Visitations and Pedigrees

As part of a series examining family history resources for beginners, librarian Antony Ramm explores Visitation records – a largely neglected but extremely worthwhile set of genealogy records from the 16th and 17th-centuries…

Family historians will be familiar with the difficulty of tracing ancestries prior to the almost-simultaneous start of Civil Registration and Census records in the mid-19th century (1837 and 1841 respectively). But ‘difficult’ does not mean impossible, by any means; a previous article on this blog explores some of the available sources for identifying particular individuals in Leeds, from the 14th to the 18th-century.

All those sources, however, pale in comparison to the genealogical material available in the Yorkshire Visitations, a series of, effectively, census records for the county’s gentry between 1530 and 1688 (and anyone descended from those families). These Visitations were a Tudor attempt at regulating Coats of Arms, a privilege widely abused by the late 15th-century; the common practice of self-awarding Arms being a clear breach of Henry V’s 1419 proclamation that the bearing of arms by those not already in possession by the Battle of Agincourt (1415) was illegal without inheritance, or a grant from the Crown itself.

Visitations – carried out by Heralds, officers of the College of Arms, the official heraldic authority – were a county-by-county register of those entitled to bear arms. In order to complete an accurate record, Heralds had to enquire into the family history of each individual claiming armigerous privileges, so that descent from an ancestor holding that entitlement could be proved.

In all but the very earliest Visitations those inquiries were written-up in the form of the ‘pedigree,’ or family tree, now so familiar to all students of genealogy; in fact, the College Heralds can be credited with developing and refining many of the tools in the family history arsenal.  It is this level of scientific expertise that means the records kept by the Heralds have been described by G.D. Squibb as essential for any “genealogist whose interests lie in 16th and 17th-century England.” From 1570 the accuracy of these records was strengthened by the requirement that the Herald’s informant (usually the head of the family) sign the pedigree, an additional guarantee of its authenticity (these copies are known as ‘originals with signature’).

Heralds initially recorded pedigrees during their visits in draft form, sometimes using pre-prepared templates. Those drafts were then taken to London, where they were formally entered into the College of Arms records as ‘fair copies’. The Heralds’ drafts were usually retained in the College archives. Amateur genealogists might, then, think of journeying to the College to view those pedigrees, in search of some vital piece of information currently missing from the ancestral tree. Access to the College collections, however, has long been restricted, especially compared to regional libraries or Archive centres; thankfully, for our purposes, many Heralds’ drafts passed into private circulation after entry in the College records; once circulating, interested parties would make copies of the drafts for their own libraries and research purposes.

Who were these interested parties? An answer to that question requires acknowledgement of the broad intellectual context within which Heralds were operating; specifically, the emergence in the seventeenth-century of the British antiquary: “men interested in all aspects of the past…[who] worked at preserving and investigating records and physical remains in England, Scotland and Ireland.” Many Heralds were, in fact, leading antiquaries – men such as William Camden, William Dugdale and Elias Ashmole all served the College of Arms as Heralds in the 1600s, partly because, as Rosemary Sweet has pointed out in her book Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2004), “Heralds were the closest approximation that there was to professional antiquaries, given that their business lay in validating the right to bear arms and in tracing lines of familial descent.”

It was, then, among their fellow antiquaries that copies of Heralds’ drafts would circulate for transcription. In most cases, additional copies would be made from those copies – and, with each such copy, mistakes (and additions) would inevitably appear, until the circulating pedigrees were but distant cousins to the original College records and Heralds’ drafts. It is for this reason that Squibb goes on to caution that Visitation records are “an indispensable section of the genealogist’s library” – but only if “used with discretion .” The reason for that cautionary note is simple: while printed and published editions of the Visitations have been publicly available since the mid-19th century, through the pioneering efforts of antiquarian societies, such as the Harleian and Surtees, those printed editions are often derived from copies of the Heralds’ ‘originals with signature’, rather than the drafts (or the aforementioned ‘fair copies’) themselves; with the College of Arms limiting access to its most precious archives, it is little wonder that editors and publishers turned to those copies in more common circulation for their printed volumes.

Squibb, in his excellent pamphlet Visitation Pedigrees and the Genealogist (1978) explores various Harleian and Surtees volumes, probing their provenance and explaining the levels of trust the researcher can place in each. Some examples are:

  • The first Harleian Society volume (Visitation of London, 1568, ed., JJ Howard and GJ Armytage) is a copy of a manuscript where “it is impossible to draw the exact line between the original Visitation and additions made half a century or so after the date of the Visitation.”
  • The W. P. W. Phillimore edition of the Worcestershire Visitation, 1569 (Harleian Society: Volume 27) was described by its own editor as “Merely a rough guide, which cannot supersede the necessity of separate investigation.”
  • One of the “oddest” is the Visitation of London, 1664 (J.B. Whitmore and A.W. Hughes Clarke, ed., Harleian Society: Volume 92): the printed volume is actually a list of pedigrees for the families included in the Visitation – but not at all close to the actual Visitation record.

