Key/Keys/Keyes Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Key Surname Meaning

Key, Keys and Keyes are related English surnames of Anglo-Saxon origin with numerous suggested meanings:

  • are they locational describing someone who lived by a dock or quay (from the old English keay meaning “quay”)? 
  • or occupational for a maker of keys (from the old English coeg meaning “key”)?
  • or possibly a northern nickname for a jackdaw-type person (from the old Norse ka)? 

The Irish version of Keyes – sometimes Keays – could be a variant of McKee and may have been either Scots Irish or Irish. The root here would have been the Gaelic MacAoidh from aodh meaning “fire.”

Key Surname Resources on The Internet

Key, Keys and Keyes Surname Ancestry

  • from England and Scotland
  • to Ireland, America and Canada

England. The locational meaning of Key is suggested by the atte Keye names in the late 1300’s. William atte Keye was recorded as a tradesman in London in 1371; and Walter atte Keye, a brewer from Sheffield, was one of the ringleaders of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt in London.

Keys/Keyes. The Keys or Keyes spelling had appeared by that time in SE England. The Keyes family of Kent had begun with Richard Keyes who was an esquire to Richard II and held the office of Sergeant-at-Arms in 1393. The line continued:

  • to the Tudor courtiers Richard and his son Thomas Keyes, based in Lewisham 
  • to Thomas Keyes of the next generation who was granted land in Ireland by Queen Elizabeth in the 1580’s and was the first of the Anglo-Irish Keyes  
  • and to a much later Thomas Keyes who came to Madras in India in the late 1700’s as an assistant surgeon in the British army. His son Charles was a general in British army in India; his grandson Roger became Admiral of the Fleet in 1930 and was made Baron Keyes.

By the time of the 1881 census Keys had become the main spelling in London and the southeast, while the Keyes spelling had fallen into relative disuse.  

Key Developments. In Yorkshire John Cay came into possession of Woodsome Hall in the Farnley valley near Huddersfield in 1378. His family remained there as Kaye until 1726.

But Nicholas Keye reportedly left in 1471 when he was appointed as the keeper of the new royal park in Windsor. His son John Keye called himself the “humble poet laureate” of Edward IV. Later the spelling became Key and was thought to have led to Philip Key, the emigrant to Maryland in the early 1700’s.

Another early Key family was to be found at Settrington near Malton in north Yorkshire, dating back to William Key in the mid-1500’s. A descendant John Key emigrated to Virginia with his parents in 1668.

A yeoman Key family, possibly from Yorkshire, was first evident at Leadenham in Lincolnshire in the mid-1500’s. Ellis Key died in 1765 and the last of this line was probably John Key, High Sheriff in 1773, who died in 1789.

Staffordshire and Yorkshire were the leading counties for Key in 1881. One coal mining family spanned both counties. Charles Key had worked at the mines in Longton, Staffordshire in the mid-1800’s, but then moved to Cudworth near Barnsley in Yorkshire where later Keys were miners.

IrelandKeyes or Keys in Ireland may have had English, Scottish or Irish roots.

Captain Thomas Keyes arrived from England around 1580 and was the forebear of an early Anglo-Irish family. He took up land at Glenfade near Dublin and his family later secured the Cavanacor estate through marriage.

Possible Keyes or Keys of Scottish origin were:

  • Hugh Keys who died at Derryvullan in Fermanagh in 1733. A descendant was Royal Keys who emigrated to Canada in 1830.
  • the brothers Roger and John Keyes who departed Antrim for Virginia in the 1740’s. Their history was told in Leo Keyes’ 2016 book The Keyes Family History.
  • and George Keys who was born in Coolislyn, Donegal in 1779. He lived long enough to appear there in Griffith’s Valuation of 1857. A number of his descendants emigrated to Australia.

Keyes, often Keays, in Limerick dated from the late 1600’s.  There appear to have been two pockets of the name, one in the parishes of Abington and Caherconlish and the other in the Patrickswell area.

Two brothers – William and Richard Keays – arrived in Abington about 1740 and helped to build the Anglican chapel there. They have many descendants. The Irish writer Marian Keyes was born in Limerick in 1963. Keyes also appeared in the neighboring counties of Tipperary and Cork.  

