Pope Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Pope Surname Meaning

In the early Christian Church, the Latin papa or “father” was first used as a title of respect for male clergy of every rank. In the western Church it gradually came to be restricted to bishops, and then only to the Bishop of Rome – i.e. the Pope.                

As a surname Pope might not even apply to a man of the church. It could have been adopted by someone who had played the part of the pope in a pageant or play. Some have suggested that it might also have been used as a nickname describing an austere or vain man.

Pope Surname Resources on The Internet

Pope Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern England, Scotland, Ireland and Germany
  • to America, Canada and Australia

England.  Pope has been a surname of southern England – both SW England and SE England.

SW England. The Pope name appeared at an early time in the town of Gloucester. In the late 14th century John Pope was a prominent goldsmith there and other Popes were cloth manufacturers. Four Popes represented Gloucester in a total of ten Parliaments between 1376 and 1397. In 1388 two of them, John and Stephen, were returned together.

The Pope name had extended by the 15th century:

  • west to Devon and Exeter – where Walter Pope was mayor in 1452
  • and east to Hampshire and Fordingbridge – where John Pope was born in 1461.

It was said that some of the early Popes in Fordingbridge had been head foresters. John Pope died there in 1530 a wealthy man. Many of his descendants were to prosper in the next century. Some of them moved to Hertfordshire and some to Sussex. Both produced emigrants to Virginia in the 17th century.

There was a Pope family at Dorchester in Dorset dating back to Alexander Pope in 1589. As Eldridge Pope & Co Ltd, they took over the local brewery in 1870. These Popes had a distinguished World War One record. They acquired the Wrackleford estate outside of Dorchester which remains with descendants today.

SE England.  There were early sightings of the Pope name in Suffolk. Hugh le Pope appeared in the 1273 Suffolk hundred rolls. Ralph Pope was recorded at Bentley in 1316. Gentleman Henry Pope was born in Mildenhall in 1465. He made his home in Oxford; as did his descendants.

A Pope family had migrated to Oxfordshire from Kent around the year 1400. They were small landowners until Sir Thomas Pope became one of the richest commoners in England as treasurer of the Court of Augmentations during the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530’s. Much of his wealth went to the foundation of Trinity College in Oxford. The Pope line which followed descended from his brother John Pope of Wroxton.

The 18th century English poet Alexander Pope considered himself to have had this Oxford ancestry. His father Alexander was a London linen merchant.

Scotland.  The Popes, or Papes or Paips, were one of the prominent families in east Sutherland in the north of Scotland – from the 17th to 19th centuries. Family tradition has it that the first Pope in the area was a clergyman, a “stranger” named Pope, who had arrived in the late 1400’s.

William Pape or Pope was first recorded in that locality in 1580. He and his brothers Thomas and Charles were involved in a brawl at Durnosh in 1608 that came to be known as the Pope Riot. Many descendant Popes were clergymen, most notably the Rev. Alexander Pope of Reay.

“In 1732 Alexander Pope travelled by pony all the way to Twickenham in London to meet his namesake Alexander Pope the poet. Although he at first got a cool reception, the two men eventually became friends and the poet presented the Rev. Pope with a subscription copy of the Odyssey.”  

Some of these Popes emigrated to Australia in the 19th century.

Ireland. Popes were to be found in Waterford in the late 1700’s and possibly earlier. Alexander and Richard Pope had a large shipping business at that time and made a fortune shipping wine during the Napoleonic embargo. Their home was at Sion Hill House in Ferrybank.

Another Alexander Pope, born in Cork, was an actor on the London stage in the late 1700’s. As was his wife Maria. But her life was tragically cut short at the age of 28 when she died of a stroke in 1803.

America.  The origins in England for two early Pope arrivals in New England and one early arrival in Virginia are unclear.

New England. John Pope, a weaver by trade, was first recorded in 1624 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Later Popes of his line started a sawmill there, which then expanded into a larger timber and shipbuilding operation at East Machias in Maine (and subsequently relocated to the West Coast).

Another line established itself in Hartford, Connecticut where Albert Pope began manufacturing bicycles in the 1870’s. The family was covered in Charles Pope’s 1888 book A History of the Dorchester Pope Family.

Thomas Pope, a cooper, came to Plymouth in 1627 and moved to Dartmouth around 1673. His son Seth was a leading merchant there. The book record here was Dora Pope’s 1917 book Genealogy of Thomas Pope.

Virginia.  A Pope here of uncertain origins was Nathaniel Pope, first mentioned in Maryland in 1637. He affixed a mark to his writings, so he was probably illiterate at that time. He migrated to Westmoreland county, Virginia in 1651 where he prospered as a planter and merchant. His oldest daughter Anne married Colonel John Washington and was thus the great grandmother of George Washington.  

“At the time of his death in 1660 Nathaniel Pope was among the county’s wealthiest residents. The Pope and Washington families were bound there by more than blood. County documents are filled with their business and legal ties.”  

