Norris Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Norris Surname Meaning

The Norris surname is Norman-French in origin. Its most probable source is the Norman-French word norreis, meaning “northerner” but more specifically a Norseman or Viking who had settled in Normandy.

Norice appeared on the roll at Battle Abbey after the Norman invasion. The name Robert Norreis was recorded in Hampshire in 1148. The family spelling generally became Norreys until Norris took ascendancy sometime during the 15th and 16th centuries.

An alternative although less likely derivation would be the French word norrice meaning “nurse.” The surnames Nurse and Nourse came from this root.

Norris Surname Resources on The Internet

Norris and Norreys Surname Ancestry

  • from England (London) and from NE Scotland
  • to Ireland, America, Canada and Australia

England.  The forebear of the Norreys/Norris line in England appears to have been a Geoffrey le Norreys who held lands in both Yorkshire and Lancashire in the 12th century. The lands in Yorkshire were based around Bereford (or Barforth) Manor near Darlington until the late 13th century when their position there declined.

Lancashire. The centerpiece of the family holdings in Lancashire was Speke Hall, obtained by Alan le Norreys through marriage around the year 1280. The Norreys family held sway there for over four hundred years.

During that time they were substantial landowners in the county, frequently MP’s for Liverpool, and Catholic (sometimes subject to recusancy fines) and connected to other Catholic families in Lancashire. The male line ended with the death of Thomas Norris in 1731. Henry Norris, a wealthy Manchester merchant and a descendant, purchased Davyhulme Hall in Lancashire in 1792. His family later adopted the old Norreys spelling.

Berkshire.  There was a related Norreys line that established itself south in Berkshire, first at Ockholt manor near Bray and then, in 1435, at Yattendon castle when Sir John Norreys married the heiress. Sir John became a courtier to Henry VI and the subsequent Norreys in Berkshire were prominent in royal and military circles during Tudor times:

  • Sir William Norreys was a well-known soldier on the Lancastrian side who fought at Bosworth Field in 1485.
  • Sir Henry Norreys was executed by Henry VIII for his suspected adultery with Anne Boleyn.
  • Henry Norreys was guardian to Princess Elizabeth and trusted by her as Queen.
  • Sir John Norreys was a distinguished military officer during Elizabeth’s reign.
  • and Francis Norreys killed himself with a crossbow in 1622.

ElsewhereNorris as Norris was elsewhere and earlier.

In the west country, there were Norrises at Chudleigh in Devon in the late 14th century. Thomas Norris served as an MP for Totnes from 1388 to 1395.

A Norris family from Winkleigh in Devon settled at Milverton in Somerset in the 16th century. Richard Norris was a Catholic priest who was banished to France in 1585. Norrises paid recusant fines. Hugh Norris moved to London and prospered as a Levant merchant, building his home in Hackney. A descendant was the Anglican High Church clergyman of early Victorian times, the Rev. Henry Handley Norris.

In Norfolk, John Norwys was recorded as a freeman of Norwich in 1414. Some therefore think that the Norris name may have been a contraction of de Norwich. However, one Norris line at Congham in the King’s Lynn area of Norfolk, traced back to the late 1300’s, began with a Geoffrey Norreys.

Titus Norris, a skinner, was made a freeman of Norwich in 1561 and from him came the Norrises of Witton and Witchingham. James Norris, a mercer in Norwich a century or so later, was the forebear of the Norrises of Wood Norton and Guist. Norris families in Norfolk were covered in Walter Rye’s 1906 book The Norfolk Antiquarian Miscellany.

London has had the largest number of Norrises. The best-known has been John Norris, a London merchant said to have been the richest commoner in England in the mid-18th century. He also had a reputation as a rake and for siring illegitimate children. His father was Robert Norris, also a London merchant, who was saved from bankruptcy by his wife’s money. One of his sons, Charles, moved to Wales and gained a reputation as an etcher of the Pembrokeshire countryside.

Ireland. The Norreys/Norris family from Berkshire made their mark on Ireland during Elizabethan times as soldiers and administrators, but left little in terms of family – although one branch in Armagh did claim descent from them.

The Norris name was handed down from other English Norrises. It has been found mainly in county Cork. Norris families were recorded in Maghera parish in county Derry from 1740. John Norris was a farmer at Tamlaghtmore in Tyrone in the 19th century.

Scotland. The Scottish form of Norris was Norrie. It was mainly to be found in Aberdeenshire and elsewhere on Scotland’s northeast coastline. Norrie could become Norris on its travels. For example, one Norie family from Scotland on its 19th century journey through America to Australia ended up as Norris on the other side of the world.

America.  Two early Norris arrivals in New England were:

  • the Rev. Edward Norris from Gloucestershire who, after persecution at home, came to Salem, Massachusetts in 1630. He became the pastor of Salem church ten years later and was present during the famous witch trials. Many Norris descendants stayed in Salem. But one son John, detesting the church strictness there, left for Long Island where he started up a shipping business between Boston and England.
  • and Nicholas Norris, a young stowaway from Ireland, who first showed up in Hampton, New Hampshire in 1663. He was a tailor by trade and lived in the town of Exeter for 57 years. His descendants are numerous.

