Wright Beginnings circa 1050

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The Normans

We can trace Wilbur’s and Orville’s ancestry back to just before the invasion of England by the Normans under William the Conqueror in 1066 CE, which is just about as far as genealogists can trace any family. Surnames were just coming into use in Normandy in the eleventh century; before that time there were no family names to trace. If you were the son or daughter of royalty, histories and oral traditions might take you back a few centuries, but there were no records for common people for the simple reason that there were no family names to record. 

The Normans (Old French for Norse men) had settled on the northern coast of France long before William’s time. They were the descendants of Saxon Vikings from the Jutland peninsula (present-day Denmark) who had colonized that region beginning about 400 CE as the Roman Empire collapsed and the Romans withdrew. From here, the Saxons and other Viking tribes launched multiple invasions of the British Isles, displacing the Britons and pushing them westward. Eventually the Saxons and others established the Heptarchy in England, a loose association of tiny kingdoms, among them Essex, Wessex, and Sussex. (The names once meant East Saxons, West Saxons, and South Saxons.) Over several centuries, the political ties between these kingdoms became stronger until they were finally united – more or less – under Aethelstan of Wessex, first King of England, in 924 CE.

The ancient bond to Normandy remained, strengthened from time to time with marriage, political favors, and military support. It was an exchange of favors that precipitated the Norman invasion. King Edward I (1042 to 1066) angered some powerful nobles in England and took refuge in Normandy under the protection of William II, Duke of Normandy. In return, Edward, who had no heir, promised William his throne when he died. Things cooled down and Edward was able to return to England, but upon his death the nobles awarded the English throne to Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, who became King Harold II in 1066. This royally miffed William, who gathered an army, invaded England, and killed Harold at the Battle of Hastings that same year.

William’s invading army was equipped in part by a renowned weapons manufacturer from Bayeux, Normandy -- John Wryta. And with William came five of John’s sons.

John Wryta, circa 1050 CE

The surnames the Normans chose for themselves were gathered from locations, events, personal attributes, and occupations. “Wryta” or “wryde” was an Old Saxon term for a skilled craftsman. John Wryta was a skilled carver, woodworker, and metalsmith. He was especially known for making weapons from both wood and metal. And he taught this trade to his sons John, Richard, William, Henry, and Thomas Wryta. Richard and William were accomplished warriors prior to the Norman invasion; they were knighted for bravery by William the Conqueror while he was still just the Duke of Normandy. William Wryta, in fact, was captain of the soldiers who served as the Duke’s bodyguards. 

John, Henry, and Thomas were knighted soon after the Norman invasion in return for the parts they had played in the victory. All five of the Wryta brothers were rewarded with grants of land and manors in the former kingdoms of Essex, Sussex, and East Anglia, which became counties under Norman rule. We don’t know which Wryta got what land, but we do know that at least one of the brothers settled in the vicinity of Kelvedon Hatch in Essex County, northeast of London. Grants of land often came with the responsibility of maintaining bridges in the vicinity, and the Wrights were given the responsibility for a bridge over the Ingrebourne River. This became "Wright's Bridge" and later, "Wrightsbridge." There is still a Wrightsbridge Road just three miles south of Kelvedon Hatch.

And here the lineage breaks. Genealogists cannot draw a straight line from John Wryta to the Wright brothers; we don’t know which of John’s sons was Milton Wright’s many-times-great-grandfather. It’s no wonder -- these were dangerous times. Family records, if they were kept at all, were often lost or destroyed. The Battle of Hastings did not accomplish William’s conquest of England; he fought to subdue the lands for most of his reign. In 1135, England descended into civil war when King Henry I died and his only legitimate son drowned in the English Channel. The Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd challenged England, was subdued and absorbed, and then revolted. During the next two centuries the Scots invaded England twice, the country was drained of money and manpower as Richard I led the Third Crusade to the Holy Lands, the Magna Carta was forced upon John I to limit his excesses, the Black Death decimated the population, and England entered into the Hundred Years War with France. Record-keeping took a back seat to chaos.

The records are further confused because the Wright surname seems to have evolved independently from several sources. There is evidence, for example, that there were Wrights in Berwickshire near the Scottish border with England as early as 1296, and that these families traced their lineage back to Boernician rather than Norman roots. (The ancient Boernicians evolved from the intermingling of native Picts and invading Angles long before the Normans invaded England.) One fanciful tale mentions a carpenter, John Wright, in Sir William Wallace’s army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. Wallace led the Scots in a war of independence, and this was an important victory for his cause. According to an historian/poet remembered as “Blind Harry,” Wright cleverly sabotaged the bridge over the Forth River at Stirling, Scotland, causing it to collapse as the English army marched across. Almost certainly this particular Wright would have claimed Scottish origins.

But there are other records from this time that mention the Wryta family, and many of them likely had Norman roots. They pop up as knights, lords, judges, architects, soldiers, and members of the government. The surname morphs from Wryta to Wryte to Wrighte and finally Wright. They spread out across the British isles and may have even mixed with other Wrights from other sources. But the Wrights from which Orville and Wilbur descended always insisted that their family originated with the Normans.

A map of England circa 900 CE, showing the medieval kingdoms of the Saxons, Angles (another Viking tribe), and Britons.

William, Duke of Normandy, later King William I or William the Conqueror.

The Bayeux Tapestry is a 230-foot (70-meter) long embroidery made shortly after the Norman Conquest that shows the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings. These are just a few of the panels. From the top: (1) Harold is crowned King of England, (2) William hears of the coronation and decides to go to war, (3) William's fleet sails for England, (4) the Norman cavalry attacks the Saxon soldiers, (5) Harold is killed.

Norman armor from the eleventh century. The helmet, sword, scabbard, and shield are typical of the armaments that John Wryta would have made. Courtesy Military History Monthly magazine.

An artist's depiction of the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
More Sources

The Dayton and Montgomery County Library -- If you'd like to know more about the Wright family, or research other branches of the family tree, you will find extensive genealogical data here.

Ohio, Home of the Wright Brothers is a genealogical chronicle of the Wrights and four other families, all ancestors of the Wright brothers. It traces these families as they settle Ohio and Indiana. painting Wilbur and Orville as the sons of pioneers and revolutionaries who built an energetic, forward-looking civilization founded on technology and democracy.

Ohio, Home of the Wright Brothers is the history of the Wright family in America, particularly their settlement of Ohio. Click the cover to read sample chapters.

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