Prior to 1538, there were no parish registers and so the main sources of information about family relationships are wills. (In some cases there are also manorial records but it is very much a matter of luck whether these survive; for the Headcorn area, they have not.) The administration of wills was a matter for the church (and continued to be so into the 19th century) and at the lowest level wills referring to just a few acres of land were proved in the court for the relevant archdeaconry. In East Kent, this means that many wills were proved in the Archdeaconry Court of Canterbury (ACC) which started to keep records in 1450. Some parishes were under the direct administration of the bishop (archbishop in the case of Canterbury) and these sent wills to the Consistory court, which also dealt with the wills of more wealthy men with larger estates but still contained in a single diocese, so a number of Bridge wills are found in the archives of the Consistory Court of Canterbury (CCC). Lastly, the biggest estates went to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC), where record-keeping started in 1383, though no Bridge wills were proved until much later. Where a man had significant property but had not made a will, then the court could appoint an executor. These are noted in the record books as "acts of administration" but typically give little information beyond the name of the deceased and his widow.
Up to around 1500 wills were written in Latin, the language of the church, and the proceedings of the church courts were recorded in Latin even in the 1600's. Translation of medieval Latin is difficult enough in itself because a large number of extra words were adopted and Latinised, often with very variable spelling. In addition the copyists made heavy use of abbreviations of commonly used words and that, coupled with strange hand-writing, poor preservation and sometimes dreadful photocopies, makes the task of making sense of it all rather formidable. I am much indebted to Margaret Bone for her invaluable advice with this work, correcting my first efforts and explaining the legal technicalities. For more on the lettering and abbreviations used, see this page. In the transcripts listed below, the restored letters are shown in colour, to help follow the process of translation. (If the page is printed, however, the letters will be shown underlined.)
First names were replaced by Latinised equivalents, such as Henricus for Henry. Some of these were authentic, like Johannes for John, but Rogerus surely was not a name in use in 1st century Rome! In some cases the replacement may be misleading. One will shows the name first as Petrus, suggesting Peter, though later it appears as Pyers, which was the Norman-French equivalent. Surnames were always written in English, as were nearly all placenames, though I found one case where Great Chart seems to have been "translated" as Charta magna. A few words seem to have defeated the scribe and were left in English or Norman-French.
For the wills written in English, I have tried to transcribe the original text as closely as possible and leave it to the reader to read it into modern English. Mostly this is fairly obvious; in a few places I have shown "translations" in square brackets. One problem not immediately apparent is that the copyists still used some abbreviations, notably omitting "er" and also "ar", "ro" after the letter p, following the practice used earlier for the Latin texts. Thus "pysshe" actually is parysshe = parish. These are easy to spot and expand. However endings like "e" or "es" were also often omitted and sometimes it is difficult to know what spelling was intended. I am sure I must have got some wrong!
Numbers were always in Roman numerals, which I have left as they were written. Money was usually counted in shillings (s) and pence (d, where 1s = 12d). For larger amounts they might use marks (a foreign coin valued at 6s 8d = 80d) or pounds: twenty silver shillings contained, at least in theory, a pound in weight of silver metal. (The bar across the modern currency symbol £ derives from the mark used to denote the abbreviation of the Latin word libra. The first coin of this value was the gold sovereign minted in the first year of the reign of Henry VII, no doubt for propaganda reasons as well as practical ones.) Dates were written much as today, except that they reckoned the new year from 25th March, so January 1504 followed straight on from December 1504 and the day after 24 March 1504 was 25 March 1505. (The argument justifying this mind-bending system was that 25 March was the feast of the Annunciation, when Christ actually was conceived, so the Year of Our Lord had to be reckoned from that day.) For dates in the range 1 Jan to 24 Mar, I have adopted the common practice of writing the year in the form 1504/5.
Early wills distinguish between the will and the testament. The will of Pyers Bregge (1488) nicely emphasizes this difference: the will is in English while the testament is in Latin. The testament was primarily a declaration of faith: "first I leave my soul to Almighty God". The more wealthy men might leave money for a priest to say a mass for their soul's redemption and many left small sums for altar candles and charitable gifts. With these matters disposed of, they went on to appoint an executor to carry out their instructions for the disposal of all movable property: goods and chattels, as lawyers still say. This included livestock — our words cattle and chattel both derive from the medieval Latin catallum.
