Bishop Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Bishop Surname Meaning

Bishop comes from the Greek episkopos, meaning “overseer” from the elements epi or “over” and skopein, “to look.” The early Christians adopted the name for a religious leader.  The Old English equivalent word was biscop.  The Venerable Bede recorded the death of Benedict Biscop in 690.  He was the founder of the Monkwearmouth-Jarrow priory in Northumberland.

The surname Bishop in medieval times could describe a bishop.  However, it was more likely that most of the present-day Bishops owed their title to the custom of electing a boy bishop on St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6).  The boy bishop ceremony was a very familiar one in medieval times.  In the same fashion the surnames King and Pope have been pageant names, rather than having been derived from real kings or popes.

Bishop Surname Resources on The Internet

Bishop Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern England, Scotland and Germany
  • to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

England. There was one early Bishop family in the north of England.  The forebear of this family was said to have been Walter Bishop from Gascony in France who came to England in the mid-12th century and married the daughter and heiress of Sir John Pocklington of Pocklington in the East Riding of Yorkshire.  

His descendants were ecclesiastical personages – Thomas the abbot, John the prior, and William the bishop.  A later Thomas Bishop took part in the Catholic Rising of the North of 1569 and was executed at York.  Other descendants were to be found in west Sussex.

But Bishops were more likely to be found in SW and SE England.  The Victorian surname mapper Henry Guppy described the Bishop presence as follows: “The Bishop name is confined south of a line drawn from the Wash to the Dee.  It is at present most numerous in the western half of this area.”  

SW. England. The early spelling here seems to have been Bysshop or Bisshop. Sir John Bisshop was the MP for Gloucestershire from 1305 to 1313.

Meanwhile John Bysshop married Agnes Burguillon around the year 1400. Their descendants were recorded at Taunton in Somerset in the 1450’s (where a later John was park-keeper to the Bishop of Winchester) and in Herefordshire and Dorset, according to the Visitations of Dorset in 1574.  They were established at Holway manor in Cattistock, Dorset by this time. Richard Bisshop acquired the manor of South Warnborough in Hampshire in 1635.

Anthony Bishop held the Bordesley manor in Oxhill, Warwickshire during the 16th century. And there was a Bishoppe family in Bristol a century later.  Edmond Bishoppe was the Sergeant of Mace and minister to the Tolsey court in Bristol at that time.

SE. England.  The Bishop name here extended into Norfolk in East Anglia.  Land records at Hevingham north of Norwich have shown five generations of Bisshops living there between 1484 and 1573.  One family history began with the marriage of Benjamin Bishop and Elizabeth Green at Bale in 1777.

A Kent line began with the marriage of Giles and Ann Bishop in Sutton Valence in 1579.  Another line has been traced in Tenterden from the 1730’s to the 1890’s.

The best-known Bishop family, however, was to be found in Sussex.  The forebear of this family was Thomas Bishopp who prospered in the service of Sir William Shelley and acquired property at Henfield in the 1570’s.  His descendants retained the Bishopp spelling.

His son Thomas had powerful friends who promoted him to Parliament and enabled him to acquire the Parham House estate in Sussex in 1597 and become a baronet.  His second son Henry wasthe first Postmaster General of England in 1660 and devised the first postmark to be used on mail.

He announced:  “A stamp is invented that is put upon every letter showing the day of the month that every letter comes to the office so that no letter carrier may dare detain a letter from post to post, which before was usual.”  

A later Bishopp, Sir Cecil, was noted for his large number of children.  In 1760 Horace Walpole remarked on his “endless hoard of beautiful daughters.”  His son Sir Cecil died in 1828 and was the last of the male line at Parham. The baronet line continued through a younger brother Edward.

Scotland.  The Bishop name also surfaced in Scotland where the early spelling was Bischop or Bischope.

John Bischope was recorded as having held land in Edinburgh in the early 15th century and Gabriel Bischop, reputedly Flemish and a manufacturer of broad-cloth, arrived in Edinburgh in 1601.  The name had become quite common in that city by the 18th century.

There were also Bishops at Whitburn in West Lothian at that time.

