The Origin of the Bray Name


Where did we come from? Where did the family name BRAY originate? The claimed origin and meaning varies a little depending on which authority you consult.

The Oxford Dictionary of Surnames gives it as;
Bray: English: Habitational name, (ie named after a place), from places in Berkshire and Devon. The former is probably named from the Old French word "bray" – meaning "marsh", the latter from the Cornish element "bré"- meaning "hill".

This book also states that hereditary family names first began to be used from about the 11th century when it became necessary for various reasons to be able to clearly identify family groups. Prior to this, many people would be known by their personal name and a descriptive second name, but often this was not taken by the children who would have different names. Family names slowly became adopted by the nobility and then others, until about the 13th to 14th centuries when family names had become relatively stable and well established as we know them and everybody had one. However spelling has never been constant and many variants of names arose.

It is sometimes claimed that Bray is a Cornish name and it is still common in that county and Devon today. O.J. Padel, who is a Cornish place name expert, and other authorities, confirm that Bray (or Brea which is pronounced the same) is the Cornish word for hill. Indeed many Brays in Australia will be able to trace their lineage back to Cornwall or Devon, particularly if yours are from Victoria or South Australia, as quite a large number of Cornish families (including many Brays) migrated to Australia to work in the mines. However, it appears that there are at least three separate and quite distinct origins for our name, (you cannot get much more opposite than "hill" and "marsh") and the name may even have arisen independently in several locations. So unlike some families, we will never be able to identify a single place of origin that we can definitely say is "ours" and certainly can never claim a single person as the "Father of the Brays". DNA studies carried out by Dr King and Prof Jobling together with statistical analysis carried out by Prof R Plant and Dr J Plant have clearly shown that our name has descended from multiple progenitors.

Dr George Redmonds, (a family name expert), in his book, also gives the same origins for the name, (Cornish and French), then discussed the localised group from West Yorkshire centred on Holmfirth and Huddersfield, (see map below). The earliest record there is of an Adam Bray of Cartworth, part of Holmfirth in 1307. This group must have migrated to the area and probably were one of the Norman Brays because there are no places in the district called Bray where the name could have arisen. Due to the localised nature of this group I suspect (but naturally cannot prove) that these Brays would have originated from one family group who settled in this area. Due to the spread of other places where small numbers of very early Brays are found, (other than in Cornwall and Devon that is), I feel that these families would be the descendents of the "Men from Bray" who marched with William the Conqueror and this would explain the "old French" origin of the name. William and his army invaded England in 1066 from Normandy in France, dispossessing all of the English nobility from their lands. For well over a century, the court language was French and there was a constant flow of migrations from Normandy to England as the Normans progressively established their power and control over the country.


The English census taken every 10 years from 1841 shows 1685 Brays in Cornwall and 820 in Yorkshire, however the Bray population in Cornwall did not grow over the years and in fact slowly declined possibly due to migration as mines closed, yet the population in Yorkshire continued to grow. By the 1891 census, Yorkshire had become the dominant place of origin as the numbers were reversed, the number of Brays in Yorkshire was 1543 (again centred in Huddersfield and surrounding districts) and there were 1308 in Cornwall, in 1911 the numbers had become Yorkshire 1843 and Cornwall 1385.



There are four small habitations in Cornwall called Bray, (or Brea which is the same name), which were well established by the medieval period when family names were becoming common, these are difficult to find on modern maps. All four of these are beside prominent hills, two of which are called Carn Brea. These locations may have been used as surnames by individuals in early times and some could have, and probably did, result in hereditary family names. A study of Cornish baptismal records from the beginning of registers up to 1800 show a large number of Brays in the parish of Gwennap and surrounding villages, some 36% of all Brays in Cornwall, and thus we can say with confidence that this area is definitely one of the sources for our name. This is located very near the towns of Camborne and Redruth. There is a large hill called Carn Brea (with a castle on the top) beside Camborne and there are small hamlets called Carn Brea Village, Brea and Higher Brea beside this hill. This was known as the richest copper and tin mining area in Cornwall stretching back to ancient times. The Gwennap church is quite large and dates back to the 12th century which is around the time family names were being adopted. There is also a place in North Devon called High Bray with a River Bray running through the area, this was well established by this period and is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. The Lord of this place is referred to in the Book as Alnoth of Brai, (Alnod) and this location could have also been used as a family name. One of the most well known Cornish Brays was an ex miner and a charismatic preacher, William (known as Billy) Bray (1794-1868) who established a number of Methodist chapels and thus William became one of the most popular Bray first names in the 1800s.



The Roll of Battle Abbey, (which is an ancient list, said to be compiled at the time, of those who invaded England from Normandy in 1066), states that men from the region of Bray marched with William the Conqueror, there are several versions of the Roll, all of which mention the name Bray and one actually refers to a William of Bray. However, there would have been some minor gentry from the area and all those who took part in the campaign would have been very well rewarded by William. Virtually all of the English nobility were Norman by the end of the 11th century and remained so for well over a century as they intermarried amongst themselves. There are a number of Sir Brays located in various places during the medieval period and their genealogy is by no means certain; all of these would have Norman ancestry. The village of Bray in Berkshire is listed in the Domesday Book with the Lord given as King William as part of his personal holdings, this would make it virtually certain that this is a Norman place name.


