Lyons Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Lyons Surname Meaning

Lyon and Lyons are surnames that can be of English, Scottish, Irish or even Jewish origin. The Scottish spelling is mainly Lyon; the English spelling may be either Lyon or Lyons; while the Irish version has generally been Lyons.

The Scottish and English names may have had French origins – either from the place-name Lyons-la-Foret in Normandy, or from the Latin leo meaning “lion,” or from a Norman de Leon or de Leonne family.  The Irish Lyons name on the other hand was an anglicization of either the O’ Liathain or the O’ Laighin Gaelic name. Lyons was also adopted as a surname by some Jewish immigrants.

Lyons is the more common surname spelling. Lyons outnumber Lyon by more than two to one today.

Lyons Surname Resources on The Internet

Lyons and Lyon Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Lancashire), Scotland (Angus), Ireland (Galway and Cork) and from Jewish emigrants
  • to America, Canada and Australia

England.  There were early Lyon lines in Norfolk and Northamptonshire, both Norman in origin:

Sir John de Leonne was born in Norfolk in 1225. Richard Lyon, a descendant, could have been the Richard Lyon beheaded by Wat Tyler’s men during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Later Lyons made their home in Ruislip, Middlesex. Sir John Lyon, a grocer, was Lord Mayor of London in 1534 and John Lyon founded the Harrow School in 1572.

Meanwhile Sir John de Lyons was said of have inherited the Warkworth estates in Northamptonshire through marriage around 1160. A later Sir John fought at the battles of Crecy and Poitiers in the 14th century. His cousin Richard, a London merchant, was arrested in 1376 for embezzling the king’s revenue.  Subsequent Lyons of this family established themselves at King’s county in Ireland a century or so later.  

Lancashire. The largest number have been and are in Lancashire, however.

Thomas Lyon came to Warrington from Scotland in the 1650’s, the youngest son of George Lyon of Balmuchtie in Angus. His family farmed in the area, later became extensive landowners, and involved themselves in sugar refining in the 1780’s. Their home at Appleton Hall, just across the border in Cheshire, was built in 1820.

A Lyon family held land at Rainford from Lord Derby from the 1570’s and were clay potters there in the following century. This family also appeared in neighboring Whiston and Melling. Whether the highwayman George Lyon of Upholland who was hanged in 1815 was related to them is not known. That the Lyons spelling is almost as common as the Lyon spelling in Lancashire today may reflect Irish immigration.

Other Lyons. There were other Lyons in England who were Jewish and one family who were American.

The Chief Rabbi of Britain in the late 1700’s, from Poland, was known as either Hirschel Levin or Hart Lyon.

Nathaniel Lyons, an immigrant peddler of watches and cheap jewellery, who had arrived in London sometime in the 1840’s. His son Joseph, born there, was a watercolor artist of some repute before he joined forces with three Jewish entrepreneurs to found the catering firm of J. Lyons and Co. It grew to be the largest chain of tea shops in Britain during the inter-war period. The Strand Lyons Corner House was a London institution from 1909 until its closure in 1977.

Lewis Lyons, the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany, was a tailor in the East End of London.  In 1889 he led a strike by garment workers which was successful in raising their pay.

And Samuel Lyons had come from Poland to Leeds in Yorkshire in the 1890’s. There he set up a clothing business. His sons Jack and Bernard developed their father’s business into a large retailing company known as UDS (United Drapery Stores).

Ben Lyon was a Hollywood actor who brought his family to England in the 1940’s. The Lyon family featured in the popular BBC radio show Life with the Lyons in the 1950’s.

Scotland. Sir John Lyon, the forebear of the Lyon clan, rose to national prominence as an advisor to the king in the 1370’s. For his services he was granted the thanage of Glamis in Angus. Later Lyons maintained these royal ties and Sir John’s grandson Patrick was made Lord Glamis in 1445.

The ninth Lord Glamis was created the Earl of Kinghorne in 1606 and his descendants survived, but barely, as Covenanters and as Jacobite supporters during the next turbulent period in Scottish history.  “During the Jacobite rising of 1745 the Duke of Cumberland stayed at Glamis on his march to the Battle of Culloden, but it is said that he was not very welcome.”  