On the other hand, all land was held through a branching chain of fiefs, with the king at the top. A fief was in effect a contract whereby the feoffor granted his feoffee the right to occupy some land, originally in return for a duty of military service — the so-called feudal system. And just as a plot of land can be divided up and sub-let, so the feoffee could in turn be feoffor to one or more men, maybe relatives by blood or marriage. So the king enfeoffed his barons, who in turn enfeoffed knights and they yeomen, who were the actual farmers. (Not that they actually did the manual labour, since there was another layer of bonded labourers underneath.) The Bridge will-makers were yeomen and definitely not knights; the wills would proclaim any such status and in fact there was never a coat of arms recorded by the College of Heralds for the name Bridge, Bregge or other variant. The significance of this feudal system for a will is that the will-maker could only express his wishes as to what his feoffors would do after his death. Thus John Bregge senior (1493) addresses his will to his feoffors, desiring them to allow his widow to continue to occupy his house and land and also willing that they should enfeoff his son Thomas "in fee simple of the chief lords for services due and lawfully accustomed". However, despite the legal form, these wishes were regarded as binding on the feoffors and a "fee simple" or unconditional fief could pass on down the generations. Once the relative stability of the Tudor period was established (1485, when Henry VII defeated Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field), the obligation to the feoffor became much more a matter of paying a rent, in money or in kind, and feoffors in effect evolved into landlords.
The will of Giles Bridge (1470) illustrates a different usage; Giles's children are not named and clearly still young, so they could not inherit directly. If he made their mother his heir and she married again, all the property would automatically pass to her new husband. To avoid this, Giles transfers his land to feoffees who promise to carry out his wishes after his death; in this case the feoffees were acting as trustees. (In fact, it is possible that Giles had no children at the time he made his will and he was simply taking sensible precautions. Wills, then as now, provide for all possibilities.) The feoffees were directed to sell two pieces of land; the purchaser paid for the fief and so also had to take on any obligations to Giles's feoffors. Pyers also directed one son (John) to buy out his brother Robert; if John chose not to pay or Robert chose not to accept, the land was to be shared equally between them.
Wills have obvious limitations for the genealogist: only families with some property can be traced. Moreover a will only provides a snapshot of a family as it existed at a certain date. There is no way of telling who was left out and no way of proving that the John Bridge (say) mentioned in one will is the same man who subsequently made his own will, perhaps thirty years later. Wills cost money to make and to administer; they were not made unless there was some good reason. Where father and eldest son worked together, it would be taken for granted that the son would inherit on his father's death. Such "normal" transfers are therefore typically not recorded. Wills were made if the father fell ill and so died young, while his children were still under age, or if land was to be divided between two or more sons instead of all passing to the eldest.
Nevertheless, there are a number of Bridge wills for the period 1450-1600, giving a picture of several different families with perhaps 50 acres each and so one or two steps up the social ladder. They may well have had relatives who slipped back down; younger sons generally did not inherit land and so would be particularly likely to disappear from view. And despite the problems, the wills do provide a lot of incidental information. Several describe pieces of land in detail and give place names that can be identified on later maps. Most significantly, there is a marked clustering into a relatively small region near Headcorn.
The two earliest wills on record belong to this branch of the Brygge family. Hasted states that they held Swinford manor in Hothfield from the time of King Henry V (1413-1422) and were "descended from John atte Bregge, one of those eminent persons whose effigies are represented kneeling habited in armour in the painted window in Great Chart church". This ties in with Roger's will, which implies that he held land in Great Chart as well as in the adjacent parish of Hothfield. The difference in spelling between Brygge and Bregge had no significance and Roger's will includes a bequest to "William Bregge son of Henry Brygge".
- Roger Brygge 31 Aug 1460, ACC 1/113.
- Roger was evidently quite wealthy and the head of a large
family with at least one grandson who had come of age, so he
himself must have been born around 1400. He also refers to two
different "places" (i.e. a house and land), one called
"Jamys Bryggys place" and the other "Jenkin Brygges place", and
both clearly named for members of a previous generation of the
family. This pushes back the first use of the name Bridge to
something like 1400 or before, quite close to the time when the use
of surnames became common practice. Family members mentioned
- wife, already dead and not named;
- son Henry (executor) whose own son William also old enough to be a witness and executor;
- son John, away from home (possibly fighting in the Wars of the Roses — the forces loyal to Henry VI were in the process of losing the battle to Edward IV) with a son Roger junior who was under 20;
- son William, probably youngest because he gets the smallest share.
- Henry Brygge 12 Aug 1464, ACC 1/106,
- Definitely Roger's son though his will was entered first in the probate register,
suggesting that he died first. However, there may have been a delay in sorting
out all the provisions of Roger's will and in any case, Henry refers to
le nethir place and a piece
of land called debeles which were specifically left to him by Roger.
