This is a surname with one of the most ancient origins. It derives from an Olde British word 'ea' pronounced 'ay' and describes someone who lived by a stream. More pragmatically it probably referred to somebody who lived on dry land by a stream, since before the days of land drainage to find 'dry land' was vital. It is true that some nameholders particularly those who originate in the Sussex - Kent region of England, may derive from the town of Rye, which means what it says - 'the place where corn was grown'. In Early English the descriptive phrase was 'aet paere ea' (at the island) which by the Middle ages had become 'at ther ee', and thence was further shortened to 'atte rie' and hence the modern surname which can be found as Ray, Rea, Reay, Wray, Wrey, Raye, Rey, Rea, Reay, Reah, and even Nye, formerly 'atten ea'! Examples of early recordings include William atte Rea in the 1327 Subsidy Rolls of Sussex, William bith Ree in the 1293 rolls of Worcester, and John atte Reye in the Essex Rolls of 1327. The Coat of Arms granted in Northumberland has the blazon of a blue field, a plate between three silver crescents. The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of Ralph de la Reye, which was dated 1279, in the Hundred Rolls of Oxfordshire, during the reign of King Edward 1, known as 'The hammer of the Scots', 1272 - 1307. Surnames became necessary when governments introduced personal taxation. In England this was known as Poll Tax. Throughout the centuries, surnames in every country have continued to "develop" often leading to astonishing variants of the original spelling.
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