Churchill Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Churchill Surname Meaning

The name Churchill is thought to be habitational in origin, from a place name meaning “church on the hill.”  The roots here are the Old English cyrice meaning “church” and hyll meaning “hill.”  However, there are alternative origins of Churchill that have been put forward.

Churchill Surname Resources on The Internet

Churchill Surname Ancestry

  • from SW England
  • to America, Canada and Australia

England.  Churchill is a west country name, with early sightings as a place-name in Somerset and Devon.

Dorset  Churchill is, in addition, an old Dorset name.  The first records of the celebrated Churchill family – of which Sir Winston Churchill is a member – was Roger Churchill, a blacksmith in the village of Bradford Peverville in the early 1500’s.

Roger had two brothers, John and William, who established themselves in Corton Denham and Dorchester respectively, the latter emerging as a well-to-do clothier who bought Muston Manor near Winterbourne as his home.

A later John Churchill married the heiress Sarah Winston in 1618, from whence came the Winston name.  Their son, the first Winston, was known as the Cavalier Colonel because of his support for the Royalist cause.  He married into the Drake family, but fell out with his father.  He made his home in Minterne Manor.

Blenheim Palace.  Two of Winston’s sons, John and Charles, were soldiers.  It was John who became the great military commander and, after his victories in Europe in the War of the Spanish Succession, was ennobled as the Duke of Marlborough and had Blenheim Palace near Oxford built to his specifications.

Because this Duke had no surviving sons, the title was allowed by special Act of Parliament to pass through his eldest daughter Anne.  She married Charles Spencer of the Spencer family.  The family initially styled themselves as Spencer but reverted to Churchill in 1817.

Lord Randolph Churchill, a Tory politician and cabinet member in the 1880’s, was a younger son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough.  His son, Winston, born in Blenheim Palace in 1874, was Britain’s war leader during World War Two.  Since that time Churchill’s family and descendants have perhaps been more newsworthy than those of the Duke’s – until possibly Jamie Blandford.

Elsewhere  There are Churchills other than those of the Spencer-Churchill clan.

The name continues to be found mainly in the west country, in Somerset, Devon and Hampshire as well as in Dorset.  A Churchill family has been in Bruton, Somerset since the 1600’s.  Churchills were recorded as gentlemen in the east Devon villages of Ottery St. Mary and East Budleigh in the early 1700’s.

America.  There were three notable Churchills who came to America in the 17th century, two of them Puritans from Dorset.

New England  The first was John Churchill, who was possibly related to the Winterbourne Muston Churchills.  He arrived at the New England Plymouth colony in 1642 and married Hannah Pontus two years later.  They raised six children, including a daughter Mary Churchill.  Asaph Churchill of this family became a distinguished lawyer in Milton, Massachusetts:

“When a boy, he found himself adrift after his father died.  But he obtained Greek and Latin books in some way and walked barefoot from the backwoods of Middleborough to Cambridge to save his shoes.  Graduating there with honors he married Mary Gardner of Charleston, remarkable for her beauty, and bought the Adam Street estate.”

A descendant Gardner Asaph Churchill compiled the family genealogy The Churchill Family in America in 1904.

Some of these Churchills ended up in Maine.  James Churchill served as mayor of Portland in the 1840’s. Others moved to Vermont.  Sylvester Churchill was born there in 1782.  His service in the army spanned the War of 1812 and the Civil War and he is commemorated by Churchill county in Nevada.  Sir Winston Churchill saw his portrait and believed that there was a family likeness.

The second Churchill, more definitely connected with the Winterbourne Muston Churchills, was Josiah Churchill.  He settled in Wethersfield, Connecticut where he was the town surveyor and married Elizabeth Foote in 1638.

Virginia and Kentucky.  The third, Colonel William Churchill, came to Virginia from Oxfordshire in 1674.  He had the good fortune to marry a wealthy widow and this allowed him to live in some style on his Bushy Park estate along the Rappahonnick river in Middlesex county.  His grandson Armistead brought the family to Louisville, Kentucky in 1809.

“Armistead Churchill came through Cumberland Gap and across the Wilderness Trail on a coach, driving four-in-hand.  On reaching Louisville he was completely disgusted with the settlement.  According to a tradition in the family, he would have turned back the next day, but for the Indians he had encountered and the badness of the roads.”

The Churchill name lives on in Louisville through Churchill Downs, the racetrack on which the Kentucky Derby is staged.