Bray in France is a small village surrounded by farms near Evreux about half way between Paris and Le Havre in Normandy. However, there are some other places in France with Bray in their names near the channel coast so it is not certain which one is meant by the Roll. For example Bray-Sur-Somme has a First World War cemetery and is mentioned in military histories. A search in Google Maps will indicate the location of Bray and the other places.

Bray is a surname still in current use in this area of France and can be found frequently on the Normandy/Picardy border in Pays de Bray.


bray coatThe early Bray Coat of Arms is described as; Argent (a background of silver), a chevron between three eagles legs sable (black), erased a la cuise (cut off at the thigh), their talons gules (red).


A dictionary of British names gives the first references to Bray as an Alnod de Braio in 1084 in Devon, (see the reference above for the Devon Brays),a Richard de Brai in 1135 in Eynsham in Oxfordshire, then a Ralph de Bray 1225 in Devon followed by a Daniel de Bray in 1297.


The most famous of the early Brays in this noble line of decent was Sir Reginald Bray, Knight of the Garter who died 5 August 1503 and is buried in the Bray Chapel in Windsor Castle. He was the second son of Sir Richard Bray of Worcester, one of the Privy Council to Henry VI. Reginald was serving with Lord Stanley in Henry Tudors army during the War of the Roses against King Richard III. During the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, in the midst of the fighting, Richard was killed and Reginald Bray retrieved Richards Crown from under a hawthorn bush. He gave it to Lord Stanley who then placed it on Henry’s head declaring him King Henry VII thus becoming the first of the Tudor Kings. During the coronation of Henry, Reginald Bray was made a Knight of the Bath and later became very well rewarded for his service to the King over the years, receiving many high honours. He was regarded as a man of very high abilities; he served in a number of positions and is credited with the design of the St Georges Chapel in Windsor Castle where he is buried.


A knight on the losing side at the Battle of Bosworth Field was a John de la Zouche, Lord of the Manor of Eitone (Eaton). His lands were confiscated and in 1490, the Manor of Eaton was granted to Sir Reginald Bray, the district then becoming known as Eaton Bray. (By co-incidence this is the family name my wife adopted in the hyphenated form when we married, her previous name being Eaton.) As Reginald died without children, his estate passed to his nephew Sir Edmund Bray who in 1530 became the first Baron Bray(e). The male line has died out and three times the title has passed on to a daughter, because of this, the family name first changed to Verney and then to Verney-Cave through marriages. The family home also became Stanford Hall in Lutterworth, Leicestershire in the late 1700s, again through marriage, (see their website for details about the house). The manor house of Eaton Bray, (Eitone as it was then), was commenced in 1221 and was demolished around 1794 and only traces of it remain today. The current holder of the title is Lady Penelope, the 8th Baroness Braye who passed the Hall over to her nephew in 2003.



It has been suggested that some Irish Brays may have derived their surname from the O'Breaghdha family of Munster who appeared in the writings of Giolla na Naomh O'Heerin (an Irish historian and bard who died in 1420). According to "Annals of the Four Masters" (1442) O'Heerin also wrote that O'Broith, or O'Bree, was chief of the Magh Seadna. Contemporary historian Michael O'Laughlin (The Book of Irish Families Great and Small) equates the surnames O'Bree and O'Breaghdha with Bray. There is a town called Bray (Bri in Gaelic) on the coast just south of Dublin and there are differing claims as to the origin of this name but there is a very promenent hill called Bray Head on the sea side there and this may well be the origin of the name in this area.



So then, apparently we are named after a place. Where might that have been? There are several places named BRAY in Europe, as discussed there are five small settlements in Cornwall and Devon, the town of Bray in England is in Berkshire on the Thames River near Windsor, Bray in Ireland is on the coast just south of Dublin in county Wicklow and there is a district named Pays de Bray near Rouen and a village of Bray near Paris among others in France. All of these could have given rise to the hereditary name of Bray and some probably did. The one near Camborne in Cornwall can be considered as a definite place of origin.

See for information on the English town.
See for the Irish Bray.
See the Wikipedia Bray link page for links to information on the French villages. This page also provides links to the Irish and English places.

So, if your Ancestors came from Cornwall, Devon or Ireland where the word has a similar meaning, your name comes from bré meaning hill (pronounced as bray as in they and anglicised to Bray), you can claim descent from the ancient Cornish People. The oldest Bray family in Australia is descended from a John Bray (1760 - 1797) who was born in Ireland and who arrived in 1790 with the NSW Corps on the Second Fleet.

If your Ancestors came from places other than Cornwall, Devon or Ireland or perhaps they even came from France, you now know that your name comes from the Old French word for Marsh and you can claim Norman (French) ancestry.

Today the name is spread throughout Britain but still more common in the southern counties (see map below). The name is also relatively common in France and there are many in Ireland. Of course it is now found around the world due to the waves of migration from the old world to the new.

The Site UCL CASA Surname Profiler shows the distribution of Family names in 1881 and 1998, go to to check out the site. However the 1881 BRAY name distribution is shown below. This clearly shows that the name was very prevalent in Cornwall and Devon with some in the other southern counties. Note the small hot spot in Yorkshire (see the discussion of the Yorkshire Bray's above).