Lee Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Lee Meaning
name comes from the Old English lea, which originally meant a
wood or
glade. It could derive from the many place names called Lee or
someone who lived near a meadow. Other spellings were Lea and
Leigh, the
latter a name largely found in Lancashire.
Some English Lees were Norman in origin, initially de la
, possibly from the place-name Laye in France – itself
derived from la Haie meaning “hedge.”

Lee Resources on

Select Lee Ancestry

There were early Lees in Shropshire, of likely Norman origin:

  • a
    Lee family (originally de la Lee) lived at Coton Hall
    in the parish of Alveley from the 1300’s onwards. This
    is believed to have produced Richard Lee, the first of the Lee family
    America. Coton Hall stayed with the English Lees until 1821.
  • another
    Lee family, probably related, held
    Langley Manor in Shropshire. Sir Richard Lee of this family was a
    Royalist commander during the Civil War. Only a timber-framed
    remains of their house.

Lee line began
in Cheshire further north in the 1300’s and later had branches at
and Hartwell in Buckinghamshire and at Ditchley in Oxfordshire.
had built their wealth from sheep farming and they were prominent Buckinghamshire
and MP’s
in the 18th century. Meanwhile
Symon Lee
from Worcester had moved to London in the early 1400’s and was the
forebear of
an old Lee family that was to be found in Kent.

Later Lee
distribution showed a preponderance of Lees in the north of England, in
Yorkshire and Lancashire.

In addition to
its traditional English origins, the name has been adopted by Romany
gypsies in
Britain. Here it is pronounced with a slight aspiration at the
(almost as “leek”) in common with its sound in the Romany
language. Gypsy Rose Lee was a well-known gypsy queen and

. Lee is an anglicized
version of the Gaelic Laoidhigh, an occupational name meaning
“poet.” There was a John O’Ladaigh, otherwise known
as John
who was Bishop of Killala in 1253. Lees from this source were
later to be
found in Limerick and Cork.

Other Lees –
from the Gaelic mac an leagha (son of the physician) – were in
and Antrim. Lees from these four
counties plus Dublin accounted for about half of the Lees in Ireland in

Meanwhile, many Lees in Ireland
were of English planter stock. One
line at Barna in Tipperary, for instance, began in 1658 with a Lee from
Quarendon in Buckinghamshire. Earlier
Leys or Lees in Kilkenny, one of the “Ten Tribes” of Kilkenny, were
Anglo-Norman in origin.

The Lees have been a long-established and politically prominent
Virginia and
Maryland family. The first of this family in America was Richard
Lee who
came to Virginia in 1639 and grew wealthy from tobacco.

The main Lee line at the Stratford Hall
plantation in Virginia, built by Thomas Lee in 1741, included two signers of the
Declaration of
and Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general during the Civil War (and a
icon of the South’s lost cause). Other Lee homes and lines were
Blenheim, Cobb’s Hall, Ditchley, Dividing Creek, Lee Hall, Leesylvania,
Mount Pleasant.

There were 44 members
of a Lee family from Donegal on-board the Faithful
when the vessel departed Londonderry in 1785.
However, the ship ran aground off Delaware
and most of them drowned. Only six Lees survived.
These Lees who settled in Pennsylvania and
Ohio were, in the view of Robert E. Lee, distantly related to his Lees
of Virginia.

Asia. In recent years, Asian
Lees – either Li from China (the most common Chinese surname) or
from Korea
(there are seven million Lees in Korea today) – have become more
prevalent in
the English-speaking world. For this reason, California has the
concentration of Lees in America today.


Lee Miscellany

Lees at Coton Hall in Shropshire.  The Lee family of Stanton, Roden and afterwards of
Langley and Coton Hall in Shropshire was stated in Burke’s
as being one of the oldest in England.

The pedigree, established in 1623 at the time
of Sir Humphrey Lee of Langley, began with Hugo de Lega in the 1100’s.  His son Reginald (also Reyner) de la Lee was
Sheriff in 1201 and recorded as knight in 1203.
The Lees were said to have come from Normandy.

For 500 years, these Lees owned a sizeable chunk of the
county in the parish of Alveley, near Bridgnorth in north Shropshire.  The family lived in Coton Hall from the
1300’s onwards.  The tombs of two Lees with
effigies are to be found in Acton Burnell church.

The present-day Coton Hall
was built soon after 1800 for Harry Lancelot Lee in the Georgian style.  At the time the estate ran to 5,000
acres.   Coton Hall passed out of the
family when Harry Lancelot Lee died in 1821 and the house was
immediately sold,
ending the Lees’ long association with that part of the world.

