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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.
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
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.