Gray Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Gray Meaning
This surname has two likely origins.
The first was Old
English and a nickname or personal name for a man with grey hair or
beard, from
graeg, meaning grey.  Although the name means the same in
and Ireland, name holders there took their name from the early Gaelic
word riabhach
which also means brindled or grey.   Gray in Ireland can also
be an
anglicized version of the Irish MagRaith.
The second origin is French
and locational, from the village of Croy or Gray in Normandy, where
perhaps the
de Grey family originated.
Select Gray Resources on The Internet

Select Gray/Grey Ancestry

England.  Anchetil de Greye, a vassal of William the
Conqueror, came to England after the Norman Conquest and he and his
heirs were
granted estates at Rotherfield in Oxfordshire and
Chillingham in
Northumberland. Prominent descendants of his in the 13th century were:

  • Henry
    de Grey of Grays Thurrock in Essex, courtier to King John
  • John de Grey, Bishop
    of Norwich
  • and Walter de Grey, Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor

Greys held Wilton castle in
Herefordshire on the Welsh Marches from 1295 and later, as the Earls
and Dukes of
Kent, were influential in English political life until the 18th century.  Gray’s Inn in London took its name in the
14th century from these Greys.  The last
Grey at Wilton, Thomas Grey, died in 1614 after having been involved in
a plot
against the King.  The Greys at Ruthin
castle in Wales held out longer, ending with Henry Grey in 1740.

Another Grey line, beginning in the 15th century, was
originally based at Groby in Leicestershire.
These Greys, later created the Dukes of Suffolk, got embroiled
in royal
politics when they married into the Tudor line.
Lady Jane Grey reigned briefly as an unwilling Queen.  Her beheading in 1554 was followed by that of
her father Henry and her two brothers.
Henry’s executed head turned up later.

Howick Hall in Northumberland meanwhile has been with the
Grey family
since 1319.  Charles
Earl Grey of Howick Hall was British Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834
at the
time of the Great Reform Bill.  The
original Earl Grey tea was blended at that time to suit the water at
Howick and
was later marketed by Twinings. From a
junior line of these Greys came Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign
Secretary at the outbreak of the First World War.  Lady
Mary Grey, the last of the Greys at Howick, died in 2001.

The surname spellings are either Gray or
Grey.  However, Grey has become very much the outnumbered party in
England, with Grays
exceeding Greys
by almost ten to one.

Scotland.  A Gray family in
Scotland has also come from this Norman origin, starting with Hugo de
Gray in
1248.  Sir Andrew Gray was said to have scaled the rock of
Edinburgh Castle when it was taken from the English in 1312.

Grays were also along the border with
England.  John Gray had been mayor of Berwick in 1253.  But his grandson Thomas, from Heaton in
Northumberland, took the English side.
He almost lost his life to William Wallace in 1297; and his son
was imprisoned in Edinburgh castle (where he wrote his book about
history entitled Scalalcronica).  Yet there were divided
loyalties for Grays
and many took the Scottish side

Grays were first established at Broxmouth in
Roxburghshire before making their home at Foulis in Perthshire in the
1400’s.  It was said that Andrew Gray
killed the Constable of Dundee in 1465 over an insult to his father and
forced to flee to the north.  There he
founded a new Gray line in Sutherland.
His descendant John Gray was made the hereditary Constable of
Castle in 1565.

A notable
Gray whaling family operated out of Peterhead in NE Scotland in
early/mid 1800’s.  Between 1811 and 1826 David Gray
made at least twelve voyages
to the whaling grounds off Greenland and Canada.  David’s
son John was also a whaler; as were
his grandsons David, John and Alexander.

There were Gray Border rievers and Grays in
Argyllshire.  Many of them moved to
Ulster after the Border pacification in the early 17th century. 

Ireland.  The early Grays in
county Down came from Scotland as a result of the
Ulster plantations.  John Gray from
Perthshire had arrived sometime in the 1620’s and settled in Garvaghy.  There were by 1670 reports of seven Grays at
different locations around the county.  Grays of Gray’s Hill in
Bangor emerged
in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Grays were in county Wexford by 1665.  They
were a family divided by the 1798
uprising.  Nicholas
took the rebel side and had to flee to America

America.  Edward
Gray from Stapleford
Tawney in Essex
came to Plymouth in 1643 and, when he died there some forty years
later, he had
become one of its richest merchants.  His
son Edward was the founder of Tiverton, Rhode Island.
Many Grays of this line became sailors and
ship captains.  Captain Robert Gray was a
privateer during the Revolutionary War who headed west in 1792,
pioneering the
American fur trade on the Pacific West Coast and discovering the
river.  He died at sea in 1806.