Thomas Norris had run away from his home at Congham in Norfolk in 1620 when still a boy and went to sea. He ended up coming ashore in Virginia in 1630 and later became a planter along the Chester river in St. Mary’s county, Maryland. His line was traced in Harry Davis’s monumental 1941 book The Norris Family of Maryland and Virginia.

The Norris line from Maryland included:

  • Joseph Norris who came to Kentucky in 1796. His son John of Boone county enlisted in the War of 1812 and wrote an account of his experience.
  • Barnett Norris who moved his family to Virginia around this time. His grandson was John L. Norris, a well-known patent attorney in Washington DC.
  • and other Norrises who settled in South Carolina and Georgia.

Edmund Norris from Maryland took his family southward to what became Nacogdoches county, Texas in 1803. His sons Samuel and John were prominent in the early American history in Texas. John’s son James enlisted in the Confederate army and after the war moved to Brown and later Coleman county, Texas.

However, perhaps the best-known early Norris was Isaac Norris, a Quaker born in London, who arrived with his father Thomas to Philadelphia in 1690. Thomas died in an earthquake in Jamaica in 1692, But Isaac became one of Philadelphia’s richest merchants. Norristown in Pennsylvania was named after him.

Leo Norris, born in 1806 in Kentucky, was an early settler in Alta California, living at Mission San Jose from 1847 until 1850 when he set off for the San Ramon valley. There he built his Norris cattle ranch. His son William was an expert horseman with a lasso expertise which few could rival. The ranch lasted until 1951 when a fire destroyed the building.

CanadaTwo notable Norris families in Canada in the 19th century came from Scotland.

The first was James Norris from Glasgow who left Scotland for Caledon East in Ontario in 1834. His son James was a sea captain and businessman who became mayor of St. Catherines; his grandson James S. Norris began a grain trading company in Montreal. His son James E. Norris then expanded that business greatly and was said to have been the largest grain buyer in the world in the 1930’s. He also had extensive ownership interests in National Hockey League franchises. He and two of his sons were voted into the NHL Hall of Fame.

The second was John Norris who was born in Caithness in 1826 and went to work for the Hudson Bay Company twenty years later. He was a pioneer of the Canadian West, helping to establish the route to Winnipeg in 1850 and then to Edmonton where he settled in 1864. He married a local Metis girl and his son Malcolm took up the cause of Metis and Indian rights.

Irish Norrises also came to Canada at that time, such as:

  • Michael Norris and his family from county Cavan who arrived in 1832 and settled in Peel township in Wellington county, Ontario
  • and James Norris and his family from county Tyrone who came in the late 1840’s and settled in Hibbert township in Perth county, Ontario.

Australia.  Richard Norris was tried and convicted in Dublin and transported in 1800 on the Minerva to Australia. He married a fellow convict Mary Williams and they farmed in the Hawkesbury district of NSW.

Mary endured the incarceration of her son John in Tasmania for cattle theft (he did come back) and of her husband Richard in Norfolk Island for some minor infraction (he never came back). Later Norrises of this family moved from Hawkesbury to the western plains beyond the Blue Mountains.

Norris Surname Miscellany

Speke Hall in Lancashire.  Speke Hall is a half-timbered framed mansion that sits on the banks of the river Mersey in Lancashire.

Henry Norris was responsible for much of the building when he inherited the foundations of the project from his father in 1490.  It was continued on by Henry’s son, William who made several additions to the moated manor house to accommodate his family of nineteen children.  Completion then fell to Edward, who added the date of 1598 over the entrance, no doubt with a sigh of relief. Three generations of the family can be seen on the carved over-mantle in the great parlor.

The estate remained in the Norris family until 1736.  Mary Norris inherited it from her father Thomas in 1731.  Five years later she married Lord Stanley Beauclerk. Mary’s strong attachment to the house was not shared by her husband and son.  When she died in 1766, the house was let out to tenants and subsequently, in 1795, sold.

The Norreys of Berkshire.  Sir John Norreys (1400-1466), married Alice Merbrooke of Tattendon (plus two other marriages) (first of the Norreys line at Yatterdon; courtier to Henry VI)

  • – Sir William Norreys (1433-1507), married Lady Jane de Vere (plus two other marriages) (well-known soldier on the Lancastrian side; fought at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485)
  • — Sir Edward Norreys (1464-1487), married Frideswide Lowell (died on the battlefield)
  • — John Norreys (1481-1564), married Elizabeth Brave (royal courtier to four successive monarchs; no children to marriage)
  • — Sir Henry Norreys (1484-1536), married Mary Fiennes (executed by Henry VIII for his suspected adultery with Anne Boleyn) 
  • —- Henry Norreys (1525-1601), married Margery Williams (trusted by Queen Elizabeth; created Baron Norreys of Rycote)
  • —– Sir John Norreys (1547-1597), unmarried (distinguished English soldier, culminating in Ireland)
  • —– William Norreys (1550-1579), married Elizabeth Morison (soldier who died of fever in Ireland)
  • —— Francis Norreys (1579-1622), married Bridget de Vere (Baron Narroys of Rycote; his estates forfeited after he shot himself with a crossbow)
  • ——- Elizabeth Norreys (1600-1645), married Edward Wray
  • —– Sir Henry Norreys (1554-1599), no reported marriage (soldier who died of his wounds in Ireland)
  • —– Sir Thomas Norreys (1556-1599), married Bridget Kingsmill (soldier in Ireland who was made President of Minster and built Mallow Castle in Cork)
  • —— Elizabeth Norreys (1593-1623), his heiress married Sir John Jephson (the Jephsons inherited Mallow Castle).

