(I include this short article by Lieut Col. Fishwick (1835-1914) as a salutary tale regarding the idea that old records are necessarily to be relied on. The gentry and aristocracy interviewed by the Heralds had every reason to exagerate or prevaricate in order to protect, as they saw it, ancient rights to titles or honours whether they were entitled to them or not. Col. Fishwick was an active parish register transcriber for the Lancashire Parish Register Society from its inception in the 1890s and was for a time the President.)

THE Heralds’ Visitations did not begin until 20 Henry VIII. [1528-9], when Thomas Benoit, Clarenceux King of Arms, received a royal commission, empowering him to visit Gloucester, Worcester, and other counties.  These visitations were continued with more or less regularity until 1686, when the power of the Earl Marshall’s Court ceased, owing to there being no constable in England.  After this the visitations were never resumed.  At these visitations it was the duty of the Herald to note the descents and pedigrees of the nobility and gentry, and to “reprove, controll, & make infamous by Proclamation all such as unlawfully & without just authoritie, vocatyon, or due calling doe or have done or shall usurpe or take unto himself or themselves any name or tytle of honour or dygnitye as Esqr or Gentleman or other ” and in some cases (if not in all) they gave instructions that those who did not record their descent nor bore arms “and yet before tyme had called & written themselves gentlemen" were to be “disclaymed in the chiefe places of the Hundred wherein they dwelt”

The Lancashire Visitations were four, viz., Thomas Benoit’s or Benalt’s, 1533; William Flower’s, 1567; Richard St. George’s, 1613; and Sir William Dugdale’s, 1664-5.  The first visitation was made at a time when the King was struggling with the Pope for religious supremacy, and in some parts of the country a feeling in favour of the reformers was springing up, which was by no means echoed in Lancashire, and consequently the Herald, though armed with a royal warrant, was but coldly received, some families refusing even to speak with him, whilst others having granted an audience dismissed him “with the utmost rudeness;” (note 1) the result being that only forty-seven families entered their descents, and those furnished very brief particulars beyond their armorial bearings.

When next the Heralds visited the county, Elizabeth had been nearly ten years on the throne, and the people of Lancashire, being mostly Roman Catholics and Puritans, had become specially marked for persecution.  At one assizes at Lancaster it is recorded there were six hundred recusants presented, and the prisons were full (note 2) yet for all this one hundred and twenty-eight families were found who wished to record their arms and pedigrees.  On the occasion of Richard St. George’s visitation, in 1613, only one hundred and twenty-one entered their pedigrees.  The last visitation as before stated was made in 1664-5, by Sir William Dugdale, who came to Lancashire accompanied by Gregory King (afterwards Rouge Dragon), and arrived at Manchester on 8th September, where he stayed three days; thence proceeding to Blackburn, where he remained two days; afterwards going to Garstang, Lancaster, Preston, Ormskirk, and Knowsley.  His work, however, not being completed, he returned in the following spring.  The number of families whose descent he recorded is three hundred and seven, which number would have been greatly increased but for the strong disfavour shown by the Heralds to Puritans and those who had sided in the recent struggle against the King.

Thanks to the Chetham Society, all these visitations have been printed.  The heraldic information contained in them is of extreme and ever-increasing value, but the genealogical details, though entitled to respect, must be received with great caution.  The pedigrees for the most part are meagre in detail, are frequently inaccurate as to facts, and often exhibit a development of a faith which might have “removed mountains.”  It never seems to have occurred to Heralds’ minds that it was at least singular that a man could not tell his grandmother or mother’s maiden name, and yet could with perfect ease give the names of a long string of ancestors.

The visitation of 1533 is almost confined to a short notice of the family then living, and the information was received sometimes from the head of the family direct and sometimes from other sources, many families declining to furnish even these particulars.  Sir John Townley refused to tell the name of his first wife, and asserted that there were no gentlemen in Lancashire but Lord Derby and Lord Mountegle.  Robert Holt, of Stubbley, married an old woman, and would not have her name entered.  Gerrard, of Bryn, would not even be spoken to; but others gave more or less particulars of their families, but none of them gave the date of birth, death, or marriage.

The other visitations were much fuller in details, but much less trustworthy, and they often do not agree with each other, or with the first visitation.  For example, in 1533 William More, of Banckehowse, has seven sons and two daughters; in 1567 six of the sons are omitted.  In the pedigree of Halsall, of Halsall, in 1567, Otto Halsall is made the son of Gilbert and grandson of Gilbert, whilst in 1613 Otto is the grandson of Richard.