Canada.  There has been a sizeable Churchill presence in Canada’s Atlantic provinces.  Two Churchill brothers from Devon, Samuel and Nicholas, had come to Ochre Pit Cove in Newfoundland in the 1740’s. These Churchills were later to be found in Portugal Cove.

Nova Scotia.  Larger Churchill numbers were in Nova Scotia, the descendants of the Churchills who had moved north from Massachusetts; Lemuel Churchill to Yarmouth in 1752, Josiah Churchill to Lockeport in 1762, and Ephraim Churchill to Yarmouth in 1784:

  • Ezra Churchill, whose father had been lost at sea, came from Lemuel’s line.  He operated one of the largest shipbuilding yards in Nova Scotia in the 19th century.  His home at Hantsport is now the Churchill House museum;
  • Lewis Churchill, grandson to Josiah, was a prominent shipping merchant in Lockeport;
  • while Ephraim’s descendants were also active in shipping, as sea captains and shipbuilders.  In 1874 “Rudder” Churchill moved to Savannah, Georgia where he started the Churchill Steamship Lines and made his fortune.

Australia.  Churchill island was the first place in Victoria inhabited by Europeans.  It got its name because Lieutenant James Grant, who in 1801 had built a simple cottage there and planted crops, named the island after his friend John Churchill who had supplied him with the seeds.

Another well-known Churchill name has been Victor Churchill, reputed to be the oldest butcher’s shop in Australia.  James Churchill opened his shop in the Sydney suburb of Woollahra in 1876, delivering meat with five horses and carts.  Son Victor was in charge until 1953 when the business was sold (although the name has remained).

Churchill Surname Miscellany

Alternative Origins of Churchill.  In Devon the name Churchill was recorded as Courcesville in 1201.  This translates as “the spring on the hill,” from the Old English cruc meaning “hill” and wiella “spring.”  Then there is the place-name Churchill in north Somerset which some say gave rise to the Churchill family name.

Burkes Peerage has a different derivation.  They give it a family origin, from Gitto de Leon in Normandy whose grandson Roger de Courcil came to England in 1066 with William the Conqueror and was granted lands in Somerset.  Over time the name changed from “de Courcil” to – “de Churchil,” as with Sir Bartholomew de Churchil, a “great warrior” of the 12th century – and then by the 15th century to Churchill.

This was the claimed lineage of the Dorset Churchills and the John Churchill who became the Duke of Marlborough.

The First Winston Churchill.  A clever youth, Winston had been admitted to St John’s College Oxford at sixteen, but he left without taking a degree.  During the Civil War “he was a youthful, staunch and bigoted adherent of the King,” according to his famous descendant Sir Winston Churchill.  He saw extensive action as a Captain in the King’s Horse before being shot through the arm in December 1645.

Like his father Winston married well in 1648, wedding Elizabeth Drake (a relative of Sir Francis Drake) who came with a sizeable dowry.  This was just as well because Winston had fallen out with his father over money.  The formidable Lady Drake opened her home at Ashe House in Devon to the impecunious newly-wed Churchills.  The family remained with her until the death of Winston’s father in 1659.

The gravestone in St Andrew’s Church at Minterne was pointedly inscribed: “This stone was erected and laid here at the cost of the widow Mrs Mary Churchill out of her affection and in commemoration of her beloved husband John Churchill.” Mary requested in her will of 1675 that, with Winston’s permission, she be buried with her husband. In the event she was laid to rest with her mother in Wootton Glanville.

The Duke of Marlborough.  To military historians David Chandler and Richard Holmes, Marlborough is the greatest British commander in history, an assessment that is shared by others, including the Duke of Wellington who could “conceive nothing greater than Marlborough at the head of an English army.”

However, the Whig historian Thomas Macaulay denigrated Marlborough throughout the pages of his History of England.  In the words of historian John Wilson Croker, he pursued the Duke with “more than the ferocity, and much less than the sagacity, of a bloodhound.”  Macaulay adopted his unfavorable reading of Marlborough straight from Swift and the Tory pamphleteers of the latter part of Queen Anne’s reign. According to George Trevelyan, Macaulay ‘instinctively desired to make Marlborough’s genius stand out bright against the background of his villainy.”

It was in response to Macaulay’s History that Winston Churchill wrote his four volume work Marlborough: His Life and Times.

