Prior Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Prior Surname Meaning

The spelling can be either Prior or Pryor. The surname originates from the Old English word prior, which described an official that was ranked below an abbot in a monastery.

Prior Surname Resources on The Internet

Prior and Pryor Surname Ancestry

  • from England (southeast and Cornwall) and from Ireland (Leitrim and Cavan)
  • to America, South Africa and Australia

England.  Prior emerged as a surname in the 13th century in southern England. The spelling initially could be variable – de Preyers, de Priers, Priorur or Priour. The early Priors were to be found in Essex, Hertfordshire and Northamptionshire:

  • the Priors in Essex, dating from 1218, were initially de Priers. Sir Andrew Prior held their old manor at Boys Hall in 1507.
  • Thomas Priour was MP for Hertfordshire in 1313 and his younger brother John sheriff of London in 1317
  • while Henry de Preyers held the manor of Strixton in Northamptonshire in 1317, although it left the family about a hundred years later.

There was a longstanding Prior family at Godmanstone in Dorset from the 1600’s or possibly earlier. Martha Prior who died in 1889 was possibly their last representative in the village. Their numbers included Matthew Prior who experienced success as a writer and a diplomat in London in the early 1700’s.

Southeast. The main Prior numbers, however, have been in London, Essex and the southeast. Essex Priors have included:

  • Priors from Great Hallingbury dating back to the 1600’s.
  • John and Timothy Prior who were bakers in Coggeshall in 1823.
  • a Prior family who owned the mill at Halstead in the mid-19th century. Harold Prior, a steward from Halstead, was one of the survivors of the Titanic disaster of 1912.
  • while another Prior family ran barges out of Burnham in east Essex around this time.

A Prior family, which became listed as J.J. Prior in 1934, has been operating ships along the Thames, Colne and Medway since 1870.

Priors in Heathfield and Bexhill in Sussex date from the 1600’s. Two Prior families from Bexhill emigrated in the 1830’s, one to America and the other to Australia.

Cornwall.  Pryor not Prior has been the preferred spelling in Cornwall. A Pryor line in Wendron began with the marriage of John and Margaret Prior in 1565. The spelling changed to Pryor in the middle of the next century. Later Pryors of this family emigrated to South Carolina in the 1780’s and to New Zealand in the 1840’s. Richard and Margaret Pryor were married at Sithney nearby to Wendron in the early 1720’s.

The mining depression in Cornwall in the 19th century caused an exodus, including many Pryors. James Pryor and his wife Caroline departed for mining opportunities in Australia in 1866. The daughters of William Pryor, a blacksmith in Redruth, found work in the cotton mills of Yorkshire in 1877. Eventually their father and the rest of the family joined them.

Ireland.  Prior in Ireland was an anglicized form of the Gaelic Mac an Phríora, meaning “son of the prior.” Most of the Priors in Ireland came from either county Leitrim or county Cavan.

Some were English implants. Thomas Prior arrived from Essex with Cromwell and was granted land at Rathdowney in county Laois in 1667. Son Thomas was killed by Irish rebels in 1700. But grandson Thomas was a notable writer and economic thinker of his day and founder of the Dublin Society in 1731.

America.  Prior and Pryor arrivals in America came from England, Ireland, and a smattering from Germany. They generally came as Prior. The spelling soon became Pryor. Pryors outnumber Priors by three to one today.

An early arrival in Virginia was Robert Pryor, of uncertain origins in England, who was first recorded in Gloucester county in 1689. The main line went through his eldest son Colonel Samuel Pryor. Some of these Pryors moved south to Mississippi and Alabama in the early 1800’s. Luke there became the US Senator for Alabama and his brother John Benjamin a thoroughbred racehorse trainer.

However, the best-known of these descendants was the one who had remained in Virginia, Roger William Pryor.

“Roger William Pryor was a newspaper editor and politician who became known for his fiery oratory in favor of secession. He was elected to both national and Confederate office and served as a general for the Confederate Army during the Civil War.”

There was another Pryor line, beginning with John Pryor in the 1730’s, in Amherst county, Virginia. John moved with his family to Kentucky in 1783. His son Nathaniel Pryor was a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, fought in the War of 1812, and later was an agent to the Osage Indians in Oklahoma territory. The town of Pryor and the Pryor river in Oklahoma were named after him.

One Pryor line from Gloucester county seems to have run via Kentucky to Samuel Pryor in NW Missouri in the 1850’s. He was a bandmaster who founded the original Pryor Band. His son Arthur became a famous trombone player and a soloist in the Sousa Band.

South Africa. Joshua Prior came to South Africa from Essex in 1834. According to the family stories, he arrived as a young boy of fourteen with just a gold sovereign in his pocket. He ended up farming in the Free State. Prior Grange at Springfontein, which has been with the family since 1854, serves today as a guest and working farm.

Australia. The copper mines in South Australia attracted a number of Cornish Priors and Pryors in the mid-19th century.

Thomas Prior and his family arrived in 1849. The men went to work at the Burra mines. Later they became successful farmers. Two families arrived in 1866:

  • James Pryor, a mine agent, came to the Moonta mine at that time. His son Oswald Pryor made his name as a cartoonist at the Adelaide News; as did his great grandson Geoff at the Canberra Times.
  • Samuel Prior meanwhile came to farm in Brighton, which he did for fifty years. His son Samuel became editor and publisher of The Bulletin in Sydney.