In 1567, Thomas Clyfton, of Clifton, has a brother William and a sister Helene; the next visitation omits them both.  His grandson Thomas, in 1613, fares even worse, as he is credited with four brothers and four sisters in 1615, who are entirely ignored by Dugdale, as is also his wife.  Instances like these are of very frequent occurrence, more serious defect is the almost entire absence or dates and places.  It is easy to see that at a time when the church was Protestant, and many of the gentry were or had been recusants, the parish register would to a certain extent be inaccessible to them; and we have it on record that during the reign of Elizabeth, marriages were celebrated “in holes and corners by seminary priests.”  Yet, for all this, it might have been expected that a reasonable number of dates would have been forthcoming.  The first visitation gives no dates of either births, deaths, or marriages, the next furnishes scarcely any, and the two last only give them sparingly, but they do supply one chronological fact and this is the age of the heir apparent, or of the member of the family recording the pedigree, and sometimes both.  But how little trouble it would have been to the Herald or the man who entered the pedigree to have added when and where a few of the family were born, married, and buried, and of how great a value it would have added to the record.

As to the inaccuracies and blunders, their name:is legion.  But instead of generalizing I will point out a few which I can prove.  Take the Dugdale pedigree of Ambrose of Lowick.  In the first generation recorded, Henry Ambrose died in 1555-6, and not about 1568; his wife’s name was Margaret (Dugdale gives no name).  Second generation James died 1592-3, not about 1580; his wife s name was Alice, not Margaret, and he had two sisters not named in the pedigree.  Third generation, John Ambrose, instead of dying about 1637, died in 1607, and his wife’s name was Elizabeth, not Dorothy.

Fleetwood, of Rossall, in 1613; Thomas, who died 1570, is put down as the father of six children, whilst in fact he had eighteen, several of whom in 1613 were living.  The pedigree of Shaw, of Bullhaghe, stops at Robert Shaw, Clerk, yet in year 1664-5 he had living two or three sons and two or more grandchildren, and had then been twice married.  Richard Asheton, of Middleton, in 1533, is said to have seven sons and one daughter, whilst Dugdale only records one son.

A singular inaccuracy occurs in the pedigree of Sir Richard Houghton, who, by Benoit, is said to have issue a daughter Katherine, who was married to Sir Thomas Gerard, the fact being that it was his son Thomas who had married Katherine, the daughter of Sir Thomas Gerard.  Perhaps the Herald took little pains to ascertain particulars of either of these families, as of Sir Richard Houghton he says that he “gave me nothing, nor made me good chere, but gave me proude words;” and of Gerard, that he wold not be spoken withall.”

In the 1613 visitation Robert Singleton, of Brockhall, entered his pedigree of eight generations, the whole being without a date or the name of a single female, each generation consisting of one name.  Tyldesley of Tyldesley, records thirteen generations, going back to 1281; but neither the family nor the Herald troubled about such trifling matters as places and dates, and mothers, brothers, and sisters.  Birtwesell, of Huncot Hall, enters a pedigree in 1567 of seven generations, and not one single date is given.

It may well be asked, if these visitations are as I have described them, of what use are they to the genealogical student.  To this I reply that, notwithstanding all their shortcomings and faults of omission and commission, their value is great, but the pedigrees must be looked on as tentative, and, to a certain extent, improved rather than regarded as pedigrees which have stood the test of that strict and impartial investigation which modern research demands.

The fact is, the vast amount of genealogical records which have of late years become available no longer render it possible to palm off fictitious pedigrees, and the time has passed when a family tree, neatly engrossed on parchment, and showing an unbroken descent for centuries, does more than create a smile of doubt or derision unless such pedigrees are accompanied with absolute and undeniable proofs.  Genealogy must take its place amongst the exact sciences, and pedigrees, whether recorded by Heralds, or compiled by “the families themselves,” must be considered as utterly worthless unless each link has been subjected to
the test of proof.

Of course it by no means follows as a natural sequence that pedigrees given to the Heralds, without dates, are necessarily incorrect; they may have been carefully drawn out by skilful antiquaries of that time, and each link proved by then-existing documents, but in the absence of such documents we can scarcely accept them as proved.

Another remarkable feature about these visitations is the number of families omitted which were undoubtedly entitled to arms and to rank amongst the gentry such for example, as the Carletons, of Carleton.  Notwithstanding, however, all that may be urged against the work done by the Heralds, we must acknowledge that they laboured under very great difficulties-where they might have expected help they found hindrances placed in their way, and it could be no pleasant task to come into the wilds of Lancashire and try to compel a more or less unwilling gentry to record their descent; and it must not be overlooked that the gentry of that day were not men who would find a pleasure in poring over musty parchments and parish registers, and that, all the circumstances of the case considered, our wonder should be not that the visitations contain so many errors, but that they contain so few.

Footnote 1: Bibliothecha Heraldica page 582

Footnote 2: Hollingworth’s Mancuniensis


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