George Gray, one
of the Scots
captured at the Battle of Dunbar, was transported to Berwick in Maine
in 1650.  His descendants were mainly found
in Hancock county but also later
spread across
Maine.  John Gray, Scots Irish originally
from Argyllshire, arrived in Boston in 1718 and was the forebear of the
Grays of
Worcester and Pelham, Massachusetts.

Another Scots Irish Gray family – John and Agnes
Gray and their offspring from county Antrim – came to Virginia in 1737
and made
their home in Augusta county.  Their sons
William and Samuel migrated to North Carolina and later Grays settled
Georgia and Arkansas.  These Grays were
first Presbyterians and then Methodists

Robert Gray of the Sutherland Grays in Scotland
went out to Jamaica as an adventurer in the early 1700’s.
William Gray followed him and for a time
prospered.  He bought up the Richmond
estate in 1775, expanded it into separate sugar plantations, and was
appointed the
colony’s Provost Marshal General.  However,
he became financially over-extended, had to sell the estate, and died
in 1788 soon after.

The Gray name did not disappear from that
part of northeast Jamaica.  It has been
common in Swift River in nearby Portland parish.

Canada.  Three Gray brothers from Scotland – William,
Alexander, and James – came to Scotland in the early 1820’s with their
mother and
settled in the Don valley near Toronto.
They built mills along the Don river which stayed in family
hands until

“William Gray, born in 1804, was sixty one when George,
the last of his
thirteen children, was born.  George was
still alive and living in the area in 1947 at the spry old age of

William Gray, clerk to Governor Cornwallis, was
recorded in Halifax, Nova Scotia as early as 1749. He
later settled nearby at Sambro.  Tradition
has it that he was Irish.  Another account
has him coming from Holland or Germany.  His
descendants were

New Zealand
.  Alexander Gray,
a blacksmith from Aberdeen, arrived on the Rosanna
with other pioneer Scottish settlers in 1826.
Most of his fellow passengers went onto Sydney.
But Alexander stepped off at the Bay of
Islands and married a Maori woman there.
However, after several children were born, the couple separated.  Alexander himself died in 1839


Gray Miscellany

The Lord Greys of Rotherfield.  In the Domesday Book of 1086 Anchetil de Greye was
described as owning Redrefield (i.e. Rotherfield) in the county of
Oxfordshire.  The de Grey family –
starting with Anchetil, John, Henry and Robert – continued to own the
Rotherfield estate for close on four centuries.

In 1239 Walter de Grey, the Archbishop
of York, bought Rotherfield from his kinswoman, Eve de Grey, in order
to give
it to his brother Robert de Grey.  This
Robert’s grandson, Sir Robert de Grey, fought for King Edward I in
Wales in

John de Grey was probably the most famous of the de Greys of
Rotherfield.  He was one of the original
Knights of the Garter formed in 1344 and confirmed in 1348 when he
occupied the
eighth stall on the King’s side at Windsor Castle.The 5th Baron Grey of
Rotherfield, another John de Grey, also fought in the Hundred Years War.  His brass, dated 1387, can be seen in the
Rotherfield Greys Church, hidden beneath a carpet.  He had no sons
and was the
last of the de Grey Rotherfields.

The Greys and Groby.  The Grey family inherited the Groby estate in
Leicestershire when Sir Edward Grey married Elizabeth Ferrers in 1445.  He was the only Grey to ever live there.

son Sir John lived at his estate in Northamptonshire.
During the turbulent times of the War of the
Roses, he was killed in battle and had his estateforfeited while his
widow and sons were ejected from their home
and made penniless.  Widow Elizabeth was
later introduced to King Edward IV who took pity on her and made her
Queen.  She was the mother of the two
princes who were later murdered in the Tower of London.

sons by Sir John
Grey benefited from the royal patronage.
Thomas Grey was made the Marquis of Dorset in 1475 and it was he
commenced the building of a new Hall at Groby.
Although he and his successors were styled the Barons Grey of
Groby, none
of them ever lived there.  Groby Hall
entered into a period of slow decline during the 1500’s, arrested
partially by
Sir Henry Grey’s reconstruction work in the early 1600’s, before
another period
of neglect and abandonment ensued.

Grays for England and Grays for Scotland.  The
historian Andy King had the following take on
the divided loyalties among the Grays on the English/Scottish

successive generations of Grays spent their adult lives under arms.  Thomas Gray fought at Bannockburn in 1314;
his son fought at Neville’s Cross in 1346; his grandson fought at
Otterburn in
1388; and his great-grandson John fought at Agincourt in 1415.

The first Thomas Gray survived being shot in
the head by a bolt from a springald and was twice captured by the
Scots, at
Melrose Abbey in 1303 and at Bannockburn in 1314.
His son was also captured in 1355; and his grandson’s family was
for ransom when Wark Castle was sacked by the Scots in 1399.

