Included in heraldic works are the contributions made by both amateurs and professionals who have interested themselves in heraldic matters. Their chief concern may have been coats of arms and the adjuncts of the art of blazonry but they have invariable entered the captivating realms of genealogy. Under that definition, then, there are vast collections of material of value to the genealogist to be found in public and private libraries throughout the United Kingdom, if not throughout the world. Many are of particular value to the medievalist.
Among the most fruitful sources are the manuscript collections at the British Library, Bloomsbury, London. These include pedigrees compiled during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the Heralds themselves, by the Heralds' agents and by the amateurs who either copied and augmented the Heralds' work or prepared the evidence for the Heralds to examine at the time of their Visitations. There are also large collections made by independent professional genealogists from the sixteenth century to the present day. Similar collections are preserved at the Society of Genealogists and in libraries at Oxford, Cambridge, and elsewhere. By far the greater proportion of heraldic material both armorial and genealogical is outside the Library and collections of the College of Arms itself, but this does not mean that the serious student of medieval genealogy can afford to ignore these. The best guides to the subject have been written by Sir Anthony Wagner, a past Garter King of Arms.
One of the basic principles of identification by means of arms is the descent of similar insignia from one generation to the next. Thus, pedigrees and other notes and evidences of descent were kept by the Heralds from about the twelfth century as an aid to their work of designing and regulation the armorial bearings used to identify military commanders and civilian leaders. By the middle of the thirteenth century they were compiling written and painted records of these armorial bearings in the form of rolls of arms. It must be assumed, however, that for various reasons few of these early records have survived.
During the early period there was no single central storage place for the Heralds' manuscripts and other papers. In the years between 1484 and 1555, the dates of the charters establishing the Heralds as a corporate body, the records came into the private possession of the Officers of Arms and their families. Many of these books passed through the hands of herald painters before being incorporated into the library of Sir Robert Cotton and thus finally presented to the British Museum and now known as Cottonian Manuscripts. On the other hand, the great libraries and collections amassed by Benault for the office of Clarenceux King of Arms were passed on by successive holders of this office and can in part be identified in the present library of the College.
In 1555 the present Chapter of the College of Arms was set up with the constitution, by which it is still governed, whereby the Earl Marshal is supervisor over the Kings of Arms and other officers known as Heralds and Pursuivants. Queen Mary Tudor gave them a house and it was once again possible to start building up a communal library. The Heralds' Charter, unlike that of so many other bodies of a public nature, demanded only that their facilities should be made available to the general public, not that they should be accessible to it. The contents of the Heralds' own collections are therefore only known to us through the published works of the Heralds themselves. Access to their Library, records, and collections is generally only possible at second-hand by using a Herald to conduct searches.
Another point to bear in mind is that the Heralds' records are really Royal legal documents preserved inviolate as evidence in these unique archives. The Heralds do not form a Government Department and they are self-supporting. Occasionally an approved scholar may be permitted by the Chapter of the day, on payment of a nominal fee to look at selected books or manuscripts but apart from that, any examination of the papers and collections is limited to the Officers and their employees at the College.
Fortunately the work of earlier Heralds in editing and abstracting information from these collections has enabled the present generation of Heralds to publish some of the material available. The labors of Augustine Vincent present upwards of 200 volumes of rich material: consisting of abstracts of charters, deeds, family settlements, the inquisitions post mortem in the Tower, etc., baronial and miscellaneous descents of ancient families, transcripts of Visitations, with considerable additions. In many cases these pedigrees show descent from the Norman period.
Furthermore, each Herald continues to keep up his own collection of working papers, genealogical notes, abstracts and pedigrees. A few pedigrees compiled in the past by Heralds in the course of their private work as genealogists, but which depart from provable fact, are among the official records of the College to this day.
Understandably, the validity of the records kept at the College of Arms is sometimes questioned since these can only be seen as filtered through by the Heralds—some of whose record-searching competence in the past has been questioned. In this respect they are unlike the collections at the British Library, where there is an equally large collection of heraldic and genealogical manuscripts, the libraries of Queen's College, Oxford and Cains College, Cambridge, the Society of Antiquaries, and elsewhere which are accessible, via the catalogues, to all who obtain reading tickets.
It is important to realize that many collections contain extracts from manuscripts which have not survived; many record books copied in part or whole have now vanished. These copies can be useful substitutes, but is impossible to check them for errors made in transcription. Many pedigrees lodged in the Library of the College are based on documentation since lost or destroyed. In this context it is worth noticing that records of original Visitations are allowed by the Courts of Justice to be good evidence of pedigrees, as are also the Heralds' rolls and ancient books in general, but their extracts of pedigrees taken out of records are not allowed as evidence. Such extracts are not the best evidence as the records themselves, or authenticated copies, might sometimes by found. Similarly, entries made in the records by individuals without evidence of the authority for them are unacceptable to the Courts. These distinctions serve as a useful guideline to genealogists and despite the disadvantages it should not be forgotten that the greater part of the surviving heraldic material is in fact excellent, being the work of those who have spent their lives studying the subject.
