"true or faithful in allegiance," 1530s, in reference to subjects of sovereigns or governments, from French loyal, from Old French loial, leal "of good quality; faithful; honorable; law-abiding; legitimate, born in wedlock," from Latin legalem, from lex "law" (see legal).
Identical with legal, which maintains the Latin form; in most uses it has displaced Middle English leal, which is an older borrowing of the French word. For the twinning, compare royal/regal. Sense development in English is feudal, via notion of "faithful in carrying out legal obligations; conformable to the laws of honor." In a general sense (of dogs, lovers, etc.), from c. 1600. As a noun meaning "those who are loyal" from 1530s (originally often in plural).