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Royal Heralds and Simple Harolds

By Daniel Hubbard | June 30, 2013

250px-Codex_ManesseI never thought that I would ever use the heraldic visitations. Heraldry has that sort of “gravitational” attraction that always makes me somewhat uneasy. People have been known to make up heraldic arms for profit. Some think that there are “family coats of arms” and that everyone has one. People claim or are misled to believe connections on the flimsiest of grounds all because of that powerful gravity of those medieval designs.

Some English research I am still working on led to a will that named an uncle and a nephew. They were tempting clues that might allow going one step further back than I could otherwise. They  turned out to appear as father and son in a visitation. If the pedigree reported to the herald can be trusted, it gave me two more generations. That, I think is the most exciting part. It isn’t the arms that did not descend down the branch that I was working on anyway. It was finding those two men in the visitation in a way that, once I verify some information, may get me back farther than I had the right to expect. That is what was important and exciting about using that visitation, it may well expand my understanding of the family.

Heraldic Visitations

So what were heraldic visitations? By the time of Henry VIII the use of arms had become widespread. Too widespread. Heraldic arms were not something that just anyone could use and certainly not by creating the arms themselves but people seemed to be elevating themselves into the gentry in that way. The solution was something of a blending of an inquisition and a census. Those who carried out the visitation were empowered to demand to see the heraldic arms of anyone claiming them and to demand proof of their right to the arms. If the proof was lacking, the herald was instructed

to put down or otherwise deface at his discretion… in plate, jewels, paper, parchment, windows, gravestones and monuments or elsewhere whereseoever they may be set or placed.

If that inquisitorial phase was passed, the census-like phase began. If the proof was felt to be sufficient, the arms and the proof were recorded as well as the pedigree of those whose right had been confirmed.

Visitations of different areas of England continued until the reign of William & Mary began in 1688.

Sir William

The 1664 visitation of Lancaster was carried out by Sir William Dugdale and the edition printed in the nineteenth century contains a long biography of him in the introduction. On the first page it said he

was not descended from one of our great families of whom it may be said with truth that they lose themselves in the ages which are past, but who are still remembered in deeds that will not die.

I have mixed feelings about that quote but I find parts of it quite beautiful. As we research back through the generations we do find that families “lose themselves in the ages which are past.” They eventually fade back into that fog of records not kept or not preserved, documents not known or not understood. We try to blow away that fog but there will always be a point when those “ages that are past” don’t let us see farther. We also try to remember or uncover and then preserve those “deeds that will not die.”

On the other hand, I find the entire quotation to be a bit disturbing. Sir William “was not descended from one of our great families of whom” the rest of the quote applies. That certainly goes for my ancestors as well and probably also for yours but I find it to be wrong. Every family stretches back to to ages which are past and as for those “deeds that will not die” that is for us, the descendants to decide. They aren’t restricted to the cream of the noble crop of which even our Sir William was not a member. Perhaps we do genealogical research in part to elevate at least some of our ancestors into our own personal nobility.

Maybe that is why I never imagined I would use the visitations. They claim to record the nobility and yet they record so little of it.

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