England Records of Noble and Armigerous Families (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

College of Arms/Heralds[edit | edit source]

The authority for granting and use of personal (coats of) arms are the Kings of Arms, who are part of the Royal Household. They are located at the College of Arms, (aka Heralds College or College of Heralds) in Queen Victoria Street, London. The college is a corporation of 13 members:

  • Three Kings of Arms – Garter Principal, Clarenceux and Norroy and Ulster
  • Six Heralds – Lancaster, Chester, York, Richmond, Windsor and Somerset
  • Four Pursuivants – Rouge Croix, Bluemantle, Portcullis and Rouge Dragon

The College has a vast collection of historical books and documents as well as their own records of descent and grants of arms (Wagner 1952, Dickinson). The collection includes English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish works as well as much from North America, having been the recipient of the literary estates of many eminent genealogists. The library is a private one not open to the public but the officers of arms will search the records for a (large) fee. However, many of their books are available elsewhere and are on film through the Family History Library, and the College is actively publishing their own records through the Harleian Society.

Visitations[edit | edit source]

The most useful publication from the College of Arms has been the series of 117 16th-17th century visitations of the counties. These were undertaken by the heralds at 20-30-year intervals between about 1530 and 1686 in order to record the use of coats of arms. The right to bear such arms may have come because his ancestors had used them since before grants were issued, or by grant from the college. Prior to each visitation the county sheriffs compiled lists of nobles who then had to appear before the heralds to show the arms they were using and their justification for so doing. The submissions obviously contained genealogical information, which may have been documented in family archives, by monuments in the local church, or simply by oral tradition. In the visitations each family’s coat of arms is described and at least three generations showing the right to bear those arms given. There is usually detail on each man’s wife and children and on collateral lines. It is now considered that many are faulty, but even so they constitute a source that cannot be neglected and will likely be most useful.

Some men failed to prove their claim, and others made no claim to arms; records of both types are labelled disclaimers. Most, is not all, of the records of the visitations are printed and on microfilm, and a comprehensive catalogue of them plus all other relevant published material, together with indexes to the pedigrees and coats of arms, has been produced by Cecil R. Humphery-Smith (Armigerous Ancestors and Those Who Weren’t; a Catalogue of Visitation Records Together with an Index of Pedigrees, Arms and Disclaimers ). In addition, visitations of several counties are available online in several places such as Ancestry and Medieval Genealogy and on CD at ArchiveCD books.

Directories of Noble Families[edit | edit source]

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).

Peerage[edit | edit source]

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.

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.

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.

Baronetage[edit | edit source]

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.

Gentry[edit | edit source]

Burke’s first published A Genealogical and Heraldic History of Commoners in 1833-1837. The later editions to 1965 used the term Landed Gentry, and a few editions have the surnames indexed in Burke’s Family Index. Other works which include untitled families include Walford’s County Families and Kelly’s Handbook to the Titled, Landed and Official Classes, the 1901 edition of this is on the National Archivist site.

The family historian should have access to the four major finding aids for British and English pedigrees in print:

  • Ÿ Marshall’s Genealogist’s Guide lists those to 1902.
  • Ÿ Whitmore’s Genealogical Guide updates it to 1953.
  • Ÿ Thomsen’s A Catalogue of British Family Histories (1976)
  • Ÿ Barrow’s 1977 Genealogist’s Guide.

Armigers[edit | edit source]

Burke’s General Armory published from 1842-1884, with corrections noted by Humphery-Smith, describes the coats of arms belonging to different people.Papworth’s Ordinary of British Armorials is a standard source for identifying the person to whom a coat of arms belongs. It is organized alphabetically by the charges featured on the shields, thus you first need to consult an heraldic text to be able to blazon (describe) the coat of arms.

Crests were very popular additions to coats of arms and were sometimes used separately, for example on china or letterhead. They can be identified by referring to Fairbairn’s Crests.

Further information on the College of Arms can be found of this website and they started an email newsletter in May 2004. Those using the FamilySearch Catalog will find many sources for England and Great Britain underBIOGRAPHY; HERALDRY; GENEALOGY - NOBILITY; KINGS and RULERS - GENEALOGY; NOBILITY; and VISITATIONS.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.