FOCUS ON: TUDOR RECORDS
Take your research all the way back to the 16th century with Ed Dutton
What is it that’s so captivating about the 16th century? Brimming with youthful confidence, it’s a time of adventure and exploration, laying the foundations of the modern world. But it’s also a time of unparalleled conflict in which old certainties came crashing down.
Whatever it is that inspires us about the 1500s, most of us would relish discovering who our ancestors were during the century of Shakespeare and Henry VIII. Doing so with certainty is fiendishly difficult. But if we understand the nature, background and reliability of parish records, wills, court cases, inquisitions post mortem (IPMs) and heraldic visitations then we’re fully equipped to track down our Tudor forebears.
As you get back to the 16th century, you’ll likely be using parish records: baptisms, marriages and burials. These first began to be recorded in 1538 on the instructions of the king’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell (c1485–1540). However, the law wasn’t seriously enforced until 1598. From this point copies of the parish registers
had to be sent annually to the bishop. This means that there are two sources for parish records: the parish registers and the Bishops’ Transcripts.
Sometimes the register prior to a certain date has been lost, but the records are preserved in the Bishops’ Transcripts. In Waverton in Cheshire there are no parish burial records before 1667, but they are preserved from 1600 in the Bishops’ Transcripts. Marriage records are the least comprehensive, because people were not legally obliged to marry in church until 1754.
Parish records vary enormously in detail. Some rectors regarded them as a waste of ink and paper, recording the absolute minimum: just the name of the child and the date of the christening. Other ministers tell you the father’s name, occupation and even the part of the parish that he came from.
However, you need to exercise caution when using even the most detailed parish registers or Bishops’ Transcripts. Parish registers were subject to damage from rot, leaks, spilled ink and candles falling over. Accordingly there will often be gaps in the registers, sometimes of years at a time. Most of the preserved registers are later copies of the originals. This means that transcription errors can easily creep in. If an entry in the original was illegible for whatever reason, it simply won’t be in the copy that’s been preserved.
Ardent Catholics refused to have their children christened
Parish registers were subject to damage from rot, leaks, spilled ink and candles falling over
The richer half of the population had double the number of surviving children than the poorer half until about 1800
by the parish priest; some sympathetic incumbents, such as John Morres, the vicar of Blackburn between 1606 and 1628, would allow a Catholic priest to christen Catholic children, or bury dead Catholics. However, unlike Morres many parish priests would not record these events in the registers. This all means it is impossible to use a process of elimination to work out who your ancestor was based on the parish records – your ancestor might not be in the parish records at all.
The power of wills
Research looking at Suffolk in the 1620s showed almost 40 per cent of males left a will. It’s quite likely your ancestor did the same, because by the time we get this far back most of us are descended from gentlemen and wealthy farmers or well-todo merchants and craftsmen. This is because the richer half of the population had double the number of surviving children than the poorer half until about 1800. The wills tend to refer to assorted relatives, which means that you can cross-reference them with other wills and documents, allowing you to get back further.
For example the will of Thomas Dutton of Waverton, husbandman (c1580–1632), lists his children in age order, which, cross-referenced with the parish register, proved that he was the father of my ancestor whose own father’s name was not in his baptism entry. The will of Randle Dutton of Nantwich, yeoman (c1570–1630), refers to land that was left to him by his father “Gilbert Dutton”. The testament of Piers Dutton of the Newborough, gentleman (c1500–1558), mentioned a specific “cousin” whose ancestry I knew from other sources. So I could work out where Piers fitted in. Wills also include lists of debtors, often stating the testator’s relationship to them if there is one. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that in the 16th century words like ‘cousin’ and ‘nephew’ had very different meanings from today (see box, left).
As with the registers, these wills are usually copies of the originals, they may be badly damaged, and often wills have not survived. An old genealogical book on my own family refers to various wills in the Cheshire Archive that are no longer there, so they’ve been lost since just 1901. We also have to understand the context in which the wills were made. They were religious documents that testators used to distribute whatever God had blessed them with in life. People would postpone making a will to the last possible moment,
superstitiously believing that making one hastened death. They would usually be on their deathbeds, and possibly delirious, when dictating their will. So you have to be careful reading too much into things. Husbandman John Larden of Tattenhall’s 1601 will lists a group of siblings I’d already discovered in the wrong age order. This does not mean that there were two groups of identically named siblings; it just means Larden was confused. Equally the will of Hugh Dutton of London, gentleman (c1532– 1586), in which he does nothing more than leave everything to “my only daughter Jane”, does not imply other (estranged) siblings – Hugh has made his legally unnecessary will out of religious duty.
If someone held feudal land from the Crown then there will be an IPM setting out what he owned and, often, who his children were. These are at The National Archives (TNA) in Kew.
Court documents are another valuable resource. Tudor England was a lawless society; it was effectively a gangland in which rival gentry battled for control of as much turf as possible. Each gentleman had a gang of retainers (‘servants’) and tenants who would help him invade the lands of rivals, nobble juries and beat up or even murder the retainers of enemy gentlemen. With no police force, society was extremely litigious. Its numerous court cases are preserved in TNA, and are a mine of information. For example wills and registers got me back to Thomas Dutton of Waverton, webster (c1550– 1592), who seemingly had a brother called Robert. A court case revealed that in 1553, in neighbouring Tattenhall, a young man called Robert Dutton, along with other henchmen, had beaten up the parish bailiff on the orders of his very wealthy master, Ralph Dutton Esquire (c1515–1582). Other court cases, over land invasions, revealed which Duttons held
A herald might forge a document indicating someone’s ancestor had the right to arms
land in Tattenhall in the previous generation, and their relationships to various others.
The Tudors were not only obsessed with land but also with ancestry. The right to use a coat of arms, which was granted to ‘gentlemen’ by the heralds or reflected descent from a grantee such as an ancient knight, was a powerful status symbol. The heralds toured the counties every 30 years or so to conduct ‘visitations’. Those who bore coat armour had to prove their right to do so by presenting their family trees, and men who called themselves ‘gentlemen’ but were non-armigerous (that is, they had no right to heraldic arms) had to prove that they had the necessary lifestyle, in which case arms could be granted. Manuscripts of these visitations (known as ‘Harleian manuscripts’) have been published, composed of detailed family trees from the 17th century back.
Transcribing a transcription
However, it’s important to remember that these are Victorian transcriptions of late 17th-century transcriptions of now lost manuscripts. And, updated by the armiger from memory, even the originals were riddled with errors and omissions. Sometimes they only record the direct line down to the person presenting his pedigree, omit all the sisters, and leave out lines that descend into the lower gentry or illegitimate lines.
Another difficulty for family historians is that the heralds were notoriously corrupt. If a very wealthy gentleman, whose connection to the armigerous branch of the family was lost in the mists of time, had been illegally using the family’s coat armour, then in return for the right bribe a herald might forge a document indicating that the briber’s previously unknown distant ancestor had the right to arms.
However, if you are armed with the right sources, and an understanding of what they can tell you, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to get back to one of these Tudor gentlemen yourself.
A Puritan father teaches his family to sing psalms – he may be using hand signals to indicate the correct notes
Follow our advice if you want to find out what your forebears were doing in the 16th century
According to a census published in 1577, there were approximately 17,000 alehouses in England and Wales