Knight Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Knight Surname Meaning

The root of the name knight is the Old English criht, meaning “youth” or “serving lad.” Originally it may have been an occupational name for s domestic servant.

But in the feudal system introduced by the Normans, a knight came to describe a tenant bound to serve his master as a mounted soldier. This would describe a man of some substance since the maintenance of horses and armor was an expensive business.

In time the term knight became an honorary title conferred in a ceremony called knighting by a king or a man of noble birth on someone who had served him well.

The surname Knight, however, is more likely to have applied to a servant in a knightly house or to someone who had played the part of a knight in a pageant or had won the title in some contest of skill. Its first appearance as a surname was Godefridus Niht in the Norfolk pipe rolls of 1166. Walter le Knit was recorded in Oxfordshire in 1200 and William Knight in Worcestershire in 1221.

Knight Surname Resources on The Internet

Knight Surname Ancestry

  • from SE England
  • to Ireland, America, Canada and New Zealand

England. Knight has been a surname mainly to be found in southeast England, from Hampshire through Surrey and Sussex into Kent, London, and Essex.

SE England. A Knight family was recorded from the 13th century at Chawton in Hampshire where they were tenant farmers. John Knight was a clothier in Elizabethan times and his family became prosperous enough to acquire the medieval Chawton manor house and rebuild it along Tudor lines.

“The Knight family contributed £50 to Elizabeth’s fighting fund for the battle of the Armada for which they were rewarded with a commemorative fireback which was displayed at the Great Hall in Chawton.”

Chawton House was later to become associated with the writer Jane Austen. Her brother Edward had been adopted by the childless Knight family and had taken the Knight name. The Chawton estate remained with the Knight family until the 1990’s.

Knights from Romsey in Hampshire date from about 1500. John Knight was described as one of the “guardians of the church of Romsey.” He helped save Romsey Abbey from the greed of Henry VIII at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. Another Knight at that time was Thomas Knight who owned lands in what is now West Norwood in south London. These lands are still known as Knights Hill.

West Midlands.  The Knight name also cropped up in the West Midlands. It was to be found as Knyght in Worcestershire in the 14th century. A Knight family held the Barrells estate in Warwickshire from 1554 to 1856. Richard Knight, born in Madeley in Shropshire, was one of the great names among the early English ironmasters, owning furnaces in Shropshire, Staffordshire, and Worcestershire.

“Richard Knight was a great character of his time and widely known in the West Midlands. He liked to ride a fine horse and in that way covered many miles of the wild country between Leintwardine and the Worcestershire Stour, collecting and carrying large sums of money in his saddle bags. It was said that he loved to entertain his friends and hold convivial parties round his great punch bowl. This silver bowl, made in London in 1708, is still in use by his descendants.”

He established his family at Downton castle in Herefordshire. Later Knights of this family were Richard Payne Knight, the classical scholar, and his brother Thomas, the horticulturist. Richard and his wife Elizabeth had fifteen children, of whom nine married and five have lines traced to the present day.

Elsewhere.  Another early Knight sighting was at Banbury in Oxfordshire. John Knight was probably the Banbury baker who first set up the Knight fortunes in that town in Elizabethan times. These Knights owned the Reindeer Inn during the 17th century. Later Knights were involved in the Oxford canal traffic when the canal came to Banbury in the early 1800’s.

Scotland and Ireland. The Scottish variation McKnight – originally McNaughton – may have originated with the Strathclyde Britons of Lowland Scotland. The earliest sightings were in Ayrshire and Galloway. Many of these McKnights dispersed to northern Ireland in the 17th century and subsequently, sometimes becoming Knights, to America. The Irish McKnight is also a part translation of Mac an Ridire, meaning “son of the rider or knight.”

America. There were many early Knights into New England.

New England.  George Knight was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire around 1643. His wife Eleanor, whom he married in 1665, was apparently a very racy woman.  “Eleanor was accused of adultery by the Puritan authorities around 1665, the same year she married George Knight and became the mother to their son Nathan. Within months of George’s untimely death in 1671, she married Henry Brookings.”

Nathan Knight moved to Scarborough, Maine around 1720 and ran the Blackpoint ferry there. Robert Knight, a merchant from the west of England, predated him in Maine by some seventy years.

Richard Knight came to Providence, Rhode Island around 1640. Later Knights here were members and deacons of the local Baptist church, although a certain Richard Knight did earn himself a scolding in 1785:

“Brother Richard Knight should be suspended from communing with this Church at present by reason of having kept a house of merriment and friendship with the vain and worldly people – allowing them in fiddling and dancing and some kind of gaming frequently for a long time and having then been absent from the

From Rhode Island later came the brothers Robert and Benjamin Knight who created in New England what was to become – by the late 19th century – one of the largest cotton manufactures in the world. Their legacy is that well-known American brand, Fruit of the Loom.

