Regnal years

If you’ve looked at legal documents or official government documents from previous centuries you probably noticed the use of regnal years instead of the usual calendar system.

Regnal years work like this: the month and day of the month are just as we use them, so this post is publishing on 1st August. However, instead of the year 2022, we write the year of the monarch’s reign. So today is 1st August 71 Elizabeth 2. In other words, 1st August in the 71st year of the Reign of Elizabeth II. Elizabeth’s reign commenced on 6th February 1952, so that’s the date her regnal year changes, hence 5th February of this year was 5th February 70 Elizabeth 2, and the following day was 6th February 71 Elizabeth 2.

Fortunately we no longer use this system, but believe it or not, its use in parliamentary documents was not brought to an end until 1962! (Acts of Parliament Numbering and Citation Act 1962)

Here’s a seventeenth century example from my own research:

Text of legal document written in Secretary Hand from the year 1689.
Memorand[um] that the first day of May in the first yeare of the Raigne of our Sovaryne Lord and
Lady William and Mary by the grace of god over England Scotland France and Ireland King & Queene
defenders of the Faith I John Lucas of great Woodhouse in the County of yorke Clothier and Anne […]
Click this image for a bigger view.

Obviously there is a problem with all this: we have to know the date of accession of the named monarch. To help with this here’s a handy Regnal Calendar Table. Scroll down a little to the second section.

Working with my example above, we can see that William and Mary reigned together for six years. They acceded to the throne on 13th February 1689, so this is the date on which each new regnal year will start. The last day of their reign was 27th December 1694, and the reign of the following monarch, William III (this is the same William, following Mary’s death) commences the following day: 28th December 1694. This will be the date each new year of his reign commences.

If you get your genealogy research back as far as the very end of the 12th century you’re in for a special treat: King John’s regnal year was based on the date of his coronation rather than his accession. However, his coronation took place on Ascension Day – a moveable feast. Go back to the Regnal Calendar link and this time scroll down to the notes at the bottom. There, you’ll find a list of the commencement dates of the eighteen years of John’s reign. You’ll see, for example, that Year 3 commenced on 3 May 1201, while Year 4 started 23 May 1202. In other words, the regnal year John 3 had two x 3rd May, two x 4th May, and so on, right up until two x 22nd May. (Horrors!)

In my own example, the calculation is very easy: the document was written on the first day of May in the first year of William and Mary’s reign, so 1st May 1689. However, even setting aside King John, it isn’t always that easy; and since a long reign can involve a bit of mental gymnastics, you can find Regnal Years Calculators like this one online. If you input ‘William and Mary’, the ‘1st of May’, and year of reign ‘1’, you’ll be told that these monarchs reigned from 13 February 1689 to 27 December 1694, and the year of your query is 1689 AD. [Note: the Wikipedia entry gives an explanatory note about the transition from William & Mary to just William. Some sources state that William continued using the same regnal years as previously; others say not.]

We now have another complicating factor to throw into the mix, and one with which I know most of you will be very familiar. Prior to 1751-1752, the Christian year began on 25th March, this being the Feast of the Annunciation. Until then, this was the changeover date for the new year in all parish records. So 24th March 1688 was followed by 25th March 1689. For clarification, historians and genealogists use ‘double-dating’ for the days prior to 25th March in each year, and luckily the Regnal Calculator takes this into account too. Look again at William and Mary on the calculator, and this time input ‘1st of January’ and year of reign ‘1’. This time you’ll be told the year of your enquiry is 1689/90 AD. To clarify: the 1st of January William and Mary 1 comes *after* the 1st of May of that same regnal year. You can try this for any monarch prior to 1751 (the changeover came in the 25th year of the reign of George II): input a date before 25th March and another one in the same year after that date, and you’ll see the year change.

To conclude, here’s another example…

What we might think of as 1st January 1727 would be 1st January 1726 in the parish registers and 1st January 13 George 1 in legal and parliamentary documentation. We would record it as 1st January 1726/27.

Six months later, 1st July 1727 would be recorded just so in the parish registers but in legal and parliamentary documents would be 1 George 2.

We genealogists have to keep our wits about us, don’t we!

Tracing history through parish registers

I’ve spent a lot of time, in recent weeks, analysing the baptism, marriage and burial registers of Leeds in the 17th century.

All English genealogists working at intermediate level and beyond know about ‘the Interregnum’ – the period from the execution of Charles I in 1649 to the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 – and the devastating impact this can have on tracing back generations who might have been baptised, married or buried during this period. But have you ever looked at the parish registers of your parishes of interest to see how such events played out on a more general basis in the records being kept?

Before starting this particular research I contacted the local archives and was told the registers for Leeds were complete. I then started to investigate the period more fully, through background reading, and found that the Interregnum was just one of a whole series of contemporary social and political factors impacting on the town.

First, Leeds had both economical and tactical significance in the English Civil War, which began in 1642.  The Battle of Leeds took place on 23 January 1643, and while the parish burial register indicates relatively few deaths, the vicar of Leeds was forced to flee the town.  

