Select Knight Surname Genealogy

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.  

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Select Knight Ancestry

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 Church." 

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.

Select Knight Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

Select 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."

Select Knights 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)

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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