Glamis Castle in Angus remained the family home and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who was later to marry King George VI, spent much of her childhood there. The long history of the Lyon family was covered in Michael Hewitt’s 2014 book A Most Remarkable Family: The History of the Lyon Family.

A subsidiary line, the Lyons of Auldbar, who were descended from Sir Thomas Lyon of Auldbar, became wealthy West India merchants in the early 1800’s, with thirteen estates in Jamaica. Andrew Ross covered a further line in his 1901 book The Lyons of Cossins and Wester Ogil. This family’s holdings also included the Balmuchtie estate in Angus.

Ireland. Lyons origins were either from the O’Laighin name in eastern Galway where the family’s territory was centered around Kilconnell; or from the O’Liathain name that was originally from Limerick but then was more commonly found in northeast Cork. The village of Castlelyons (Caislean O’Liaghin) in the barony of Barrymore bore evidence to their presence there. In 1890 the main Lyons numbers were in Cork, Mayo and Galway. Many Lyons emigrated in the 19th century.

Some Lyons in Ireland were Scots, such as those that at Old Park in Antrim, the descendants of David Lyons, a Belfast merchant in the 17th century.

One Lyons family in Ireland was thought to have had French Huguenot origins or connections. Captain William Lyons was said to have fled the Alps region of France for Ireland in the late 1500’s.  

“Captain William Lyons, a supporter of Henry of Navarre and the Huguenot cause, fled to England after the St. Bartholomew Massacre in 1572.  Entering the army of Queen Elizabeth he commanded a company of cavalry under the Earl of Essex in the Irish wars of 1599.”  

A Lyons family was able to purchase in 1622 an estate at Killeen in King’s county (Offaly) that became known as River Lyons. A branch of this family bought the Ledestown estate in Westmeath and in the early 1700’s were planters in Antigua.

Later Lyons of this line, based in Hampshire, had distinguished careers in the Royal Navy (two becoming Admirals of the Fleet), in the Indian army, and in the diplomatic service where they were ennobled as Baron Lyons.  Richard Lyons who served as the British Ambassador to the United States during the American Civil War was said to have been Queen Victoria’s favorite diplomat.

America.  Early Lyon arrivals were to New England.

New England.  William Lyon came on the Hopewell, aged 14 in 1635, and three Lyon brothers – Thomas, Henry, and Richard – followed in the 1640’s, making their home in Fairfield county, Connecticut. They had all started out from London, were related to the Warkworth Lyons, and probably left because of their Royalist sympathies.  Their lineage was covered in A.B. Lyons’ 1907 book The Lyon Memorial.

The descendants of these Lyons went as follows:

  • William settled in Roxbury, Massachusetts. The line from Deacon William made its home in Woodstock, Connecticut. Lyons have remained on his homestead.
  • Thomas was one of the earliest settlers of Fairfield county. The family was Quaker for several generations. In the 1690’s his son Thomas built the Thomas Lyon house, considered today to be the oldest unaltered structure in Greenwich, Connecticut. The Lyon family lived in the house until the 20th century and it is still standing today.
  • Thomas’s brother Henry moved to Newark, New Jersey.
  • while his other brother Richard remained in Fairfield county and was probably the wealthiest of the three brothers when he died in 1678.  A notable descendant was the Union General Nathaniel Lyon killed during the Civil War.

Many of them ended up in New York state.

Irish Arrivals.  There were three notable Irish Lyons that came in the 18th century.

Firstly, Peter Lyons came to Virginia from county Cork in the 1750’s, having graduated from Trinity College in Dublin. He practiced law in Virginia, prospered, and was a good friend to George Washington. His son James had a large and successful medical practice in Richmond, beginning in 1809.

Matthew Lyon from Wicklow meanwhile had a more frenetic time in America. He came to Connecticut in 1764 and later had homes in Vermont and Kentucky. Lyon represented Vermont in Congress from 1797 to 1801 and Kentucky from 1803 to 1811.  

His tenure in Congress was tumultuous. He brawled with one Congressman; and was jailed on charges of violating the Sedition Act, winning re-election to Congress from inside his jail cell.”  

His son Chittenden was also a Congressman in Kentucky and Lyon county was named after him. His grandson Hilan was a Confederate officer during the Civil War.

And William Lyon came to Pennsylvania from Fermanagh as a surveyor in 1748. He helped lay out the town of Carlisle three years later. He and others of the Lyon family made their home in Milford township.