Of particular concern, according to Squibb, are any published records that claim to derive from the manuscripts of one Richard Mundy, a 17th-century arms painter who accompanied Heralds on many Visitation journeys. There are more than forty Mundy manuscripts in the archive of the British Library, which makes them relatively accessible – at least compared to the College of Arms copies of the same Visitations; the problem, however, is that Mundy would often conflate several Visitations of a particular county, before adding further pedigrees to those, together with additional broadly-relevant material. And then, after his death, his manuscripts passed to Robert Dale (clerk to the Clarenceux King of Arms, a senior Herald responsible for that part of England south of the River Trent), who added even more additional material. As Squibb says “the end-product in each case can only be described as a collection of county pedigrees” and that while

Mundy’s manuscripts are not without value…[t]hey were the tools of his trade as an arms-painter and are quite unworthy of consideration by any serious student of visitations…’If you find the name of Mundy, beware!’

The following are all published pedigrees derived from Mundy manuscripts:

  • Visitations of Hampshire, 1530, 1575, 1622 and 1634 (ed., W. Harry Rylands, Harleian Society: Volume 64)
  • Surrey 1530, 1572 and 1623 (ed., W. Bruce Bannerman, Harleian Society: Volume 43)
  • Sussex 1530 and 1633-4 (ed., W. Bruce Bannerman, Harleian Society: Volume 53)
  • Middlesex Pedigrees (ed., Sir George J. Armytage, Harleian Society: Volume 65 – explicitly described as being “Collected by Richard Mundy in Harleian manuscript no. 1551”)

In some cases, editors made it clear that they had been able to compare a copy of a Visitation pedigree with the College original; those published volumes are, of course, the most reliable of all. Interestingly, one possible example here is Joseph Foster’s privately-printed 1875 edition of the 1584-5 Visitation of Yorkshire, which Squibb described as being

collated with the College of Arms version, and is indeed as authentic as the College version, for that is itself a copy made in 1625, the original having been purloined from the College.

Even more interestingly, in this regard: the Central Library holds a substantial manuscript copy of the 1584-5 Visitation, which is quite possibly the original draft by Robert Glover, deputy to William Flower, his father-in-law and Norroy-King-of-Arms during that same Visitation. Could this be the College’s purloined manuscript?

Gascoigne crest from the Visitation of Yorkshire, 1584-5

Similar editions can be seen in Anthony Wagner’s Records and Collections of the College of Arms, which gives a list of Visitation manuscripts acceptable as legal proof of the right to arms in law; these can then be compared against the text of printed Visitations to form a ‘canon’ of published editions; according to Squibb, this canon for Yorkshire Visitations consists of the following volumes:

  • Yorkshire, 1530 (Surtees Society: Volume XLI)
  • Yorkshire, 1584-5 and 1612 (ed., Joseph Foster, 1875)
  • Yorkshire, 1665-6 (Surtees Society: Volume XXXVI. Described as “…a reproduction of a copy of the original made for Dugdale himself.”)

There are other flaws and omissions that should be borne in mind with these records, however, beyond the complexities of comparing editions and collating with manuscripts. In cases where descent from an armigerous ancestor could not be proved, Heralds were empowered to deface monuments displaying the illegitimate imagery.  Understandably, such investigatory delving was far from acceptable to the gentry of each county and, for that reason, many families and individuals refused to answer the Herald’s request for information, even despite the royal authority vested in the College of Arms. It was also the case that, increasingly through the 17th-century, some ‘gentlemen’ resented being recorded alongside those they considered to be their social inferiors. Many others found the entire process a tediously bureaucratic disruption from more important business. The effect of all this is clearly seen in Dugdale’s 1665-6 visitation to Yorkshire, when a third of eligible families did not respond to his summons for these reasons; the available records are necessarily compromised from the very start.

For reasons not dissimilar to these, the Visitations came to an official end in 1688: no further royal commissions for Visitations were issued after that date, because of that very unpopularity with leading members of the gentry; those families being the power-base on which William and Mary built their regal power and authority, after the removal of James II from the throne.


The story does not end there, however. The relationship between heraldic visits and antiquarian pursuits did not end with antiquaries operating as Heralds. Some Heralds, in fact, collected much more material during their travels and investigations than pedigrees alone, with many using it as an opportunity to gather so-called ‘church notes’ – “epitaphs and monumental inscriptions; the funeral escutcheons; the heraldic blazons ornamenting the stained glass windows” (Sweet, p.39) – as well as copies of deeds and other important local records. Material collected by these early antiquaries – especially the family trees, which were often expanded beyond the specific needs of the Visitations themselves – formed the essential building blocks for the great ‘county histories’ produced by their successors in the 18th-century:

The county history was a celebration of the power and wealth of the landed elite and as such necessarily emphasised this element to the cost of other subjects: hence the impressive bulk of the volumes, the dominance of pedigrees and the profusion of plates of country seats. (Sweet, p.38)

Any reader familiar with its contents will recognise in that description a close approximation of Ralph Thoresby’s Ducatus Leodiensis, the first written history of Leeds; a volume which was, while not technically a ‘county history,’ very much in that tradition, sharing many of the genre’s characteristics and, particularly, its emphasis on the pedigrees of notable families.

