Saturday, 9 March 2013

Tracing family history in England before the 16th century

Guest post by H

Part of the Bayeux Tapestry showing William the Conqueror in the centre with his half brothers - Odo on the left and Robert on the right.
Despite the disruption by sectarian strife, civil war and industrialisation of the past five hundred years, people living in rural England were generally rooted in their communities and family records can be traced through many generations. Parish records of baptisms, marriages and deaths commencing around 1530 have greatly facilitated this. The male line of my own family appears in parish registers over this period, although with large families and the not infrequent practice of baptising children with the same first name, it can be difficult to establish a direct line of succession.
The above information about my own ancestors is supplemented through the family having been lords of the manor in Betchworth; the proceedings of manorial courts conducted there being held in Surrey county records. The manor passed from my family in 1646, perhaps as a consequence of the Civil War.
There are other clues in the village of Betchworth providing evidence of the family's presence in earlier times. The family name (preceded by the suffix 'de' appears in a list displayed in the church as Vicar of Betchworth in 1347. Coincidentally the vicar had the same first name as myself.
via 
St. Michael's, Betchworth
Farmers bearing the family name were subsequently prominent across the meadows at Newdigate, and we believe this may be connected with losing the manor. 
St. Peter's Church, Newdigate - the oak timber framed tower, which houses six bells, has been dated by dendrochronology to 1525  
On visiting Newdigate church we discovered that in 1780 a family member was a church warden and Overseer of the Poor - a role linked to the Poor Law. His memory is perpetuated by his name being engraved on a bell installed in the church tower commemorating his time in office. 
King Richard l - the Lion Heart - statue outside the Houses of Parliament, Westminster, London
In 1198 the family was awarded a charter by King Richard l - Richard the Lion Heart - to establish a mill on the river Mole in that village. This was one year before the King's death in 1199. The mill, which continues in operation to this day, still bears the family name as does the manor referred to above.
So there is evidence that the family resided in the village before the year 1200. But what can we surmise about the history of the family in the generations preceding that date?
In endeavouring to assimilate the historical context I have been working my way through a set of volumes published by The Folio Society on The History of England, and am presently reading M.T.Clanchy's "Early Medieval England". The second half of this book is entitled "The written word in the middle ages" in which the author details the growth of written records and literacy in the two hundred years following the Norman invasion in 1066.
An understanding as to the languages in common use in post invasion England is fundamental to consideration of the written word. In the pre-1066 Anglo Saxon period the indigenous population was speaking in Early English with regional dialects in areas subjected to Danish invasion in the 10th century; but little was written down in this language. Literacy was concentrated in the Church as practised by monks, clerics and scribes, in Latin. English monks, such as Bede in Jarrow, Northumbria, had been recording history in Latin since the 7th century.
However, the Norman invaders spoke French which, of course, became the language of the governing class. King William l - William the Conqueror - divided up the land between his knights, most of whom were illiterate. Charters, writs, title deeds, etc. were prepared by scribes in Latin on their behalf. The best known of these is the Domesday Book, a record of the laws and holdings of land, its inhabitants and their livestock throughout England after the invasion. This was the result of the King's wish "to bring the conquered people under written law" i.e. a transition from memory to written records.
Domesday Book
Despite this milestone in record keeping, according to Clanchy the Domesday Book was for two hundred years made little use of. Taxation and expenditure records and other important documents were moved in chests to wherever the royal court was located. Other records were dispersed around the kingdom, mainly in religious foundations such as abbeys and cathedrals. Although many thousands of charters and writs were issued, for nearly one hundred and fifty years after the invasion no central archive and bureaucracy, as we know it, had evolved.
Page from the Domesday Book showing records relating to the county of Warwickshire
My conclusion from this? The "de" affixed to my family name suggests to me, in view of their local prominence in Surrey during the 13th to 16th centuries, that my ancestors might have been a part of the Norman invasion. The slow growth of efficient record keeping until around 1200 renders it impossible to trace family history preceding this date. The granting of a charter to mill on the river Mole in 1198 is therefore likely to be the earliest written evidence of my family's history.
Note: I am indebted to my eldest son for his research into the male line back to the 16th century.
all images via wikipedia except where stated

37 comments:

  1. Hello "H" and Rosemary, It must be deeply satisfying as well as very interesting to be able to trace your family for so many centuries, and to see how your family has played its important part in that area.