Another Knight line was to be found in Charlestown, Massachusetts from the 1650’s. A descendant Joseph Knight befriended and employed a young Joseph Smith who went on to found the Mormon movement. Joseph Knight himself headed west with the church in 1846, but died enroute at the age of seventy four before he could reach Utah. A later Knight, Jesse Knight, was one of the few Mormons to involve himself in mining in the West.

Pennsylvania.  Abel Knight was one of the passengers on the Welcome which brought William Penn in 1682 to what was to be Pennsylvania. His brother Thomas arrived at the same time and settled in New Jersey. Johann Knecht came from Germany to the Whitemarsh township in Pennsylvania in the early 1700’s. He and his family later became Knights.

Virginia and the South.  Knights also entered via Virginia and there were many early Knight families in Georgia and Missouri. Peter Knight appeared in land grants in Virginia from 1638. John Knight and his family had moved from Virginia to Georgia by 1803. Charles Knight, born in Virginia, was in Louisiana by 1810.

A descendant from Peter Knight, it is thought, was the Miles Knight who fought with the 2nd North Carolina Regiment in the Revolutionary War. His son John “Jackie” Knight was the patriarch of the Knight family that migrated to Jones county, Mississippi around 1820. One of the county’s largest slaveholders, Jackie was the grandfather of Newton Knight who would lead a famous (or infamous) rebellion against the Confederate cause during the Civil War.

Canada. James Knight was an early name in Canadian history. He had joined the Hudson Bay Company from England as a carpenter in 1676, grew rich as a factor at the company’s main trading post, but died in a vain attempt to discover the Northwest Passage through Canada to Asia.

New Zealand. William and Mary Ann Knight left Cornwall with other Cornish families in 1839 to seek a new life in New Zealand. Their journey on the Duke of Roxburgh was rough, as were their early years at the Lower Hutt settlement near Wellington (the Knight family were to live there until 1952). Elaine Bolitho’s 2011 book Knights from Cornwall recounts this history and the subsequent tales of the following six generations of Knights.

Knight Surname Miscellany

Knights in Romsey, Hampshire.  Romsey is a small market town in the valley of the river Test seven miles NW of Southampton.  It is principally known for its 12th century Norman church, originally the chapel of a Benedictine nunnery.  Romsey Abbey was famous for its roses at the time of William Rufus in the late 11th century.

The parish registers of Romsey were kept in the Cathedral and began in 1569, although there were a few scattered records of earlier dates at Romsey and Timsbury.  The name of Knight was common in the town at that time.

The earliest record was that of John Knight of Romsey who died in 1549.  This John helped save Romsey Abbey from the greed of Henry VIII at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. His will lists his wife Maude and his two sons John and William.  Knights from Timsbury a few miles north of Romsey date from later in the 16th century. They were apparently a minor gentry family who had come originally from Northamptonshire.

The Knights and The Reindeer Inn in Banbury.  It would seem that a baker called John Knight, then living in the timber-framed building which now forms the western half of the Reindeer Inn’s frontage, bought a cottage or shop adjoining it.  In 1570 he demolished this cottage and built an extension to his house which now forms the eastern part of the Reindeer.  It probably became an inn sometime between 1564 and 1570. John and Joan Knight were recorded then as its proprietors.

By 1637, just before the English Civil War, the Reindeer was perhaps Banbury’s most important pub.  It is believed that Oliver Cromwell planned the Battle of Edge Hill at the Reindeer.  Wiiliam Knight paid the chief rent for the Reindeer in 1664 and was probably its landlord at that time.

In days gone by, its location on Parsons Street was on the rough end of town and was generally well populated with ladies of the night and the activities that surrounded them.  One of the strangest stories was that a knife or sword belonging to the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin was discovered in the loft above the Globe Room.

Trade at the Inn was probably declining by the early 18th century as the Knight family sold off the Reindeer in 1706.  It passed through several hands since that time and is still flourishing as a pub in Banbury today.

Richard Payne Knight at Downton.  The main building of Downton Castle in Herefordshire was finished in 1778, though the domed dining room, the Great Room, was added in 1782.  For some years afterwards work continued on the decorating and furnishing of the classical interior and in laying out the grounds in the naturalistic style beloved by Richard Payne Knight.

Richard Payne Knight, it was said, was a man endowed by nature and by circumstance with gifts far exceeding most.  In addition to his many valuable paintings, he collected a fabulous library at Downton where he would often read for ten hours at a stretch.

In his social life he was an extreme sophisticate, suffering the foolish not at all. He always surrounded himself with the elegant, the intellectual and the artistic.  Yet he had a sense of humor and wrote amusing verses satirizing social occasions  He would also eulogize some of the beautiful women of his acquaintance – such as Lady Oxford, beloved of Lord Byron, and Lady Hamilton, who with her husband and with Lord Nelson he had entertained at Downton.

