Author Archives: Susan Morris

Dr Susan Morris is Director of Research at Debrett Ancestry Research Ltd.

English Parish Registers

The recording of what the Americans call ‘vital statistics’ – the bare events of birth, marriage and death or, in the case of parish registers, baptism, marriage and burial – is something we now take for granted. We fret if our ancestors – through negligence, non-conformity, or being in the wrong parish at the wrong time –evaded that official with the quill pen. We might sometimes spare a thought for the men who invented, designed and developed these crucial records, which in themselves are an expression of the close and sometimes bitter relationship between church and state in English history.

Those of us with English ancestry – or whose livelihoods depend upon the discovery of it – have the formidable Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell (ca 1485 to 1540) to thank for the establishment of parish record-keeping so early in our history.

Cromwell’s own family history was startling; he rose to high office from inauspicious origins. His father Walter Cromwell, a clothier and blacksmith of Putney, was a heavy drinker who owned his own brewery and inn. Walter was frequently summoned to the manorial court for misdemeanours and he was eventually evicted from his property after being convicted of fraudulently altering tenancy documents.

By the 1530s, self-educated, well-travelled and full of religious zeal, his son Thomas Cromwell had established himself first as right hand man to Cardinal Wolsey and then to King Henry VIII himself. The story of his extraordinary career has enjoyed a recent revival through the award-winning novels by Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (the trilogy will be completed by the yet-to-be-published The Mirror and the Light) and he is soon to take the stage in a double Royal Shakespeare production based on Mantel’s novels, which will run concurrently with a BBC drama series in which Mark Rylance plays the great statesman.

Sir Thomas Cromwell (Wenceslas Hollar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sir Thomas Cromwell (Wenceslas Hollar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1535, having engineered the King’s position as supreme head of the English church, of which he was now Vicar-General, Cromwell turned upon the church his unique combination of religious and administrative zeal. The Valor Ecclesiasticus, a national census of church lands and wealth, was completed within a year, a bureaucratic masterpiece. At the same time he was determined that every parish church in the land should have a copy of the Bible in English, and this was for the good of the soul, not the royal powerhouse or coffers. Indeed, Cromwell contributed handsomely from his own purse towards the publication of Coverdale’s English Bible.

Those on the receiving end of Cromwell’s enthusiasm found it difficult to separate the religious from the bureaucratic. When his order went out, in September 1538, that every parish priest should keep a weekly record of ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’, many parishes ignored it, risking the fine of 3s 4d; they suspected, with traditional English cynicism, that something more sinister than historical record-keeping was afoot. Anger at the suppression of the monasteries was mingled with fear that the state might have similar designs on parish churches. At the very least, it seemed more than likely that this amassing of personal data was the prelude for some new tax.

The original order, which was to create for England an unprecedented wealth of information about families from the humblest to the highest, was to:

‘Keep one book or register, wherein ye shall write the day and year of every wedding, christening, and burying, made within your parish for your time.’

The book was to be kept secure in the parish chest with keys held by the incumbent and the churchwardens.

geograph-550586-by-Bob-Embleton parish chest

16th century parish chest at St Mary, Kempley, Gloucestershire: © Copyright Bob Embleton and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

Such was the lack of clerical enthusiasm that a second decree had to be passed in 1547, this time adding the stipulation that the fine should benefit the poor, for Cromwell was also concerned with social reform, and his Poor Relief legislation of 1536 was the first attempt of the state to address poverty on a parochial basis.

On 18 April 1540 Cromwell, who had already been elevated to the peerage, was created Earl of Essex; but his fortunes were already on a grim and downward path.  His reforming zeal had far overtaken that of his King; his involvement in the fiasco of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves had lost him the monarch’s trust; and in Tudor politics there were few exits from such high public office that were not bloody and brutal.  On 28 July 1540 the newly created Earl walked to the scaffold, charged with heresy and treason, and suffered a particularly gruelling execution.[1]  He left his King and country many legacies; but for the genealogist, those yellowing register books in the parish chest were among the most precious.



[1] Howard Leithead, ‘Cromwell, Thomas, earl of Essex (b. in or before 1485, d. 1540)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009.

 

 

 

Female Ancestry: Following the Maternal Path

The vast majority of our clients want us to concentrate on their paternal ancestry, which is understandable as this is the traditional way in which we view our family history in Britain. Looking from the child to its father, and then to its father’s father, is deeply engrained in our sense of self. The transfer of material wealth and reputation has followed the same paths through the ages, tagged with the father’s name alone. Many early parish register entries do not even bother to record the name of the mother of a child at baptism. (Some of our clients follow the same tradition with their starting information…)

Very occasionally, however – perhaps once among a thousand clients – someone wants to look at their ancestry from a different angle: to follow the thread back not from son to father but from daughter to mother, and this matrilineal approach makes a refreshing change. If we are interested from a biological point of view in how we became what we are, researching our female ancestry is no less logical than chasing a surname through the ages.

