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 Family History Library Catalog under:
ENGLAND, [COUNTY] - VISITATIONS, HERALDIC
There are many publications that can help you trace noble families. The most important are three indexes to published works compiled by Whitmore, Marshall, and Barrow. These books are described in the "Genealogy" section of this outline.
For further information on visitation records, see:
- Squibb, G.D. Visitation Pedigrees and the Genealogist. Revised Edition. London, England: Pinhorns, 1978. (FHL book 942 A1 no. 702, 1978.)
The records of peerage creations and related documents are kept at the College of Arms. (See the "Heraldry" section of this outline.)
Many family histories have been published about noble families. Use the Surname Search of the Family History Library Catalog to look for the family name. It is important to use published sources on families with caution because they may contain inaccuracies.
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 Family History Library 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. (FHL book 942 D53b.) This work is available in most major libraries.
Many are also indexed in British and Irish Biographies. (See the "Biography" section of this outline.)
The Family History Library has many records of noble families other than family histories. Look in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
GREAT BRITAIN - NOBILITY
ENGLAND - NOBILITY
ENGLAND, [COUNTY] - NOBILITY