Mary Churchill’s Crime.  On January 17 1671 Mary Churchill confessed that she had gotten with child by Thomas Doty, son of Mayflower passenger Edward, with whom she had “carnal copulation” three times.  The first occasion was last July 15, the second was on on August 8 last, and the third was about a fortnight after.

Sergeant Ephraim Tinkham testified that around the stated second time he had gone to Joseph Churchill’s house to speak to him, but no one had answered his knock.  He went in and, after he heard some noise from another room, Mary Churchill came forth.  He apparently had reason to suspect that Thomas Doty was there for he asked Mary if Thomas was in the house.  After some pause she said that he was.  Tinkham and Doty went away together, Tinkham warning him to take heed lest evil come of such carriages.

Mary Churchill later was fined for her transgression.  At the time of her court hearing Thomas fled the colony.  Records showed that they later married sometime after their first child was born.

Churchill Downs.  Churchill Downs, located on Central Avenue, Louisville in Kentucky, is a thoroughbred racetrack that is famous for hosting the Kentucky Derby annually.  It officially opened in 1875 and held the first Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks that same year.

The track was named after John and Henry Churchill who leased the land, some eighty acres, for the racetrack to their nephew, Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr.  Clark was a grandson of explorer William Clark and the president of the Louisville Jockey Club.  The Churchills was sizeable landowners in the area and raced their own thoroughbreds as a hobby.

Josiah Churchill and Lockeport.  In 1762 two families from Massachusetts journeyed to Nova Scotia in an effort to find a new colony that was closer to the rich fishing grounds of the Grand Banks.  When they found the sheltered Allendale bay, they knew they had found a gem in the rough.  Situated halfway between the colonies in New England and the fishing grounds, their new town would be a centre for both fishing and trade.

The patriarchs of those first two families, Josiah Churchill and Jonathan Locke, went on to become the captains of industry in the area.  Churchill was the first mayor of the township of Locke’s Island.   And Locke’s Island (later to be called Lockeport) entered a period of booming industry, with hotels, trade warehouses, and multiple fish plants being built.

Reader Feedback:  Curious as to Josias Churchill’s English lineage as he is my ancestor.  Warren Churchill (

John Wilton and Sarah Churchill.  For years a romantic story with a sad ending was told and retold at Wilton family picnics in Ontario.

John Wilton was a young, ambitious gardener with the famous Churchill family who met and fell in love with their daughter.  Her family were not happy about this arrangement as he was not of her social standing.  But they, both being of full age and in spite of family objections, chose to be married.  They married on Christmas Day, 1809.

John and Sarah then departed to Canada to begin a new life together.  Her parents placed money in Chancery for their daughter.  Sarah died shortly after arriving in Canada.  The money was never claimed.

Jamie Blandford.  Jamie Blandford, the eldest surviving son of the 11th Duke of Marlborough and his first wife Susan Mary Hornby, is the heir apparent to the dukedom.  He has been largely disowned by his father who has disapproved of his lifestyle.

In 2009 Blandford appeared in the BBC documentary Famous, Rich and Homeless.  On the first night he claimed to sleep in the carpark of a five star hotel (despite the fact that his sleeping bag was discovered unopen).  On the second night he demanded to be housed in a hotel.  He said he would sleep rough on the third night but then withdrew that promise and refused to participate further in the program.

Commenting on this, fellow participant Hardeep Singh Kohli said: “It’s disrespectful to all the people out here.  If he doesn’t have the bollocks to do this, he can fuck off.”

Churchill Names

  • John Churchill was the commander who made his name and his fortune by his military victories in Europe between 1704 and 1709.  He was ennobled as the Duke of Marlborough and built his grand home, Blenheim Palace, just outside Oxford.
  • Lord Randolph Churchill was a Victorian politician (father to Sir Winston Churchill), who was briefly in the 1880’s Chancellor of the Exchequer.
  • Sir Winston Churchill was Prime Minister and Britain’s war leader during the Second World War.
  • Peter and Odette Churchill were British spies during the Second World War who were captured yet survived the German concentration camp.

Churchill Numbers Today

  • 9,000 in the UK (most numerous in Hampshire)
  • 5,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 7,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).

Churchill and Like Surnames

From our surname selection here, these are the names of those who have risen in British politics to become Prime Minister from the time the office was first established in the 1730’s (although missing here are noteworthies such as Palmerston, Gladstone, Disraeli, Attlee, and Thatcher).


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Written by Colin Shelley

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