Ireland.  The Bishop name in Ireland spread around Ireland, but has mainly been found in Ulster.  Bishop may be an anglicization of MacAnespie or Gillespie.   A branch of the O’Sullivans was called Bishop.

America.  Early Bishops came to New England.  

New England.  Thomas Bishop had arrived in Boston with his brothers from Surrey in 1634 and moved that year with a number of Salem settlers to found the town of Ipswich.  He left a large estate there on his death in 1670.  His son Thomas was a merchant trading to the West Indies.  Two of his other sons, Samuel and John, were the first settlers of Norwich, Connecticut.

Edward Bishop was said to have been in Salem, Massachusetts as early as 1639.  He was one of three, possibly four, Edward Bishops living in the town at the time of the witchcraft hysteria of 1692. His son Edward and wife were accused of witchcraft that year, imprisoned but escaped.   However, Bridget Bishop – possibly from another Bishop line – was accused of bewitching her husband in April and was hanged two months later.

There were three notable early Bishop settlers in Connecticut:

  • James Bishop had come to Boston with his other brothers in 1634.  Four years later he and an elder brother Henry were among the original group of settlers of New Haven, Connecticut.  James served as the deputy governor of the colony from 1683 until his death in 1691.  
  • John Bishop and his family, reportedly from Suffolk, were part of the Rev. Whitford’s contingent that came to New England in 1639 and founded the community of Guilford, Connecticut.  William Cone’s 1951 book Record of the Descendants of John Bishop covered his line.  
  • while the Rev. John Bishop from Dorset came to New England in 1640 and settled four years later in Stamford, Connecticut.  He was the minister of its First Congregational Church for close on fifty years.  One descendant line settled in upstate New York where Charles Reed Bishop was born in 1822.  At the age of 24 he departed for Hawaii where he made his home and married into the royal family.  The Bishop Museum in Honolulu is his legacy.
  • meanwhile Eleazar Bishop was reportedly kidnapped on the Channel Island of Jersey in 1602 and brought to New London, Connecticut where he was taken under care by the Dart family.    

Elsewhere.  According to family lore, six Bishop brothers of Quaker descent came to New Jersey from either Connecticut or England. The progenitor of the Bishop family of Burlington, New Jersey, however, seems to have been Thomas Bishop from Dorset who arrived in New Jersey in the early 1700’s.  Later Bishops were to be found there or in the Philadelphia area.

Nicholas Bishop is believed to have been Scots or Scots Irish. He was first recorded in New Castle county, Delaware marrying Dorcas Sinex in 1711.  His son Nicholas migrated to Chester county, South Carolina in the 1760’s.

“At least four of his sons fought in the Revolutionary War.  The Bishop family’s involvement was so pronounced that Nicholas’s home was seized by the British and burned to the ground.”

Some Scottish Bishops came to America in the early 19th century from Whitburn in West Lothian.  Two brothers Robert and Ebenezer Bishop arrived in Kentucky in 1804, Robert later moving onto Ohio and Ebenezer to Illinois.  Their history was recorded in Stanley Scott’s 1951 book Family History of John Bishop of Whitburn.

German.  The German Bischoff or Bishoff name, of similar meaning, often became Bishop in America.  Heinrich Bischoff came to Pennsylvania from Germany in 1733 and made his home in Lancaster county, Pennsylvania.  His son, known as Henry Bishop, moved with his family to Ohio in 1805.  Richard Bishop of this family became Governor of Ohio in 1877.

Another Bischoff/Bishop line began with Johannes Bischoff who came to Philadelphia on the Two Brothers in 1747.  Johannes soon became John Bishop and settled in Montgomery county, Virginia.

Canada. Billy Bishop, the World War one flying ace and later Air Marshal, was said to have come from American Loyalist roots.  The first recorded Bishop of his line was Avery Bishop in Toronto.  In the 1850’s his son Eleazar, a saddler, migrated to Owen Sound on the upper reaches of the Great Lakes, which was where Eleazar’s grandson Billy Bishop was born.  Billy is commemorated there today by the Billy Bishop Museum.

Thomas Bishop, an orphan, came to Canada in the 1890’s, hoping to emulate his hero Buffalo Bill.  He started his own Wild West show in 1914.  It has now gone through a hundred years and three generations of Bishops.

