On Ancestral Progress
by Betty Bridgers Cullen
In the middle ages, “keeping one’s head” often meant getting away from it all from time to time. As long as an Englishman didn’t head north where the Scots used hedge warfare to pick off travelers, a quiet sojourn in the verdant countryside was a welcome respite from plague, political intrigue, and relatives vying for “the crown.” To commune with nature and impose on nobles and gentry, kings and queens packed up their courts and went “on progress.” Moving through England from manor homes to castles, the entourage of up to 700 people hunted game in the ancient forests and, in general, depleted their host’s reserves of food, wine, and patience.
With our pedigree polished and our standard raised (‘ar, a cheveron engraved, sa, between three crabs, gu’), the Cullen Family joined the Bridger Family Association “on ancestral progress.” In September, descendants of General Joseph Bridger (Isle of Wight County VA) traversed the Thames Valley, the Downs, and the West Country of England in the footsteps of our English grandfathers. We hiked over hill and dale and forded rivers and streams to turn up relics of our medieval past.
In keeping with tradition, our journey took us to manor homes, castles, cathedrals, and colleges – each associated directly with our Bridger ancestors. Like merchants and travelers alike, our first stop was “Godelminge.” In the 15th century, Godalming was the center of the wool trade with weekly markets and annual fairs. Grandfathers Henry Brygger (1480-1521) and Rychard Brydgere (1510-1593) ran the Dye House and were major names in the history of wool. Renown for the color and quality of their woolen cloth, father and son became wealthy merchants and carried the Queen’s Stamp on their wool.
To pay our respect, we prayed for our ancestors at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul – their final resting place. Stones from the church date to the Anglo-Saxons (820-840) as does the font said to be one of, if not the, oldest in England. References to the church were made in the will of King Alfred the Great (899) and the Domesday Book (1086). At his death, Henry Brygger requested that he be buried in the “church of seynt petres” and bequeathed to the Church a “stremr of Sylk…An Acre of lands to maynteyn…A Tapir for seynt Cateryn [and] A prest to syng fore me..my wife..my children..and all my goode frendes.”
Rychard and Margery Elliott Bridger sent their son, Lawrence (1550-1630), to Magdalen College, Oxford to study Theology in preparation for a lifetime in service to God and Crown. Lawrence was elected Fellow in 1568 before receiving his B.A. in 1570 and M.A. in 1577. “The Crown” presented Lawrence for the office of Rector and Clerk at St. John the Evangelist Church in Slimbridge and, in 1577, Queen Elizabeth I invested him in a ceremony at Windsor Castle. In 1586, Lawrence was installed as Prebender of the Third Stall at Gloucester Cathedral – one of many destinations on our journey.
At Magdalen College, Steed, a porter, welcomed us as if 14 generations and over 450 years didn’t make us late for Homecoming. During a private tour, Steed brought Magdalen, medieval and modern, to life as only one who is part of its history can do. He sent us on our journey with two of his personal books on Magdalen’s history and unseen “treasures” and invited us to a standing dinner in Oxford should we return. Reception at Windsor Castle was decidedly more formal. Had Queen Elizabeth II been in attendance, we may have been granted an audience with Her Majesty to “catch up” on the centuries since our ancestors crossed paths.
From Oxford, we followed Lawrence Bridger to St. John the Evangelist Church in Slimbridge where he was rector for 55 years. At the church, we joined the congregation in an Anglican service of fellowship and lifted our voices in song to “He Keeps Me Singing” by Luther Bridgers (a Bridger descendant). A luncheon prepared by church members helped bring us back to Earth, but a climb to the top of the church tower took us Heavenward again. After viewing original parish records and listening to lectures by local historians, we said a blessing for and sad good-bye to the wonderful people of Slimbridge and our Grandfather Lawrence who lies buried under the chancel floor.
As we negotiated a maze of hedges in Gloucestershire, we caught a glimpse of Lawrence’s manor home, Gossington Hall (in Domesday Book 1086). By contrast, we crossed the threshold and explored the house and gardens of Woodmancote Manor, Grandfather Samuel’s (1584-1650) ancient home. Records from 1220 indicate that Woodmancote Manor was the residence of the official in charge of the King’s hunting grounds. In Samuel’s will, the grounds were shown to be an extensive network of gardens, pastures, and farmland that he loved dearly. Samuel directed his wife and sons to “preserve and keepe/all things in good Order” and “not make any wast or Destruction in the hedges or fences…nor cutt ye timber trees.”
As his father before him, Samuel Bridger matriculated from Magdalen College, Oxford (1602). He lived in Dursley and served as auditor to the Dean and as Sub-Dean at Gloucester Cathedral in Gloucester. Gloucester Cathedral originated (678) with the founding of an abbey and was built as an abbey church (1089). Both Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, and King Edward II are enshrined at the cathedral. At his death, Samuel Bridger was buried in the Lady Chapel with the following epitaph: “Here lyes the body of Samuel Bridger, gent, who Departed this life upon the 21st day of July, An. 1650, Receiver of the College Rents, he paid His Debt to Nature, and beneath he’s laid, To rest until his Summons to remove, At the last Audit, to the Choir above.” In the Lady Chapel, we paused to give thanks for Samuel’s contributions to his church, family, and community, and, in the Quire, we located the Third Stall where Lawrence sat as Prebender of the Third Stall – an honorary position which gave him a voice in church affairs.
