Origin of the Eastes-Estes Surname

© David Powell, 2001
The following is an attempt to explore the possible origins of the Eastes-Estes surname, examining several theories that have been proposed in the past.
The family name has been spelt in *many* different ways. The family outside of the USA has settled upon "Eastes" as the usual spelling, whilst in the USA (and Canada) the most common spelling today is "Estes". For sake of clarity I have used Estes when referring only to the North American branch of the family and Eastes for the rest - even though both Estes and Eastes (as well as other variations) have been used ubiquitously.

Before I discuss the Eastes name itself, it is worth digressing somewhat to look at the origins of English surnames in general (the same rules also apply elsewhere). Whilst the earliest recorded mention of the Eastes family was around 1500, much latter than the time in which surnames became standardised in England, it is useful to understand just how present day surnames came about.

Standardised surnames started to develop in the 12th and 13th centuries. In England, the first people to use surnames were probably the Norman noblemen who added the name of their estates to their given names e.g. Simon de Montfort. Later ordinary people adopted surnames which were based on occupations, nicknames, relationships as well as names based on topographical features and names based on particular places, e.g. villages, towns, counties etc. There are five general types of surname origins:
  • Based on the first or "font" name of an ancestor (eg. a mother or father: Williams, Roberts, Johnson, Hannah etc.).
  • Based on occupation or status of an ancestor (eg. Butcher, Page, Smith etc.).
  • Based on a nickname or description of an ancestor (eg. Whitehead, Crookshank, Black etc.).
  • Topographical names such as Atwood, Bywater, Underhill and perhaps names such as Sidebottom and Banks. Some of these names can also be locative.
  • Locative names: these were the earliest surnames to be formed as the Norman lords took their surnames from their estates in either Britain or Normandy. For ordinary folk, these names arose when a man left his home town or village to live elsewhere at the period when surnames were becoming fixed and hereditary.
  • The origin of the Eastes family prior to Nicholas Eastes (1495) is uncertain. There are many myths surrounding the origin of the family, usually linking it to some royal or noble house (most published genealogies of the family contains at least one such tale), but none of these claims have been documented and they all remain pure speculation. Claims have linked the Eastes to the d'Este's of Burgundy, Holland and Italy, among other possibilities. Another possibility is that the original Eastes were amongst the Huguenot refugee's from the Spanish Netherlands in the 15th and 16th centuries. Many such refugees settled in Kent.[1,6] Alternatively the name Eastes may have been a variation of a some common English name such as East or Eustace.[1,5,6]

    The Eastes of Kent were frequently associated with the maritime trade,[1,6] so it is not surprising that almost all of the earliest mentions of the surname (variations of Eustace, Eastes and Estie) can be found in the coastal English counties.[1,4,6] With only a few exceptions, which can probably be attributed to variations in other, surnames (eg: East) or the occasional traveller, all the early mentions of Eastes can be found in an arc stretching from Cornwall in the far west of England to Kent in the south-east and north along the east coast to Lincolnshire.[4,6] This strengthens the Huguenot[9] origin theory since the Huguenot first settled in the coastal areas in the south-east of England - just where the early Eastes were to be found. However, the main Huguenot arrivals were not until after the Eastes family was already known to have been in England. Even if the family were not Huguenot refugees, a Huguenot origin cannot be ruled out: immigrants from the mainland were arriving in the 14th century (indeed even earlier), bringing with them their non-English surnames - whilst the Huguenot's were protestants escaping Catholic persecution in the 16th century, there were earlier groups who fled from the same area from the Inquisition.[1] Indeed, one of my Eastes "wives" can be traced back to a John Dilnot who arrived in eastern Kent in the 1380's and who was possibly one such refugee.

    The earliest records of the surname are, unsurprisingly, in Kent.[but see note 7] Nicholas, progenitor of most, if not all, of those claiming Eastes ancestry today, died in 1533, leaving a wife and young son (no other children are listed).[5] Nicholas' birth has frequently been claimed to have been in 1495 at Deal, Kent. However there is no proof of this. The 1495 date is a guess based on his marriage in 1520.[5] The location is even more uncertain. All we do know is that he lived his last years in Deal and died there.[5] There is, however, an even earlier mention of the surname with the will of Richard Eustace (a known variation on Eastes). Richard died in 1506 at Dover, Kent, leaving a wife, Alice, and an unborn child, both of whom were provided for in the will.[5] Thomas Eustace was the witness for the will and he was likely Richard's brother.[5] Richard and Thomas may have been brothers, or cousins, of Nicholas.

