Green Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Green Surname Meaning

Green could have various origins; locational, one who lived near the village green; or a nickname, someone who was fond of dressing in green. The Green root is the Old English grene, which is reflected in early spellings of the name (such as William Grene in the 1230 Yorkshire rolls).

Green and Greene are the two main spellings in the English-speaking world.  Greene is now scarce in England, but relatively more common in Ireland and America.

Green Surname Resources on The Internet

Green and Greene Surname Ancestry

  • from England and Ireland
  • to America, Canada and Australia

England.  The county of Northamptonshire in the middle of England has had some notable early and later Greenes.

Northamptonshire. A prominent Greene family were the Greenes of Buckton, later Boughton, in Northamptonshire. The first recorded was Alexander de Boketon Grene, said to a younger son of the Norman de la Zouche family, in the early 13th century. 

Their numbers included Sir Henry Greene, the foremost lawyer of his day and the Chief Justice of England in the 1360’s. They lived at Greene’s Norton and they sponsored the annual Boughton Fair which is still held to this day. 

These Greenes then ran into royal trouble.  One was executed in 1400, another died in the Tower of London in 1417, and his son fled abroad. Later Greenes were Yorkists. John Greene ran into more royal trouble in 1485 when the Yorkist Richard lost the throne and the Lancastrian Henry Tudor ascended.  He fled, but later was said to have turned up again in Dorset. 

Greenes from Oundle in Northamptonshire were 19th century brewers of beer in Bury St. Edmonds. They left their name to the Greene King brewery chain. From the Benjamin Greene line of the family in Hertfordshire came Graham Greene the writer and Hugh Carleton Greene, the Director General of the BBC.  A cousin of theirs was the writer Christopher Isherwood whose mother Kathleen was a Greene. 

Elsewhere.   Greenes at Bobbing in Kent can be traced to the early 1500’s.  They were originally Nortons, but became Greene through an illegitimate line.  However, the illegitimate Sir Thomas Norton Greene was able to secure the favor of Henry VIII and obtained Bobbing Manor at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries.  Descendants were Catholic and early settlers in America. 

Greenes at Newmarket in Suffolk dated back to the 1540’s with Richard Greene, the first of the medical Greenes, being born there.  He was followed by his son Robert and by his grandson Francis.  Francis died in Newmarket in 1674. 

Other Greenes in the 16th century were to be found:   

  • in Essex at Navestock, where John Greene built his house in 1565, and at Toppersfield, the home of Thomas Greene
  • and in Suffolk at Wilby in Suffolk.  Wilby has the following memorial plaque:  “Here resteth the body of Richard Greene gentleman. He departed this life on May 21st 1658 aged 80 years. His life a warfare, his death victorious, his body under hope, his soul glorious.”

Thomas Greene was the town clerk at Stratford from 1603 to 1617, the time of Shakespeare.  He was the son of Thomas Greene, a mercer at Warwick.

By the 19th century the Greene spelling in England was being displaced by Green. Green was then widespread throughout most of the country, with the exception of the northeast and southwest extremities.

Ireland. In Ireland the surnames Greene and Green are quite prevalent, often being an anglicization of the Gaelic names O’Huaithnin or O’Huainidh which also meant green.

There were Gaelic Greenes in county Clare and in Ulster.  Daniel O’Hunonyn from the Greenes in Clare became an Admiral in the Spanish navy around 1750. Augustine Greene of Liscannor was a 19th century lawyer in Clare. His daughter Henrietta Greene, a nun, went by the name Mother Clare.

Godfrey Greene, a captain with Cromwell’s army in 1649, took possession at that time of the Old Abbey in Shanid barony, Limerick.  But his family line appeared to have died out by the late 1700’s.

America. John Greene from Dorset, a surgeon, came to America in 1635, first settling in Salem, Massachusetts and then moving as a Quaker to Rhode Island where he founded the town of Warwick in 1642.. The Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene, born in Warwick in 1742, came from this family.

Maryland and Virginia An arrival on the Arc and Dove in 1634 was Thomas Greene from the Catholic family at Bobbing in Kent. Thomas headed for the colony of Maryland and was briefly, in 1647, its governor.  His family then received a land grant in Charles county where, much later in 1850, the family home Green’s Inheritance, was built.  It remained with the family until 1941.

Another Thomas Greene, also from Bobbing in Kent, was nicknamed “the Seagull” because he was born on the ship Speedwell while it was enroute from Holland to America in 1635, in this case to Virginia.  He settled in James City where he married Martha Filmer, the daughter of a British officer there.