Yet none of this seems to have any significant
impact on the family’s wealth and prosperity, or to have hindered in
the least
their continued scaling of the social ladder.  Indeed, of these
four generations
of Grays, just as many died on the block, executed for treason against
English Crown, as died on the battlefield, in the service of that same

David Gray, Scottish Whaler.  Between 1811 and 1826 David Gray made at least twelve
voyages from Peterhead in Scotland to the whaling grounds off Greenland

In 1825, after capturing seven whales, David was forced to abandon the
whaler Active in Exeter Sound off
Baffin Island after it had become beset in the ice.
The second mate, David’s son John, planned to
stay with the ship for the winter, but then took the opportunity to
depart with
the last of the whaling ships.  John did
retrieve the ship the next spring and brought it safely home.  This was the first time a whaler had been
left in the Arctic over the winter season.

In the meantime David Gray took
command of his former ship Perseverance again
for one season, his last, in 1826.
Sadly, seven years later, he drowned after his small fishing
capsized in Peterhead Bay.

Grays and Greys in the UK.  The Grays outnumber Greys by ten to one in the UK today:

  • Grays
    around 82,000
  • and
    Greys around 9,000.

Grays show concentrations on the east
coast of Scotland, in Northumberland, and also in East Anglia.

Greys also figure in Northumberland and there
appears a surprising cluster of them in the Welsh town of Swansea.

George Gray, from Scotland to America.  In 1650 the Scottish town
of Dunbar was the scene of a bloody battle between the forces of Oliver
Cromwell and a Scottish army led by General David Leslie.
Cromwell easily defeated Leslie’s disorganized
troops.  Three thousand Scots fell in the
battle and another ten thousand were taken prisoner.
The able-bodied of them, about five thousand
in number, were marched south to Durham.
Many of them did not survive.

hundred men taken prisoners
died within a period of 55 days, nearly thirty a day.
It was a revolting picture of savage cruelty,
supplemented by ignorance of elementary hygiene.”

were soon
made to transport the Scottish prisoners to New England. In November
some 150
prisoners were put on the ship Unity.
A number were sent to Lynn, Massachusetts
to be employed in the iron works and others were distributed to
numerous towns
in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.

those believed to have been
part of the Dunbar prisoners settling in the upper part of Kittery in
Maine was
George Gray, the progenitor of the Gray family of Hancock county, Maine. 

Nicholas Gray, from Ireland to America.  The Irish uprising in Wexford in 1798 divided many
families, including the Grays of Whitefort and Jamestown.
Joseph Gray was a captain of the Wexford
militia that year; while his younger brother Nicholas was Secretary to
Rebel Council of Wexford and was active in recruiting troops to the
rebel cause.  After the rebellion was
quashed, Nicholas was
imprisoned in Wexford jail and narrowly escaped with his life.

He decided to
flee Ireland for America due to his rebel principles.
When he arrived in America, he had little
money and no place to live.  But he had
some connections.  He became the private
secretary to New York Governor Daniel D. Tompkins who later became US
President.  Tompkins played an active
role in organizing a state militia during the War of 1812 against the

Nicholas Gray played his
role in this war.  He was an effective
recruiter of new troops and held a command in the line on the frontier
General Smyth.  After this distinguished
service he was appointed Register of the land office in Mississippi
territory.  However, this engagement did
not turn out well.  Poor health resulted
in his early death there in 1819 at the age of 45.


Gray Names

  • Walter de Gray was Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor in the 13th century.
  • Lady Jane Grey was a claimant
    to the English throne in 1553 who lost her head the following year.
  • Thomas Gray was an English
    clasical scholar and the poet who wrote Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. 
  • Charles Grey, the second Earl
    Grey, was British Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834.  He was also
    considered to be the Grey of Earl Grey tea.
  • Henry Gray was the English author of
    the human anatomy textbook Gray’s
      The first edition appeared in 1858.
  • Sir Edward Grey was the British
    Foreign Secretary in 1914 who is remembered by the following lines: “The lamps are going out all over Europe.  We shall not see them lit again in our time.”
  • Zane Grey was the popular
    early 20th century American adventure writer.
  • Simon Gray was a prolific
    postwar English playwright.

Select Gray Numbers Today

  • 91,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Wiltshire)
  • 96,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 52,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)


Select Gray and Like Surnames

Nicknames must have been an early feature of medieval life in a family or community as these nicknames later translated into surnames.  People then lived a more natural life than we do today and the surnames have reflected that.

They could be about color (Brown, Gray, Green etc), whether of hair or complexion or other factors; mood (Gay and Moody are two extremes); youth (Cox and Kidd); speed of foot (Swift and Lightfoot); and actions (such as Shakespeare and Wagstaff).  Then there were likenesses to animals (notably Fox and Wolfe but also Peacock) and to birds (Crowe and Wren for example).  And then there were some extraordinary nicknames such as Drinkwater and Wildgoose.

Here are some of these nickname surnames that you can check out.



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