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Wright - origin of name??

Replies: 67

Re: Wright - origin of name??

Posted: 10 Sep 2010 3:38PM GMT
Classification: Query
Dear Carl,

Catline Wright (author of the piece you reference) writes a pretty piece on the origins of the Wright surname. Unfortunately there is very little truth to any of it. Nothing is ever so elegant or simple as Catline has suggested.

For starters, there is no root word in the Celtic languages of pre-Conquest Northern England that would lead to any form of the Wright surname, so that identifying the north of England as the seat of the origin of the surname is extremely improbable. Especially when there is a much more clearly recognized source and time of creation for all surnames in England, not just that of Wright.

I am speaking, of course, of the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Prior to the Norman Conquest of England there were no surnames inherited from father to son anywhere in England, Ireland or Scotland outside of a very few of Royal blood. In those pre-Conquest days, a man, even a Royal, might be identified by a number of different names during his lifetime depending on what he had done recently that was notable or what lands he held or battle he had fought in, or what clan or tribe he belonged to. This practice was ancient and had not been much affected by the Roman occupation as the Romans also had a penchant for modifying, adding to or changing a man's name to suit the occasions or appease and align themselves with the Gods.

No, most surnames in use today in England can be traced to Latin, French or Anlgo-Saxon origins versus Ireland and Scotland where the majority are Anglicized versions of Celtic original words. The names of Anglo-Saxon origin, such as Wright, were the gift of invading Germanic people who first started coming to England's Eastern and Southeastern shores during the fourth and fifth centuries of Roman occupation.

After the Romans abandoned 'Britannia' in 410 C.E. The pace of invasion by Jutes, Angles, Danes and Saxons from the Continent increased and they brought their Germanic language with them to southern England, pushing the Celtic speaking people West to Wales and North to Scotland and eventually ruling most of England. Even during this time in southern England, there are no records prior to 1086 that anyone was ever referred to by any form of the surname Wright. We should not find that surprising because prior to that time there was no practice among commoners of perpetuating a family surname of any sort by inheritance.

All that changed when the Normans took charge of England in the years of William's reign from 1066 to 1087. The Normans brought a form of the French language as the official language of the land and there was instantly created a class division based on languages between the French speaking ruling class and the Old English/Anglo-Saxon speaking former rulers of the South and Midlands, and the Celtic speaking natives of the West (including Ireland) and North (including Scotland).

Examination of the French language that the Normans brought with them gives one possible origin to the surname Wright in the French nickname, 'Le Droit', meaning an upright man. The homophones 'Droit', 'right' 'Wryght' and 'Wright' being presumed to have been confused in translations of this nickname applied to a man when writing his name into Middle English from the spoken word, giving us first 'Le Wryght' instead of Le Droit, or just Wryght. This then is tranlated into Wright in Modern English. No evidence exists that this happened anywhere except centuries later in New England.

The most commonly and widely accepted theory of the origin of the surname Wright is that it is of Anglo-Saxon and Danish language origins, coming from the Anglo-Saxon word 'wrycan' meanning 'to work' in the sense of a craftsman, and particularly with reference to making things of wood. The variant we find in Middle English records of 'Le Wryght' probably does not come from a Middle English misspelling of 'Le Droit' but is simply the French translation of an Anglo-Saxon name such as 'Robert the Wryght', 'le' being the French equivalent of 'the' in the male tense.

The chroniclers of the Doomsday inventory of the people of England were all French speaking Normans but they employed local authorities in every shire of the land to help them compile the Doomsday book. These local authorities, then reported the names of prominent land holders, freemen and slaves in their shire using their Anglo-Saxon, Celtic or Latinized names which were then written down by French scribes so that the information that was compiled, except for the Little Doomsday Book, were all second hand accounts and abbreviated as much as possible so that mispellings and homophonic representations were further confused by illegible returns. Many surnames were first written down and thereby established by the Doomsday Books (there are two: The Doomsday Book and the Little Doomsday book).

