Gray Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Gray Surname Meaning

This surname – Gray or Grey – 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 Scotland 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.

Gray Surname Resources on The Internet
Gray and Grey Surname 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 of England.

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 Thomas was imprisoned in Edinburgh castle (where he wrote his book about Anglo-Norman 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 early 1400’s.  It was said that Andrew Gray killed the Constable of Dundee in 1465 over an insult to his father and was 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 Skibo Castle in 1565.

A notable Gray whaling family operated out of Peterhead in NE Scotland in the 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 Gray 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 Columbia 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 in Georgia and Arkansas.  These Grays were first Presbyterians and then Methodists.

Caribbean.  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 1915.  

“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 seventy eight!


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 fishermen.


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
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Gray Surname 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 1282.

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.

Their 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 estate forfeited 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 his Queen.  She was the mother of the two princes who were later murdered in the Tower of London.

Her sons by Sir John Grey benefited from the royal patronage. Thomas Grey was made the Marquis of Dorset in 1475 and it was he that 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 border:

Four 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 held 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 the English Crown, as died on the battlefield, in the service of that same crown.

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 and Canada.

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 boat 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.

The 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.

“Sixteen 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.”

Arrangements 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.

Among 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 the 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 Vice President.  Tompkins played an active role in organizing a state militia during the War of 1812 against the English.

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 under 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.

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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 Anatomy.  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.

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)
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.

BirdFoxKiddShakespeare
BrownGayLightfootSwift
CoxGouldMoodyWagstaff
CroweGrayPeacockWilde
DrinkwaterHardySavageWren


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