- wife Thomasina
- unnamed sons, none of age, so it seems that his son William had died
- John a Bregge proved 1537, ACC 21/121
- Laurence a Bregge 1539, ACC acts 6/80
- Richard a Bredge 1556, ACC acts 10/96
- James Bridge 1591, PCC 11/79
There are several wills but it is not possible to pick out a definite line of descent, partly because there are too many Johns! John Bregge (1493) mentions the land of the heirs of Pyers Bregge, adjoining one of his own fields in Hokyngbery, while Pyers leaves money for the repair of the paved road in Hokynbery so presumably lived nearby. Hokyngbery is clearly an old spelling of Hawkenbury, which lies on the western edge of Headcorn parish, on the road to Staplehurst. Today there are just a few houses and a couple of farms, probably much the same as 500 years ago! Two of the wills refer to the "King's road" which can only be the road that runs straight through Hawkenbury from NE to SW, crossing the river Stour at Hawkenbury Bridge on the way to Staplehurst. This is the kind of situation which could have given the Bridge family its name, though there is no evidence that this particular bridge was the one in question (and I don't even know if it existed at the time). There may of course have been two bridges giving rise to two separate families; conceivably the Hothfield and Headcorn families were not related and the difference in spelling (Bregge/Brygge) is actually significant.
- Giles Bregge, 20 Mar 1470/1, proved 7 Apr 1472 ACC 2/120.
- Seems to have died young: no children named but feoffees
(trustees) appointed. Beneficiaries were:
- wife Godeleve, executor, property for life
- brother John, executor.
- brother Richard.
- Pyers A Bregge, 27 May 1488, ACC4/153
- Probably a cousin. The "A" in the name reflects the origin of
the surname as a description: Pyers who lives "at the bridge". His
land adjoined that of John, in Hawkenbury on the western edge of
- son Stephen: the will seems to imply that Stephen had no heirs at the time of writing.
- grandson John: his father seems to have died earlier. John may be the man who made his will in 1525.
- John Bregge Senior, 8 Apr 1493, proved 27 May 1494 ACC 6/12
- Probably Giles's brother.His lands are described in some detail, all in Hackingbury, alongside
the King's road and adjoining the land of Pyers Bregge.
- wife Johanna, who got the property for her life.
- son John junior married to Benedicta, daughter of Henry May of Egerton.
- son Thomas, who was executor, got several pieces of land, all described, totalling 11 acres.
- son Robert was to get either 100 shillings from Thomas or else a half share in his inheritance.
- Stephen A Bregge, 1499, proved 1501 ACC 8/51
- Very probably Pyers's son. No children.
- John A Bregge, made 5 Mar 1504/5, proved 3 Jun 1505 ACC 9/117
- He could be the son of John 1493, above, if remarried.
- wife Isabell
- daughter Johane
- brother Robert
- feoffee Thomas Bregge, who might also be his brother.
- John a Brege, 1514, proved 1516 ACC 12/493
- Again, he could be the son of John senior, if remarried. Relatives named:
- wife Bennet
- brother Thomas
- son James
- Thomas a Bregge, 1524 ACC acts 5/61
- Probably brother to John, above.
- John Bregge, 1525, ACC 16/229
- Possibly the grandson of Pyers. He has a son Alexander; the use of this more distinctive name suggests that this is the start of the line through Alexander and William.
- Alexander Bridge, 1570, AC acts 18 (administration)
- Alexander Bridge, 1621, PRC 17/63/131 (AC)
- son William, executor
- son Peter: £6 and 26s 8d to his daughter Mary
- son Thomas: profits of house and land in Boughton Malherbe for life, fee simple of same to Thomas's heirs
- son Richard: house and land near King's high street south in Headcorn
- William Bridge, 1658 PRC 11/280/414 (PC)
- son Alexander, executor: larger house and land at Stone stile, west of Headcorne
- son John: adjoining smaller house and land at Stone stile, recently purchased from John Bridge of Staplehurst
- John Bridge, 10 Jan 1605
- No evidence to show how (or if) he links in with the older families.
- son John: land in Smarden and elsewhere
- son Henry: land from his mother
- John a Bregge, 1523, proved 1528 CCC 15/56
- Could be the son of Richard Bregge of Headcorn.
- son Richard inherited land in Egerton
- son John junior inherited land in Smarden.
- John a Bregge, 1535, proved 1535 CCC 15/284
- Presumably John junior.
- brother Richard.
- sons Robert and Gylbert.
- Richard a Bregge, 1556 CCC 26/113
- Very likely to be the son of John, 1523.
- sons Abel and Gilbert. These names both recur
This family is very likely to have branched off one of the others — Hothfield is nearest. The spelling of the name eventually settles down as Briggs and is seen in Bethersden and neighbouring parishes for several hundred years.
- John Breggis, 1508 ACC 9/320
- wife Alys,
- son Thomas
- Thomas Bregges, 1524 ACC 16/125
- Probably John's son.
- wife Isabell, household goods to the value of 10 marks
- 3 daughters, 2 marks each at age 22 or at marriage
- son John, executor
- sons Robert and Antony, 10 marks each at age 24
- John Briggs, 1529 ACC acts 6/80
- John Breges, 1529 ACC 19/28