Radcliffe Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Radcliffe Surname Meaning

The surname Radcliffe derives from the place-name Radcliffe meaning “red cliff.” There have been several place-names called Radcliffe in England. However, Radcliffe as a name has basically come from just one place, the Radcliffe parish in Lancashire some two miles outside of Bury. Radcliffe was one of the only four names of the Salford hundred in Lancashire recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. 

Radcliffe has been the main spelling over time. Spelling variants have been Radcliff and Ratcliffe. Today Radcliffe outnumbers Ratcliffe by almost two to one in England. In both cases the name is mainly to be found in Lancashire.

Radcliffe Surname Resources on The Internet

Radcliffe and Ratcliffe Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Lancashire) and Isle of Man
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Canada, Caribs (Jamaica), and New Zealand

England.  The Radcliffe parish in Lancashire gave rise to the Radcliffe name and family. They were a Norman family who was granted the Radcliffe manor in the mid-12th century and built the fortified Radcliffe Tower. Among their numbers were:

  • Sir William de Radcliffe who was considered one of the twelve trusted knights of the shire and was appointed its High Sheriff in 1194.
  • Sir Richard de Radcliffe, a knight with Edward III in the Scottish wars of the 14th century who was made the seneschal of the King’s forests in Blackburn.
  • his younger son John who fought in the French wars and established the Ordsall line near Manchester in the 1330’s.
  • while a later John Radcliffe who also fought in the French wars and established himself at Attleborough in Norfolk in the early 1400’s.

The Radcliffe tenure at Radcliffe ended when Radcliffe Tower was sold in 1561. The Radcliffe Ordsall line, resplendent in Elizabethan times, lasted longer but died out in 1662. John Radcliffe of the Norfolk line was beheaded for treason in 1495. But later Radcliffes of this line found favor in the Tudor court and were created the Earls of Sussex. The line ended with the death of the sixth Earl, impoverished and childless, in 1643.

Sir Nicholas Radclyffe had secured the Derwentwater estate in Cumberland through marriage in 1417. Richard Radcliffe was a henchman of Richard III who met his end at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The main male line here died out ten years later after his son John was executed in Calais and had his estate confiscated, although the line did apparently survive through another son Nicholas. In favor with James II and created the Earls of Derwentwater in 1688, these Radcliffes lost out through their subsequent support for the Jacobites.

These lines and others, where the spelling was sometimes Radclyffe, were covered in Charles Hampson’s 1940 The Book of the Radclyffes.

Lancashire.  There were a number of subsidiary Radcliffe families that continued in Lancashire, perpetuating the Radcliffe and alternative Ratcliff and Ratcliffe names:

  • there were Ratcliffs at Chapel Hill in Rossendale from the late 1500’s.
  • Edmund Radcliffe was resident in Oldham in the early 1600’s. His son William was rector of Aston and Dinnington for more than forty years.
  • while the Radclyffes were prominent landowners at Chadderton near Oldham for a long time. Their line in fact extended back to the 1400’s when their forebear Robert Radclyffe built Foxdenton Hall in the vicinity. The last of the family, Charles Radclyffe, died in 1953. The Radclyffe comprehensive school at Chadderton was named after this family.

Lancashire accounted for 40% of all Radcliffes and Ratcliffes in England in the 1881 census. By that time the Ratcliffe spelling was outnumbering the Radcliffe spelling by more than two to one.

Elsewhere. The original Radcliffe family extended beyond Lancashire.

There was a line from the Norfolk Radcliffes that was seated at Todmorden in Yorkshire from the 15th century. Radcliffes in Wakefield date from a century or so later. Their most famous member was Dr. John Radcliffe, a society doctor after whom a number of landmark buildings in Oxford were named. Meanwhile another Radcliffe family purchased the Marsden Moor estate near Huddersfield in 1724 and, a century or so later, Rudding Park House near Harrogate.

The largest number in Yorkshire, however, has been in Saddleworth, just across the border from Oldham in Lancashire. Radcliffes held Shaw Hall there in the 17th century and were clothiers in the 18th century.

Lancashire Radcliffes also extended to Mellor in Derbyshire, but close to Manchester. Anthony Radcliffe was a yeoman farmer who died there in 1658. William Radcliffe, the son of a weaver, opened a cotton weaving factory in 1789. His factory included a novel ratchet wheel that enabled the cloth to move forward automatically.

The Radcliffe name also extended further south in Hertfordshire where Ralph Radlcliffe had come from Lancashire in the 1540’s and acquired Hitchin Priory.  A later Ralph Radcliffe inherited the priory and prospered as a Levant trader in the latter part of the 1600’s.