    These earliest versions of the surname used in Kent suggest another possible origin - Nicholas' surname was given as "Ewstas" and his son, Sylvester, was variously given as "Eustas" and "Eastye".[5,6] This has led one researcher to suggest that Eastes was a variation of the ancient English surname "Eustace".[5,6] Indeed, the similarity of the earliest versions of Eastes with Eustace, both phonetically and in spelling, is quite marked. It has also been suggestion that the name Eastes may be a variation of East, a not uncommon english name, however the earliest variations of the name would suggest this is a less likely origin than Eustace.[1,6]

    Outside of Kent,[but see note 7] the earliest mentions of the name (or variations) were at St Columb, Cornwall (1551), Ellough, Suffolk (1562), Epping, Essex (1569), London (1579), Southease, Sussex (1601), Threekingham, Lincolnshire (1627), Bristol, Gloucestershire (1638), Norwich, Norfolk (1655) and St Sidwell, Devon (1674).[4] Again, the earliest variations all bear a marked similarity to Eustace.

    Such pedestrian origins aside, the Eastes family has long held that the family was ultimately of noble birth, specifically the d'Este family of Ferrara, Italy (who in turn were linked to most, if not all, European royal families). Possibly the most obvious source of this legend is the similarity of the written forms of the two names: d'Este and Estes (the connection is less obvious with Eastes, which is usually pronounced "east-ease" whilst d'Este is pronounced "de-estay").

    The belief that the Eastes family was descended from the d'Este's is an old one and not just limited to the Eastes family itself. King James I of England and Scotland (reigned from 1603 to 1625) was convinced that a gentleman in his service by the name of East was in fact a descendent of the d'Este family and suggested he change his name to Este.[6] One did not gainsay a suggestion from the king in those days! Even earlier, the English printer Thomas East (1540-1608) used the names East, Est, Este and Easte and hinted at a connection with the d'Este family, although his motivations were much more obvious - he made his fame publishing Italian music in England and suggesting a connection to the d'Este's would certainly not have adversely affected his sales![8] Thomas' son, Michael (1580-1680), who was a composer in his own right, also used the names East, Est, Este and Easte.[8] Somewhat more recent was the case of Sir Augustus d'Este (1794-1848), who despite the surname, was pure English.[8] Augustus was son of the Duke of Sussex and the daughter of the Earl of Dunmore.[8] The marriage of his parents was without the King's consent and he (George III) subsequently annulled the marriage, thus making Augustus illegitimate *after* his birth.[8] After the annulment, Augustus and his sister were given the name d'Este by their father, a name that was "anciently belonging to the House of Brunswick".[8] There were several other instances where English aristocrats named Este or East changed their name to d'Este, including one family in the 1800's that changed their name from East and claimed the non-existent title "Baron d'Este".[1,6]

    Whether any of these people left descendants (Augustus had no children) is only of academic interest for Eastes since all were born well after Nicholas (c.1495), from whom it has been established that the Eastes family descends.[1,5,6] However, the point of these examples (and there are more) is simply to show that there has indeed been confirmed cases of individuals and families bearing names similar to Eastes yet having noble ancestry and, in some cases, claiming a link to the d'Este's (tho' in these cases the claim is unsupported). It is then quite possible that stories of a d'Este connection in the Eastes family were simply "borrowed" from these cases. Such "borrowings" are all too common in family tales - a family tale in my Powell family claims descent from a titled Powell family in Scotland (complete with a coat of arms that has been passed down), a claim which is somewhat at odds with the real descent from illiterate South Londoners. "The names sound the same, so we must be related."

    At this point we depart from the realms of genealogy and enter that of family lore and the claimed connections with royalty and the d'Este family.

    The legend that the Eastes and Estes have some connection with the d'Este family of Italy is a very widespread one, a tale that in all likelihood appears in one form or another everywhere that Eastes or Eastes descendants may be found. My last Eastes ancestor died in 1854, yet even today the story of the d'Este connection remains alive in my family - while she was alive my grandmother was convinced we were descended from the d'Este's. Of course, in the case of my own line, there is a grain of truth to the tale - one of my Eastes "wives" was a descendent of the Knatchbull family, who in turn are closely related to the Windsor family; indeed the current Baron Knatchbull is godfather to Prince Charles. This is, no doubt, not the only such connection via an Eastes wife's lineage and may well go some way to explaining the persistent and widespread d'Este link: in time the knowledge that there was a noble link (or links) via a spouse became blurred and the story came to say that the noble link was via the Eastes name itself, the next obvious step would then be of connecting the Eastes (or Estes) name with the d'Este family in an attempt to explain the claim.

    As I mentioned above, most published Eastes and Estes genealogies have one or more versions of the d'Este story. Just what are those stories and what do they have in common?