Australia. James Bishop from Somerset arrived in South Australia in 1849.  His son Charles came to live on the Bishops Adelaide Hills property at Basket Range in 1882.  Its main homestead Tetratheca was built by his son William in 1920.  This has remained the family home.

Tetratheca – named after a wild flower native to the Adelaide Hills – was famous for its Cherry Blossom Festivals and for the collection of conifers and oaks in the homestead gardens.”

The sixth generation member of this family is Julie Bishop, Foreign Minister in the Abbott administration.

New Zealand.  George and Argyles Bishop were distillers in Maidstone, Kent.  Many of their offspring departed for New Zealand, commencing in the late 1840’s. They were among the first settlers of Canterbury, South Island.  Edward was the most prominent of these Bishops.  He like his father became a distiller.  Later he served as the chairman of Christchurch Town Council and was Mayor of Christchurch in 1872.

Bishop Surname Miscellany

The Boy Bishop Ceremony.  St. Nicholas of Bari was said to have inspired the annual ceremony held on December 6 of the election of a boy from the cathedral or parish choir to act as a “bishop” for three weeks.  This ancient ceremony was abolished by Henry VIII in 1541, later revived, and then finally done way with by Queen Elizabeth.

The pageantry associated with these boy bishops who were elected for their appearance and bearing of a bishop of the church may have influenced people at the time when they came to adopt surnames.  By the time the parish registers came into official use in 1538 the Bishop surname was firmly established.

Thomas Bishopp, Forebear of the Sussex Bishopps.  Thomas Bishopp, a lawyer of unknown parentage, settled in Sussex as a servant of Sir William Shelley of Michelgrove.  Over time he acquired several manors in the county and leased a house with a park of 150 acres at Henfield from the Bishop of Chichester.

Both Bishopp’s parents were Catholics.  Though he himself conformed he was criticized in 1582 for leniency in enforcing the recusancy laws.  Moreover, his second marriage, about seven years later, was into a Catholic family and in 1594 an informer accused him of sheltering a recusant.

However, he was protected from prosecution by Thomas Sackville, the joint lord lieutenant of Sussex who had been his guardian following the death of his father in 1560.  This relationship ensured him a secure position in the county’s administration and probably accounts for his election as a Sussex MP in 1584 and again in 1586.

Charles Bishop’s Journey from Sussex to Liverpool.  The TV program Who Do You Think You Are? unearthed some interesting information about Charles Bishop, the great great grandfather of the Liverpool comedian John Bishop.

Charles Bishop was listed as a lay vicar in Chichester, Sussex in the 1861 census.  An earlier record reveals that Charles, then a soldier himself, had married a soldier’s daughter Catherine in Montreal in 1852.  But how to reconcile his church and military careers?

The answer was music.  Charles joined up as a boy.  His service records revealed that he was in his regiment’s band.  Charles rose to become a sergeant and bandleader, yet bought himself out of the army at considerable cost to take a job at Chichester Cathedral.  The term lay vicar was somewhat misleading.  It actually means that he was employed to sing in the choir. Charles was evidently a success because he moved on to work at York Minster.

Then came another career change.  By 1874 Charles was working in a minstrel show, blacking up to go on stage. Charles’s company, Sam Hague’s Minstrels, was based in Liverpool, which helps explain how his family settled in the city.  In the 1891 census he was recorded there as a music vocalist.

The Rev. John Bishop, Early New England Immigrant.  John Bishop was born in Cattistock, Dorset in 1610, the seventh son of William and Alice Bishop.  He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford where he received his B.A. and M.A. degrees.

As a young man he decided to emigrate to New England and settled in Taunton, Massachusetts where in 1640 he was a schoolmaster.  He went to Stamford, Connecticut in 1644 to serve as the second minister of the First Congregational Church.  He married Rebecca Goodyear, the mother of all his children, there in 1645.  Following Rebecca’s death in 1671, he married the widow Joanna Boyes.  She too died before him in 1683.

John Bishop served the First Congregational Church of Stamford for close on fifty years.  He died in 1694 at the age of 84, a much respected and beloved clergyman.  In his will he requested to be buried between his two wives Rebecca and Joanna who he said with comfortable assurance “had fallen asleep in Jesus and gone to Heaven before me.”