More Lyons arrived in the 1850’s at the time of the potato famine.  The greatest number came from Cork. Other Lyons arrived from Kerry, Limerick, Mayo and Sligo. Some arrivals like Thomas Lyons from county Mayo would fall foul of the law. Meanwhile George Lyons from Donegal had made it as far west as San Diego in 1847. He had been a carpenter on a whaling ship on the West Coast and subsequently kept a store in the Old Town, from 1851 to 1858.

Jewish Lyons. As in England, there have been Jewish Lyons. Abraham de Lyon was a Sephardic Jew from Portugal who came to Savannah, Georgia in 1733; and a number of Jewish Lyons were recorded in Philadelphia during the 1700’s. 

Jacques Lyons from the Dutch West Indies came to New York in 1839 as a minister for the Spanish and Portuguese congregations there. He was one of the founders of what became known as Mount Sinai Hospital. Leonard Lyons, born Leonard Sucher, was a long-time Broadway columnist on the New York Post. His column, which first appeared in 1934, became a New York institution.

Canada. An early Lyon in Canada was Benjamin Lyon, Jewish, who had arrived in New York in 1756 and four years later was a fur trader operating out of Montreal. His mixed race son John worked for a time for the Hudson Bay Company.

George Lyon from Inverurie in Aberdeenshire fought in the War of 1812 and stayed on, having been given a land grant in Richmond near Ottawa. Two of his sons, George and Robert, became mayors of Ottawa. However, his younger brother Robert Lyon died in 1833 in a shooting duel, the last one of its kind in Canada.  George’s grandson George, born in 1858, became a champion golfer and won the Olympic gold medal for golf in 1904.

Irish Lyons.  Also living near Ottawa was Henry Lyons from Wicklow in Ireland and his family who made their home in Westmeath township in the 1860’s.

Meanwhile a Lyons family has been living at Caledon near Toronto ever since 1835 when they arrived from Ireland. There is the Haines-Lyons House in the town and the Lyons have been farming at Lyonsdale outside of town for seven generations.

AustraliaThere were apparently two young Michael Lyons who left their Galway homes in Ireland for Australia in the early 1840’s:

  • the first Michael had reached Sydney by 1841.  His son John was born there at that time.  John later emigrated to New Zealand and settled near Auckland.
  • while the second Michael came to Tasmania with his wife Bridget in 1843.  They made their home in Stanley. 

Their eldest son Michael, born in 1845, remained in Stanley and lived in a small cottage that is now known as Lyons Cottage. He prospered for a while and then lost all of the family’s money in 1887 speculating on the Melbourne Cup. He suffered a breakdown and became unable to care for his wife and eight children.

Among those children was Joseph, later to be known as “Honest Joe,” who rose in Labor party politics to be Australia’s Prime Minister in the 1930’s.

Lyons Surname Miscellany

Lyon and Lyons Today

Numbers (000’s) Lyon Lyons
UK    10    18
America    11    32
Elsewhere     7    29
Total    28    79

Sir John Lyon, Forebear of the Lyon Clan.  The Sir John Lyon who died in 1382 had risen rapidly to prominence in Scottish life from rather obscure origins.   He was known as the White Lyon by his contemporaries due to his complexion.

He had first entered into the light of historical record in 1368 when he received a grant of lands in the lordship of the Garioch from David II. Two years later he was serving as King David’s secretary and keeper of the privy seal. Quite clearly, he was a highly literate and well-educated man.

He remained influential in royal circles after the king’s death in 1371. The new King Robert II granted him the royal thanage of Glamis in Angus and he later married Johanna, daughter of the king.  However, his rise in royal circles brought him enemies and he was assassinated by a political rival in 1382.

Where had Sir John come from?

Chroniclers writing early in the 16th century deliberately emphasized his supposed lowly origins and claimed that he had originally been called John Myll and that he had received the surname Lyon from Robert II as a reward for his service to that monarch.

The genealogist Sir Ian Moncreiffe has said that Lyon was a family of Celtic origin and that they were descended from a younger son of clan Lamont.  But the clan itself believes that the Lyons, like the Hamiltons, were Norman in origin and, as de Leonnes, had come north, possibly from Norfolk, at an earlier time at the invitation of the Scottish monarch.