    "...The Marquis Aldobrandino, about the beginning of the 14th century, in order to procure means for prosecuting a war against the Anconites, hypothecated his youngest brother to the usurers of Florence. The untimely death of the Marquis put an end to the war and left his brother unredeemed. These were the sons of Azo VI (of d'Este). The younger brother did not return to his ancestral home on the accession of the seventh Azo, but proceeded to France, thence to England where he became aquainted and connected with the family of Lord Bacon. The family then moved from England to Wales, always maintaining a position of influence and respectability ... From Wales they emigrated to Virginia."[3,10]
    This story was originally published in the New York Watchman.[3,10] Aldobrandino was actually the son of Obizzo II and, along with his brothers Azzo VIII and Francesco (the un-named brother above) contested for the rule of the house. Upon the death of Azzo VIII, Aldobrandino was appointed as the Marquis by the pope.[3,10] Whether or not Francesco fled to England, as the story claims, there has certainly been no evidence found in England to support his presence there, nor of any descendants of "position of influence". In the USA the registration of births (or baptisms), marriages and deaths (BDM's) did not become formalised and widespread until around 1900. What is often not realised in the US is that in England, BDM registration began around 1600 and whilst the records today are not complete for the lower classes, it is a different matter for those in "positions of influence", so it can be definitively stated that if Francesco fled to England, he did not leave any descendants there by that name. The Eastes never got to Wales and it was not until the late 1700's that any of the English Eastes had risen in station far enough to even call themselves "gentleman", still a far cry from a "position of influence".

    The above story is quite likely a distortion of another family tale:

    "...Francesco of Este, who was the son of Marquis Leonello [1407-1450], left Ferrara [1471] to go and live in Burgundy, by the will of Duke Ercole [Francesco's uncle, who succeeded Leonello] .. and, in order that he should go at once, he gave him horses and clothes and 500 ducats more; and this was done because His Excellency had some suspicions of him .. 'Francesco .. went to Burgundy and afterward to England'. These were the words written on the back of the picture of Francesco found in a collection of paintings near Ferrara."[2,3,10]
    Many of the details are similar to the earlier story. But why would Francesco flee Italy? In 1471 Francesco's brother, Ericolo, led a revolt in an attempt to overthrow Duke Ercole.[3,10] The attempt was unsuccessful and in typical royal tradition, Ericolo lost his head and Francesco exiled,[3,10] if only because he was Ericolo's brother. Did Francesco really travel to England? The only evidence for this is the writing in the back of the painting, the existence of which is unconfirmed. Essentially the same story is told by Charles Estes in his book:
    ".. Francesco Esteuse (born c.1440), the illegitimate son of Leonnello d'Este. Francesco was living in Burgundy. In the time of Duke Borso he came to Ferrara, and at Borso's death was declared rebellious by Ercole because of efforts made by his brother, Ericolo, to seize power. Francesco returned to Burgundy and was heard of no more from that time (1471). As the time coincided with that when Edward conquered [sic] England with the aid of Burgundy, it was possible that Francesco followed Edward and after Edward's victory made England his home."[2,3]
    Charles Estes proposed that Robert Este of London (died 1606) was a descendent of Francesco and that Robert Este was, in turn, the ancestor of the American Estes. No link was established between Francesco and Robert or, for that matter, between Robert and the American Estes. Whether Robert Este is related to Francesco or not is irrelevant since he is clearly not an ancestor of the Eastes since they can be traced back to Nicholas of Deal, Kent. However, it is not as easy to dismiss a possible connection between Francesco and Nicholas Ewstas (c.1495). If Francesco did travel to England, it would have been around 1480, leaving sufficient time for him to have fathered Nicholas and possibly also Richard and Thomas Eustace of Dover. Indeed, Francesco's father was Niccola,[3,10] or, in English, Nicholas. On the other hand, while this would explain Nicholas' ancestry, it would not explain the presence of Eastes all along the south-east English coast during the 1500's and 1600's - there would just not be enough time for one person to have produced such a widespread and sizeable population of descendants, even if he was a Don Juan! Additionally, one would have to explain why the grandson of a Marquis (and the son of a Duke's nephew) was a mariner.[1] A courtier, yes. Even a merchant - but a fisherman? That does stretch credibility. As for which King Edward the quote refers to, there were two King Edward's in the late 1400's, Edward IV who reigned from 1461-1483 and Edward V who reigned for less than a year, in 1483.[11] Edward V was imprisoned in the Tower of London soon after his accession upon his father's death and was executed at the age of 13.[11] His father, Edward IV, fought several battles during his reign, including one in 1471 against Warwick Neville, the "king maker" - possibly this is the incident the quote refers to, however this battle was in April[11] and Francesco was exiled from Ferrara in September.[10] Subsequent to this battle, Edward IV was secure on his throne until his death.[11]

    It should be noted that while stories about a possible link between the Eastes family and the d'Este's date back many centuries, the link via Francesco first surfaced with the work of Charles Estes. Whilst Dr. Estes was a careful researcher on his own "home patch" (the descendents of Matthew and Richard Estes), the quality of his work further afield has been questioned, with numerous mistakes in his "Southern Estes" section and as for the English research he reports, one has to wonder how genuine was the "genealogist" he contracted to search for the family's origins back in England.

