|England Wiki Topics|
|Local Research Resources|
- The Peerage
- "Nobility -- England"
- Directory of Royal Genealogical Data
- thepeerage A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain as well as the royal families of Europe
- Cracroft's Peerage
- Britain Knights of the Realm and Commonwealth index
The nobility is a class of people who had special political and social status. Nobility is inherited or granted by the Crown as a reward to people who perform a heroic deed, achieve greatness in some endeavor, or hold a prominent government position.
British nobility has a well-defined order. The highest noblemen are peers, which include the titles of (in descending rank) duke, marquis, earl, viscount, and baron. This is followed by the gentry, whose titles are baronet, knight, esquire, and gentleman. Both peers and gentry are entitled to coats of arms.
The noble class forms less than five percent of England’s population. England limits the growth of the noble class. The eldest son inherits the father’s title, and younger sons may or may not have lesser titles. Younger sons do, however, have the right to use the father’s coat of arms altered with cadency, a mark showing birth order. When a nobleman dies without sons, the title may pass to a brother, cousin, or uncle. It may also lapse unless the Crown awards the title to a daughter’s husband.
Most family traditions of having a noble ancestor who was disinherited and then emigrated are not true since most noblemen did not emigrate. Contrary to popular belief, few nobles disowned family members for unacceptable behavior. Thus, most traditions of an ancestor’s being "erased" or "eliminated" from all records are unfounded.
Illegitimate children are not entitled to noble status and often do not appear on family pedigrees. They may, however, be granted a variation of the father’s coat of arms.
Because of frequent false claims to coats of arms, kings’ heralds required descents to be documented. These pedigrees are called "visitations." Many visitations from the 16th and 17th centuries have been published by the Harleian Society and other private groups. Those available at the Family History Library are listed in the Place Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under:
ENGLAND, [COUNTY] - VISITATIONS, HERALDIC
For further information on visitation records, see:
- Squibb, G.D. Visitation Pedigrees and the Genealogist. Revised Edition. London, England: Pinhorns, 1978. (Family History Library book 942 A1 no. 702, 1978.)
Directories of Noble Families
The various compilations of peerages, baronetages, knights and landed families can be found in any decent public library, although they probably only have the current edition. For older ones consult an older university library, interloan, or the FamilySearch Catalog. Many of them should come with a warning not to believe everything written by the families encompassed therein, as aggrandisement as well as pruning of socially unacceptable branches and twigs is common! Nonetheless, many present-day ‘ordinary’ families have sprung from the younger sons of younger sons within these pages, so it is worth checking for clues. There is genealogical and biographical information not only about the title holders but about the families they married into and about their descendants. The amount of detail differs but most are arranged as a paragraph pedigree (or narrative descent).
- 1673 - An Alphabetical Account of the Nobility and Gentrey Which are (or lately were) related unto the several Counties of England and Wales (1673) online at Google Books - free.
The Complete Peerage aka Cokayne
This is the most reliable source for men who held peerages and was compiled by the meticulous genealogist George Edward Cockayne. Its history is given by Hammond who wrote the addenda, corrigenda and index. Cockayne includes every peer’s birth, parents, marriage, death, burial, probate, honours and offices but nothing about ancestors or descendants who did not have the title.
The Complete Peerage is available online, see: Some Notes on Medieval English Genealogy.
Other works on the peerage, and there are many, contain details about the families but may be biased almanacs of snobbery (Starkey in History Today) containing wishful thinking and errors by the family representative who provided the information, especially in the earlier editions. The most widely known are:
- Burke’s Peerage [and Baronetage], published in 107 editions from 1826 to date, is useful for the genealogist as it gives details of each peer’s coat of arms, ancestors and family, many of whom are commoners at: Burke's Peerage.
- Debrett’s Peerage [and Baronetage], published 1803 to date, is less informative, concentrating on living peers and their descendants and Williamson’s article on Debrett’s Special Packets containing sensitive material concerning noble families, as well as the file of bogus claims.
- Collin’s Peerage of England: Genealogical, Biographical and Historical edited by Brydges in 1812 contains many errors but more details on the younger children of peers. Arthur Collins 4th edition (1768) is online through Thomson Gale or the Internet Archive.
The publications of Burke’s Peerage Limited are widely used sources of information on noble families. Many titles and editions have been published. Many are on film or fiche at the Family History Library and are listed in the Author/Title Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under:
BURKE, SIR JOHN BERNARD
Major publications by Burke’s Peerage Limited are indexed in:
- Burke’s Family Index. London, England: Burke’s Peerage Limited, 1976. (Family History Library book 942 D53b.) This work is available in most major libraries.
Many are also indexed in British and Irish Biographies. (See England Biography.)
Since the peerages are alphabetised by title rather than surname it is difficult to find surnames and associated families. Two good indexes exist, the compilers of Burke’s have produced Burke’s Family Index and F. Leeson (A Directory of British Peerages ) covers all peerage works. There are two works on peerages which have died out, Burke’s Extinct Peerage (1883) and Pine’s New Extinct Peerage 1884-1971.England Genealogy.
The records of peerage creations and related documents are kept at the College of Arms. (See England Heraldry.)
Many family histories have been published about noble families. Use the Surname Search of the FamilySearch Catalog to look for the family name. It is important to use published sources on families with caution because they may contain inaccuracies.
The Family History Library has many records of noble families other than family histories. Look in the Place Search of theFamilySearch Catalog under:
GREAT BRITAIN - NOBILITY
ENGLAND - NOBILITY
ENGLAND, [COUNTY] - NOBILITY
The Complete Baronetage by Cockayne is again the most reliable work but only covers those baronetcies created 1611-1800. Some editions of Burke’s and Debrett’s also include pedigrees of baronets.
- Christensen, Penelope. "England Records of Noble and Armigerous Families (National Institute)," The National Institute for Genealogical Studies (2012), https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/England_Records_of_Noble_and_Armigerous_Families_%28National_Institute%29.