Two years later, an outbreak of the plague wiped out one fifth of the population of the township.  The overcrowded, close-built housing, and particularly that on lower ground by the river and becks (streams) where fulling and dyehouses, and housing for the humbler clothworkers were situated, was perfect breeding ground for the disease.  In March 1645/46 the situation was so serious that the parish church was closed, and no religious rites performed there for some weeks. 

Extract from Leeds parish burial register for March 1645/46, indicating lists of numbers buried buring the plague.
Extract from Leeds parish burial register:
‘About the beginning of April 1646
came Mr Saxton to the vicar at w[hi]ch time
prayers and sermons begun againe at the
ould church then were burials taken notice of as before’

If you have a subscription with Ancestry you can see the whole of this page, and the notes on the preceding page [here].

Next came the Interregnum, which lasted from January 1649 until May 1660.  During this period the church was effectively disestablished. Moderate Anglican clergy were replaced with those of Puritan persuasion.  Custody of the parish registers was removed from the ministers and given to civil parish clerks, and solemnisation of the marriage ceremony became an entirely civil function.  Bishops (and hence Bishop’s Transcripts) were abolished, and although records were kept they were often badly organised. When Restoration came in 1660, and the role of the church returned to its pre-Interregnum position, vicars often refused to accept the validity of records handed to them by the secular clerks. 

In a practical sense baptisms did continue, but it seems the previous arrangements for local chapelries to report names of those baptised to the main parish church collapsed.

Note on Leeds parish baptism register, February 1649, in which the scribe blames parents for neglecting to report baptisms in the local chapels to the main church
Extract from Leeds parish baptism register, February 1649:
‘The most of the children baptized at the several chappelles
in this parrish for this last yeare, are not to bee found in this
book, because their careles parents neglected to bring in their
names, and therefore let the children or such as want the names
hereafter blame them, who have beene often admonished of it and
neglected it’

If you have a subscription with Ancestry you can see this note in situ [here].

Simlarly – and note that this is the same hand as above – the recording of marriages brought about much displeasure:

Note on Leeds parish register, dated October 1659, in which the clerk blames prties to marriages and other ministers for the breakdown of the marriage registers.
Extract from Leeds parish marriage regiser October 1659:
‘Those that come hereafter to search about Registering of marriages
from the 8 of June last until this present 11 of October 1659 may
take notice that the persons married within that time took the liberty
either to marry without publishing as many did or else they went to Mr
Browne Curate of the ould church and got married there and at
several chappels in the parrish without ever acquainting the Registrer
or paying him his Dues, and therefore if any occasion fall out to make
search for such they may judge who is to blame. those and many others before took the same liberty
October 1659′

If you have a subscription with Ancestry you can see this note in situ [here].

More strife followed with religious division, and persecution interspersed with periods of greater tolerance.  The population of Leeds was largely split down the middle in terms of traditional Anglican and adherents of a more hellfire-and-brimstone approach to the scriptures.  This, too, meant that at various times ardent Royalist or committed Puritan ministers in turn were ejected from the church, bringing about further disruption in the registers.

As a consequence of the above, although in terms of coverage of years it is true that the Leeds parish registers have no gaps, in terms of the content of those years, not only are there significant gaps, but also (as you can see in the two images directly above) the uniform, neat handwriting of the Interregnum years belie the fact that these are the church clerk’s later transcriptions of the contemporary notes formerly made by the civil parish clerk.  (And we all know that transcriptions may include errors and omissions.)

Even when working in later periods, when faced with a selection of potential records that don’t quite fit, it’s important to remember that record sets may be incomplete.  Records may have been lost or damaged, may not be available online, may have been mis-transcribed and indexed, or may never have existed – sometimes through clerical error at the time and sometimes because of an issue of wider application such as those outlined above.  It has been fascinating to read about these events in textbooks and then see for myself the impact on the registers, but also sad to realise that some of those life events that failed to make it onto the parish registers may have been my own missing ancestors.

If you’d like to try this for yourself
I’ve found the easiest way to browse record sets (whether that be to examine them line-by-line in search of an ancestor, or to browse them looking for the impact of historical events as I have used them above) is on Ancestry, and the easiest ‘way in’ to browse any parish register is to go to an existing record for any ancestor from that record set (already in my online tree) and then use the links at the top of the page to go to the exact parish and year I want. In the example below, the record set is for the whole of West Yorkshire for the period 1512-1812. If I click on ‘Rothwell, Holy Trinity’ I can select any other parish I need from the drop-down menu. Then if I click on the year I can change that to the one I want. From that point I can browse the whole year of baptisms, marriages or burials for the parish. After a while you can easily work out roughly where the marriages or the burials start, and go straight to the appropriate pages for each year. Obviously this will only work for you if Ancestry have a licence with the relevant archives for your parish of interest.