    There are, of course, many other stories about the origins of the family, many of which are even more imporbable that the d'Este claim. One story popular in the USA holds that the family (in this case the Estes) were descended from French nobility and were amongst the many Huguenots who arrived in the America's in the early 1700's and that 'Estes is de Este in French'.[6] This entirely bypasses England as a home for the family (rather disconcerting news to the English Eastes and their descendents) and is somewhat at odds with Abraham Estes arriving before 1682, as an assisted passenger. Other equally fanciful stories have the family coming from many different parts of Europe including Spain and the Basque region in France.[6] In England the story of Francesco is given an additional twist in that he, or a descendent, was a general serving in Holland, had the title of baron and was living at Este Castle.[6] "Baron Este" moved to England following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.[6,12] This was, however, almost 200 years after the family first appeared in Kent. Still, it is known that Francesco lived in Holland and most likely had a chateau there and he, along with any children, may have fled to England following one of the earlier waves of protestant persecution[6] - although why an Italian nobleman would have become a protestant is another matter.

    To summarise, leaving aside the patently wrong suggestions, there are four main theories which have been proposed to explain the origins of the Eastes/Estes family:

    Of course, given the lack of evidence for any particular theory, the whole issue remains one of speculation. In some cases it is possible to trace the origin of a surname, even a particular instance of it, but in many cases it is not possible. And, for better or worse, Eastes appears to be amongst the latter. The family may have some exotic continental origin or down-to-earth peasant or middle-class beginnings - there is simply no way of knowing. Are we simply mis-spelt East's or Eustace's or are we descendents of the illustious (and infamous) d'Este family, complete with that family's imaginary claims of descent from the Roman caesars, the Jewish Kings and even Hercules! Myself, I think we are mis-spelt Eustace's, but, hey, I could be wrong. *grin*

    [1] The English Ancestry of the American Estes", Niel Gunson. Article originally appeared in Estes Trails, 1992, volume 11, number 3 (whole issue). {PO Box 15; Dickson, ACT, 2615; Australia}. Also Personal correspondence.
    [2] The Snow-Estes Ancestry, volume II, The Estes Family, Nora Snow & Myrtle Jillson, 1939. Reprinted Higginson Book Co., Salem, MA.
    [3] Estes Genealogies, 1097-1893, Charles Estes, 1894, Eden Putnam Pub., Salem, MA. Reprinted Higginson Book Co., Salem, MA.
    [4] International Genealogical Index, LDS; 1994 edition, and 1997 addendum (v.4.0).
    [5] Personal correspondence, Donald Bowler; also in Estes Trails, 1993, volume 12, numbers 1-2, and 3.
    [6] Reminiscences of the Eastes Family in Kent and Australia, Niel Gunson, 1998, and references therein. ISBN 0-9592584-1-8.
    [7] Note that the dates given for the first known appearance of the name outside Kent should not be taken to mean the surname did not exist in those areas until long after the first appearance in Kent. The earlier dates for Kent may simply be an artifact - extensive research has been done on the family within Kent, utilising many pre-1600 sources including wills, whilst outside Kent only a relatively cursory examination of parish registrars has been made (and these generally only date back to c.1600).
    [8] Dictionary of National Biography, Leslie Stephen & Sidney Lee (editors), 1908, Smith, Elder & Co (pub)., Volumes V & VI.
    [9] Of course, if the Eastes arrived in England from Holland in the mid to late 1400's, they would not have been "Huguenots", since that is a name that was used for those who arrived during the catholic persecution of protestants in the 1600's, they would instead have been Walloons and Flemings (1400's & 1500's), however today all three groups are lumped under the label of "Huguenot".[See 1]
    [10] Cary-Estes Genealogy, May Folk Webb & Patrick Mann Estes, 1939, Tuttle Pub. Co., Rutland, VT; Reprinted Higginson Book Co., Salem, MA.
    [11] For example: The Pictorial Encylopaedia of British History, Collins Book Depot (pub); The New International Illustrated  Encyclopaedia, Colourgravure Pub., 1954; Montacute Genealogy, http://xenon.triode.net.au/~dragon/ft/t-montgu.txt and references therein.
    [12] Edict of Nantes, Microsoft Encarta, 1994.

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