Using Heraldry in Genealogical Research

Jane_StocktonHeraldry and genealogy have had a long symbiotic relationship. Heraldry requires a knowledge of ones genealogy and heraldry has often been used as evidence to support genealogical conclusions.

Seton calls heraldry the:

“Shorthand of History”, the pictorial chronicle of days gone by, the evidence of gentle blood, the record of important alliances… and not unfrequently, the unerring guide in cases of disputed succession.”[1]

This is a good summary of the role played by heraldry in general, and in genealogical and local history research in particular. As the franchise for entitlement to heraldic devices widened, so did the usefulness of heraldry as both historical evidence and as a research tool.

Heraldry is a useful tool in a number of ways in genealogical research:

  • Dating tool – providing evidence for dates of the lives of individuals, families, and events.
  • Identification of individuals and branches of families and relationships between branches of families, including geographical spread (especially useful in Scotland).
  • Information on marriages – including hints to their political, social and economic role
  • Information on women
  • Biographical
  • Marriages
  • Children

The basic role of both heraldry and genealogy is to identify and place individuals within the context of their families and if done well, within the wider historical context in which they lived. Despite its perceived exclusivity to royalty and the nobility, many untitled families through the centuries have been granted arms making heraldry a valuable research tool for the family historian.

If you are interested in finding out more detail, check out:  Stephen Friar, Stephen. Heraldry for the Local Historian and Genealogist. (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1997). This is the book for using heraldry as a source for local and family history.

2.0 Heraldic Documents

Heraldic documents are those where heraldry is the central focus of the document. Most of the document types listed here had legal significance, thus lending weight to the validity to their contents. This makes them valuable general historical and genealogical documents, especially for periods or areas where other types of legal documents are lacking.

2.1 Visitations

Visitations were conducted by heralds starting in 1450 and continued into the 17th century. Over 150 visits were made under a variety of commissions to all counties in England and Wales[2].These visitations initially were focused on recording the names of those with the right to bear arms and to record the arms in question. This was often accompanied by narrative genealogies used to support claims to armergious status. During later visitations the focus shifted towards recording more detailed tabular/tree genealogies with the recording of arms becoming a more secondary task.

Early visitation records cover only titled families (and their non-titled descendents), but as arms and status became more fluid in the 16th century, many families of non-titled origin who had prospered in trade or land, applied for and had their arms recorded during the visitation process. This greatly increases the usefulness of the visitation records to genealogical research.

Many of the original visitations books remain there to this day, with copies held in the British Library. Many of these works have been transcribed and published by the Harleian Society and are a valuable resource for family historians as they are much more accessible than the originals at the College of Arms or the copies at the British Library. Many have been made available via the web (see link above).

2.2 Rolls of Arms

Rolls of arms are lists of heraldry (painted, drawn or written in blazon). These documents recorded people in attendance at specific events, associated with a particular institution or place, or general rolls which were compiled as reference works (detailing heraldic themes by colour or charge using examples of real world arms).

2.3 Grants of Arms and Pedigrees

These documents record the granting of arms to a specific individual or group (corporation, educational institution etc). Often details of the life of the person are recorded, such as offices held, achievements, participation in important events and sometimes mention of parents or other relatives if they were of note.

After the cessation of the visitations, many amateur family historians and professional genealogists continued to research family lines. The results of this research was often deposited for preservation and recording with the College of Heralds. These pedigrees were often done in support of a petition for granting of arms.

2.4 Funeral Certificates

Funeral certificates date from the late 16th century to the early 18th century. They were documents created by the heralds which record the details of those who were given heraldic funerals. Heraldic funerals were elaborate, formalized displays organized by the family of the deceased. The funeral certificate would contain information about the heraldry of the deceased individual in addition to details about their death, place of burial, marriage information and details of children.

3.0 Non-Heraldic Documents

These documents reference or include heraldry, but have a different primary focus.

3.1 Manuscripts and Legal Documents

Many manuscripts (family histories, institutional records etc) and various legal documents often contain a heraldic element. Documents such as wills, deeds, indentures, contracts and other agreements often include heraldry as part of the identification of the involved parties or as validation of agreement in the form of seals.

3.2 Court of Chivalry Case Law

The Court of Chivalry is a civil court dating back to the 14th century. Its jurisdiction was the use and misuse of heraldic devices. There is an extensive archive of cases available at The Court of Chivalry 1634-1640 website. Each record contains a great deal of biographical information on plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses.

