Duke Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Duke Surname Meaning 

The surname Duke is generally considered to be derived from the various Middle English words duc, duk, and douc that came out of the Old French duc meaning “leader.”  The patronymic form Dukes (son of Duke) accounts for about 25% of the Duke and Dukes today.

Duke Surname Resources on The Internet

Duke Surname Ancestry

  • from England
  • to America, Caribs (Barbados) and Australia

EnglandThe surname Duke was originally the Norman le Duc and started to appear in England in various places – London, Bedfordshire and Warwickshire – in the late 12th century.

The Norman family identified with Roger le Duc, who was sheriff and mayor of London between 1225 and 1230, was particularly conspicuous in the 13th century.

Other Dukes of London were successful in the wool trade and helped with the royal finances in the next century. The best known of these was Thomas Duke, citizen and skinner of London, who died in 1422. The Dukes in Suffolk claimed descent from Roger le Duc and held land at Shadingfield and Brampton. These Dukes were Royalist during the Civil War but recovered their position with the Restoration.

The Duke name was first in the west country in the early 14th century in Wiltshire. It appeared a century later in Gloucestershire, where the Dukes of Cirencester were merchants engaged in trade with France, and in Devon where Duke merchants from Exeter had established themselves along the coast at Otterton. Richard Duke prospered from the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530’s, purchasing Otterton Priory and remodelling it into a mansion.

Later Dukes were country gentry until the male line ran out in 1741.  “The last Duke was going to build a new house in Otterton Park. The entrance pillars are still visible there. But sadly he fell off his horse and died before the house was built.”  

By the 19th century, the main location for Dukes was London and the southeast, with other Dukes in Yorkshire and relatively few left in the west country.

Ireland. Two Dukes, John and Robert Duke, were Cromwellian soldiers who were granted the Newpark estate in Sligo. Their descendants were landowners in Sligo and Roscommon in the 19th century.  

America. Henry Duke was an early immigrant to Jamestown, Virginia sometime in the 1630’s. His descendants moved westward in Virginia and were later to be found in Georgia and Alabama. One line is thought to have run to Taylor Duke in Orange county, South Carolina and to his son Washington Duke.

William Duke came to North Carolina from Dorset in the 1720’s. Joseph Dukes was recorded in Orangeburg, South Carolina in 1757. Thomas Goodman Duke and William Duke were ship captains based in Charleston who travelled extensively to the Caribbean at that time.

The Duke tobacco dynasty began with Washington Duke, a poor farmer in Orange county, South Carolina at the onset of the Civil War. Afterwards, his tobacco focus paid huge dividends and his son James was to become the leader of the American Tobacco Company trust by the turn of the century. The Duke family fortune was to end up with his daughter, Doris Duke.

Caribbean. Humphrey Duke from Devon emigrated to Barbados in the 1630’s and is believed to be the ancestor of many later Dukes on the island. Henry Duke was Solicitor-General of Barbados, but was killed in a hurricane in 1781 while trying to protect his wife and two daughters.

Later Dukes in Barbados could have had Irish blood in them, descendants of Mansergh Duke, a doctor from Sligo who had arrived in the 1890’s. A later Duke of this family, nicknamed Konks, was the Police Commissioner of Barbados.

Australia. William Duke came to Australia from Ireland on the Lady McNaughton in 1840. He was a portrait and landscape painter who also worked extensively as a scenery painter with a number of theatrical companies. He died in 1853 at the relatively young age of 38.

Duke Surname Miscellany

Duke and Dukes Today

Numbers (000’s) Duke Dukes Total
UK    7    2    9
America   11    6   17
Elsewhere    8    1    9
Total   26    9   35

The Will of Thomas Duke, Skinner, in 1411.  “To be buried in St. Katherine’s Chapel, which he had lately rebuilt, in the church of St. Dunstan West in Fleet Street.

To Sir John Walshford, perpetual vicar of the said church, and churchwardens of the same, certain rents in the parish of St. Dunstan aforesaid for the maintenance of a chantry for the good of his soul, the souls of Agnes his wife and others, as directed.

In default the said rents to go over to the rector and churchwardens of the church of St. Brigid in Fleet Street for the maintenance of a chantry in the said church of St. Brigid.

To John Duke his son tenements called le Tabard on the Hoop, le Crane on the Hop, le Newe Taverne, and others in the parishes of St. Brigid and St. Dunstan and elsewhere in tail;

Remainder in trust for sale for pious and charitable uses.”

George Duke’s Royalist Plea.  George Duke from Wandsworth, of the Duke Suffolk family, was Royalist during the Civil War and, according to him, paid a price:

“Engaged in the late wars, but was taken prisoner in December 1646, kept in the New Prison near Thames Street on pump water and pottage till April 1647, and then turned out, half dead and naked into Lambeth Fields.