His grandson Thomas Green, a colonel in the Revolutionary War, afterwards moved to Georgia and later settled in Mississippi where he was one of the most influential men in the new territory.  His son Thomas ran the Springfield plantation in Natchez district.  The house, built there around 1806, still stands as an impressive example of the architecture of that time.

Pennsylvania Thomas and Margaret Green were Quakers from the Birmingham area of England who came to Penn’s Pennsylvania around 1690.  They settled in Chester county:

  • one line of descendants ran through James Green who operated the Green Tavern in Chester county around the time of the Revolutionary War.  They moved into western Pennsylvania and later to Minnesota.
  • another line went through Jesse Green, a pioneer settler in Tennessee in the 1780’s and one of the founders of the city of Knoxville.  His son Jesse Green was a redoubtable Methodist preacher.

Other Arrivals. Later came Greene and Green arrivals from Ireland.  John Green born around 1750, for instance, was the son of Irish arrivals in Mecklenberg county, North Carolina.  A latter John Green here was one of the early settlers of Carroll county, Tennessee

The Green surname was also often adopted by German or Jewish immigrants (from the German grun) and even by incomers from Sweden.

Canada. Greens were blacksmiths at Trinity in Newfoundland since the 1750’s.  John Green’s death was recorded there in 1764.  Six generations of the family operated the smithy.  It is not known where they came from.

Other early Greens in Canada were Loyalists:

  • Benjamin Green from Massachusetts who was a British naval officer at Halifax in Nova Scotia in 1750 and subsequently a justice of the peace there.
  • and Adam Green from New Jersey who moved his family to Stoney Creek, Ontario in 1792.

Adam’s youngest son, known as “Billy Green the Scout,” became famous at the Battle of Stoney Creek in 1813 when he was able to pass the American troop movements to the Canadian side and stop their advance. Billy himself died in 1877. His farm at Stoney Creek was to stay with the Green family for six generations.

Lorne Greene the actor, famous for playing Ben Cartwright in the western Bonanza, was born in Ottawa of Russian Jewish immigrant parents who had changed their name from Grinvosky to Green.

Australia.  Thomas Green, perhaps of convict origins, arrived in South Australia from Tasmania as Greenough in 1836.  But he had changed his name to Green when he married his Irish Catholic wife Mary in 1842.

Although he drowned in the Torrens river nine years later, the Green family line continued – after Mary Green remarried – as farmers out near Redhill until later Greens moved back to Adelaide in 1925.

Green Surname Miscellany

The Early Grenes of Buckton.  The de la Zouche family is thought to have arrived in England from Brittany sometime around 1160.  Alexander de la Zouche was given an estate and the title of Great Baron by King John in 1202. The estate was that of Grene de Boketon in Northamptonshire.

The line then went to Walter de Boketon who was in the Seventh Crusade in 1244 and his son John who died in the next crusade in 1271.  John left a one year old son, Thomas, who became Sir Thomas de Grene and was followed in the mid-13th century by another Sir Thomas de Grene.

They lived in high style if this account is anything to go by:

“The Lords de Grene lived in state.  They wore rich apparel, belted with a gold or silver girdle to which was attached a purse, rosary, pen, ink horn, set of keys, and an elaborately chased and sheathed dagger.  These accoutrements showed their rank.  When they rode, they always wore gold spurs, and their armor was brightly polished and magnificent. They wore robes in Parliament, hats and plumes at court and at the king’s coronation, and a crimson velvet cap lined with ermine and having a plain gold band.  Their servants wore the Greene livery, which was blue and laced with gold.“

John Greene the Yorkist.  John Greene was reputedly one of the top swordsmen in England and a favorite of the Yorkist Richard III. In 1483 he was used by the King as a messenger to the Keeper of the Tower of London to give notice that his two nephews, “the little Princes in the Tower,” should be put to death.

When Henry VII came to the throne in 1485 he bore enmity against the House of Greene. Old Sir Thomas Greene was imprisoned in the Tower on the charge of plotting treason.  John Greene was held in particular low regard because he had played the role of messenger in Richard’s wicked designs.  John fled England lest he be captured by the King.

It was said that “John the Fugitive” did return to England and for safety reasons assumed the name of John Clarke.  Despite this change of name, his identity was discovered.  He again fled England; and his further history is unknown.

Greene Brewers.  The Greene family had been involved in the woollen drapery business in Oundle, Northamptonshre for most of the 18th century.  It was Benjamin Greene, born in 1780 and the youngest of thirteen children in the family, who was to move them in a different direction.

