Rowena is an ancient name and therefore its meaning is not entirely certain. What we do know is that this is a name with a fair amount of historic and literary cache. The name first appears in Welsh historian Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) though in many different versions (Rowena being the modern translation). She is described as “the [pagan] daughter of [the Saxon chief] Hengist” and “one of the most accomplished beauties of that age.” Book VI. Chapter 12. The Christian King of the Britons, Vortigern, fell in love with Rowena: “The king, at the sight of the lady's face, was on a sudden both surprised and inflamed with her beauty; Vortigern being now drunk with the variety of liquors, the devil took this opportunity to enter into his heart, and to make him in love with the damsel… that he, who was a Christian, should fall in love with a pagan.”
There are several theories as to the origin of her name, complicated in part by the various spellings originally used in the 12th century: Ronwen, Renwein and Romwenna. One theory suggests it came from a Latinized corruption of an Olde English name of ancient Germanic origin – from the Germanic element “hrod” meaning “bright-fame; bright with glory” and the Olde English “ƿynn” meaning “joy, pleasure, bliss” (associated with the prehistoric Proto-Indo-European root *wen- "desire"). Another theory suggests it’s related to the Welsh (Celtic) name Rhonwen meaning “fair-haired” or, in other translations, “horsehair.” Lastly, the name Rowena is also often associated with the rowan tree (though this is a more modern connection). The rowan tree derives its name from the Old Norse “reynir” (“to redden”) in reference to the red berries found on the tree. In ancient European mythologies, the rowan tree was believed to contain magical powers and was said to protect against malevolent mischief-makers such as witches which is why the tree was often planted near one’s front door.
It really wasn’t until the 19th century, however, when the name was popularized owing to its usage in Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel Ivanhoe (Lady Rowena was the name Scott gave to his Saxon heroine and the love interest of the book’s titular character, Ivanhoe). Lady Rowena is the archetypal medieval damsel in distress and the object of desire for several men in the novel. Due to her noble Saxon bloodline and her striking beauty, she proves the perfect “lady” around whom acts of knightly chivalry can take place.