America.  There have been some notable Keyes and Key lines.

Keyes.  Two early settlers in Massachusetts were Robert Keyes who came to Watertown in 1633 and Solomon Keyes to Newbury and Chelmsford in 1653. Robert died early in 1647, Solomon much later in 1702. Asa Keyes’ 1880 book Robert and Solomon Keyes and Their Descendants covered their lines.

Solomon’s youngest son John, known as Major John, settled in Shrewsbury in 1720. His house burned down three years later and only one of his sons, Gersham, survived. But Major John continued until 1772, having lived with his wife for seventy two years.

One line from a later Solomon Keyes (who was killed in 1755 at the Battle of Lake George) led to Henry Keyes, a prominent politician and railroad executive in Vermont in the mid-19th century. His son Henry became Governor of New Hampshire in 1917.

There was also a Keyes line in the South. Humphrey Keyes, born in 1721, moved in the 1760’s from Boston to Virginia where he operated a ferry across the Shenandoah river. His son John fought in the Revolutionary War and became a fervent admirer of George Washington.  “When his twin boys were born in Virginia in 1792 he named one George and the other Washington.”  

The family moved to a plantation near Athens, Alabama in 1818. Son George was a merchant and farmer there; George’s son Wade a prominent Confederate politician.

Quaker Keys.  Two of the early Key arrivals in America were Quakers. Robert Key had come in 1682 and Moses Key in 1700. Both made their home in Chester county, Pennsylvania.  

“The first child born of English parents in Penn’s colony was John Key, the son of Robert Key. Robert had come on the Welcome to the banks of the Delaware river and with other adventurers dug caves there in which to live It was in one of these caves that John Key was born in December 1682.”  

John Key died in Pennsylvania in 1767 at the grand age of eighty-five. Many later Keys, reflecting pronunciation, spelt their name Kay.

Meanwhile Moses Jr, the son of Moses Key, broke away from the Quakers and left Pennsylvania for North Carolina. His son John, born around 1735, fought in the Revolutionary War and later moved to Tennessee. In the 1870’s John’s great grandson David M. Key served as the US Senator of Tennessee, US Postmaster General, and was later a US federal judge.

Keys in Maryland.  Philip Key, born in London, came to Maryland with his wife Susanna in 1726 and built his family home at Bushwood Lodge in St. Mary’s county.

“Here it was that Philip Key – member of the Privy Council, High Sheriff, and member of the Assembly – lived in great elegance, traditions of which have been transmitted for nearly two centuries.”  

Later Keys of this family, the sons of Francis Key, were:

  • John Ross Key who fought on the American side in the Revolutionary War and was the father of Francis Scott Key, the author of The Star-Spangled Banner – which later became the US national anthem.
  • and Philip Barton Key who fought on the British side and was the only Loyalist to regain prominence in US politics after the war.

James Key also fought in the Revolutionary War and settled afterwards in Kentucky. His son Marshall Key – a nephew to Supreme Court Justice John Marshall – had built in 1807 a two-story brick house in Maysville. It is now known as the Harriet Beecher Stowe museum. Harriet was said to have got many ideas for her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin while visiting the Key family there in 1833.

The main reference point for these Key lines in America has been Mrs. Julian Lane’s 1931 book Key and Allied Families.

Canada. Irish Keys/Keyes came to Ontario from Fermanagh, two in fact around 1830 – Royal Keys to Hastings county and John Keyes to Dundas county. Meanwhile Hugh Keyes from county Down had arrived in Lanark county with his family in 1827; and Joseph Keyes, also from Down, was in Renfrew county sometime in the 1840’s.

Key, Keys and Keyes Surname Miscellany

Key, Keys, and Keyes Today

Number (000’s) Key Keys Keyes Total
UK    7    4    1   12
Ireland    1    1
America   12    6    6   24
Elsewhere    2    4    2    8
Total   21   14   10   45

Thomas Keyes and Lady Mary Grey.  Mary Grey was the youngest sister of Lady Jane Grey, a pretender to the English throne.  Lady Jane was Queen for nine days after the death of Edward IV in 1553 but was then tried and executed by his successor Queen Mary.