Among the most important, and certainly the best known, of the Heralds' records are those resulting from the Visitations. These were carried out to prevent more than one family from using the same escutcheon and to ensure the prerogative rights of the Crown to grant the symbols of gentility. It is sometimes stated that they commenced as early as 1412, during the reign of Henry IV. This mistake arose through a careless reading of a manuscript in the Harleian collection which was erroneously entitled "Visitacio facta per Marischallum de Norroy ult. an. R. Henriei 4 ti 1412." from one of the memoranda included in it. This manuscript is a folio consisting of loose pedigrees and miscellaneous heraldic scraps, some written as late as 1620 and 1627, pasted on the leaves of a printed book. But it should be noted that although this manuscript was not collated until sometime in the early seventeenth century, it does provide genealogical evidence for the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, some of which cannot be found elsewhere. Pedigrees produced by the Heralds for their Visitations, and other purposes, often go back well into the medieval period, so it would be wrong to neglect a more modern manuscript when attempting to trace a family or individual in this earlier period.
The first commission proceeding from royal authority was issued to Thomas Benolte. Clarenceux King of Arms, in the 20th year of Henry VIII, 1528, by warrant under the privy seal, empowering him to visit the counties of Gloucester, Worcester, Oxford, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Stafford, to peruse and take knowledge, survey, and view of all manner of arms, congnizances, crests and other like devices, with the notes of the descents, pedigrees and marriages of all the nobility and gentry therein. This commission also empowered him to reprove, control and make infamous by proclamation, all such as unlawfully and without just authority, usurped or took any name or title of honor or dignity.
Commissions to the provincial Kings of Arms continued to be granted at intervals of about twenty-five or thirty years from that period until the 2nd year of King James II (1686), when the last was issued to Sir Henry St. George, then Clarenceux. The returns under this commission do not appear to have been completed till 1703/4, as entries of that date appear in the Visitation of London. With this survey the Visitations ceased, and with them much of the power of the Curia Militaria or Earl marshal's court, otherwise known as the Court of Chivalry. It is to be regretted that such valuable sources of information as the Visitations were discontinued, but amusing and interesting accounts of these surveys are to be found in various works.
The commissions for these surveys granted to the Kings of Arms gave them power to appoint deputies and in very many instances the Visitations were made by the Heralds they delegated in their names.
The latter accompanied by their staff of registrar, scribes and draughtsmen, proceeded in due time to sit, as announced, in to them by the neighboring gentry, their descents, and to acknowledge or respite or refuse altogether, the arms which might be put forward, according as the proofs submitted to them were satisfactory or not. On completion of the survey, entries were then made of the pedigree and arms of the parties. These constitute the official Visitation records.
In many cases it happened that people had usurped arms without authority; their names were entered in the List of Disclaimers and their pedigrees included in the Visitation without any arms attached. Similarly, those who had difficulty in proving their right to arms were given time to produce evidence of their titles in the Earl Marshal's Court on a subsequent occasion and their pedigrees were entered with the arms respited for proof. Sometimes it happened that families were too proud to subjugate themselves to what they considered a Tudor-upstart institution. Others, too, were excluded from having their pedigrees recorded at all because of their allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church and faith. Humanity has a long tradition of pride and prejudice. Descendants of these and other recusant families suffer today from lack of recorded pedigree, although they can be shown clearly to have been landed and armigerous for centuries before the establishment of the collegiate body of Heralds. Other families having already registered their descent and had their arms acknowledged in a previous Visitation resented paying the Heralds' fees for the second time in twenty or thirty years.
The visitations made under the early commissions are in many instances in narrative and, particularly in the early generations, meager in detail; some contain little more than notes of arms of the gentry and the founders and priors of monasteries and seldom exhibit more than the lineal descent of the family. Later they assume a more important form, giving a full and accurate statement of pedigrees and supplying collateral as well as lineal descents. Extracts from family evidences, drawings of seals, and references to documents are not infrequently found annexed to the pedigrees. The entries are in most cases attested by the signature of the head of the family represented.
There are three sources for the genealogical information included in a Visitation pedigree: personal knowledge of the head of the family, family tradition handed down to him, and information derived from actual records. The various elements which compose the pedigree are not always obvious, but it is important to know to what degree they occur in a particular pedigree since they are of varying value and reliability. A pedigree in which the key name had to be identified by inference cannot be treated with the same respect as it would be if he had signed it; someone else may have provided the information from which the Heralds drew it up. Most pedigrees are signed by a key man and sometimes by another person such as a servant or attorney and while it is usually assumed that such a pedigree is true and complete this is by no means always so, due to omissions of relatives or the exaggeration of status. When it is realized that Dugdale and his staff entered thirty-two pedigrees on one day at Lichfield in March 1663, it is easy to understand how mistakes and omissions occurred. Each Visitation pedigree studied must be considered individually and its reliability assessed from the authorities and sources quoted.
