Record Searching - before the Parish Registers :: Genealogy
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Record Searching - before the Parish Registers

Journal by janilye

Lineages of anyone who lived more than eight centuries ago should be considered mythological until proven.

If you are going back to the medieval times, think about this.
If each generation is on average 25 years
-then by the start of the parish registers in 1583
-you will be looking for 1,048,576 ancestors
-or over 274 billion by the time of the conquest. So from that we learn that by 1500, you are looking for more people than are living in Britain.

Going back to the conquests you are looking for many times todays world population. So how can this happen?
The answer of course is intermarriage. Cousins, however remote or close, married other cousins.

A simple fact of medieval life was, the rich survived better than the poor. Their living conditions were better, they ate better and they protected themselves better and aliances were forged by marrying their sons and daughters.
Not just gold, but land and women were the currencies of the day.

So as long as you can keep going back along your tree, it's very likely that you will eventually come across land owners, minor nobility and more.
--It's simple mathematics!
--It's nothing special!
--Most of us are descended from William the Conqueror
-------we just need to establish how.

1538 is the natural cut-off when parish registers first appeared.
Survival of registers is patchy for a century or more after this date, bare information in parish registers needs confirmation from other sources.
Supplementary evidence used in modern genealogy - wills, records of land ownership, monumental inscriptions etc. is also available in the medieval period.
The older the record, the poorer are its chances of survival

Who do we look for?

It's easier to trace the ancestry of the wealthy and prominent than the poor and insignificant.
Manorial records of tenancy contain poorer people too and a lot of research has already been done in this field much of the source material has been transcribed and published, often in English translation.
It is tempting to believe that published genealogical work is accurate, however, genealogy has had more than its fair share of shoddy research

Types of Medieval Records

Manorial Records
Heralds' Visitations
Inquisitions post mortem
Feet of Fines
Education records
Published sources


Hereditary surnames came in only gradually in the centuries following the Norman conquest
BEWARE of components of the name which look like surnames, but are not.
Indexes of printed records and historical texts are often arranged by forename

Handwriting and Language

English becomes a foreign language at some point in the 15th century
most documents are in Latin, and a few in French,in legal documents - the Latin is often highly abbreviated.
Handwriting in official medieval records is usually fairly carefully done (Victorian censuses can be harder to read!) dates from about the late 12th century until 1751 the civil, ecclesiastical and legal. The year began on 25 March.
In Anglo-Saxon and Norman times the year was generally started from the 25 December
Earlier still, the year sometimes began in September
In Sept 1752 Julian and Gregorian calendars came in, but this meant that for 170 years there was a week difference due to leap years!
anno domini system of numbering years was introduced in England by Bede in the eighth century.
From the late 12th century it became standard, instead, to date civil documents by the regnal year.
Regnal years can date from the coronation or the accession.
From the thirteenth century, documents often dated relative to a nearby saint's day, feast day or other religious festival.
Regnal Year converter

Manorial Records

The manor was the building block of feudal society
it embodied the government of the local community
administrative control over succession to land tenure within the manor.
Local court of law for routine offences
Genealogical information about ordinary people - rather than the upper classes - is likely to survive from medieval times
There's a very low survival rate of these records estimated at about 4%.
Known records can be found in the National Register of Archives
The language in medieval times is Latin, often heavily abbreviated
the form of the proceedings and the terminology are often very standardised
many manorial court records continue in Latin until the 18th century

Manorial Records - the Court Baron

dealt with the everyday business of the manor and met typically every 3 or 4 weeks business would include the reporting of tenants' deaths
the surrender of the land and the admission of the new tenant would be recorded, and the relationship between the two would normally be noted.
Payments for the marriages of the daughters of customary tenants
and records of the remarriage of widows
Tenants may appear as officials or jurors, they may be noted as absent (with or without leave), or they may be amerced for some minor offence

Manorial Records - the Court Leet

routine local matters (and even with capital offences in earlier times)
jurisdiction declined rapidly during the Tudor Period

Manorial Records - Surveys

Manorial Custumals, common in the 12th and 13th century, which records the tenants, their holdings and their obligations to the lord
the extent, a valuation of the manor, which seems to have been inspired in the 13th century by official surveys connected with inquisitions post mortem
rentals, lists of tenants and the rents payable, beginning in the 14th century, when it became common for the lord to rent out the demesne rather than working it himself

the will in a recognisably modern form did not evolve until the late 13th century. Wills and testaments merged in 1540
Wills only dealing with land did not require probate
Testaments dealt with personal property.
early wills often primarily concerned with burial and gifts to the church and fell under the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts
likely to survive as transcripts in a register, rather than as original documents
Before 1500, most written in Latin - or occasionally French
members of the family are named
to a greater extent than in modern wills, children may well have been previously provided for
often provided for the spiritual welfare of members of the family who were already dead. Parents may well be named, together with even more remote ancestors if one is very lucky.