Described by the Spanish ambassador as “crook-backed and very ugly,” Mary was so small that it has been conjectured she was a dwarf. In 1565 this nineteen year old was in love with Thomas Keyes, the gigantic sergeant porter in charge of palace security.

In marrying a commoner, as she did in a candlelit room at Whitehall palace, she effectively ruled herself out of the succession. She might have hoped that Queen Elizabeth would therefore forgive her actions. But when the news emerged in August such hopes proved misplaced.

“Here is an unhappy chance and monstrous,” declared Mary’s kinsman, William Cecil, of the union between the “least of all the court” and its “biggest gentleman.”

The Queen ordered Keyes to be locked in Fleet prison.  Mary Grey like her sister was sent to a series of country houses.  The gigantic Keyes was the worse off, living in agony in a cramped cell until he was released, a broken man, in 1570.  He asked to retire with Mary to Kent, but this was refused. He died the following year. 

Ellis and John Key of Leadenham in Lincolnshire.  Ellis Key and his wife Anna had six children, of whom four died in infancy. Jane, born in 1716, and John, born in 1723, survived.

Ellis and his son John ran a haberdashery business in Nottingham.  Ellis died in 1765, aged seventy-nine years, and John in 1789, aged sixty-five years.

John Key esq. in his will gave 500 pounds for the benefit of poor men of the parish above the age of fifty years who should not have received relief from or lived in any of the poor houses belonging to the parish for the space of seven years prior to their being candidates for the charity.

Humphrey Keyes and His Two Wives.  Humphrey Keyes, born in 1721, was a sea captain based in Boston.  He had married Marcella Wade and they had two sons, John and Frank.  On one of his voyages he was captured by Turkish pirates and held slave for nine years before escaping and making his way back home to Boston.

When he returned, he found his wife, thinking he was dead, had married another man with whom she wished to stay.

Humphrey therefore took his two sons and moved south to Virginia where he was operating a ferry across the Shenandoah river in 1760. Young Sarah Hall, aged 17, would ride the ferry for fun.  When her wealthy father discovered that his favorite daughter wanted to marry the older Humphrey, he was horrified.  But married they were and they had eight children.

Francis Scott Key and The Star-Spangled Banner.  During the War of 1812 Key observed the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Maryland in 1814. Key was inspired by the large US flag, showing 15 stars and 15 stripes and known as the star-spangled banner, flying triumphantly over the fort at dawn.  Hethen wrote the poem Defence of Fort M’Henry which was published a week later.  The poem was adapted to the tune of the popular song To Anacreon in Heaven.

The song with Key’s lyrics became known as The Star-Spangled Banner and slowly gained in popularity as an unofficial anthem over the years.  It finally achieved official status a century later under President Woodrow Wilson as the US national anthem.

It is the first stanza of Key’s poem that is normally sung:

  • “O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
  • What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
  • Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
  • O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
  • And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
  • Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
  • O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
  • O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” 

Royal Keys – from Ireland to Canada.  It was inscribed on his tombstone that Royal Keys was born in Fermanagh and died in 1871 in Hastings county, Canada.

According to the story handed down he was forced to leave Ireland because his cattle had been impounded. It is not known where Royal and his wife Mary might have resided prior to their departure for Canada in 1830.  Could Royal have been banished or imprisoned?

In his letters Royal enumerated his children, a total of eleven, all of whom would appear to have emigrated together (although they did not all settle in the same township).  Royal’s brother William also came to Canada.  William’s son Johnston was stationed at that time with the British army in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Key, Keys and Keyes Names

  • Walter atte Keye was one of the leaders of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt in London. 
  • Francis Scott Key wrote The Star-Spangled Banner in 1814. It later became the US national anthem. 
  • Roger Keyes was a Royal Navy officer appointed Admiral of the Fleet in 1930. 
  • Sir John Key was the Prime Minister of New Zealand from 2008 to 2016. 
  • Marian Keyes is a best-selling Irish writer.   
  • Alicia Keys, born Alicia Cook, is an acclaimed American singer songwriter.

Key, Keys and Keyes Numbers Today

  • 12,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 24,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 9,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)




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Written by Colin Shelley

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