DNA indicates the family originates from Northern Europe and Anglo-Saxon in establishment. The surname Shelley has been attributed to an English locality of that name*. Three locations named Shelley anciently existed, in Suffolk nr Sudbury, in Essex nr Ongar and in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The earliest of these places, recorded in Old English, is ‘Schelfeage’ in Suffolk c 995. In the Domesday Book it is Sceveleia.
The name precisely describes the home manor location. ‘Shelley’ is derived from a cleared (woodland) riverside ledge or plateau (a meadow or ‘ley’). An ancient manor on the west bank of the River Brett in the hundred of Stamford and only ten miles east of Sudbury. Early recordings in 1182 are of William de Selflege (Feet of Fines for Essex) and of Matilda de Selleg (Suffolk Pleas before the king, 28 Henry II). In 1201, Richard de Selueleg has been recorded by PH Reaney (Dictionary of British Surnames) and in the reign of Edward II (23 Nov 1323) a John de Shelley was a ‘prover’ to a court of petty pleas held at Ipswich. Thomas Shelley is recorded in the Feet of Fines for Ipswich in 1445 with reference to Talinage.
Shelley’s are recorded in and around the west Suffolk district of Stoke by Nayland, Clare and Bulmer each of which have close connections to Sudbury. It would appear that the Shelley’s were of an enterprising stock and in the sixteenth century there are recordings of John Shelye (Shelley) established at Pentlow as a freehold Yeoman. This suggests he would typically have held somewhere between 80 and 150 acres. Buildings were set aside for weaving cloth for the valuable and booming textile industry. Nearby Sudbury was a leading market centre for trading in woollen cloth.
Surnames were initially attributed to a person’s locality, occupation, personality or appearance. Descendants adopted these references as they became family surnames. Shelley’s descended from both the Suffolk Sceveleia and the Essex location named in the Domesday Book as Senleia and in 1276 as Schelveleye. There was also a source of Shelley’s in Sussex (with no specific location) leading to the family of the famous poet of that name. There is always a slim possibility of some form of collateral connections with these alternative sources.