Reader Feedback – Bridget Bishop in Salem.  You state is your article that Bridget Bishop was possibly from a fifferent family than the Edward Bishop accused of witchcraft, along with his wife.  Sadly this was not the case.  Bridget was married to Edward’s father, also Edward.  She was his second wife, not son Edward’s mother.

Lori Bishop (

Eleazar Bishop, from the Channel Islands to America.  Eleazar Bishop was the son of Anthony Bishop who had moved his family from England to the Channel Island of Jersey in the early 1680’s.

Their family story went as follows.  In 1692 Eleazar Bishop, aged seven, was playing on the beach with his dog when the captain of an English ship noticed them and decided that he wanted the dog.  He told his mate to get the dog.  The mate then had to kidnap Eleazar to get the dog.

During the voyage to America, the dog became attached to the crew, but not so Eleazar.  When the ship landed at New London in Connecticut, the captain had to get rid of Eleazar.  So he sold him to Richard Dart for a yoke of oxen.

Richard and his wife brought Eleazar into their home and raised him as one of the family.  Eleazar later married their daughter Sarah.  Their son John moved from Connecticut to Nova Scotia in the 1760’s as one of the ‘New England planters.”

Reader Feedback – Bishops in New York and Indiana.  I am having trouble in locating the parents of my third great grandfather, Thomas Bishop, who was born in 1801 or 1802 in either Washington or Monroe County, New York.

He did return to England and had two children there with his New York wife Rebecca Parks. After returning to America, he spent most of his life in Indiana. He supposedly had a sister Mary E. Gilbert and a brother Levi Bishop both born in the late 1790’s.

Thomas had several children with Rebecca. Thomas, Mary, Levi, and Rebecca were buried in the Beech Grove Cemetery in Muncie, Indiana. Thomas had land and sold that which became part of Muncie, Indiana as it is known today.

Peggy Bishop Moran (

Thomas Bishop and His Wild West Show.  Thomas Bishop got inspired in Newcastle in 1889 by the sight of the famous Buffalo Bill.

He was holding his father’s hand and watching the street parade before him with great enjoyment. As the procession continued down the street, the boy heard gunshots. The gunfire grew louder and louder until he saw the source of the noise.  At the centre of the parade rode a tall man mounted on a white horse, cutting a striking figure in his fringed jacket, tall leather boots, and large cowboy hat.  That man on the white horse was William Frederick Cody, better known as “Buffalo Bill,” and the man responsible for founding the most famous travelling Wild West show.

However, just a few years later, the untimely death of his father and his mother’s ill health saw Thomas and his younger brother Robert end up in an orphanage. There, before they had even reached their teenage years, the boys were given the opportunity to immigrate to their choice of several British territories at the time.  “Canada,” Thomas said to himself when he heard the list read out. “That’s where the cowboys are!”

Thomas found work as a farmhand in the Niagara region.  Having always enjoyed working with horses, he also began to take on horse training gigs, quickly making a name for himself in local circles as a gifted trainer of troubled horses.  In 1914 Thomas was invited to perform a trained horse exhibition and Wild West display to help raise money for World War One troops.  The show was a huge success and Thomas soon found himself regularly producing Wild West shows, just like his hero Buffalo Bill.

Over the following years, as his Wild West Show continued to grow and expand, Thomas was able to purchase some farming land near Ridgeville, Ontario which he named the 4-B Corral.

Bishop Names

  • Henry Bishopp was the Postmaster General of England in 1660 and inventor of the first postmark used on mail.   
  • Sir Henry Bishop was an English composer of the first half of the 19th century, famous for such songs as Home! Sweet Home and Lo! Here the Gentle Lark
  • Billy Bishop was a Canadian flying ace  in World War One.
  • Joey Bishop, born Joseph Gottlieb, was an American TV entertainer and talk-show host who was a member of Sinatra’s famous “Rat Pack.”

Bishop Numbers Today

  • 35,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 45,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 37,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Bishop and Like Surnames

These surnames might suggest the high and mighty of the medieval world.  Instead, they were probably the actors in a village medieval pageant who adopted the name of the character they were playing.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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