Nowhere in either Doomsday book is anyone identified as Le Droit, Wrycan, Wryhta, Wryght, Wright or any other variation of the surname. So what we base our theory of origins for the Wright surname on is the pattern of origins for most of the other surnames that are given in the Doomsday book. Most of them we find in England started out as Anglo-Saxon or Old French words describing the type of work one did or the place one lived. Those that we find in the outer shires, Ireland and Scotland are heavy on Celtic origins and it makes perfect sense given the history of invasion and conflict in England prior to the 1086-87 compilation of the Doomsday Books.

Coincidentally, about this same time in history there arose multiple reasons that it became customary to retain a surname for one's lifetime and pass it on to the male children, and later, female children. As the world progressed through the Medieval periods, going from the Dark Ages into the Middle Ages, the practice of perpetuating a surname within a family became part of the social fabric of England. It was a social custom that served nearly everyone's interests. It served the successive Kings, Queens and their Lord's needs to have a ready way to identify subjects for tax purposes and their skills and valuing their domains as time progressed. It also served to preserve the identity of a family unit and gave a legally useful stamp to put on the possessions of a family versus the previous emphasis on preservation of the identity and territorial rights a clan or tribe and viewing the individual's possessions as merely clan/tribe possessions. Part of the impetus for emergence from the Dark Ages to the Middle ages was that societies, as a whole, were breaking away from clan and tribal living and in its place establishing the family as the nuclear unit of society. As a mechanism of solidifying a family's place in society, the possession of a recognized surname was as useful to a man's ambitions as had been association with a clan or tribe in previous generations. But this was a gradual trend that started in England in the southern parts of the country and radiated out to the West and North over a period of two or three centuries.

It then follows that if we are doing our genealogy based primarily on surname associations, it is best to remember that unless you are researching royalty, surnames are totally unreliable as indicators of family membership prior to 1086 C.E. and still highly problematic between 1086 and 1300 C.E. For commoners, surnames did not become a reliable way to determine family membership until well into the 1400's, and then only if reliable location data or some other corroborating data accompanied the surname.

And now that we have Y-DNA to show us the way to true genetic family memberships we find that it is apparent that in 1086, at least a hundred unrelated men in England acquired the surname Wright by 1500 C.E. so that Catline's lumping together of all of those notable Wrights as though they all descended from a single Wright line originating in Northern England is totally unsupportable.

We know today that most of those mentioned by Catline were, in fact, not related to each other in any genealogical way and some are not even related in any near term anthropological way (within last 10,000 years).

And finally, the Arms that she displays at the top of her piece belongs to one of my ancestors whose ancestors had been in England since Roman times. This is the Arms confirmed to John Wright of Wrightsbridge, Co. Essex, England by Cook, 20 June 32 Elizabeth I and is a variant of the Arms presumed to have been granted to his grandfather, John Wright of Kelvedon Hall, Co. Essex, England which was: Arms - Azure, two bars argent, in chief, a leopard's face, proper. The Wright Crest - Out of ducal coronet, a dragons head and neck couped all or. This original Arm and crest was extinct by 1681, and was also varied slightly by various descendants to distinguish their Arms and Crest from that of the original.

More to the point, even if John Wright of Kelvedon Hall was the first of my family to be granted arms and crest in 1509, his would not have been the first Wright Arms and Crest to have been granted. That distinction goes to John Wrythe, The first Garter King of Arms who died in 1504, so Catline is mistaken on that point as well.

There is no date on her posting so I don't know when she wrote it and what information she had at her command when she wrote it, but I must observe that it is way out of date now and is a snare to the unwary web surfer with interests in the Wright surname.

Mike Wright

SubjectAuthorDate Posted
CarolynWright... 28 Aug 2010 2:34PM GMT 
charlottedixs... 15 Feb 2011 5:37AM GMT 
MaryWright220... 29 Sep 2010 9:40PM GMT 
CarlDavidWrig... 9 Sep 2010 5:11PM GMT 
CarlDavidWrig... 9 Sep 2010 5:29PM GMT 
MichaelWright... 10 Sep 2010 9:38PM GMT 
CarlDavidWrig... 11 Sep 2010 12:55AM GMT 
MichaelWright... 11 Sep 2010 9:53PM GMT 
CarlDavidWrig... 11 Sep 2010 10:19PM GMT 
MichaelWright... 12 Sep 2010 1:01AM GMT 
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