Key/Keys/Keyes Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Key/Keys/Keyes Meaning
Keys and Keyes are related English surnames
of Anglo-Saxon origin with numerous suggested meanings. Are they
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
either Scots Irish or Irish. The root
here would have been the Gaelic MacAoidh
from aodh meaning “fire.”

Key/Keys/Keyes Resources on

Key/Keys/Keyes Ancestry

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
    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
    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
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
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
near Barnsley in Yorkshire where later Keys were miners.

Keyes 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

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
  • 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

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
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.

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
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.

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
seventy two years.

One line from a later
Solomon Keyes (who was killed in 1755 at the Battle of Lake George) led
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
, 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

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
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.

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

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


Key/Keys/Keyes 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

In marrying a commoner, as she did in a candlelit room at
palace, she effectively ruled herself out of the succession. She might
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.”

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
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
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

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

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
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
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
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

In his letters Royal enumerated his children, a total of
eleven, all
of whom would appear to have emigrated together (although they did not
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/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.

Select Key/Keys/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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