    Given fires, wars, floods, and other vicissitudes of history, it is amazing how much documentary evidence survives. I wonder whether records being created now will be equally accessible 1000 years in the future.
    --Road to Parnassus

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    1. Hello Parnassus. I believe the problem with looking back on our age is the vast amount of information out there now. It seems to me that there is more emphasis now on ephemeral content rather than the more permanent and formal written texts of the past. I just wonder, with the constant advances in technology, whether an awful lot of what we write now will eventually become as obsolete as the devices in which it is recorded.
      The animal skins (vellum) on which text was often recorded a millennium ago has been remarkably durable.
      You have raised an interesting question - H.

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  2. Is fascinating that there are elements for so many years back.It is commendable that many files are preserved and today allow to the younger generations to study them!
    So many generations of history, culture, peace and war!Congratulations to your son !
    Have a nice weekend !
    Olympia

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    1. Hello Olympia. When my son was gathering information about our ancestors I commented that it would be even more interesting if there was an understanding of the historical context in which they lived, and how this might have impacted upon their lives. His reply was 'I agree, Dad. You fill in on the history'.
      This is how the posting came about.
      I'm always delighted upon hearing that a young person is studying history - H.

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  3. I have enjoyed reading "H's" guest post and hope you may be able to tell us more about your family history again. We have been able to trace on part of the family back as far as 1593 and I am impressed that you can trace yours back so far! I have had a post of family history pending for a while! I find it so fascinating in learning about our ancestors lived.
    Sarah x

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    1. Hello Sarah. Glad you enjoyed this, and congratulations on getting so far back yourself. I look forward to your posting when it appears. It is of added interest to discover that an ancestor did something out of the ordinary. Most of my male ancestors were farmers - I was the first to leave the land - H.

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  4. Dear H (and Rosemary),

    I enjoyed this post.
    I have a great interest in the 13th Century and Mr. Clancy is one of my favourite 'modern' writers on those times.
    I have that set of folio books on the Medieval period as well, and find them quite good but not as colourful as Sir Maurice Powicke who wrote in the mid 20th Century.

    One can often find a great deal of information in the primary records of the time. The Close Rolls and the Fine Rolls provide a lot of valuable facts on the period and a good website to 'check out' is the Fine Rolls of Henry III which you can access online at http://www.finerollshenry3.org.uk/index.html
    You may find some information there. It is searchable and the records are translated into English from the original Latin although the Latin is also provided.

    With regard to your view that the 'de' in your family name is an indicator that they may have come over with the Conqueror, I would say 'probably but not certainly'.
    Then as now, 'de' was used to indicate location when describing people of all walks of life and in the period you are investigating, the 'de' was also affixed to landed gentry and their kin: However this did not necessarily indicate a Norman heritage. It could have been due to the fact that the records were being composed by Norman clerks who used 'de' as a matter of form. It could also have been as a result of the family trying to fit in so that the overlords did not look askance at them when it came to inheritance of land: A little bit like those Celts who imitated the Romans.

    A case in point is the de Greystoke family.
    My mother is a descendent of this family and it was always pointed out that Ullswater was named after an Anglo/Saxon/Danish chap named Lulf (I may be spelling this incorrectly) and that he was the founder of the family. They started calling themselves 'de Greystoke' after the conquest and Lulf has come to terms with the Normans. So your direct line male ancestors could have been Normans or upwardly mobile Anglo/Saxons!

    Bye for now

    Kirk

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    1. Hello Kirk. Many thanks for your enlightening comments and for the leads to further research and historical reading.
      I will also pass this on to my son. Your example of Danish passing into everyday language is a reminder of their historical importance - King Cnut springs to mind. Your observation on how the native population may have changed their manner of address to fit in with the invaders is pertinent to the period. It is a reminder that one must be wary of jumping to conclusions - H.

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  5. Some very special pictures and hard research.

    Greetings,
    Filip

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    1. Hello Filip. Yes, the pictures greatly add interest and I'm greatly indebted to Rosemary for researching them. My 'guest' blogs are also the result of her encouragement. I tell her about matters of particular fascination in what I am reading at the time and she replies 'That would make an interesting blog'. I am then trapped!. However, the feedback from fellow bloggers makes the exercise worthwhile - H.

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  6. Dear H,

    It is so interesting to follow the work you and your son have been doing. Geneological work can turn up some interesting surprises, such as when I discovered that my middle name came from my great-great grandmother's employer!

    As one who still enjoys writing letters, I've thought a lot about the ephemeral quality of today's communication, as you and Jim have touched upon. I've never printed and saved a personal email, and I realize that in not doing so, I will not have any record of communication with a growing number of people!