Heralds' Visitations

collection of pedigrees of families with the right to bear arms
must be used with great care
dates are given only occasionally
may sound too good to be true and sadly, in many cases, it is not true
often more impressive than accurate
the shorter the pedigree entered at a visitation, the more reliable it is likely to be

Inquisitions post mortem

Also known as escheats Held for anyone holding land directly from the Monarch
Protecting the King's interests
Outlaws or sine prole land reverted to the Crown
Chester, Lancaster and Durham have their own records (Palatines)
Crown takes profits until age 21, then fine paid to assume title (Lords did the same to manorial tenants)
Documents often contain proof of age
Births tended to be relative to memorable events
Records run from 1235 until 1662
The index held at the PRO in Kew and copies were kept by family - often deposited at the CRO
They can be very difficult to read in the original form

Feet of Fines

Records from 1195 to 1834
Transfers of property for deforciant/ the seller to querent/the buyer
3 copies on same sheet - 1 for each party and the bottom copy (hence feet of fine) for the exchequer or palatine authority
These are useful as transfers are often between relatives
Descent of ownership or occupancy is often described
Indexes drawn up by local societies
Records are held at the The National Archives of UK Public Records

Education Records

Most useful are the Cambridge and Oxford lists of graduates
Gives parentage and the dates and ages at graduation and/or matriculation
Aberdeen University available from 1495
St Andrews available from 1413

Charters or Charter Rolls

1199 through 1517
documents recording grants, usually of land, but sometimes of other property or rights the medieval equivalent of what we now call deeds
Family relationships are often mentioned they may record a marriage gift to a daughter, or provision for a younger son.
Spouses and children appear, sometimes as witnesses to express their assent to the grant
many have ended up at the Public Record Office
a large number of charters have survived as transcripts.
more charters, many since lost, were later copied, in the 16th century and later, by heralds and antiquaries

Patent Rolls

Open or unsealed letters issued by Chancery Court
66 volumes covering 1216 to 1587
Chester and Lancaster have their own records
Wide range of subjects : grants, licences, wardships, land usage
Jail delivery and keeping the peace are also found

Curia Regis Rolls

These dealt with just about anything.
Plea rolls from 1273 - 1875 contain several pedigrees
Early rolls published by the Selden Society

Close Rolls

1205 - 1905 held at PRO
Deeds, wills, leases, changes of name
Particularly useful for deeds of sale
Calendarised to 1509 with full texts from 1227 - 1272

Fine Rolls

Including Henry111 1216-1262
Fine is a payment for privilege e.g. to enter land
Run from 1120 to the execution of Charles I
Calendars in 22 volumes up to 1509 which are preserved in the Public Records Office but may be read online Open Library

Pipe Rolls These really only contain sheriff's accounts but I have included them. These rolls were once kept in treasury along with the Domesday Book for the exchequer clerks. Now also housed at the Public Records Office

Published Sources
Making a Pedigree' by John Unett, SoG 1961
Burkes Peerage etc. (Family Tree Maker's 'Notable British Families 1600-1900' available on CD)
For Cheshire 'The History of the County Palatine and City of Chester' by George Ormerod on CD (fully indexed)
The Victoria County History series

The medieval village below is Cosmeston in South Wales.

Surnames: NONE
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by janilye Profile | Research | Contact | Subscribe | Block this user
on 2008-09-10 18:35:19

janilye - 7th generation, Convict stock. Born in New South Wales now living in Victoria, carrying, with pride 'The Birthstain'.

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by clarkey on 2011-07-27 04:30:32

these are very good tips for researching the middle ages, if you are bold enough.

by janilye on 2011-08-17 20:58:22

Indeed! I have included this website Notes on Medieval English Genealogy The explanations for Heralds Visitations, manorial documents etc. are much more detailed than in my short list.

by janilye on 2011-11-19 18:43:29

I would like to bring to your attention this searchable online database for soldiers of later Medieval England ICMA Centre
Dr. Adrian Bell and Professor Curry have recently updated this site which includes all the muster rolls of soldiers from 1369-1463 housed at The National Archives.

by janilye on 2017-01-24 14:07:08

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