A 16th-cen­tury Her­alds’ visi­ta­tion book

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Many a ge­neal­o­gist has em­barked upon their re­search with the hopes of dis­cov­er­ing con­nec­tions to the rich and pow­er­ful. Al­though it can be tricky to find links to a noble fam­ily, some­times a ‘gate­way an­ces­tor’ will emerge, lead­ing re­searchers to pedi­gree charts that in­stantly help them trace back fur­ther and con­firm their lin­eage. One book at Wir­ral Ar­chives Ser­vice con­tains a num­ber of beau­ti­ful ex­am­ples of this, as ar­chiv­ist Wil­liam Mered­ith ex­plains.

Which doc­u­ment have you cho­sen?

I have cho­sen our her­alds’ visi­ta­tion book. This is a record of the visi­ta­tions of Cheshire made in 1566 and 1580 by her­alds from the Col­lege of Arms in Lon­don.

From 1530 to 1688, her­alds were pe­ri­od­i­cally sent out from the col­lege to the coun­ties in or­der to reg­is­ter the coats of arms be­ing dis­played by knights, esquires and gen­tle­men, and to check that they were en­ti­tled to them. If not, mon­u­ments with the unau­tho­rised coats of arms on were de­faced, and their own­ers were forced to sign a pub­lic dis­claimer that they would never use them again.

What does it re­veal about the lives of our an­ces­tors?

The visi­ta­tion book pro­vides ge­nealog­i­cal in­for­ma­tion re­gard­ing the up­per-class fam­i­lies of Cheshire in the 16th cen­tury and of their me­dieval an­ces­tors. This makes it a valu­able source for those re­searchers who can au­then­ti­cally trace their fore­bears back to one of th­ese fam­i­lies. How­ever, the de­sire to have an­ces­tors among the no­bil­ity was as strong then as it is now, and fre­quently wish­ful think­ing may have crept into the pedi­grees pre­sented to the her­alds.

Her­aldry be­gan in the 12th cen­tury, when colour­ful devices be­gan to be painted on shields as a way of dis­play­ing the sta­tus of the knight car­ry­ing it, es­pe­cially at tour­na­ments, which were grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity in this pe­riod. As the cen­turies passed the im­ages be­came more elab­o­rate and the rules of her­aldry de­vel­oped. By the 16th cen­tury the rules of her­aldry had be­come very com­plex and in­tri­cate, but the me­dieval form of warfare that had given birth to it was be­ing su­per­seded by the age of mus­ket and cannon.

Yet her­aldry con­tin­ued as an em­blem of up­per-class sta­tus, and can be of great use and in­ter­est to fam­ily his­to­ri­ans. Knowl­edge of the topic is also use­ful when study­ing fu­ner­ary mon­u­ments, stained-glass win­dows, and so on.

The rea­son for the her­alds’ visi­ta­tions was that the 16th and 17th cen­turies were an era of up­heaval and so­cial climb­ing. Many trades­men and mer­chants were be­com­ing wealthy, es­pe­cially in Lon­don, which was grow­ing rapidly at this time. Fre­quently, their am­bi­tion was to buy a coun­try es­tate for them­selves and rise into county so­ci­ety, but sadly county so­ci­ety looked down on them as vul­gar up­starts.

How­ever, the sons of th­ese self-made men were sent to Ox­ford or Cam­bridge to ac­quire the ‘right’ man­ners, and by the time the third gen­er­a­tion was oc­cu­py­ing the manor house, it was as if the fam­ily had been in the county since Wil­liam the Con­queror – which their coat of arms and fam­ily tree, how­ever ac­quired, was sup­pos­edly meant to dis­play.

In fact, few of the lin­eages of the county fam­i­lies were quite as free from rich trades­men as they would have liked.

The her­alds’ visi­ta­tion book is there­fore a record of a tra­di­tional hi­er­ar­chi­cal so­ci­ety threat­ened by change, rather than of a static ‘ feu­dal’ one.

Why did you choose this doc­u­ment?

This her­alds’ visi­ta­tion book is one of the old­est and most at­trac­tive items we hold, but it also tells a colour­ful story.

In 1566 and 1580, Queen El­iz­a­beth I or­dered Wil­liam Flower, Nor­roy King of Arms, the se­nior her­ald re­spon­si­ble for the North of Eng­land, to carry out a visi­ta­tion of Cheshire. On both oc­ca­sions he sent out his deputy Robert Glover, the Som­er­set Her­ald, who drew up his record and de­posited it in the Col­lege of Arms.

In 1598, an­other her­ald, Wil­liam Smith, the Rouge

Dragon Pur­suiv­ant, “col­lected, brought into one, and in many places aug­mented” th­ese two visi­ta­tion records to make his own book.

Wil­liam Smith was also a map­maker and lo­cal his­to­rian (as well as a play­wright and innkeeper), who ‘aug­mented’ his book with his own map of Cheshire and other lo­cal in­for­ma­tion such as an ex­tract from the Domes­day Book. Years later, he added a dis­claimer “of those that usurpe the name and state of gen­tle­men” and a list of those dis­claimed in Cheshire at the 1613 visi­ta­tion.

Fur­ther notes in the book hint at its later his­tory. In 1779 it was sold by a John Lambe to Richard Greene, a sur­geon of Lich­field and an­ti­quar­ian, who in 1780 gave it to Thomas Pen­nant of Down­ing in Flintshire, a noted Welsh scholar. Much later, the book crossed the River Dee and came into the pos­ses­sion of Birken­head Ref­er­ence Li­brary, from which Wir­ral Ar­chives Ser­vice de­vel­oped in 1974.

Tell us more about your col­lec­tions...

Wir­ral Ar­chives Ser­vice holds the his­tor­i­cal records of Wir­ral Coun­cil and of its pre­de­ces­sors, in­clud­ing the cor­po­ra­tions of Birken­head and Wal­lasey, records of work­houses, courts, schools and hospi­tals, and of lo­cal so­ci­eties and busi­nesses, in­clud­ing ship­builders Cam­mell Laird. We also hold a col­lec­tion of lo­cal news­pa­pers dat­ing back to 1863.

For fam­ily his­to­ri­ans,s wewe have the census; street di­rec­to­ries and elec­toral reg­is­ters for the 19th cen­tury; burial reg­is­ters of mu­nic­i­pal ceme­ter­ies; and ad­mis­sion and dis­charge reg­is­ters of work­houses, hospi­tals and schools. We providep free in­ter­net ac­cess to ge­neal­o­gygy sub­scrip­tion web­sites Ances­try and Find­my­past too. Other fam­ily and lo­cal his­tory records are held by the nearby ref­er­ence li­braries in Birken­head, Wal­lasey and Be­bing­ton.


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