With a very few exceptions, the printed editions of the manuscripts in the College of Arms have not been produced directly from the original records signed by the head of the family and the editors have reproduced manuscript versions of varying degrees of reliability with equally varying degrees of faithfulness. Editors have often been misled by previous editors who have joined together all the Visitations of one county and then added pedigrees from unspecified sources into the same manuscript. They have been tools of the trade of the arms painter and are quite misleading for the serious student. Editors of Visitation pedigrees are much worse than others for they added in manuscripts which only purported to be from the county in question and on further study are shown to have come from suspect seventeenth century sources. Other editors have shown complete indifference as to whether or not their texts were reliable versions of the Visitations.
Various transcripts of the Visitation Pedigrees exist and numerous copies will be found in the British Library, more particularly in the Harleian Collection, which contains a few of the original Visitations, and the Landsdowne Collection. In fact, the most considerable collection outside the College of Arms is probably the British Library. Many of the heraldic collection there are described in Sims's Guide to Visitations and other Manuscripts in the British Museum. This contains an index to the Visitation transcripts and records kept there. A thorough examination of this and the calendars and indices to the Harleian and other manuscript collections in the British Library, Oxford, and Cambridge colleges is always worthwhile in tracing specific individuals.
Other records are compiled by Heralds may be lesser known but are certainly worth studying. Foremost among these are the Funeral Certificates which cover the period 1567 to 1717. These contain attested accounts of the time of death, place of burial and the marriages, issue, and frequently the collateral branches of the many people whose funerals were attended by the Officers of Arms or their deputies and agents. They are illustrated with the armorial bearings of the deceased. Much of the pedigree material and the genealogical accounts of the acquisition of quarterings includes documentation of the medieval period. The entries in these funeral certificates are particularly full and authentic. When heraldic influence began to decline after the Revolution of 1688, these funeral entries were also neglected. They are to be found in the Library of the College of Arms, London.
Among the more modern voluntary entries kept there are:
- the Founders' Kin Pedigrees, 1620 to 1826, which consists of pedigrees passed under he common seal certifying the descents of individuals from certain founders of colleges, and
- the Benefactors Book containing the pedigrees of those who contributed to the rebuilding of the College of Arms after the Fire of London.
Both of these contain useful material relevant to the medieval period. The Earl Marshal's Books, 1601 to 1826, contain entries of orders made by he Earl Marshal and the record, by virtue of the Earl Marshal's warrant, of all royal licenses for the charge of surnames and assumptions of arms; warrants of precedency; grants and patents of foreign honors; and the royal licenses for the acceptance of foreign orders. The first entry is in 1601; prior to this period the Earl Marshal's orders, etc., were frequently entered in the Chapter Minutes and Partition Books. Reference made here to individuals may give some clearer idea of their career as well as of their immediate ancestry.
It is sometimes necessary to be content in medieval genealogy with the mere existence of an individual, a sufficient proof of descent being established from the connection of generations that without much additional evidence and data being available. In that light, therefore, it may be argued that there is considerable genealogical value to be gained from a careful study of the rolls of arms which tell in identified pictorial terms about relationships of blood and feudal ties. Though compiled during the three centuries before the establishment of the collegiate house of the Heralds, there can be very little doubt that they were the official records of the heraldic authorities. For historical reasons they are not so regarded today. Of 127 ancient rolls mentioned by Sir Anthony Wagner, only forty-eight appear to be original compilations. There is no doubt that the many copies are sufficiently accurate to be counted as primary evidence if they are used in conjunction with other documentation to elucidate pedigrees. A later example of the heraldic demonstration of genealogical connections is to be found, for instance, in the coat armory of the tomb of Louis Robsart, Lord Bouchier, in Westminster Abbey.
The Heralds' Library also contains accounts of tournaments, and a multitude of other manuscript volumes containing copies of deeds, charters and records, drawings of seals, coats of arms, painted glass windows, church notes and descriptions of monuments with their inscriptions, and other information applicable to early genealogical researchers. These are the accumulated labors of many antiquarian and distinguished members of the College. The various heraldic records found there and in the British Library can, in large measure, be supplemented by the pedigrees and minutes of evidence brought forward to peerage case claims before the Committee of Privileges in the House of Lords.
The study of heraldic records may begin through the finding of a coat of arms attached to a document or noticed in a church window, or through the vague knowledge that pedigrees can be found in the Heralds' Visitations. But whichever way the student first discovers this material, he will be well rewarded by the unique and immensely valuable information to be found there. And this, used with intelligence and discretion, can add immeasurably to the study of genealogy.