An heraldic primer - part 7

Visitations—an early effort to regularise English heraldry

Visitations were conducted under the authority of Henry VIII by Letters Patent in 1530 and continued through to 1686 to verify the validity of arms being borne at the time. Local authorities under instructions from the county sheriff were required to prepare lists of nobles, knights and other gentlefolk who were interviewed by the heralds to ascertain their entitlement to the arms they were displaying. As evidence the bearers of arms presented verbal and documentary evidence that was duly noted by the heralds and often basic pedigrees were developed as provenance to long use or a grant of arms.

All surviving records are held by the College of Heralds in London. Many family researchers who manage to extend their history back to this era are fortunate to find they link into such records which may take their research back in time a few more generations in a period when documentation is very scarce indeed.

The problem the researcher will inevitably face is that there is little chance of confirming the accuracy of the material as there is evidence that some so-called authenticated pedigrees signed by the representative of the family and retained by the College of Arms were largely fictional! This is nothing new as the trade in false pedigrees to gain social status has been rife for generations and we always need to be alert to this fact.

Many spurious pedigrees were produced for a fee and heralds were on occasion imprisoned for granting arms to base-born individuals. William Dethick (1587–1606 Clarenceux King of Arms) was criticized for making grants to persons who were thought to be too inferior, including a Stratford glover named John Shakespeare whose son William influenced the grant and thus become born of gentry!
John Shakespeare made his first unsuccessful application to the College of Heralds in 1576, when William was twelve. In 1596, with the help of his now quite wealthy son his third application was successful. The only thing wrong with the claim was he probably was not worth £500 and he did not have an ancestor who fought with Henry VII and won lands in Warwickshire. Shield… or, on a bend sable a spear of the first steeled argent; crest... a falcon wings displayed argent, standing on a torse of his colours supporting a spear or, steeled as aforesaid; motto… non sanz droict.

A comprehensive guide with one of the longest titles in any library by Cecil Humphery-Smith, Armigerous Ancestors: a catalogue of sources for the study of the Visitations of the Heralds in the 16th and 17th centuries with referenced lists of names, stresses the usefulness of the records of the herald's visitations. The writer suggests the material might provide the vital clue in establishing links at a time when there are serious problems with other sources because of the English Civil War, missing records, and the like. It is also pointed out that the visitations also deal with a greater cross-section of people than may be realised. Climbing the social ladder and tumbling down again was quite common and the disclaimers of those whose pedigrees were not authenticated include all sorts of people. This book lists every name that appears in the visitations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and indicates which published volumes need to be consulted for each name.

The many volumes of visitations as published by the Harleian Society and others are becoming more available to us in South Australia with some volumes on databases. This last resource makes it very easy to search across multiple volumes all at once. Presently the counties of Cumberland, Devonshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Somerset, and Warwickshire are available.

Humphery-Smith, Cecil R; Armigerous Ancestors: a catalogue of sources for the study of the Visitations of the Heralds in the 16th and 17th centuries with referenced lists of names, 1997.

Graham Jaunay BA DipT MACE AAGRA

Originally published as a series in, Relative Thoughts, Fleurieu Peninsula Family History Group

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