From kings and queens to dungeons and dragons, Berkeley Castle had it all. Near the Severn River and a stone’s throw from Wales, Berkeley Castle was the first line of defense against Welsh interlopers and the last stop for kings and queens “on progress.” It is said that Queen Elizabeth I stayed there and liked the castle so much she gave it to Robert Lord Dudley, her special friend. To discourage such royal visits that they couldn’t afford, the Berkeleys often left the castle before the monarch arrived. As friends and neighbors, the Berkeleys and the Bridgers were part of the same historical narrative both at home and abroad. Thomas Lord Berkeley once owned Woodmancote Manor (and Gossington Hall) and chose the rector of St. John the Evangelist Church. When Joseph Bridger (1630-1686), Samuel’s son, sailed to the New World, Sir William Berkeley (Governor of the Virginia Colony) appointed him to numerous political and military positions. Working together they helped build a strong new nation – our nation.
by Betty Bridgers Cullen
Confetti, cheers, and the clang of bells ring in the New Year the world over – a cause célèbre. Momentous occasions such as this provide us with an opportunity to take stock of our present in light of our past in order to align ourselves with our future material and spiritual goals. Resolutions to change for the better and hope for the best replace plans that have led us down a rutted path to nowhere.
As we chart our fortunes and misfortunes in the long view of history, say 500 years, we discover clues to wealth, health, and happiness in the last wishes of our ancestors. Up against the final bell (the church bell that is), sixteen generations of Bridger grandfathers had run out of all options but to write a will or die intestate. Expansive or concise, most of our grandfathers penned narratives so replete with imagery that we have short versions of sometimes long lives in the context of their times. With Death at their proverbial door, they arrived at their day of reckoning with directives that would affect descendants to this day.
With great wealth came responsibility – the needs of the people within their sphere of interest and all that they owned had to be accounted for. Their wives and children, their homes and lands, their livestock and crops, their jobs or businesses, their servants, and, yes, their slaves were all named and described in their wills. Debts to their neighbors were paid and debts owed them were transferred to their sons or were forgiven. The poor and unfortunate, especially widows with children, were given bequests as were the churches they attended and the schools where they were educated. Nothing was left to chance or so they thought.
Following the tradition of primogeniture, many Bridger ancestors gave large portions of their estates to their eldest sons. However, other Bridger grandfathers left their wives in charge of their homes, land, and children provided the wives did not re-marry. In England and America, widows considering re-marriage in the 16th and 17th centuries often transferred ownership of their inheritance to their children. Otherwise, by law, all that they owned would go to their new husband. In 1686, General Joseph Bridger tried to by-pass laws of Virginia governing a woman’s right to inherit by giving his daughter, Martha, her legacy outright. Unfortunately for Martha, the courts found in favor of her husband who was awarded the fortune left to his wife by her father.
While the majority of our ancestors accepted their fate with equanimity and strategic planning, three “[did not] go gentle into that good night.” Second marriages and recalcitrant sons caused Lawrence Bridger (1550-1630) and Joseph Bridger, Sr. (1660-1713) to “rage, rage against the dying of the light” and Thomas Harris Bridgers (1832-1894) to die intestate leaving his wife with nothing of any value to declare. The eldest sons of all three men and their descendants were the most affected.
Lawrence’s son, Samuel (1584-1650), chose not to challenge his father’s bequests of the manor home, lands, and money to his step-brother, Joseph, lest Samuel be divested of his own inheritance. Lawrence’s admonitions of dire consequences prompted Samuel to rise above the fray of litigation and family strife and be content with his own substantial holdings. As for Joseph Bridger, Jr. (1660-1773), there is much speculation among historians as to why his father, Joseph, Sr. amended his will with two codicils that served to disinherit Joseph, Jr. and his future descendants. Joseph, Sr. owned Whitemarsh (13,000 sq. ft. brick home) and over 17,000 acres in Isle of Wight County, Virginia much of which was to go to Joseph, Jr. at the death of his mother. Fortunately for Joseph, Jr., his mother, Hester, had a soft spot for her rebellious son and helped him sue his brothers for much of his “rightful” inheritance. By all accounts, he became a wealthy and respected man in his own right – a son his father would have been proud of. Not so fortunate was Charles Thomas Bridgers (1855-1916) whose father, Thomas Harris Bridgers (1832-1894), left nothing to his family but the will to survive. Family legend points an accusatory finger at his second wife who was said to be a spendthrift. For several generations to come, Bridger descendants inherited nothing but a DNA memory that hard work, determination, and respect for others was the key to a better life.
In all wills, our ancestors expressed a belief in the saving grace of Jesus Christ and put considerable faith in God Almighty and Everlasting Life. With the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, devout Catholic Bridger families became devout High Anglicans. Once established in the New World, Joseph Bridger, Sr. built St. Luke’s Church in Isle of Wight County so that the General Assembly and colonists would have a proper place to worship as Anglicans. From 1521 to 1686, our Bridger grandfathers were buried in churches, as befit their status in society. As the family drove their wagon trains into North Carolina in 1700, there were few, if any, churches or graveyards. Churches were built, in due time, and most families were buried on their own land.
In the final analysis, a spiritual life transcended the trials and tribulations of material gains, or lack thereof. Our ancestors believed all their gifts came from God and the purpose of their lives was to praise God in His Glory. Joseph, Sr. built a church, Lawrence was a minister for 55 years, Samuel was an auditor and sub-dean in a cathedral, and Henry (1480-1521) gave land to his church at his death. From the frontier settlers of North Carolina to this day, Bridger descendants are devout in their worship no matter their religious affiliation. In addition, those forefathers with wealth and/or an education lived longer and better, had important connections in their communities, worked in professions, and had a larger worldview. The more land they inherited, bought, or patented appeared to increase their status, even if they had little money. For all these men accomplished, we have endless admiration. However, our greatest respect goes to our grandfathers and grandmothers who were not so blessed and did everything they could in difficult circumstances to build a better life for generations to come.