The Monster of Glamis.  The most famous legend connected with the castle is that of the Monster of Glamis, a hideously deformed child born to the family.

Some accounts came from singer and composer Virginia Gabriel who stayed at the castle in 1870.  In the story, the monster was kept in the castle all his life and his suite of rooms bricked up after his death.  Another monster is supposed to have dwelt in Loch Calder near the castle.

An alternative version of the legend is that to every generation of the family a vampire child is born and is walled up in that room.  There is an old story that guests staying at Glamis once hung towels from the windows of every room in a bid to find the bricked-up suite of the monster. When they looked at it from outside, several windows were apparently towel-less.

The legend of the monster may have been inspired by the true story of the Ogilvies.  Somewhere in the 16-foot-thick walls is the famous room of skulls where the Ogilvie family, who sought protection from their enemies the Lindsays, were walled up to die of starvation.

The Lyons Origin in Ireland.  The Irish scholar Edward MacLysaght gave the following account of the Lyons name origin in Ireland in his 1957 book Irish Families.

“The four surnames Lyons, O’Lyne, Lehane and Lane are the anglicized forms of two distinct Gaelic surnames. Lehane is peculiar to county Cork while Lyne today is found chiefly in county Kerry, though formerly well known in county Galway where Lyons has superseded it.

Lyons is the most numerous of these names.  210 births were recorded by Matheson as being registered in a year, of which 85 were in the Cork-Kerry-Limerick area and 71 in Galway.  Lyons, it should be added, is quite distinct from the Scottish name Lyon.  It will thus be seen that much confusion arises in connection with these names.

The two Gaelic surnames referred to above are O’ Liathain and O’LaighinO’Liathain, said to be originally of the Ui Fidhgheinte of the modern Limerick, were settled in the barony of Barrymore, county Cork, but are more closely associated with the country north of Youghal, called Ui Lithain by the Four Masters wherein lies the village of Castle Lyons. The same Gaelic name, anglicized Lehane, is found in the Courtmacsherry area.

O’Laighin belongs to Galway.They were centred around Kilconnell, but though dwelling in the Hy Many country they were, according to O’Flaherty’s Ogygia, not of it, but of Firbolg origin.”

The Lyons family at Croome Hall in Limerick did come from earlier O’Liathains.  James O’Lyne died there in 1740.  But his sons and grandsons all adopted the Lyons spelling.

Reader Feedback – Richard Lyons the British Diplomat.  The calculated almost clinical solutions by the biographer of Lord Lyons to complex social, psychological and historical constructs, ironically mimics the diplomatic and personal reputation of Lord Lyons himself.

Lord Lyons is described as a consummate professional in his ability to separate domestic public policy, from his role in foreign affairs. Lyons is admired yet distant in his policy group at the Foreign Office, and amongst the new Queen’s appointment of diplomats to Washington, the salons of Georgetown, and the complex policy groups of New York during the American Civil War.

Though Lord Lyons and the Lyons family were rather stoic aristocrats, the author takes an almost clinical care in his approach and solution to what are not commonly considered contemporary concerns in any class within society.

Lord Lyons’ obviously gay identity need not be the subject of such a cautious and clinical evaluation in the course of this tome’s individual treatment. Lyons peers and policy group view on Catholicism and influence within Scotland and Ireland reflects the psychological struggles. Visits to Woburn Abbey, the seat of the Duke of Bedford, illustrative of his sexuality are antiquated at best. Lyons full character and achievements must be viewed in the light of modernity.

Ian Lyons (

Robert Lyon and the Shooting Duel.  In June 1833 Robert Lyon and a fellow law student John Wilson engaged in a duel on the Tay Canal outside Perth in Ontario.  The duel was apparently initiated by the 20-year-old Lyon over the love of a local schoolteacher Elizabeth Hughes.  Both men missed on their first shot.  Lyon’s second, Henri Lelievre, fled the country as he had encouraged a second round and Lyon was shot and died.

John Wilson did later marry Elizabeth Hughes and they had three children together.  Lyon’s tombstone in the Anglican cemetery in Perth read as follows:

“Friendship Offering, Dedicated to the memory of Robert Lyon, student-at-law. He fell in mortal combat on 13 June 1833 in the 20th year of his age. Requieseat in Pace.”