Edward Knight at Chawton House.  Chawton House was owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward, known as Edward Knight after having been adopted by the Knight family.  Edward had inherited the Chawton House estate in Hampshire and offered his widowed mother and two sisters a home there.  It was from the cottage in Chawton that Jane Austen started her most productive writing period from 1809 to 1817.

Edward possessed a silk suit which has survived and was recently described as follows:

“The matching silk frock coat and breeches are dated to approximately 1789.  The coat is fully lined with a yellow silk taffeta fabric, with the sleeves being lined in a white plain weave linen fabric.  The olive green breeches are constructed in ribbed silk and feature a wide waistband, loose fitting seat and finished below the knee with narrow cuffs.  The coat and breeches are a good example of the fashion of the day, with Edward’s penchant for oversize buttons!”

There is also a painting of Edward Knight which was thought to have been commissioned in Italy and painted in Rome in early 1790 while he was completing his Grand Tour of Europe. The fashionably dressed Edward was depicted standing among classical ruins in a leafy glade compete with grotto.  The portrait used to hang in the dining room of Chawton House until the estate was sold in the 1950’s.

Elder Knight, Primitive Baptist in Georgia.  William Anderson Knight, born in North Carolina in 1778, moved with his parents to Georgia when he was about ten.  He married Sarah Cone there in 1798 and they were one of the first settlers in Wayne county. William was later to serve as its state senator and one of its justices of the peace.

Elder Knight later became active in the Primitive Baptist ministry.  He was ordained to the Gospel ministry in 1830 and, in the years that followed, became very zealous in the spread of the Gospel into frontier country, organizing several new churches there.

He and his pastor, Elder Matthew Albritton, often went together on trips that required days, many miles from home.  Elder Knight stayed busy holding special services in the homes of the settlers, visiting the sick, conducting funerals, organizing “arms” of Union Church that later became independent churches and assisting in constituting new churches over an area a hundred miles or more in extent.

His missionary labors precluded him from serving as pastor of many of the churches that wanted him.  He assisted in the constituting of Unity Primitive Baptist Church in Lowndes county in 1841 and became its first pastor, serving until his death eighteen years  later.

Newton Knight and the Free State of Jones.  Newton Knight lived onto 1922 and it was not until after his death that accounts of Knight and his followers during the Civil War in Jones county, Mississippi were brought out by descendants of him and other local figures of those years.

In 1935 Knight’s son Tom Knight published a book about his father, The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight.  Tom portrayed his father as a Civil War-era Robin Hood who refused to fight for a cause with which he did not agree.

Taking a contrary view was his great niece Ethel Knight.  She wrote a 1951 history entitled Echo of the Black Horn: An Authentic Tale of ‘he Governor of the Free State of Jones.  She criticized Knight as a traitor to the Confederacy and castigated him for his marriage to a freedwoman.  Ethel portrayed Newton as a backward, ignorant, murderous traitor. She argued that most members of the Knight Company were not Unionists, but had been manipulated by Knight into joining his cause.

Fruit of the Loom.  The Fruit of the Loom brand dates back to 1851 in Rhode Island when Robert Knight, a Rhode Island textile mill owner, visited his friend, Rufus Skeel.  Mr. Skeel owned a small shop in Providence that sold cloth from Mr. Knight’s mill.

Mr. Skeel’s daughter painted images of apples and applied them to the bolts of cloth. The ones with the apple emblems proved most popular.  Mr. Knight thought the labels would be the perfect symbol for his trade name, Fruit of the Loom – a name bearing resemblance to the phrase “fruit of the womb,” an expression meaning “children” which can be traced back to its use in the Bible.

In 1871, just one year after the first trademark laws were passed by Congress, Robert Knight received trademark number 418 for the brand, Fruit of the Loom.

Knight Names

  • Richard Knight was one of the early English ironmasters.
  • Frank Knight pioneered the Chicago school of economics in the 1930’s.
  • Bob Knight was the long-time coach of the Indiana Hoosiers, winning more college basketball games than any other coach.
  • Phil Knight was co-founder and later chairman of Nike, the sportswear company.
  • Gladys Knight is the American lead singer of Gladys Knight and the Pips, often known as the “Empress of Soul.”

Knight Numbers Today

  • 64,000 in the UK (most numerous in Kent)
  • 50,000 in America (most numerous in Florida)
  • 32,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Knight and Like Surnames

These were status positions within the feudal position of that time – usually positions serving noble families, lords of the manor, or in the church.  Here are some of these status position surnames that you can check out.




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Written by Colin Shelley

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