The Lees of Buckinghamshire.  The Lees were an old Buckinghamshire family who had
acquired Hartwell in Tudor times by marriage into the family of John
Hampden, a
local landowner.

were Whig
landowners in the 18th century, part of a grouping of opposition MPs
in the 1730’s around Frederick, the Prince of Wales.
The Whig connection in Buckinghamshire at
that time included Lord Wharton of Winchendon House and Viscount Cobham
Stowe, as well as the Lees of Hartwell.

John O’Laidaigh/O’Lee, Bishop of Killala.  One
bishop of Ireland in the 13th century caused
quite a stir in his time, according to the information that has come

He was made Bishop of Killala in 1253.  Ten
years later he
was fined for failing to attend the Parliament in Castledermot.  A letter from the Vatican, dated 20 February,
1264, gave him permission to resign, owing to the fact that he was born
and had no dispensation from the Pope to hold an office. As seems to
have been
common practice with the clergy of the time, he ignored this unwelcome
and this gave rise to scandal.

He died
as a bishop, either in 1275 or in 1280.

Thomas Lee, Founder of a Virginia Dynasty.  Thomas Lee
was the founder of the Virginia Lee dynasty
which was later to include the Confederate leader Robert E. Lee.  He was born in 1690, at his father Richard’s
plantation on the Machadoc river in Westmoreland county, Virginia.  As a younger son his inheritance would have
been small.  But a combination of
intelligence, determination and influential connections resulted in him
one of the most powerful men in early 18th century Virginia.

made his own way in the world of Virginia business
at that time.  A somewhat disgruntled
contemporary later described him as:

“A hauty
overbearing Virginian, as full of cavil and chicanery as an attorney.  I am persuaded that if there be any room left
for dispute he will not fail to lay hold on it, being a man of

married late, at the age of 32, in
1722.  Hannah Ludwell was reputed to be
strong-willed, mischievous, and beautiful, with bright gold hair and a
complexion.  But she brought her husband
wealth, position, and a mutual devotion that lasted to the end of their

1729 the Lees’ home at Machodoc was
destroyed by fire, with Thomas and his family barely escaping the
flames.  Prosperous by this time, he soon
construction of a magnificent new mansion for his family.
The Stratford Hall plantation, completed in
1741, lay along the Potomac river.  This
Georgian Great House remains associated with the family, having been
by the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association in 1929.

Thomas Lee’s rise in Virginia circles
continued and in 1749 he served as acting Governor of Virginia.  He died a year later.

The Lees on the Faithful Steward.  On July 9, 1785, forty four members of the Lee family were among the total of 249
passengers and crew who sailed from Londonderry, Ireland aboard the
ship Faithful Steward.

Faithful Steward was a new ship, insured for more than
its real
value.  Somewhere along the Delaware Bay on
September 1, the
captain ran the ship
upon a rock and wrecked her to pieces.   The passengers alarmed, had pleaded with the
to shun the rock, but he swore he would drive the ship through or “sink
her to hell,” and such was the terrible result.  The
captain, his officers and sailors, manned
their boats and left for shore.

the 249 passengers who were left, only 68 survived.
Among these survivors were six members of the
Lee family – James Lee, the wife of one of his brothers, and four
cousins who
apparently didn’t carry the Lee name.

Lee, born about 1707, and his wife Isabella were the eldest of the
family on
this ill-fated voyage.  They, as well as
sons and two daughters, drowned.  The
James Lee who survived, was their grandson.
His parents, whose names are unknown, were among those lost.

Lee, who went by the name of Pretty Polly
Lee, was among those who drowned.  She was
a renowned beauty of her day and many poems had been written in praise
of her beauty.
And there were songs about Pretty Polly Lee
that descendants of the survivors used to sing. 

Lee and Li in Asia.  Li is a common transliteration of several Chinese family names and the Korean family name Lee. Alternate Romanizations include
Lai (Cantonese), Lý, Lí and Lê (Vietnam), Lee (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore), and Lie (Indonesia).
Taken collectively, these surnames make Li the
most common surname in the world.

Lee is
the common English spelling of a common Korean family name. The proper
in South Korea is like the English letter “E”, although in North
Korea the name is still pronounced “Lee.”


Lee Names

  • Robert E. Lee was the Confederate general during the Civil War.
  • Laurie Lee was the English
    20th century poet, novelist and screenwriter, most known for Cider With Rosie.
  • Bruce Lee was the Chinese-American martial artist and actor.
  • Ang Lee is the Taiwanese-American film director who produced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain.

Select Lee Numbers Today

  • 160,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Lancashire)
  • 214,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 84,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)


Lee and Like Surnames  

These names are locational, describing someone who lived in those medieval times by the side of a bank, or by a barn or a lane or a shaw (which means a wood) or a wood and so forth.  Both the oak tree and the ash tree have in fact provided locational surnames – Oakes and Nash (from atten Ash).  Here are some of these locational surnames that you can check out.




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