In traditional English families, maternal surnames are quite often preserved as middle names: we find this in all classes, but particularly where money or property entered the family via a wife. These are of course helpful clues for the genealogist. In extreme cases – among the wealthy – this gratitude was expressed (or demanded) by abandoning one’s paternal surname in favour of that of a generous female relative; or by hitching the two names together with a hyphen.

The Scottish tradition among women of never quite abandoning their maiden name after marriage, but preserving it as an alternative or middle name, is always a welcome sight. It reflects traditional practice in societies such as Iceland, where identity focuses on the given name, although surnames still refer to the father, not the mother. (An Icelandic surname is likely to refer to the father’s given name, as in early Welsh naming patterns.) Icelandic telephone directories are arranged not by surname but by given name.

In general (but few generalities in genealogy are safe), following the female line is more challenging. When concentrating on a single surname we can make blanket searches of records, sifting out all possible references to a family; and if we hit a difficulty, there are fewer clues to guide us out of it. If a marriage was not recorded, or perhaps just did not take place, we can get completely stuck.

On the positive side, however, as a client recently pointed out, the genealogy is likely to be more watertight: it is difficult to wrongly identify the mother of a newborn baby, but how many birth certificates or baptismal records do not accurately name the true father? Now that DNA tests have become more accessible, we may be about to find out.

Following the female path is the more adventurous option: a female line is more likely to take you farther afield, to a new area or even a new country. Genealogy is always full of surprises, but by leaping at each step to a new surname, who knows what you may find?

Click on the link to see one we did earlier:
A matrilineal pedigree

In praise of books

Like many other areas of life, genealogy has become heavily internet-dependent, which on the whole has been a welcome boost for both the professional and the amateur genealogist.

Here at Debrett we are still nevertheless surrounded by walls full of books, many of which inspire our affection as well as our respect.

We are therefore flying our small flag here for the printed word, and will be highlighting volumes that might be of interest to others in the field.

First in the list is an old favourite:


Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates (16th edition, 1878)

Haydn on shelf compressed

The full title of this magnificent volume describes itself with full-blown Victorian confidence as a Dictionary of Dates and Universal Information relating to all ages and nations, containing the history of the world to the autumn of 1878.  Running to 870 closely-printed pages, this was the Google of the day, whose articles range from lengthy potted histories of nations to brief one-liners explaining an obscure term or announcing a scientific discovery.

Handling this volume is a pleasure in itself; our office edition of 1878 (bought for 10 shillings by the late genealogist Frank Leeson, whose library we acquired in 1986) is quarter-leather bound, much used but still perfectly serviceable.

Many articles are still valuable to the researcher: for example, Theatres in England presents a calendar of theatre history from 1574 onwards, not just in London but (straying a little from its title) also in Dublin and Edinburgh.  The death dates of writers, managers and actors are noted, as were notable incidents: the 18 persons trampled to death at Sadler’s Wells in 1807 on a false alarm of fire; the man killed by a lion at Astley’s Amphitheatre in 1861; the appearance of a Japanese troupe at the Lyceum in 1868.

There are many legal articles of value to the genealogist; as well as pithy definitions of obsolete legal terms and explanations of specific Acts, we peer into numerous dark corners such as the Hanaper Office, the Tubman and the Postman of the ancient court of Chancery.

Politically correct it is not: an alarming number of beliefs are consigned to the article Imposters and in the section on Mormonites the author notes that ‘Missionaries are propagating these doctrines in Europe with more success than would be expected’.  As the very first page of the book announces, this is a dictionary of ‘remarkable occurrences, ancient and modern…. PARTICULARLY OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE’.

The real charm of this book, however, is how the eye will stray from the sought article to unexpected  nuggets: where else would we (accidentally) learn that ‘Bibliomania (or book madness) very much prevailed in 1811’ or that the word stationer derives from the early practice of booksellers of having stalls at the corners of street and in markets?  All this while seeking an article on Mortality rates (see Bills of)…

So who was Haydn?  The author of the 16th edition was actually Benjamin Vincent, librarian of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.   Joseph Haydn (died 1856) was the compiler of the first edition, published in 1841, and we must let him have the last word:

The design of the Author has been to attempt the compression of the greatest body of general information that has ever appeared in a single volume, and to produce a Book of Reference whose extensive usefulness may render its possession material to every individual…

(Preface, 1st edition: London, May 1841)

Quite so: every home should have one.