Isle of Man. There were Radcliffes on the Isle of Man by the 1550’s. The forebear of the Radcliffes of Knockaloe Moar was probably Thomas Radcliffe through a propitious marriage. Later Radcliffes generally alternated Thomas and Sylvester until the direct male line ended in 1760. Some Radcliffe descendants were fishermen and fish dealers in the Peel area; others ended up in Castletown.

Meanwhile John Radcliffe, a younger son of these Radcliffes, was recorded at Andreas in 1571 and his descendants were masons and landowners there. The Rev. William Radcliffe of this family was a noted Methodist minister in Victorian times. There were 91 Radcliffes at Andreas in the 1881 English census.

Ireland. The spelling here tended to be Radcliff. The origin for many of them seems to have been Cumberland and they came to Ulster in the early 1600’s under the Protestant plantation scheme. Among the descendants were:

  • Francis Radcliff who was in county Down by the mid-1600’s. His line produced judges, ministers and town officials in the county. the Rev. Thomas Radcliff who was the Anglican rector at St. Paul’s in Dublin in the late 1700’s. His son Thomas fought with Wellington in the Peninsular Wars and later emigrated to Canada.
  • while there were Radcliffs in Beersbridge and Banbridge, county Down in the early 1800’s. Some of them emigrated to America and settled in Ohio. Samuel Radcliff departed county Down for Canada in 1842. Six years later he had married and was a pioneer settler in Blanshard township, Manitoba where
    he built himself a log cabin and farmed.

Daniel Radcliffe, the Harry Potter actor, has roots through his father in county Down.

America. If the name Radcliffe is known in America, it is for Radcliffe College, the women’s college in Cambridge, Massachusetts that was founded in 1882 and was considered one of the “Seven Sisters” colleges. However, the name Radcliffe came from someone who had never stepped foot in America. An Ann Radcliffe, the wife of a London merchant, had established Harvard’s first scholarship fund in 1643.

Captain John Ratcliffe had arrived in America in 1607 and was an early leader of the Jamestown settlement. However, he did not last long, being killed by Indians in 1609 and leaving no legacy. Among later Radcliffes who stayed in America were:

  • Richard Ratcliffe from Chapel Hill in Lancashire who came to Virginia in 1634. A descendant was Richard Ratcliffe, the founder of the town of Fairfax, Virginia in 1805.
  • John Radcliffe who had come to the new colony of Charleston, South Carolina as an indentured servant in the 1660’s. Conditions there were so onerous that he escaped his master in 1672 for what he saw as freedom in Spanish Florida.
  • James Radcliffe, a persecuted Quaker also from Chapel Hill, who departed for Pennsylvania in 1685. He settled in Wrightstown, Bucks county; his younger brother Richard moved onto Maryland.
  • while Daniel Radcliff came to Virginia sometime in the 1730’s. He was killed by Indians in Hampshire county, Virginia in 1784. But he did leave descendants, some of whom later migrated to Kentucky and Ohio.

There were only 120 of the name, mostly spelt Radcliff, recorded in the 1840 US census. 

Caribbean. In 1849 the Rev. John Radcliffe departed Castlewellan in county Down for Kingston, Jamaica where he practiced as a Church of Scotland minister. After his wife Jane died in 1856, his three children returned to Britain. He himself remained in Jamaica and died there in 1892.  

Canada.  Thomas and William Radcliffe left Ireland with their families for Canada in 1832, first settling in the London area of Ontario (where they were colonel and captain in the local militia) and then moving in 1839 to Amherst Island on Lake Ontario. Thomas died there two years later from his exertions after rowing a boat. William left the island in 1849.

New Zealand. James Radcliffe had uprooted his family from Manchester in 1880 for Wellington, New Zealand. He prospered there and in the late 1890’s they made their home in the new northern suburb of Ngaio. James died in 1912. His sons Harold, Julian and Percy all fought in World War One. Harold fought at Gallipoli and survived; Julian and Percy perished on the battlefields in France.

Radcliffe Surname Miscellany

Radcliffe in Lancashire.  Radcliffe initially consisted of two hamlets; Radcliffe, near to the border with Bury and centered on the medieval Church of St. Mary and the manorial Radcliffe Tower, and, further to the west, Radcliffe Bridge at a crossing of the river Irwell.

Nicholas de Tailbois, a Norman knight, took possession of Radcliffe manor sometime in the 12th century.  He may have built the initial Radcliffe Tower structure.  His son William adopted the Radcliffe name and was the High Sheriff of Lancashire in 1194.  He was recorded in 1212 as William de Radcliffe of the Radcliffes of the Tower family.

Radcliffe Tower was rebuilt by James de Radcliffe in 1403.  The house then consisted of a stone-built hall and one or two towers, probably built with ashlar blocks. De Radcliffe was given a royal license to fortify the site including adding crenellations and battlements.