Benjamin had been apprenticed as a young lad to the London brewing firm of Whitbread in the late 1790’s.  He took that training with him when he started his brewing business in Bury St. Edmonds in 1801 and five years later took over the established Westgate brewery there.

Benjamin later got sidetracked by sugar plantations at St. Kitts in the West Indies that he had inherited from a neighbor.  One of his sons Charles was said to have fathered thirteen children there from slave women before dying in 1840 at the age of nineteen.  Two other sons, William and Benjamin, also came out to St. Kitts to manage the sugar plantations.  William died there in 1881.  But Benjamin returned to England and became one of London’s leading sugar merchants.

It was yet another son Edward who was to refocus the Greene attention on beer.  He expanded and transformed their brewery business between 1840 and 1870.  Edward was also the MP for Bury St. Edmonds from 1865 to 1885.  In 1887 he merged his brewery with the King brewery to form Greene King, a major brewery still around today and still based in Bury St. Edmonds.

Memorials of Nathanael Greene.  There are countless cities, counties, and parks in America that have been named in honor of Nathanael Greene, the Revolutionary War General.

A large bronze statue of him stands on a marble pedestal by the steps of the Rhode Island State House and, inside, there is a large oil portrait of him.  His statue represents the state of Rhode Island at the National Hall of Statuary in the Capitol at Washington.   And a monument to Greene (under which his remains were interred) stands at Johnson Square in Savannah.

He is also memorialized by an equestrian statue designed by Francis Packard at the site of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in Greensboro, the city named after him in North Carolina.  Another statue of him stands in the middle of the traffic circle between Greene Street and McGee Street in downtown Greensboro. Greeneville in Tennessee and Greenville in South Carolina were also named after him.

Jesse Green, Son of Jesse Green the Tennessee Pioneer.  Jesse Green Jr. was born in East Tennessee in the Winton neighborhood, on the south side of the French Broad River in 1791.  His parents were devout Methodists. His literary opportunities were limited and in his youth he acquired only the rudiments of an English education.

However, it was said that as a preacher he was a man of marked ability.  He was small of stature, yet erect and manly in form and bearing and looked like one who was ordained to lead and govern.

His eyes were expressive of sympathy, ardor, purity, and love; and when lighted up with the inspiration of his theme, they were electrifying.  His sermons often contained the rare combination of the metaphysical and the emotional. He commanded the attention and respect of the most intelligent hearers. “He spake as one having authority” and his denunciations of sin and appeals to sinners were sometimes terrific.

He died in 1847 and the St. Louis Methodist conference had this to say about him:

“Brother Green entered the ministry in early life with qualifications for extraordinary usefulness; and during the whole period of thirty years to his death his course in the itinerancy was alike laborious, self-sacrificing, holy, and successful.”

Henrietta Greene, Mother Clare.  Augustine and Catherine Greene raised five boys and six girls at Liscannor in county Clare.  Four of their daughters became nuns.

Henrietta was the second youngest of these daughters and she entered the religious sisterhood of Nazareth in London before her 15th birthday in 1881. Her convent name was Mother Clare.

Seven years later she left London on the long sea journey for Australia and made her way to the gold mining town of Ballarat. This was to be her spiritual home for the rest of her life.  She did return to London for a while and in 1929, at the invitation of Archbishop Mannix, opened Nazareth House in Melbourne which she directed for six years. Then she returned to her beloved Ballarat, where she died in 1945.

Green and Greene.  Green and Greene are the two main spellings in the English-speaking world.  Greene is now scarce in England, but relatively more common in Ireland and America (and particularly in North Carolina).  The table below shows the approximate number of Greens and Greenes today.

Numbers (000’s) Green Greene Total
UK   160     6   166
Ireland     2     5     7
America    95    30   125
Elsewhere (1)    48     8    56

(1)  Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Green Names

  • Nathanael Greene was one of Washington’s generals in the Revolutionary War.
  • Charles Green was an early aeronaut, making the first ascent with a hydrogen gas balloon in 1821.
  • Benjamin Greene was the 19th century founder of the Greene King brewery chain based in Bury St. Edmonds.
  • John and Benjamin Green, father and son, were prominent architects in NE England in the early 19th century.
  • Graham Greene was the highly regarded 20th century writer of novels and thrillers.
  • Al Green is a popular soul and gospel singer.
  • Marjorie Taylor Greene is the noisy far-right supporter of Donald Trump who became a Congressman in 2021.

Green Numbers Today

  • 166,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 150,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 63,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

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Written by Colin Shelley

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