The pedigree of John Harrison and family, from Thoresby’s Ducatus – with annotations by Thomas Wilson

Most interestingly, in our context, Thoresby specifically utilised for the Ducatus those pedigrees of Yorkshire families that were collected by the Lofthouse antiquary John Hopkinson (1611-1681) during his employment as secretary to William Dugdale, Norroy King-at-Arms (the Herald responsible for that part of England north of the River Trent), during the 1665-6 Visitation of Yorkshire; from Ralph’s diary we know that he visited Hopkinson just prior to the latter’s death, with the intention of utilising the elder antiquary’s invaluable archive:

To Loftus [Lofthouse] to have sight of some manuscripts, of Mr. Hopkinson’s, late Norry [sic] King-at Armes. (Thoresby was mistaken – Hopkinson was Dugdale’s deputy)

In 1697 we find Thoresby recording in his diary that he was spending every free moment transcribing from Hopkinson’s collection and, on 10 February 1703, he wrote:

Finished the transcript of Mr. Hopkinson’s MS. folio of the pedigrees of the Yorkshire nobility and gentry of the West Riding, with additions and continuations, in many places by the excellent Mr. [Richard] Thornton [the Recorder of Leeds, d.1710], who favoured me with the loan of it, wherein are many things absolutely necessary to be inserted in my designed History of Leeds…

It is for this reason that W.S. Banks was able to report, in George Roberts’ Topography and Natural History of Lofthouse and its Neighbourhood (Vol. 1: 1882) that “Many of the pedigrees in the Ducatus are nothing more than transcripts of Hopkinson.”

Thoresby, then, owed a great debt to Hopkinson. Others have, too – Thoresby’s successor in Leeds antiquarian matters, Thomas Wilson, placed his regard for Hopkinson on record in a letter to a fellow antiquary. Wilson, in fact, like Thoresby, transcribed his own copy of Hopkinson’s West Riding pedigrees, to which he added further additions. This copy is currently held by The Leeds Library, while the Thoresby and Thornton copy is held – appropriately enough – by the Thoresby Society itself.

The Central Library, too, holds a manuscript copy of Hopkinson’s pedigrees and our catalogue entry strongly suggests that it is in Hopkinson’s own hand, with additions to c.1730.

While it is tempting to think those additions were also made by Wilson, Thornton or Thoresby, the slightly more prosaic reality (though still fascinating for students of local antiquarian history) is that the whole volume was most likely a copy made by Joseph Hunter, the author of a weighty two-volume county history of South Yorkshire (in the preface to which he describes using an edition of Hopkinson’s pedigrees identical to the Central Library’s copy), and also the editor of Thoresby’s published diaries and letters.

An example of a pedigree in the Central Library Hopkinson manuscript

A second, related manuscript in the Central Library collections is an edition of the 1665-6 Visitation itself, transcribed by William Radclyffe, who updated the original pedigrees to c.1827. Radclyffe remains biographically opaque, but we do know that he had access to Dugdale’s own copy of those pedigrees, held by the mid-19th century in the Library of Miss Frances Mary Richardson Currer, at Eshton Hall in North Yorkshire. Interestingly, Frances was descended from Richard Richardson, who inherited Hopkinson’s private archive on marriage to his sister, Jane; passing that collection to his own descendants (initially his daughter, Dorothy Richardson, of whom much more could be said).

That Radclyffe had certainly seen Dugdale’s own copy – most of which was actually written by another of Dugdale’s deputies, Gregory King, later the Lancaster Herald – in the Eshton Hall library can be proved by a quote attributed to him in the Introduction to the 1859 Surtees edition of the 1665-6 Yorkshire Visitation. There, he is recorded as saying that the Eshton Hall edition was “the only perfect copy out of the Heralds’ College”; that is, the only available manuscript that can be positively compared to the ‘fair copy’ at the College of Arms. It seems a more than reasonable assumption to make that the Radclyffe copy held at the Central Library is also, in that case, a very accurate transcription of the Eshton Hall copy, as made by Radclyffe himself. An example from its pages can be seen below.

A final – though unrelated – point of interest regarding the Central Library Radclyffe and Glover manuscripts: both came to the Library from the collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps who was, as Wikipedia describes him

an English antiquary and book collector who amassed the largest collection of manuscript material in the 19th century. He was an illegitimate son of a textile manufacturer and inherited a substantial estate, which he spent almost entirely on vellum manuscripts and, when out of funds, borrowed heavily to buy manuscripts, thereby putting his family deep into debt. Phillipps recorded in an early catalogue that his collection was instigated by reading various accounts of the destruction of valuable manuscripts.

Phillipps’ motivation makes for interesting reading in light of recent news from the antiquarian book trade.

All books and other stock mentioned in this article, unless stated otherwise, can be accessed from our Local and Family History department. 

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