His line in America was first covered in G.W. Beale’s 1904 book Colonel Nathaniel Pope and His Descendants.

There were many Nathaniels among his descendants, including two Nathaniel grandsons that have often been confused. John Pope, the son of a Nathaniel one generation later, toured the southern states in 1790 and wrote a book of his travels (A Tour). He died in Georgia in 1795. He has sometimes been confused with his cousin John Pope who moved with his family to Wilkes county, Georgia in 1800.

Other lines of this Pope family led to Kentucky where Colonel William Pope first laid out the town of Louisville. One son John, known as “One Arm Pope,” became a US Senator for Kentucky in 1807, another son Nathaniel a federal judge in Illinois and friend to Abraham Lincoln.

Another Virginia Pope line began with James Pope of Northumberland county, first recorded there in 1657. Leroy Pope moved with his parents to Georgia in 1790 and then purchased land around Big Spring in Alabama in 1809 where Huntsville now stands. His mansion there, Poplar Grove, was one of the earliest brick structures in Alabama and remains a prominent Huntsville landmark.

William Pope came to Nansemond county sometime in the 1650’s. A subsequent William, a Quaker, migrated to Edgecombe county, North Carolina in the 1730’s. A century later Dempsey Pope migrated to Tennessee and then to Illinois.

German.  One line of Popes was originally Pabst from Germany and came to Berks county, Pennsylvania in the 1730’s. Pope descendants moved first to North Carolina and then to Cherokee county, Georgia.

Canada. Thomas Pope was a Devon timber merchant who sent three of his sons – John, William and Joseph – to Prince Edward Island in 1818 in search of timber.  

Joseph Pope remained there. Through his farm and shipyard at Bedeque he became one of PEI’s most important merchants. His son James was an influential PEI politician, serving as premier of the colony in the 1860’s and in 1873 when the island joined the Canadian confederation. Another son Henry, also a proponent of confederation, had been the editor of The Islander newspaper.

John Pope stayed in PEI for a while but then returned to Devon as a merchant in 1826. His two sons followed different directions – George as a Christian missionary who spent forty years in southern India and William as a Methodist theologian in Devon. The third in PEI meanwhile, William Pope, ended up as a surveyor in Liverpool.

Australia.  A Pope family from the Isle of Wight were assisted immigrants who arrived in NSW on the William Metcalf in 1838. In 1846 George Pope became the postmaster at Ryde, a position he was to hold until his death in 1871.

Another assisted immigrant was Samuel Pope from Devon who came to Melbourne on the Royal Consort in 1844. A year later he had moved to Gawler, South Australia where he farmed and ran the Wheatsheaf Inn. He lived there until his death in 1892.

The Rev. Henry Pope from Cornwall was a later arrival in South Australia, around 1867. He was a Methodist minister, first stationed at Moonta and Kapunda where many Cornishmen were miners.

Pope Surname Miscellany

John Pope of Gloucester.  John Pope appears to have been the forebear of the Popes of Gloucester.  Born in 1313, he was a goldsmith there who, although ordered to be superseded as coroner in 1367, still occupied the office in 1370.  He was bailiff of the town in 1372 and in 1379.  A churchwarden of Trinity church, he was still alive in February 1381.

Robert Pope was possibly his brother.  He was elected an MP to Parliament in 1376 and in the next year was chosen as the town bailiff for the first of four annual terms.  Another brother is believed to have been Stephen.  He was appointed Gloucester’s coroner in 1384. Meanwhile John’s son Thomas was an MP in Parliament in 1393 and again in 1397.

Alexander Pope the Poet.  Alexander Pope was born in 1688 to a wealthy Catholic linen merchant, Alexander Pope, and his second wife, Edith Turner.   At the age of twelve, he contracted spinal tuberculosis, which left him with permanent physical disabilities. He never grew taller than four and a half feet, was hunchbacked, and required daily care throughout adulthood.

His irascible nature and unpopularity in the press are often attributed to three factors: his membership in a religious minority, his physical infirmity, and his exclusion from formal education.  However, Pope was bright, precocious, and determined and, by his teens, was writing accomplished verse.

An acknowledged master of the heroic couplet and one of the primary tastemakers of the Augustan age, Alexander Pope was a central figure in the Neoclassical movement of the early 18th century.  He was known for having perfected the rhymed couplet form of his idol John Dryden and turned it to satiric and philosophical purposes.

His mock epic The Rape of the Lock (1714) derided elite society, while An Essay on Criticism (1711) and An Essay on Man (1734) articulated many of the central tenets of 18th century aesthetic and moral philosophy.  Pope was also known for his involvement in public feuds with the writers and publishers of low-end Grub Street which led him to write The Dunciad (1728), a scathing account of England’s cultural decline at the time.

The Popes of Dorchester in World War One.  The Popes of Dorchester had one of the most remarkable records of any family in the First World War.   Alfred Pope of the Eldridge, Pope and Co brewery had fourteen children and three more in-laws who all saw some kind of service in the War.

