Prior Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Prior Meaning
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 Resources on

Prior Ancestry

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
    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
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.

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

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
writer and economic thinker of his day and founder of the Dublin
Society in

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.

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.

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
the Civil War.”

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

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

. Joshua Prior came to South
Africa from Essex in 1834. According to
the family stories, he arrived as a young boy
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.

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

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
  • 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 Miscellany

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

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:

parents of
Colonel Samuel Pryor, grandmother’s father, were from England and had
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
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

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
‘world’s wide common.’  I found him here
among the Osages, with whom he had taken refuge from his country’s
and was living as one of their tribe where he may yet be, unless death
discharged the debt his country owed him.”

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

Finally in 1831
Pryor was appointed by the Government as
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.

Prior left with
his family in 1834 for America.
Unfortunately he fell overboard with all their money during the
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.

Prior departed with his family three years later on the Augusta
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
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.

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
.  His Cornishness never left him and in later
life he published two books – Cornish
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
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 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.

Select Prior 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)


Select 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.




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