In 1561, after about 400 years of rule by the Radcliffes, Robert Ashton – the lord of the manor of Middleton – bought the Radcliffe manor from the Radcliffes for some 2,000 marks. The manor house stayed intact until the 19th century when it was demolished.  Only the tower survived.  It still stands and is listed as a Scheduled Monument.

A Manor Dispute in Bolton.  Around 1500, a dispute had arisen between the lords of the manors of Middleton and Radcliff about a stretch of land on the outskirts of Bolton. Appearing as witnesses were two elderly Lomaxes, Laurent Lomax said to be seventy and Richard Lomax reportedly ninety three.  Laurent took the side of Middleton.  But Richard, appearing later, gave testimony in favor of Radcliff.

Sir John Radcliffe of Ordsall.  John Radcliffe married the heiress Anne Asshawe around 1570 and brought her back to his family home at Ordsall Hall.

Ordsall Hall at that time was said to have been a manor house of exceptional beauty and one of the largest and most important seats in the county. The antiquarian John Leland remarked on the beauty of its surroundings as he passed by it on his journey through Lancashire in 1516.

It was a quadrangular mansion in a half-timbered style of erection. The hall stood in the midst of a pleasant park bounded on the southeast side by the clear wide waters of the Irwell river and commanding a prospect over a wide stretch of country to the distant hills of Derbyshire and the wooded uplands of Cheshire.  The house stood within a moated enclosure, the sloping lands of the manor on the north side draining into the Ordsall brook which kept the moat supplied with constant flow of clear running water.

The gardens were laid in the formal style of the period.  Beyond were orchards, the shippons, barns, and buildings of the grange. From the end of the tree-shaded, rocky lane, which connected the manor with the town of Salford, a wide drive led through an avenue of sycamores to the northwestern side of the hall where a drawbridge across the moat gave entrance through a corbelled gateway into the inner courtyard.

On the southeast side of the courtyard was the Great Hall, one of the finest and largest chambers in the north country.  The east and west wings housed the family and the domestics and, fronting the moat on the northern side, were the guard chambers where the considerable military retinue of the house was lodged.

In 1571 John Radcliffe was appointed a knight of the shire. Three years later he was one of the signatories to the Association of Lancashire Gentlemen, formed to defend Queen Elizabeth from the conspiracies in support of Mary, Queen of Scots.  However, he was probably a temporizer on the matter of religion.  After the execution of the Jesuit Campion, there was an extensive round-up and imprisonment of recusants in the hundred of Salford.  Although some of his friends were amongst those captured, Sir John himself was not called upon to endure this indignity.

Sir John was but fifty-three years of age when he died at Ordsall in 1589.

The Radcliffes as Earls of Derwentwater.  Francis Radcliffe was created Viscount Radcliffe and Earl of Derwentwater by James II in 1688.  His eldest son Edward married Lady Mary Tudor, a daughter of Charles II.

The third Earl, James Radcliffe, was brought up at the court of the Stewarts in France, as companion to his cousin Prince James Edward, the pretender to the throne.  He joined the Jacobite rising in 1715.  When the rebels capitulated, the Earl was condemned to death.  Declaring his devotion to the Catholic faith and to the Old Pretender, he was beheaded on Town Hill.

His eldest son was killed accidentally and his second son died of an illness, leaving his third son Charles as the heir. But the estates were confiscated and Charles condemned to death.  He escaped to the continent and married the Countess of Newburgh.  He was captured while on his way to Scotland in 1745 to join Charles Edward, the Young Pretender, and was beheaded.

Charles Radcliffe’s eldest son, James Bartholomew, became the third Earl of Newburgh in 1755 and also claimed the Derwentwater title.  His only son and successor, Anthony James, died without issue in 1814 and the Derwentwater title became extinct.

The Radcliffes of Knockaloe Moar.  Thomas Radcliffe was by most accounts the youngest son of Sir Robert Radcliffe of Attleborough in Norfolk.  Born in 1511, he accompanied his father to the Isle of Man where he met and married a Miss Callister, the daughter of an old and long-established Manx family.  It is thought through this marriage that he came into possession, sometime in the 1540’s, of the 350 acre estate of Knockaloe Moar in Kirk Patrick parish on the west coast of the island.

The estate remained with the Radcliffe family until 1760 when the Rev. Robert Radcliffe died without male issue.

Dr. John Radcliffe, Society Doctor.  An obituarist wrote of Dr John Radcliffe in 1714 that he should be accounted “the most eminent physician this England has ever produced.  He was a man of good sense, sound judgment, and admirable skill in his art, chiefly founded on the best mistress, experience.”

