Tracing Medieval Ancestors

Withycombe church, effigy possibly Lucy Meriet

Tracing Medieval Ancestors
If you have been lucky enough to trace your ancestors back to the earliest surviving parish registers you may think you are now stuck or decide that it is too difficult to go further but that is not true. Researching family history earlier is not easy but it is not impossible. If you have been reading 16th and 17th century parish registers then you are quite capable of learning to read earlier hands. Start with what you know and work back. Latin can be learned there are useful online tutorials provided by the TNA for example and some Universities and record offices run courses in both Latin and Palaeography. No one is too old to learn anything. Just because you left school decades ago does not mean your education is finished. Far from it. Learning new skills is good for the brain. So assuming you are confident enough to try where next.
If you are descended from landholding families your job is of course much easier and many sources are in print and in English translation. I don’t mean printed pedigrees, useful although they are, they must be treated with caution, Debrett and Burke relied on Information supplied by families themselves unchecked and frequently in error. Also to be treated with caution are the printed heraldic pedigrees. They are useful for generations within living memory only. However the wealth of medieval records in print will lead you in the right direction. One of the most valuable is the Will, these go back to 14th century nationally and locally, except of course in my own county of Somerset where the probate records were destroyed in WWII at Exeter where they were removed for safety. However there are many among the nationally preserved Canterbury-proved wills such as this by Sir Giles Daubeny in 1400. Other important printed records are the Inquisitions Post Mortem and Proofs of Age. These were inquiries concerning the estates of deceased landholders and their heirs and often give useful Information on the relationships and ages of family members and in the case of the latter tell us about other people who were present at the birth or christening of the heir 21 years earlier. The Charter, Close and Patent Rolls provide details of royal grants and gifts, sales of land or permission to buy and sell, wardship and marriage; the Fine Rolls give deaths of many landholders, and the Books of Fees and Feudal Aids record lords of manors often stating their predecessors. You will find these volumes in your local record office or studies library as well as in University and other major libraries. Information on many can be found on line.

When you have run out of the national printed records there will still be local sources to explore and now we can also include lesser mortals. If your ancestors were farmers in the 16th and 17th centuries then explore the wealth of estate and parish records in the relevant record office to see if you can find them. Farmers were usually freeholders, life leaseholders or copyholders, that is they held their farms and cottages of the manor for lives and a copy of the entry in the manor court record was their title to the property. Only from the late 18th century did leases for fixed terms at a market rent, known as rack-renting, become common and then only for large farms. Until then property was held for life or lives, the main outlay was the purchase of the property, lease or copy and therefore it was in no-one’s interest to move. Farmers more than any other group in society stayed put and there is a good chance that a farm remained in the same family for generations if not centuries. Similarly if your ancestors were millers, smiths, wheelwrights or similar needing specialised buildings and a capital investment in equipment they would also be likely to stay in the same area passing on the mill, forge or workshop down the family. Even cottagers, if they had steady employment and occupied their own copyhold or leasehold cottage would be reluctant to move during the duration of a 99-year lease. If they did they would have to find a large sum of money for a new lease or copy or pay a high market rent for a sub lease compared with the nominal 3d or 6d a year they currently paid. Your aim therefore is to find out in which parish and manor your ancestors lived and worked. Armed with this Information you are ready to move back in time.