Made his way back to Windsor where he live, and engaged in a design, which was long continued, to surprise the castle for the King; had spies at the Council of State and Cromwell’s Council and spent large sums on intelligence and holding correspondence with His Majesty and his friends.

Raised 500 men for Sir George Booth’s rising.

Has often helped the King’s friends with necessaries and money and thus spent 20 years and most of his fortune, having also lost £3,000 purchase money and £1,200 a year, by suppression of his office in the Star Chamber.”

This plea at the time of the Restoration got him the position of Secretary to the Council of Trade.

William Duke – from Devon to North Carolina.  Daniel Goodloe wrote an account in North Carolina in 1911 of the arrival of his forebear William Duke in America.  The following are some extracts from this account:

“William Duke, born in 1709, was a younger son of Raleigh Duke of Hays Farm in Devon.  There was an inter-connection here with the family of Sir Walter Raleigh.  His birthplace was there (a picture of it can be seen in the first volume of Hawk’s History of North Carolina) and Hays Farm is thought to have come to the Dukes through their intermarriage with the Raleighs.

His parents dying when he was a small lad, the estate passed, according to English law and custom, to his oldest brother.  William Duke was left poor and was brought to Virginia by his relative Colonel William Byrd of Westover on the James river.  Byrd it was who reared him and gave him the rudiments of a good business education.

In 1727 Colonel Byrd was appointed one of the Commissioners to run the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina.  He was so pleased with the soil of what is now Warren and Granville that he called it “the Land of Eden” and pronounced it a great country for a young man.  A short time afterward, William Duke, probably through Colonel Byrd’s influence, moved to North Carolina, and in 1735 married Mary Green there and they raised their children at Purchase Patent.”

Washington Duke and the Start of the Tobacco Dynasty.  The Civil War was upon him and, in late 1863, Washington Duke found himself at 43 compelled to join the Confederate Army.   He decided to sell his farm belongings and convert all his means into tobacco.  During his brief military career, he was captured by Union forces and imprisoned in Richmond, Virginia.  At the end of the war the Federals released him and shipped him to New Bern, North Carolina.  Lacking money and transportation, the veteran walked back to his homestead, a distance of 135 miles.

Washington Duke’s trek back to Orange county, South Carolina after the Civil War marked the beginning of his rise to prominence in the tobacco business.  He gathered his family and returned to his virtually barren home.

Duke and his children then began their smoking tobacco operation in a small log structure, now known as the first factory.  Though a good part of Duke’s stored leaf had been confiscated by soldiers while he was away, the family members were able to fashion by crude hand processes the remaining portion into smoking tobacco which they could trade readily for needed supplies and sometimes cash.

Washington took the manufactured leaf on a peddling trip into eastern North Carolina, using a broken-down wagon and two blind mules to transport him.  The trip was a success.  Merchants in small towns and villages were the best customers. Money realized from the sale of the tobacco was used to purchase family necessities such as lard and bacon and a surprise bucket of sugar for the children.

Doris Duke, Tobacco Heiress.  Born in 1912, Doris Duke was the only child of American tobacco baron James Duke and his wife Nanaline. When she was born, the newspapers christened her “the richest little girl in the world.” Her father fell ill with pneumonia in 1925 and died that year, leaving the bulk of his fortune to her.  On his deathbed James cautioned her to “trust no one,” a piece of fatherly advice that would forever resonate in her mind.

After a failed marriage, Doris Duke’s behavior and indiscreet affairs scandalized society.  When at 27, she became pregnant, it was speculated that any number of men could have been the father. The child, a girl named Arden, was born prematurely in July 1940 and died within 24 hours. Told by doctors that she was never to have children again, the devastated Duke consulted psychics to contact her dead daughter.

Over her life Duke used her money to travel the world, communing with the likes of Indian mystics and African witch doctors.  She employed a permanent staff of over 200 to look after her and manage her five homes – a 2,000-acre farm in New Jersey, a Park Avenue penthouse, a hillside mansion in Beverly Hills, a palace in Hawaii, and a summer home on Newport, Rhode Island.  Although her lifestyle was unconventional, her attitude toward her father’s fortune was not.  During her lifetime, Duke was to increase her father’s fortune fourfold.

However, Duke was the most reluctant of celebrities.  For over 50 years, she sought to avoid the glare of publicity, hiding from cameras and refusing interviews.  When she died in 1993 at her Beverly Hills mansion without family or friends, Duke’s billion-dollar legacy was left in the sole control of her butler, the semiliterate alcoholic Bernard Lafferty.  In death, the reclusive Duke again became the focus of the world’s attention.

Duke Names

  • Washington Duke was the founder of the Duke tobacco dynasty that went on to form the American Tobacco Company.
  • Geoff Duke was the English motorcyclist who dominated world motorcycle racing in the 1950’s.
  • Patty Duke was a youthful American TV star of the 1960’s.

Duke Numbers Today

  • 9,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 15,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 9,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)


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Written by Colin Shelley

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