw (whose daughter was named the similar-styled Helena, incidentally) for me.

  3. I love this name when pronounced ro-WEN-uh, but I just can’t get into it when pronounced ro-EE-nuh.

    It’s one we’ve considered, though, since my husband and I fell in love while reading Ivanhoe together! 🙂

  4. Rowena just doesn’t win me over. She just sounds evil to me, in that harsh, crow-like way that sort of freaks me out a bit! I wouldn’t mind seeing her on somene else’s child – as opposed to another Mia or Olivia – but she’s too harsh for me.

  5. I want to like her, but Rowena doesn’t do it for me… I far prefer Rhonwen, but when viewed solely in comparison to the more popular Hortense, Rowena wins for me… generally, I’m not a big fan though.

  6. don’t like it. i keep wanting to say ro-WEN-ah, ro-EE-nah certainly does sound prettier and once i get that fixed into my head i might like Rowena more. the villain thing wouldn’t bother me at all though, doesn’t sound like she was so bad!

  7. Schemer she may have been, but it was for the greater good, I think. Her people. That’s a leader, all right and Rowena’s something I do like and do toy with considering. She floats around the edges, enchanting me in flashes. I loved Ivanhoe as a kid and still re-read it about once every other year. She might get a slight bump up because of Harry Potter. I cna sure hope so, with Luna showing up on the boards. I haven’t seen one born yet, but I’m sure there’s a few. I think I’d be very pleased to meet a Rowena and am still thinking about how she appeals for myself.