    Best wishes, Mark

    P.S. It's a real treat to view a page from the Doomsday Book!

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    1. Dear Mark. I wonder what the relationship was between your great-great grandmother and her employer? A little piece of history to be unravelled there!
      You have illustrated a real issue as far as emails are concerned; even if you are lazy in deleting them, as I am, when you change computers and the hard drive is wiped the record is destroyed. We may not leave as much about ourselves for the future to draw upon as we imagine - H.
      ps Rosemary was responsible for finding the Domesday page.

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  7. Hello Rosemary!

    This is very interesting! The prefix "de" in Italian surnames (it's the equivalent of "Fitz," "Mc," "Mac")does denoting that the family is of aristocratic descent, but only when the letter "d" is in lower case: "de" as in de Rosa, de Letteris, de Leo (just to mention a few names.

    My maiden name descends from the Roman family "Flavii" (as in Emperor Flavius.) It is also suggested that the surname derives from the Latin word "Flavia" (blond woman) which is quite likely, as my father was blond and there are very blond women in our family!

    I found your post very interesting! I would love to trace the history of my father's family, though we already know a bit, but not enough!

    CIAO!

    ANNA

    xxx

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    1. Rosemary sends her best wishes Anna. Thanks for your explanation of the use of 'de' in Italian surnames. Regretfully, in my family's case the 'de' was dropped several hundred years ago, presumably when it ceased to regard itself as aristocratic! However, I'm pleased to say it was a lower case 'd'.
      You will probably do more work on your father's family in due course - the thought nags away in the back of the mind until a new lead occurs - H.

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  8. I enjoyed your quest post Rosemary. I studied English a long time ago and was taught all about William the Conqueror and the Domesday book. Your post refreshed it all!

    What an interesting family history you have. To have been part of the Norman invasion.....!!!!

    Have a lovely Sunday,

    Madelief x

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    1. Dear Madelief - this post was done by H so handing over to him.................
      Hello Madelief. Norman ancestors? I made a point of this possibility - but over fifty generations it is likely that we are all, in Western Europe anyway, descended from Normans; it is just that we get around to researching only one or two lines of descent. Fitting families into historical events is what appeals to me.
      Glad that reading this has brought back memories of your own studies - H.

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  9. This must be such a great thing, to go and research where your roots lie. Are you from noble descent? Over here if 'de' with lowercase 'd' is the prefix in your familyname, that means you're from noble descent. It is a very rare thing. There are a lot of names that have 'De' with the uppercase 'D' though.
    Marian

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    1. Hello Marian. Tracing back to a Lord of the Manor in the 16th century does not necessarily imply noble descent. Manors often went with land holdings and came into the possession of wealthy merchants. What can give stronger evidence is finding the name linked in records with the ruling classes. For example my son discovered that a person with our name was land agent for the estates in Surrey of Queen Henrietta Marie (wife of England's King Charles I). It is not a common name so linkage with the family seems likely. This raises the possibility of Catholic persuasions and hence decline in the Civil War - H.

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  10. Hello H and Rosemary, that is a long way back to trace one's family. I understand genealogy to time consuming but very worthwhile. Olive

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    1. Hello Olive. Thanks for your comment. 'The proof is in the eating' as the saying goes! I believe genealogy reveals so much about the past that we all find it fascinating. Hence the popularity of TV programmes such as 'Who do you think you are?' It is time consuming though - H.

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  11. Hello H and Rosemary,

    I find the search of family history exciting and interesting, not only for the family itself but for the rest of us, since so much information on history and the everyday life of people before us comes to the light. Also the ways existing to find information, such as church archives, or population counting, amazes me. I have been watching the BBC program some years ago, Who do you think you are?, and recently it's Norwegian version, and loved it! I can't remember any of the guest coming so far back in family history! This is very special!

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    1. Hello Demie - we very much enjoy that programme too, and are always surprised at how much detailed information there is in the archives all over the world.
      It was not so difficult to trace my family because of my unusual surname and also the fact that most of my ancestors were farmers and stayed in the same area - H.