Ten of Alfred’s sons saw active duty; and three of them died.

Alec, the second eldest son, fought in both the Boer War and the First World War and was awarded the DSO in 1917.  But due to excessive exposure to the cold, he succumbed to severe bronchial attacks in early 1918 and had to be invalided out.  He lived to see the Armistice.  But a year later the bronchial attacks recurred and he died.

Of Alfred’s four daughters, three of them were actively involved with the Red Cross and nursing in Dorchester.  The other daughter, Violet, became a war widow after her husband was killed in action towards the end of the war.

A special commemorative book was privately published in 1919, with a foreword by Thomas Hardy.  Only two copies of the book are now available in libraries and archives in the UK.

Thomas Pope of Plymouth and Dartmouth, Massachusetts.  Thomas Pope, born about 1608, came to the Plymouth, Massachusetts colony in 1627 on the Mary and John.  He was an able man of decided opinions and overall an independent positive character.

He received a grant of land, served in the colonial army, was a surveyor, constable, and served on the jury. However, his tendency to express his opinions freely, together with his ready temper, involved him in disputes which led to arrests and fines on several occasions.

In 1673 he removed himself with his family to Dartmouth.  He landed on the shores of the river Acushnet where he negotiated with the Wampanoag Indians for one hundred and seventy two acres of land.  This became the Pope homestead.  Thomas willed this homestead to his youngest son Isaac on his death ten years later. Today it comprises the larger portion of the site of the city of Fairhaven, Massachusetts.

Nathaniel Pope Confusions in Virginia.  Confusingly, two Nathaniel Popes lived in the same area of Westmoreland county, Virginia around the year 1700, both being grandsons of the original landowner Nathaniel Pope.

Nathaniel Pope alias Bridges married Jane Brown around 1690 and had become an established Westmoreland attorney by 1705. A Pope family artifact unearthed at George Washington’s birthplace – a wine bottle seal marked “N. Pope 1715” – probably belonged to this Nathaniel.

Meanwhile the mariner/merchant Nathaniel Pope was first recorded as married in 1704.  Nathaniel alias Bridges’ son John married his cousin Elizabeth Pope, daughter of the mariner/merchant Nathaniel, making the identification by alias important.  This John was listed as a planter in 1728 when he sold his mill at the head of Popes Creek to Augustine Washington.

Leroy Pope the Father of Huntsville.  For many years Colonel Leroy Pope has been known as the father of Huntsville.  Local children learn it at school.  And Pope’s image is at the center of a two-story mosaic in the Madison county courthouse.

The mansion built by Leroy Pope, completed in 1814, sits high atop Echols Hill.  It could have had commanding views of downtown Huntsville.  But another man in the town, Joshua Cox, had different ideas.  When he built his home below the bluff, he made sure that the ceilings were extra tall so that his two-story home blocked Pope’s view of downtown Huntsville.  It was known thereafter as the Spite House.

Joshua Cox was not to have the last word. Apparently he did not have clear title to his property.  The man who did was Leroy Pope. In a firestorm of anger and bitterness Cox was evicted from the house and the Spite House became the new home of Pope’s daughter.

Joseph Pope on Prince Edward Island.  Joseph Pope was born in Plymouth in 1803, the sixth of Thomas and Elizabeth Pope’s sons.  In 1818, at the age of just fifteen, he made a trip to Prince Edward Island in Canada to visit his elder brothers John and William. They had been sent there by their father Thomas to buy lumber. In time John and William returned to England.

But Joseph remained.  Through his farm and shipyard at Bedeque he became one of PEI’s most important merchants.  In 1830 he was elected to the Provincial Legislature and was to remain there for twenty three years, twice being elected speaker of the House.

In 1853, disillusioned about the political situation in PEI, Joseph decided to leave the colony. He and his third wife Eliza departed aboard a schooner he had fitted out “in elegant style” with the intention of moving to Australia. However, his wife’s seasickness forced a premature end to the voyage at Liverpool where his brother William worked as a surveyor.  Joseph was to remain there for fifteen years.

In 1868 Joseph Pope returned to a Prince Edward Island in which the politics of confederation was the dominant issue.  By then his two sons James and William had forged successful political careers and both were pro-confederation.  Joseph lived on and died in Charlottetown in 1895 in his ninety third year, outliving them both.

Pope Names

  • Sir Thomas Pope founded Trinity College in Oxford in 1555.
  • Alexander Pope was the 18th century English poet best known for his satirical verse.
  • John Pope, known as One-Arm Pope, was the US Senator for Kentucky from 1807 to 1813.
  • Generoso Pope was the Italian-American businessman who acquired The National Enquirer tabloid in 1952.

Pope Numbers Today

  • 17,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 23,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 12,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Pope and Like Surnames

These surnames might suggest the high and mighty of the medieval world.  Instead, they were probably the actors in a village medieval pageant who adopted the name of the character they were playing.


Written by Colin Shelley

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