Your first port of call if you find yourself looking at a parish covered by the VCH is to look up the relevant volume in the library or on-line. Even if your ancestors are not mentioned the footnotes will give many useful sources printed and manuscript for you to follow up just as you did when looking at later records. Those counties with an active VCH staff will have a substantial archive of research notes, which can often be seen by appointment and will include notes of thousands of records for areas whose histories have not yet been published. Another valuable source, again in print and with the hard work done for you, is the output of the local record society whose volumes may include transcripts of wills, estate documents, parish records, family papers, early maps, business records, legal records, diocesan records and tax records whose copious indexes will provide Information on people in the county or parish which interests you. One or two examples to be found in many counties are feet of fines and monastic cartularies. Both of which may contain a lot of genealogical Information. For example a foot of fine, the court copy of a land transaction, although primarily concerned with the landholding parties to the transaction may refer to the tenants on the land as the Swineherd family of Curry Rivel in a document from 1389. Monastic charters also tell us a great deal about the families of benefactors and also of their tenants and occasionally their servants as in a 12th-century charter to Montacute priory in Somerset. Articles in publications of local history societies such as county archaeological societies, building research groups, notes and queries journals and record office newsletters are also very useful although not all have cumulative indexes. Even if your ancestors were landless and unskilled they may turn up in the legal records as offenders from thieves to parents of illegitimate children or in the diocesan court records as non-attenders at church or adulterers or in the parish records as recipients of alms and poor relief.

Which brings us to original records. Where to begin? Well clearly at the record office where you last saw your ancestors. If they were there in the early 19th century and you have not already done so find them on the tithe award and if they were holders or main tenants of farms or smallholdings trace them back through the land taxes and ratebooks for the relevant parish. If they were there in the 1840 tithe award and in the land tax of 1760 or earlier you have a good chance of tracking them back. Here a search of the relevant estate records is essential. If it is not obvious where to look most record offices have personal name indexes and often have many catalogues on line, which you can search. Don’t just search for the family surnames which interest you, after all you may have already done this and as you go back you will discover that surnames are less rigid than today and members of the same family will have many different ones, look for the names of their landlords. They will be found in the VCH, if that covers the area. Remember the records you will now be looking at will contain thousands of names, which will not appear individually in print or in a catalogue. You are going to have to spend a lot of time carefully reading through account books and other records.

You have searched the parish registers but have you looked at the records of the overseers of the poor, highway surveyors or churchwardens. The last, in fortunate parishes, begin in the Middle Ages. Many early ones are in print in local record society volumes. They detail payments for burial and for seats in church, record gifts to the church, obits or anniversaries of deceased parishioners often paid for by their families, craftsmen working on the church and alms to the poor. At Croscombe in Somerset in 1478 Walter Mayow and his wife Joan gave land to the church. A few fortunate parishes still have a bederoll, which is the list of people to be prayed for at mass because of their gifts to the church. For example at Morebath in Devon the bederoll records in 1526 gifts by John Holcum and his children John the eldest, Thomas and Joan. Diocesan records, and University records in Oxford and Cambridge, also date back to the Middle Ages although survival is often poor. The court records of these institutions used the civil rather than the common law. That means that witnesses provide written depositions, which begin with a potted biography of the witness, Age, occupation, where born, how long they have lived in the parish and where they lived before. Similar Information is found in 17th century poor-law records about those applying for poor relief.

If you know where your ancestors lived in the 16th and 17th centuries then look for the estate and manor records of that parish. If you are lucky you then have a good chance of tracking them back. What sorts of records are there? Normally deeds, rentals and surveys, court rolls and compoti or accounts. Remember that as with the major landholders, land was a family affair for almost the whole of society and before the 16th century surnames were not fixed. These two conditions dictated that more detail was given in records of land than would be the case today. Take deeds. One example would be the common lease for lives. The landlord may state in his description of himself that he is the son and heir of his father as evidence of his right to make the lease. He may name his wife if she shares the estate with him, he may state he holds the property in her right, that is that it is property she has inherited. Sometimes a son may be named if he has already obtained an interest in the land. The lessee will also be named and commonly in the Middle Ages his wife and a child, or two children, or other relatives on whose lives the lease is being granted. If the lease is in reversion, that is, granted in advance before the end of an existing lease, the current lessees will be named. It is also customary in medieval deeds, and much later on some traditional estates, to name previous owners and occupiers of the property, and often the previous owners and occupiers of the neighbouring ones in the case of houses on a street for example. Some deeds are not mere conveyances but are settlements. In such cases provision is made for the death of the owner and his or her immediate heir with a series of what are legally termed remainders. For example John Smith settles his farm on his wife Ellen for life and then on his eldest son John. He states that if John dies before Ellen or dies without issue (children, grandchildren etc) the farm will go to the younger John’s brother Thomas, if he dies without issue, to the next brother George and if he dies without issue to their sister Margaret. If all the elder John’s children died without issue then the farm is to go to his sister Joan and her children etc. Such arrangements are common, especially among freeholders of small estates, anxious to keep the property in the family whatever happens and you may find up to a dozen relatives named in this way.