For much of his life Radcliffe was never far from the public view. His unrivalled success as a ‘society’ doctor, buoyed by his colorful personality, provided him with a captive audience before which he often indulged a weakness for publicity and speaking his mind.

He had his critics.  One satiric skit circulating in 1709 asked: ‘When taxes shall leave off?’; and the answer given was:

  • “When Dr Radcliffe gives his visits to the poor,
  • Or serves his friends and slights his golden oar,
  • When dying patients on him may depend,
  • And find his conscience and his manners mend,
  • When Bath shall court him, and her waters freeze,
  • Make him their God, his naughty head to please,
  • Then, then, shall taxes cease.”

He was never much of a reader.  But he did bequeath a substantial sum of money to Oxford for the founding of the Radcliffe Library, an endowment which Samuel Garth quipped was “about as logical as if a eunuch should found a seraglio.”

Radcliffe and Ratcliffe in Lancashire.  There were 1,390 Radcliffes and 3,460 Ratcliffes recorded in the 1881 census in Lancashire.  Not that many appeared at the Radcliffe original place-name near Bury.  The 1881 census recorded only 91 Ratcliffes at Bury and many fewer Radcliffes.

These names had spread.  The table below shows where the names had spread in Lancashire – from north to south – in the 1881 census. We have taken here only towns and villages with more than 50 Radcliffes or Ratcliffes.  All the places shown are roughly within a twenty mile radius of Bury.

Town Radcliffe Ratcliffe
from north
Preston    117
Haslingden    120
Oswaldwistle     75
Blackburn    135
Darwen     65
Bury     91
Chedderton     63
Oldham    160     98
Bolton    123
Manchester     61    119
Bedford Leigh    144
Ashton under Lyne    146    101
Toxteth     53
Warrington     68
to south

In some places such as Oldham and Ashton under Lyne, as can be seen, the Radcliffe and Ratciffe names happily co-existed.

John Ratcliffe’s Death at Jamestown.  Captain John Ratcliffe was captured by Indians at Jamestown in 1609 and met a miserable death.  According to an eyewitness:

“The sly old Indian King surprised Ratcliffe alive and caused him to be bound unto a tree naked with a fire before.  His flesh was scraped from his bones by women with mussel shells and, before his face, thrown into the fire.  So for want of circumspection he perished.”

Hollywood portrayed him as a greedy and ruthlessly ambitious man.  In Disney’s Pocahontas, he is seen as an aggressor against the Indians, believing them to have hidden gold which he could capture.

Reader Feedback – Charles Ratcliffe or Rackliffe in Virginia.  I am looking for the parents of Charles Ratcliffe who came to the Eastern Shore of Virginia in 1652.

I have read that his ancestors were from the Isle of Man, but have not been able to find any evidence to support that assertion. Do you have any record which would support Charles Rackliffe of Accomack county having ancestry from the isle of Man?

Ray Thompson (grthompson@salisbury.edu).

Richard Ratcliffe and Fairfax, Virginia.  Richard’s parents John and Anne Ratcliffe were contemporaries of George Washington in Virginia and in fact known by him.  Washington wrote in his diary on one date: “Mrs. Ratcliffe and her son come to dinner.”

Richard had begun acquiring land in the area that was to become Fairfax in the 1780’s.  He was appointed a Fairfax County Court justice in 1794 and donated land for the construction of a new courthouse in 1798.  The offer was not completely philanthropic.  He owned adjacent land which he saw would benefit enormously from the commercial developments that would follow.

By the year 1800 Richard’s vision grew more ambitious. With the assistance of his son Robert he started to lay out a plan for a new town around the courthouse.  His plan was helped by the building of a new turnpike that would pass through the town. Town lots were quickly snapped up.  The town, initially called Providence, prospered and grew. Richard Ratcliffe died in 1825.  Providence became the city of Fairfax in 1874.

Radcliffe Names

  • Sir William de Radcliffe was the first to bear the Radcliffe name. He was the High Sheriff of Lancashire in 1194. 
  • Dr. John Radcliffe was an eminent English society doctor of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. 
  • Ann Radcliffe was an English author and a pioneer of the Gothic novel in the early 19th century. 
  • Jim Radcliffe who founded the petrochemical company Ineos was probably the richest man in England by 2020.
  • Paula Radcliffe has been an English long-distance runner and has held the world record holder for the women’s marathon. 
  • Daniel Radcliffe is the English actor who rose to prominence as the title character in the Harry Potter film series.

Radcliffe Numbers Today

  • 17,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 8,000 in America (most numerous in Florida)
  • 6,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Radcliffe and Like Surnames

Many surnames have come from Lancashire.  These are some of the noteworthy surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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