Prior and Pryor Surname Miscellany

Early Priors in England.  Burke’s 1844 Encyclopedia of Heraldry had the following commentary on early Prior records in England:

“The family of Prior formerly settled in the counties of Essex, Oxford, Lancaster, and Cambridge, derived from John Priorur who held a charter from Henry III and did homage for the same in the year 1218.   The surname of Priorur, Pryour, Prior, though variously written in early times, is one and the same as can be shown by authentic records.”

Sir John and Sir Edward de Prieres were two knights from Essex in the late 1200’s. In 1274 Sir Thomas de Preyers held the manor of Great Malden in Essex for the service of half a knight’s fee.

Matthew Prior’s Upbringing.  Matthew Prior was not that proud of his humble origins.  He came from a family of farm laborers at Godmanstone in Dorset.  When he was born, his eldest uncle Christopher lived at the family home at Godmanstone. Another uncle Arthur had prospered as the owner of the Rhenish Wine Tavern at Whitehall in London. But his own father George who had also moved to London died destitute there while Matthew was still a boy.

Matthew fortunately was cared for by his uncle Arthur and made a name for himself as a poet and satirist. This enabled him to secure the patronage and elevation into the political and diplomatic circles of his time.

Prior and Pryor Arrivals in America.  The spelling on arrival tended to be Prior mainly, on the basis of shipping records to America.  Ireland and England provided most of those coming.

Country Prior Pryor Total
Ireland   238    61   299
England   229    65   294
Germany    42    42
Elsewhere    13     4    17
Total   522   130   652

But once in America most Priors became Pryors.

Early Pryors in Virginia.  Judge James Mitchell of Pennsylvania had saved the following note made by his grandfather James (who died in 1869) in his family Bible:

“The parents of Colonel Samuel Pryor, grandmother’s father, were from England and had settled in Caroline county, Virginia.  Colonel Samuel married a Miss Thornton, whose parents were also from England, and they lived in Caroline, Hanover, and Spotsylvania counties.  They had eight sons and two daughters.  Joseph was the youngest of the sons and the least of them, weighing 220 pounds.”

Nathaniel Pryor Among the Osage Indians.  In 1821 General Thomas James was passing through Oklahoma territory and met up with Pryor who had come with a party of Osage Indians down the trail that crossed the Arkansas near present-day Tulsa. James spoke very feelingly of the condition in which he found Pryor:

“On the reduction of the army after the war, he was discharged to make way for some parlor soldier and sunshine patriot and turned out in his old age upon the ‘world’s wide common.’  I found him here among the Osages, with whom he had taken refuge from his country’s ingratitude and was living as one of their tribe where he may yet be, unless death has discharged the debt his country owed him.”

Pryor kept a little trading establishment a mile and a half above the mouth of the Verdigris river. There he was reported as being married to an Osage woman.

Finally in 1831 Pryor was appointed by the Government as a sub-agent for the Osage at the pitiful salary of five hundred dollars per year.  However, he died a month later at the Osage sub-agency, southeast of where Pryor, Oklahoma now is. 

Priors from Bexhill in Sussex.  Two Prior families from Bexhill in Sussex emigrated in the 1830’s, one to America and the other to Australia. Both had their problems.

James Prior left with his family in 1834 for America. Unfortunately he fell overboard with all their money during the trip over and his widow Judith arrived in New York penniless with nine children in tow.  They survived in Springfield, Massachusetts and a branch of the family through son Thomas moved to Buffalo in upstate New York.

Henry Prior departed with his family three years later on the Augusta Jesse for Australia.  They settled around Yass in the Southern Tablelands of NSW.  Henry dispensed booze there and died in 1861.  His wife Eliza remarried.  It seemed that some of these Priors got mixed up with the outlaw bushrangers in the area.

Oswald Pryor and His Cornish Heritage.  Oswald Pryor was born in the copper mining town of Moonta in South Australia in 1881, the son of a Cornish mine agent.  He learnt to draw at school and by the age of twenty was submitting his cartoons for publication.  His work was appreciated and he was encouraged to use his Cornish compatriots at Moonta as subjects.  The miners, their “cappens,” preachers, chapels and goats were comically portrayed to a large and appreciative audience.

Pryor was a small light man whose humor was droll and whimsical.  In the 1920’s, after the closure of the Moonta mine, he moved to Adelaide and became the cartoonist for the Adelaide News.  His Cornishness never left him and in later life he published two books – Cornish Pasty in 1961, a collection of his work, and Australia’s Little Cornwall a year later.  The latter work took him back to the town of his birth, Moonta.  He attempted to answer why this town had such a distinctive Cornish character.

“Why was Moonta’s copper mining community so self-consciously such a place apart?  How had it been able to proclaim its status as Australia’s Little Cornwall?  What was it that lay behind Moonta’s Cornish myth?”

Prior and Pryor Names

  • Matthew Prior was an English poet and diplomat of the early 18th century.  
  • Thomas Prior was an Anglo-Irish writer who founded the Dublin Society in 1731. 
  • Richard Pryor was a manic American comedian, actor, writer and social critic of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Prior and Pryor Numbers Today

  • 16,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 10,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 11,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Prior 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.


Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *