Recorded as Sonley and Sunley, this is an English surname. It is locational from a now "lost" place thought to have been in North Yorkshire, owing to the large number of recordings in that county and particularly in the area surrounding the towns and villages of Pickering, Kirby Moorside, Helmsley and Coxwold.
The derivation is from the Olde English pre 7th Century personal name "Sunna", itself from the Germanic element "sunj", meaning truth, and "leah", a fenced clearing in a wood one suitable for agriculture.
An estimated three thousand medieval villages and hamlets have disappeared in the British Isles since the 12th century. This is mainly owing to the widespread practice of "clearing" large areas of land to make sheep pastures during the development of the wool-trade. In addition the infamous Black Plague of 1348, and the later one of 1665, caused a number of casualties amongst many small places, which were subsequently abandoned.
Early examples of the recordings taken from surviving church registers of Yorkshire include:
the christening of Richard Sunley, the son of William Sunley, on December 5th 1584, at St. Michael Le Belfry; city of York,
the christening of Alice Sonley at Kirby Moorside on December 13th 1626,
and the christening of Thomas, the son of Thomas and Margaret Sunley on March 24th 1758, at Kirby Underdale.
Amongst the first recordings of the family name maybe that of Thomas Sonlay. This was dated August 8th 1541, when he married Elizabeth Phillip, at Oswaldkirk, during the reign of King Henry V111, 1509 - 1547.
Throughout the centuries, surnames in every country have continued to "develop" often leading to astonishing variants of the original spelling.