Surname Origin & History

The name Carey, along with its other derivations, yields a long and illustrious history in North Western Europe, specifically in what is now the British Isles, the Republic of Ireland, and North West France.

As a surname it has two distinct origins: Normandy (North West France) and Ireland - both heavily influenced by ancient Celtic history. While the considerable influence of the ancient Celts on Irish culture is well known, their role in the early history of North West France is often underestimated. Early historical records indicate that as a name Carey or Cary evolved in Britainy in part from the Celtic word 'cari' (also spelt 'kari'), meaning 'pleasant stream'.

The Irish Careys were descendants of the O'Ciardhas of Kildare (or of Killkenny according to some records), a powerful Irish sect situated near Dublin. Many of their descendants travelled down to the Southern coast of Ireland, where the clan name was changed to 'Carey'. Here the Careys settled before emigrating later to South West England, and then to other parts of England and the Americas starting at the end of the 17th century.

The Norman Careys, like many other families from Normandy, were most probably decendants of a variety of earlier groups who migrated through North West Europe. Most notably, the Norman Careys would probably have had Gaulic and Celtic ancestry, as well as Norse, Germanic and Teutonic heritage. In particular, there was a strong tradition of interplay between Norman and Celtic societies - both positive and all too often negative. This was partly due to their geographical proximity, and partly due to common cultural themes that remained in place for many generations.

The Norman name was originally spelt 'de Kari', which in turn translates to 'of Kari'. When translated into Celtic this would have meant 'of the pleasant stream'. However, within Normandy itself it is feasible that the name referenced a specific geographical area, possibly the Manor of Carrey in Lisieux.

There is no record of a de Kari arriving with William the Conquerer and his knights during the invasion of England in 1066, or of any Careys before this time. It is therefore likely that the Norman Carey ancestors arrived after the successful invasion.

The earliest English mainland Carey on record is a Norman knight and Lord named Adam de Kari, who was most probably born between 1170 and 1180, and was the first recorded occupant of Castle Cary in Somerset. The fact that de Kari governed Castle Cary strongly suggests that either the de Kari family was of noble Norman stock, or that the patriarch of the family was highly regarded as a politician and soldier. Given the early and rapid emergence of the Carys in Anglo-Norman culture the former of these theories is highly probable.

Between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries the Kari name evolved into Kary and then Cary, as the Norman invaders began to adopt some indigenous Anglo-Saxon mannerisms. Like other prominent Norman families, the Carys of this time exerted considerable influence in the evolving social hierarchy, especially throughout the counties of Somerset and Wiltshire.

In addition, around this time emerged the first reliable evidence of a Carey line living on Guernsey in the Channel Islands. A Jean Carey is recorded as being 'alive in 1393'. Other evidence seems to indicate that the Guernsey line descended directly from Normandy, and not from the English Carey line.

Although the Carys of Somerset held no direct lineage to the English throne, they did hold some influence with several English monarchs. During the reign of Henry V, Sir Robert Cary (born 1375) won wide-spread admiration for defeating a highly proficient (and somewhat troublesome) knight. In the sixteenth century his descendant William Cary married Mary Boleyn, the sister of King Henry VIII's late wife Anne. William's son Henry (1524-1596) became a respected soldier and diplomat, and Henry's eldest son George was given the title of 'Baron Hunsdon' by the Queen Elizabeth I. Also on record during this era is one Thomas Cary, his name appearing in the Assixe Rolls of London in 1375.

Over the subsequent three centuries the Carey ancestors lost some direct influence in the English aristocracy, but maintained a more progressive presence through academic and creative works. Indeed, Henry Carey (1760-1839) is accredited with composing "God Save the King" - the English national anthem, while one of his distant cousins William Carey (1761-1834) helped to form the Baptist Missionary Society.

The relationship between the Irish and Norman Carey/Cary lines is difficult to establish. Through the centuries the Cary spelling has been common place in South West England, specifically around Castle Cary and the river Cary. The proliferation of Careys in Southern Ireland and their steady filtration over to England starting around the 16th century suggests that the origins of the two lines are quite distinct. However, name standardization, a general lack of lineage data, and the tendancy to spell words and names phonetically from the 18th century onwards complicates matters somewhat, and makes it very difficult for many families to trace their true ancestry.

During the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many Careys migrated from England and Southern and Western Ireland to the Americas, making Carey a less common surname in English society. More recently both British and Irish bearers of the Carey name have increased in number, and the American Careys have boomed. Today there are more than 110,000 Careys World-wide. Owners of other variations of the name are fewer in number but still significant.

Written by Andrew Carey, March, 2001.
Last revised by Andrew Carey, February, 2018.

Bent sable, embossed with three roses of the field, on argent. English Origin.
White argent for peace and sincerity;
Black sable for constancy;
Three roses for beauty and grace.
Cary, Carey, O'Carey, Carrey, Cari, Carew, O'Carew, Karry, Carry, Karey, de Kari
A swan argent, wings endorsed
"Sine Macula"
Norman translation: "Without Blemish"
Latin translation: "Without Stain"
Carey Coat of Arms


  • The Historical Research Center: Carey Family Name History.
  • List of Norman knights involved in the invasion of England in 1066.
  • Geographical maps of Northern France and South West England.
  • Biographical information in