GEM FROM THE ARCHIVE
A 16th-century Heralds’ visitation book
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heraldry had become very complex and intricate, but the medieval form of warfare that had given birth to it was being superseded by the age of musket and cannon.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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