The Francis Norreys Line.  Much of the Norreys Berkshire line died in Ireland.  But a Norreys barony and a line in Oxfordshire did continue from Francis Norreys.

It was said that he had been contemplating divorce when he committed the  crime of elbowing Lord Scrope in the presence of royalty. He was sent to Fleet Prison. Upon his release, he went home to Rycote and killed himself with a crossbow. His estate was then forfeited to the Crown.

He left no legitimate sons.  Soon after his death his daughter Elizabeth decided to elope with her lover of the King’s household, Edward Wray.  She crept out of her house and walked three miles to St. Mary Aldermary’s church to marry him. When news of the secret marriage got out, Edward Wray was put under house arrest and lost his post at court.  However, all must have been forgiven at some time as the Norreys barony did descend to Elizabeth and then to her daughter Bridget.

Francis left an illegitimate son, also named Francis, who married into Oxfordshire gentry and succeeded to the Weston estate in 1623. Both he and his son Edward were returned as local MP’s.

John Norris and Francis Dashwood.  John Norris and Francis Dashwood were both members of the Hellfire Club, a loose grouping of high society rakes that flourished in the mid-18th century.  They both had country estates in Buckinghamshire.

The Dashwood estate stood at the top of West Wycombe hill next to the church of St Lawrence.  The original 14th century tower of the church was raised and capped with a golden ball in 1752 by Dashwood.

At Camberley, some thirty miles away, a similar tower with a golden ball was erected by John Norris, who lived at nearby Hughenden Manor.  It is believed that Norris and Dashwood used to signal to each other by heliograph, reflecting the rays of the sun with a mirror, from their respective golden balls.

A West Virginia Story.  The story goes that an Englishman by the name of Norris caught an Indian boy from a tribe of Indians from the Allegheny mountains. Norris named the Indian boy Sam.  The Englishman had a daughter whose name was Betsy. Betsy and the Indian boy Sam would go out and get the cows every day and Betsy gave birth to a Indian child. He was born in Morgantown in 1750 and she named him Sam Norris after his father.

In 1764 young Sam, then aged fourteen, followed a man named Johnnie Gaul out of Morgantown to Hacker’s Creek. Later Sam took a Delaware Indian named Pretty Hair as his wife and built a cabin for them, starting his life with the Indians.

Sam lived to the ripe old age of 94 and was buried in 1844 at the Norris cemetery in Barbour county, West Virginia. Five generations of Norrises now trace back to Sam Norris. 

John Norris’s Pioneer Days in the Canadian West.  John Norris was a tracker who helped open up the route to Winnipeg in 1850.  He wrote of his experience then as follows:

“Eight men were hitched to each boat and it was slavish work. We were practically transported.  There was no use to rebel.  You got no thanks for opening up the country.  I believe if we hadn’t opened up the cart trail to Winnipeg there would not be as many settlers in the prairies today.

We found tracking pretty hard.  Some men used to be so tired they could not eat at the end of the day.  They would roll themselves in a blanket and fall down like dead men.

In winter our work was hard too.  We would make 40 or 50 miles a day with running dogs if the trail was light and good. But not if there were snowdrifts.”

Fourteen years later, in 1864, John Norris headed the first brigade of 200 Red river carts who made the journey from Winnipeg to Edmonton.  It took three and a half months.

Reader Feedback – Norris in South Australia.  My ancestor came out to Australia in 1856 and started on the land.  In World War One two sons went to war. Albert Norris’s name is on the War Memorial on North Terrace in Adelaide. South Australia.  Elaine Norris (

Norris Names

  • Alan le Norreys was the founder in the 13th century of the Speke Norris line in Lancashire. 
  • Sir John Norreys, born around 1400, was the progenitor of the Norreys family of Yattendon in Berkshire that was prominent in English life in Tudor times. 
  • John Norris was a merchant and a rake, reputed to be the richest commoner in England in the mid-18th century. 
  • James E. Norris was a Canadian-American businessman of the early 20th century with large interests in grain and cattle and ownership of ice hockey teams in the NHL.   
  • George Norris was the US Senator for Nebraska for thirty years between 1913 and 1943. During the Depression years he created the Tennessee Valley Authority and was a leader of progressive and liberal causes in Congress.

Norris Numbers Today

  • 26,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 35,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 17,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Norris 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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