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“No genealogist whose interests lie in sixteenth and seventeenth century England can afford to neglect visitation pedigrees. They must be used critically, but so used they are invaluable. Printed visitations need to be used with special care. Some of them are very bad, some so bad as to be worthless. On the other hand, some are very good. It is therefore a mistake to dismiss printed visitations as a class of being unworthy of serious consideration. Used with discretion, they are an indispensable section of the genealogist’s library.” (Squibb, page 25)
Do not confuse herald’s visitations with ecclesiastical visitations. The latter were visits by archdeacons and bishops to inquire about specific Church matters of concern. Herald’s visitations were inquiries about the pedigree of a landed person.
In the sixteenth century, minimum property requirements (land worth 100 pounds per annum or movables worth 360 pounds) had to be met before a coat of arms was approved. At this same time, tighter controls were placed on the use of arms and to ensure the proper registration of those already justifiably borne. Senior heralds, called Kings of Arms, made tours of the country, starting in 1530, for the purpose of checking on the unlawful assumption and display of arms and of the titles of “esquire” and “gentleman” – in other words, to examine gentleman’s claims. Herald’s visitations were discontinued in 1686.
Visitations differ from other records in that they contain genealogical information as an end in itself. They gained a reputation of being so carefully recorded that the originals are used as evidence, not in peerage cases, but in litigation.
A visitation is legally admissible if the following criteria are met:
- It was drawn up in the course of performing a public duty.
- Can you prove the visitation commission which imposed the duty?
- Can you connect the book containing pedigrees to the commission?
- The book in which it was recorded came from proper custody (i.e., College of Arms).
- A court can (by scrutiny) validate whether it is in proper form.
A visitation is judged by less rigorous standards to prove it is historically permissible.
- Is it the original manuscript?
- If a copy, is it faithful to the original?
- To what extent is it reliable as an historical document?
Pedigrees were compiled from three sources: 1) personal knowledge of the head of the family; 2) family tradition handed down to the head of the family; and 3) information derived from other records, such as family muniments of the previous two herald’s visits.
As stated earlier, pedigrees are presumed to be correct, but be aware that they may contain varying degrees of value and reliability. Check for authenticity by finding out if the information came from a previous visitation. If so, examine it to see who the key man was. Also, determine if the compiler made proper use of the records at this disposal. If those records are still available, search them.
Most pedigrees were signed (after 1570) by the key man in it. What he says about parents, siblings, children, and grandchildren is the authentic core. Sometimes a pedigree will contain information about grandparents of the key man, but will rarely go beyond that. A pedigree which gives more should be carefully scrutinized.
The key man in an unsigned pedigree is often the senior member of the family whose age is stated on the pedigree. If the key may has to be inferred, the pedigree should not be treated with the same respect as to its accuracy as one which is signed. Sometimes, in the absence of the key man, information could have been given by a relative, attorney, or maybe a servant. Obviously, in these cases, the information is not as reliable.
Pedigrees contain the truth, but perhaps not the whole truth. For example, there is a case where a brother is mentioned, but the brother’s wife and children are not. Or, siblings may be omitted, such as the case of Israel Glisson (Somerset, about 1623) who mentioned only four of his brother William’s thirteen children. It is wise to check pedigrees of other family members to catch errors such as these.
Remember, the heralds did their best to record the pedigrees with accuracy. However, human error could create false information. During the visit, some individuals may have prevailed on the herald to improve their ancestry, but there is no evidence of a conspiracy to do so.
Visitations also fall short of the whole truth in that they are not always comprehensive. In trying to include all of the gentry in a county, sometimes individuals were missed. Some ignored the summons to appear. Perhaps they didn’t want to pay the fee, or they found that pedigrees of others “beneath” their own standing were being compiled.
With all its shortcomings, visitations are a unique and immensely valuable group of genealogical records.
Finding Visitation Pedigrees in the Family History Library
Many pedigrees are printed by historical societies, such as the Harleian Society. Manuscript pedigrees from the Harleian Society are on microfilm. Personal names indexes to the pedigrees can also be found in:
- Smith’s Inventory of Genealogical Sources
- Marshall’s Genealogist’s Guide (including the supplements by Whitmore and Barrow)
- Marshall’s An Index to the Pedigrees contained in the Printed Heralds’ Visitations.
Visitations can be found by using the Place Search in the Family History Library Catalog for the name if the county and the topic Visitations-Heraldic. The Harleian Manuscripts on microfilm can be found by using the Place Search for Great Britain and the topic History-Sources.
Barrow, Geoffrey. The Genealogist’s Guide.
FitzHugh, Terrick. Dictionary of Genealogy.
Humphrey-Smith Cecil R. An Introduction to Medieval Genealogy.
Marshall, George W. An Index to the Pedigrees contained in the Printed Heralds’ Visitations.
Marshall, George W. The Genealogist’s Guide. Reprint.
Mullins, E.L.C. Texts and Calendars: an Analytical Guide to Serial Publications. FHL Ref 942 C4rg number 7 1978. See also Texts and Calendars II. FHL Ref 942 C4rg number 12.
Printed Visitations and County Pedigrees. in The Genealogist’s Magazine, Volume 6, number 5 March 1933 (pp. 194‑7, 258‑9), number 7 September 1933 (pp. 314‑5), and number 8 December 1933 (pp. 350‑3).
Smith’s Inventory of Genealogical Sources: England. Typescript. Salt Lake City, Utah, USA: Family History Library 1986- .
Squibb, G. D. Visitation Pedigrees and the Genealogist. FHL 942 A1 number 702.
Whitmore, J.B. A Genealogical Guide. FHL Ref 929.142 M356g Suppl.