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  12. My cousin in South Africa, has been tracing back to some of our ancestors.
    We are still in the process, having gotten as far back as our great great grandparents. No lords of the manor, one of my great great grandfather's was a 'Sheriff " of the county. We did however have a member of the clergy too who was at one time an archbishop.
    There is a lot of information out there. I would love one day to find out much more about both sides of my family.
    This was most interesting reading Mr. H. I enjoyed it very much. You have found out so much, your son has worked hard too on this.
    I do believe that the younger generation are taking a greater interest about their past than my generation did.
    Thank you for sharing this today.
    Happy Sunday 'H' and Rosemary.
    val

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    1. Dear Val - thank you for your kind comments. You say to have not got far with your research, but you have made a good start and I am impressed with what you have found out.
      I believe you are correct in saying that the younger generation are taking more interest in the past and their roots. May be it is to do with the TV programmes researching celebrities, also to do with the fact that many people now live overseas or far away from home. Technology must also be playing at part in all of this as it makes it easier to do the research - H.

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  13. I always find such interesting posts to read when I call by here Rosemary, this one was fascinating as I spent most of my life living in Surrey and was born in Dorking so know the places your guest poster was talking about and sharing photos of well. Thanks also for your continuing support, we are hoping my husband will be fit enough for a planned operation later this week.

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    1. Hello Lindy - H will respond to this comment, but firstly I just want to say that I hope all goes well for your husband's forthcoming operation - it is a very stressful time, and I send you both my best wishes.

      Dear Lindy - I recall that Rosemary posted some photos of my great grandparents at their public house in Abinger, just along the road from Dorking. When I was a boy I used to visit a great aunt who lived in Dorking - she owned quite a lot of property and when she died all the nephews and nieces enjoyed a sizeable legacy. Dorking museum has a carved oak chair used by my grandmother as a child.
      Thanks for your interest - H.

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  14. Interesting reading, good to know where you came from.

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    1. Yes, H really knows his roots, but we do not have the same knowledge on my side of the family.

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    2. We basically know where my dads family came from to this Island as free settlers, but to find out more it means a trip to Europe :) one day!
      Infact most of my ancestors came out as free settlers. Though down here it's fashionable to have come from convict stock - if you can believe that :)

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    3. It is possible to do quite a lot of your research on the internet - there are many sites as long as you know as much as possible about names, date of birth etc.

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  15. Hello H and Rosemary,
    This was a most fascinating post. So much research and historical content! I've been researching the history of my family for some years now. That is, when I have some spare time.
    I find the times and places in which they lived very interesting. One instance is of an Irish ancestor who died in London, of cholera. From that information, I've learned so much about the conditions in which he lived and the amazing circumstances which led to the establishment of the study of epidemiology. I found much background information on the internet and from reading Stephen Johnson's book "The Ghost Map".
    Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Hello Betty - Glad that you enjoyed the post - you have done very well with your own research, the internet is such a useful tool especially when you are doing the tracing from the other side of the world. I have made a note of the book, and will pass the information on to our eldest son, he may also find it useful. As you have discovered tracing your family can be a way of discovering so many other facets about the past too. Thank you for your comment.

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  16. Fascinating, rosemary. My younger sister is our family historian, but hasn't yet been able to get back further than the middle of the 18th century, probably because our ancestors were Nonconformists and their records are less complete than those of the Church of England. Also our family was working-class on both sides, so no estate or manorial records for us. But she perseveres and I do enjoy sharing her discoveries, just as you share your son's.

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    1. Dear Perpetua - one of the big reasons that the family was fairly easy to research is that we have a very uncommon surname, we never find any others in the telephone directories. H's ancestors were very unadventurous staying in and around that particular part of Surrey. H is one of the first to leave the land and also depart from the area.

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  17. Dear Rosemary and Mr H - thank you for this most interesting post on your family history and it's good to know that your son takes such an interest and also researches the family line. As well as the written records it must be interesting to have names included in places such as the church. Whether your family has lived mainly in one region as is the case with your husband's line, Rosemary, or moved around, finding out more about one's family through research is a satisfying occupation and well worth the time spent on it. Personally, although I knew a lot about both male and female lines there's always more to discover and it has given me an insight into my identity and enhanced my interest in social history. I'm not sure if you have written about your family history, Rosemary. It would be good to hear about your family also.

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    1. Dear Linda - I do not know so much about my family - perhaps our son will do some research when he has time. My paternal grandmother had some vague connections with the Darwin family (Charles) and I did show what is presumed to be the Darwin tobacco jar within the family.
      My maternal grandmother had the surname Jacques, they were Huguenots who came over from Normandy due to persecution and set up the silk mills in Macclesfield and Derby.

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  18. Rosemary - both those connections are very interesting and I'm especially interested in the Huguenots and the silk mills in Derby so I hope you write some more about that sometime.

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