He has been remembered.  In 1996 Susan Cole wrote A Matter of Honour, an account of the duel.  A year later two students of Sheridan College oversaw the production of an independent film by the same name, telling the story.

$300 for the Capture of Thomas Lyons.  Thomas Lyons murdered Patrick McDonough in Lexington, Missouri on the 4th of June, 1858 and then escaped from jail on the 1st of November that year.

The said Lyons was the son of Edward Lyons of Kiladoon parish in county Mayo. The deceased man was the son of Martin McDonough of Dadrain of the same county and parish.

The sheriff of Harrisonville in Cass county offered a reward of three hundred dollars for the arrest of the said Lyons.  The description of him was as follows:

“Height 5 feet 8 inches, light brown hair, dark eyes, thin visaged, with long jaws, quick spoken, and knock kneed.”

Any person who will arrest and deliver him to the proper authority will receive a $100 additional reward from Thomas O’Maley of Belmont county, Ohio. 

Reader Feedback – Jewish Lyons from Hungary.  We have Lyons in our family background.  Their ancestral home was in Hungary.  The immigrant Louis Lyons came to the US in 1889 at the age of 21.  His father (as shown on Louis’s death certificate in 1918) was Morris Lyons. We believe Morris never immigrated to the US.

On many Jewish search sites we do not see the Lyons surname. All we have read indicates that the Lyons surname did not exist in Hungary and that they changed their name. Any help to find more about Lyons in Hungary?

Allen Zimmerman (

The Lyons Corner Houses.  The Corner Houses, which first appeared in London n 1909 and remained until 1977, were noted for their art deco style. They were situated on or near the corners of Coventry Street, Strand and Tottenham Court Road, while the Maison Lyonses were at Marble Arch and in Shaftesbury Avenue.

They were all large buildings on four or five floors, the ground floor of which was a food hall with counters for delicatessen, sweets and chocolates, cakes, fruit, flowers and other products.  In addition, they possessed hairdressing salons, telephone booths, theatre booking agencies and at one period a twice-a-day food delivery service.  On the other floors were several restaurants, each with a different theme and all with their own musicians.

For a time the Corner Houses were open 24 hours a day.  At their peak each branch employed around 400 staff. They featured window displays designed by Kay Lipton and, in the post-war period, the Corner Houses were generally smarter and grander than the local tea shops.

However, Lyons began losing money as tastes changed in the 1960’s and in 1978 the company was sold to Allied Breweries.

Reader Feedback – Lineage of Joe Lyons, Australian PM.  Joe Lyons was my grandfather.  I’m trying to trace the history of Joe’s grandparents, Michael and Bridget Lyons. Very little information seems to be findable beyond family anecdotes which are inherently variable and unreliable.

Our Michael, according to family notes, came out from Ireland in 1843, with his wife and daughter Anne who had been born in 1841.  I’m yet to confirm his arrival. I have found records of several Michael Lyons plus wife and child who came out between 1841 and 1845, but scant detail beyond the name.

Stephen Lyons (

Lyons Names

  • Sir John Lyon was the Chamberlain of Scotland in the 1370’s.
  • Richard Lyons served as the British Ambassador to the United States at the time of the American Civil War.
  • Sir Joseph Lyons was a founder of the J. Lyons and Co, the company which grew to be the largest chain of tea shops in Britain during the inter-war period.
  • Joseph Lyons, the grandson of Irish immigrants, was Prime Minister of Australia from 1932 to 1939.
  • Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon from the Scottish Lyon family married into the Royal Family and was the much-loved Queen Mother until her death in 2002 at the age of 101.

Lyons Numbers Today

  • 28,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 43,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 36,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Lyons and Like Surnames

The Norman Conquest brought new rulers to England and they brought their names and language, a form of French, with them.  Over time their names became less French and more English in character.  Thus Hamo became Hammond, Reinold Reynolds and Thierry Terry and so forth.  The names Allen, Brett, Everett, and Harvey were probably Breton in origin as Bretons also arrived, sometimes as mercenaries.

The new Norman lords often adopted new last names, sometimes from the lands they had acquired and sometimes from places back in Normandy.  Over time the name here also became more English.  Thus Saint Maur into Seymour, Saint Clair into Sinclair, Mohun into Moon, and Warenne into Warren.

Here are some of these Norman and Breton originating names that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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