Deeds are also very important in establishing relationships between siblings with different surnames. Medieval surnames were not rigid, many women of rank did not change their names on marriage and might pass their name to some of their children and many families used several surnames. Take the case of a medieval husband and wife each heir to an estate and with two sons. Unlike the practice in the 18th and 19th centuries it would be unacceptable to the medieval mind that one son should have both. Each would usually take the estate and name of one parent. So for example in the 1320s Sir Theobald Russell married Eleanor Gorges both heirs to important landholding families in the west of England. He died young leaving Eleanor to bring up several infants and manage two estates. Her son Ralph took the name Russell and became his father’s heir and her other son Theobald was her heir and took the name Gorges. Similarly medieval people used patronymics and matronymics, especially in Wales, occupational surnames and also referred to themselves as of their place of residence or birth. A man might be variously known as John the smith, John at Townsend (where he lived), John of London (where he came from), or John Dame Alice’s son, probably because his mother was a widow of some standing locally.

One of the most valuable estate records for genealogists is the full manorial survey. This not only details each holding and cottage on the manor but also details of the tenants, some give ages, many give marginal notes of when tenancies began, new leases or copies were made, added lives, dates of deaths, previous tenants etc. Information on previous tenants, as in deeds, enables you to go back to an earlier document with confidence. Information on rents and other dues for the property provides a check that you have the right land or house. A 1605 survey for Wells corporation shows deaths and ages of tenants, new leases and note lives that were not even from Somerset. In the Middle Ages extents, that is detailed surveys of manors, often give details of tenants with labour services and rents and often information about previous owners and their relationship if any to the current tenant. Medieval surveys often show details of family relationships and include even landless cottagers. Even a simple rental contains clues especially where later alterations have been made showing where widows have replaced their husbands or a son has succeeded a parent.

Court rolls contain a wealth of Information on the local community and hundreds of names including the list of jurors, those who failed to turn up, those who offended against the manor, allowed animals to stray or overcharged for food and drink, some courts dealt with offences such as theft and most dealt with disputes between tenants. From the genealogists viewpoint most valuable are the notifications of deaths of tenants, the swearing of fealty by heirs to freeholds and the admission to and surrender of copyholds, that is taking or giving up a tenancy with the tenant receiving a copy of the entry in the court roll as their deed of title hence the term copyhold. Sometimes elderly parents would surrender their copyhold in favour of their children in return for board and lodging or a man getting married would give up his tenancy in favour of his wife and any children they might have.

As landholding was very much a family affair in the Middle Ages the legal records of the various courts local and national are invaluable. Among the pleas to the crown heard at local assizes are cases of novel disseisin or morte d’ancestor – writs claiming property. Some of these have been printed by Record Societies. Often the parties are distant relatives of the deceased and are at pains to explain their relationships and even detail the deceased’s parentage to establish their respective claims to the property. Estate and family collections may contain other documents such as letters, which cast light on family relationships or accounts and commonplace books, which may record births and deaths. A few private families had their own cartularies, collections of deeds to their estates. Wealthy Somerset landowner Robert Hill kept such a book and including a memo of how he came to inherit the manor of Edington based upon his charters which he also transcribed. This provides much family information and in this case based not on a dubious pedigree, as he came into much of his property through his wife, but on information from documents.

This is necessarily only a brief survey of the wealth of materials worth exploring. Many of the sources listed in the learning section of this website for place history are also useful for a study of family history.