The Court of Chivalry was also covered (to varying degrees) in the newspapers of the day from the 18th century onwards. These often give details of attitudes and tidbits of information (often gossip) not seen in the official proceedings.

4.0 Churches

Heraldic evidence in located in churches provides a more local and often, more personal focus on the role of individuals and families within their community.

4.1 Effigies

Effigies are three-dimensional figures placed in churches, the earliest date to the 13th century. Early examples depict those of the military class who are depicted in armour, including their heraldry on a shield (in some cases a real shield was used). Women are also depicted in effigies, though they wear heraldic surcoats, cotehardies or kirtles.

In addition to heraldic clothing, the head of the deceased often rests on a cushion which incorporates their heraldic devices. Later period effigies and tombs often have additional heraldic display around their sides.

4.2 Brasses

Early monumental brasses were near life size depictions of individuals, often in armour holding a shield. This type of brass relied on the shield to act as identifier for the deceased.

Later brasses, especially in the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, are much more useful as sources for family history. They often depict husband, wife and children, the arms of both spouses and many include the names of spouses, parents, children and details about dates of death and offices held by the husband.

The use of brasses declined after the Elizabethan period as other forms of memorials such as wall monuments and hatchments become more widely used.

4.3 Tombs

Free standing tomb chests from the 13th century on were often had painted (stone) or gilded (enameled brass) shields affixed to them. Weepers often surrounded the sides of the tomb, representing the deceased’s family or eminent individuals who they were related to by marriage or blood. These weepers were sometimes indentified by small shields.

4.4 Wall Monuments

By the late 16th century tomb chests had been superceded by a variety of wall monuments. Wall monuments could be flat brasses, or three-dimensional depictions of families. Both types of monuments used heraldic display as part of the decoration on the monument, often in colour. These monuments include nscriptions detailing information about the individual and/or the family.

4.5 Hatchments

A hatchment is a diamond shaped board bearing armorial display. These are often found attached to the walls of churches or occasionally in private homes. Hatchments were used in heraldic funerals in the mid-19th century and then placed in the local church or other church of significance to the deceased.

4.6 Stained Glass

Many churches have heraldic stained glass provided by local parishioners. Some examples made their way into private homes after the dissolution of monasteries. These glasses are good records of marriages as they were often donated to commemorate the event or on the death of a spouse.

5.0 Heraldic Objects

5.1 Seals

One of the earliest uses and indeed, for runner of heraldry itself was the seal. Developed in 12th century, it became an increasingly important form of validation, performing the same role as the modern signature. They provide important information on the roles undertaken by the owner of the seal, place them in specific places within a datable historical context and reflect changing family alliances.

5.2 Domestic Objects

The heraldry on everyday objects also provides important information to researchers. It can identify the owner of the object, help to give a date for the creation of the object and give information on the social and economic standing of the owner.

Heraldic decoration can be found commonly on the following items:

  • Paintings
  • Horse Furniture
  • Ceramics
  • Gold and Silverware
  • Furniture
  • Home fabrics such as bedding, wall hangings, cushions etc.

6.0 Conclusion

Heraldry supports the study of family and local history in a number of ways:

  • Dating tool – providing evidence for dates of the lives of individuals, families, and events.
  • Identification of individuals and branches of families
  • Relationships between branches of families
  • Geographical spread

In many instances, heraldic evidence may be the only record remaining about a specific individual or event. This is particularly true when applied to women, who are often not represented in written historical records.

Thus, it is of importance that those undertaking any sort of historical inquiry (whether family or local) are aware of the evidence provided by heraldry and have been provided with the necessary skills to make use of this important source of evidence.

Stop by Gould Genealogy who have a large range of heraldic sources for purchase including visitations, hatchments, pedigrees etc.

If you know of other websites or resources related to this topic that might be of interest to people please post in the comments section.

Joint Heraldic and Genealogical Societies

The relationship between heraldry and genealogy can be demonstrated by the number of joint societies for the study of these two areas:

[1] George Seton, The Law and Practice of Heraldry in Scotland (Edinburgh: Edmonton and Douglas, 1863). p. 7
[2] Adrian Ailes, “The Development of the Heralds’ Visitations in England and Wales 1450-1600,” Coat of Arms 5, no. 217 (2009). p. 7