Sometimes it helps to have had rich ancestors. I’m not just talking in terms of wealth and property being handed down through the generations but in terms of the potential wealth to be found with the records relating to them.
If, like me, most of your ancestors are pretty salt of the earth, hard-working labouring types, often without much more than a couple of pennies to rub together, then you might struggle to get your line back further than when parish registers began. You might find the odd mention of the family surname in records such as manorial records, tax lists and the like, but sometimes the years covered by these types of records can span generations and make it more like guesswork and theory to link the names together to prove a line going back beyond the 1600s.
In England and Wales it became a requirement to keep records of baptisms, marriages and burials through parish registers from 1538 but few survive back to this period. Many local areas were growing in populations so some parishes were not formed until after this date, and it is always worth taking a look at information on websites such as Genuki about the area you are interested in, it’s parish churches and dates for the commencement of their records and where you can find transcriptions or digitised copies of the registers in question.
Wealthier ancestors are much more likely to have left a paper trail behind them, they probably owned land, property and made wills. Going further back in time they might have been recorded as being part of the Civil War, fighting for the Royalist Cavalier side or the Parliamentarian Roundhead side for example.
Wealthy families were likely to have been armigers – that is – bearing arms – specifically a coat of arms. I think most of us have all seen coats of arms depicted on various articles such as stained glass windows, shields, buildings and even plastered all over names websites – trying to get you to buy a scroll with your surname and a coat of arms.
Coats of arms belong to a tradition going back to the 12th century, coming from a time when knights in battle were covered in armour from head to foot and the only way to identify themselves was to adopt a range of easily recognisable symbols and designs on their shields and on the surcoats they wore over their armour. It is from this word surcoat that the coat part from coat of arms comes from.
The designs picked ranged from pretty simplistic to very complex. They could be something like a red diagonal stripe on a silver background, or combine different patterns in a complex array of stripes, crosses, chevrons, circles, animals, plants and anything else that appealed! The arrangement of the items on the shield gave rise to the central element known as an escutcheon. As families merged with wealthy heiresses marrying into families with arms they would often split the arms from both families to incorporate them both into one new one or show the husbands arms ‘impaled’ with that of his wife.
Knights also used their helmets and crests as a way to distinguish themselves, especially when jousting when they would often lay their helmets out in a line so everyone could see who was present and whom to challenge. Often these helmets and crests would be shown at the top of a coat of arms. Tournament officials – known as heralds, had to be able to recognise knights by their arms. They would proclaim the start of the proceedings, the identities of the combatants and the victors. In this process they were able to check that knights were not using arms that they knew were already in use by someone of status.
By the 14th century, heralds were the experts in coats of arms and it became known as heraldry. In order to assist their work, heralds drew up lists – rolls of arms – of all the arms they saw at tournaments and other such gatherings, they were assembled into collections called armorials.
In 1415 Henry V tried to formalise the controlling of the use of arms but it wasn’t until the reign of Richard III that the College of Arms was established and overseen by a King of Arms. In 1530 Henry VIII sent his heralds out all over England and Wales to register all rightful coats of arms and eradicate the rest. These were known as visitations. During these visitations everyone claiming to be a gentleman and using a coat of arms had to appear before the heralds and justify his claim. Some of them could show an official grant of arms from an earlier King of Arms, while others had to prepare a pedigree of their family showing how the arms had been passed down over the centuries. Those who had adopted arms to seem important were ordered to renounce them. These visitations happened every 20 to 30 years until 1686 and provide a fabulous record of wealthy families, often going back three to five or more generations. The records also retained the details provided by the people who were using arms without the right to bear them so you could find some not so wealthy people detailed.
It is worth remembering though that some of these pedigrees were not entirely accurate. They were often compiled using memory rather than detailed source material. There have been many instances where a pedigree misses a whole generation out because the compiler may have been confused with ancestors with the same names (like a father and son by the same name) or got confused with names of uncles and cousins who shared the same names. I’ve seen details where they have stated that a sibling died sine prole (without issue) when in actual fact they might have had quite a large family. Sometimes it might seem like a couple only had one child, when in reality they might have had several but only listed the eldest son. Many trees online perpetuate the errors in these pedigrees for a range of reasons, 1. people assume it is all fact and dutifully copy it to their tree, 2. it is the only piece of information they could find and it is there as a work in progress to build upon, 3. possibly the link to these wealthy ancestors isn’t correct at all but they want to be connected to well to do families if they share a surname, 4. they just copied the information from another tree online and never checked the details.
I often use pedigrees as a guide, not as the gospel truth. Where possible I try to confirm details from the pedigree with information from other sources such as parish registers, wills, tax lists, manorial records and anything else I can get my hands on – like militia lists. If I put the information found from a pedigree into my tree and I have some doubts about the information I will note that in the notes for the person so that if I share my research with others they can see where I am questioning the information and if I have found any other sources to back up or disprove anything.
If you are lucky enough you may find you are descended from a royal or aristocratic line which is much more fully documented and been thoroughly researched by historians, however often with some royal pedigrees as they start to go back much further in time the details do become rather more fantastical and sketchy and of course go back to Adam and Eve and therefore God – to prove the King had holy descent.
I never hold much sway in the coats of arms touted on websites trying to get you to buy the one for your surname as of course there is no guarantee that your family name truly relates to that coat of arms, and different families had different takes on their arms – while you may have had one set of arms relating to the main family originally, as eldest sons and second sons and third sons etc. branched out they would have changed their arms slightly to denote where they came in the family and of course changed if they inherited arms from a wealthy spouse.
Although this isn’t exactly an exhaustive expert guide into coats of arms, visitations and pedigrees – there are some great websites that can be of help when looking into heraldry, records of coats of arms and medieval ancestors.
Hopefully this guide has been helpful and can provide you with some background into medieval genealogy. Have you used some of the sources listed above? Have you noticed issues with pedigrees published in the visitations books?