Screenshot from Ancestry.co.uk showing top of page from Rothwell parish registers and title header bar

On FindMyPast, if records from your parish of interest are on there, you can move backwards and forwards from any page for a record you already have, but this is cumbersome, and there’s no way of knowing how many more pages remain of the year you’re currently looking at before you’ll get on to the following year. However, some of the record sets are ‘browsable’, and this is an altogether better experience but not all record sets are available yet to browse in this way. The difference is that ‘browsable’ sets have a ‘filmstrip’ facility (see bottom left on image below) which you can click to open, and then whiz back and forth along the pages, quickly homing in on the pages you want.

To find these browsable record sets, select ‘Search’ from the upper menu bar, and then ‘All Record Sets’. Type ‘browse’ in the upper left hand box, and you’ll see the numbers of records reduce to just those collections that are browsable. Then, in the box below, select ‘England’, and finally type in your place of interest. I entered ‘Norfolk, England’, and from the 50 record collections available I selected ‘Norfolk Parish Registers Browse’. On the next page you enter a year range (or leave it blank) and an event (baptism, marriage, etc) or leave it blank, and then the parish. I haven’t yet found any records of interest to me that are browsable, but this will be a good facility when more are added – and you might be luckier than me.

Front cover of a 'Banns Book' showing location of link to open 'filmstrip' facility

On FamilySearch (free to use, you just need to register for an account) a huge number of images are available to browse, but not all parishes are covered, and even if your parish is, there may be gaps. To find them, from the upper menu bar, click ‘Search’, then ‘Images’. On the next page type in the name of your parish. I tried several of my parishes of interest before finding one for which images were available: Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. It may ask you to select from a few options, and then click ‘Search Image Groups’. On the next page you’ll see precisely what they have. For Great Yarmouth it was just marriage registers, with an almost complete coverage from 1794-1899, but some gaps.

It would be great to hear if you have any successes with this. Have you come across a significant event in your town and then verified it through parish records?

Finding a pre-1858 Will

In my last post I mentioned that the arrangements for Wills and probate in England and Wales changed in 1858.  After the Court of Probate Act of 1857, Wills are generally much easier to find.  Before 1858, however, the arrangement was far more complicated.

Ecclesiastical Courts
Prior to the changes brought about by the 1857 Act, the granting of probate and letters of administration (if someone died without making a Will) was a function of the ecclesiastical courts.  However, there were more than 300 possible courts.  Before we can work out which one dealt with our ancestor’s estate we first need to understand the court hierarchy within the Church of England. 

Between the Reformation and the mid-19th century there were twenty-seven dioceses in England and Wales. 

Map showing Church of England dioceses in England and Wales between the Reformation and the mid-19th century
Map showing C of E dioceses and provinces circa 1550 to mid-19th century

Then, as now, these were organised into two provinces, or archdioceses: York and Canterbury. The dioceses of York, Carlisle, Chester, Durham and Sodor & Man came within the province of York, the remainder fell within Canterbury.

Each of these dioceses were subdivided into archdeaconries, and it was generally here where matters of probate were decided.

However, there were many exceptions.  Some territories were instead under the jurisdiction of a manorial, ecclesiastical, royal or prebendary ‘peculiar’.  Elsewhere, jurisdiction might leap-frog the archdeaconry, resting instead with the bishop’s own ‘Consistory Court’. These probate rights were jealously guarded: they brought in an income.

[This map came from an article by Paul Wainwright about using York Diocese Cause Papers for family history research.]

The court to be used varied from parish to parish
Within each diocese there were of course many parishes, and even adjacent parishes could come under the jurisdiction of different Probate courts. The easiest way to find out the arrangements for your parish of interest is to use the online tool at FamilySearch.

  • Go to FamilySearch Maps and enter a location in the search box.
  • I’m going to use Kinver. Only one location, in Staffordshire, matches that name. That’s the one I need, so I’ll click on that.
  • A fairly basic map showing the boundaries of the parish appears. For Kinver, if I click to remove the pop-up box I can see that this parish included other places called Stourton and Compton.
  • However, we do need that pop-up box so I click the place name again over in the left sidebar and the box will reappear. What we’re interested in is Jurisdictions. Click on that, and fourth down in the list you’ll see Probate Court. For Kinver, we see that this parish comes under the diocese of Lichfield, and the Probate Court was the Court of the Bishop of Lichfield (Episcopal Consistory). In other words, this parish does not deal with the usual archdeaconry for probate matters.
  • For comparison, if I click on the adjacent parish of Wolverley, I’m now not only in a new county (Worcestershire) but also a new diocese: Worcester; and the Probate Court is the Court of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester. Back in Staffordshire, and back in the diocese of Lichfield, before 1846 my ancestors in Bilston would have used the Court of the Peculiar of Wolverhampton, and after that date would have used the Court of the Bishop of Lichfield (Episcopal Consistory).

Note that this information on FamilySearch Maps is good as at 1851. There may have been some changes, but generally this is a good place to start.

So you now have a picture of how complex the situation was, but at least we have a way of finding out which court dealt with the parish where our ancestor lived.

Probate took place where the testator held ‘property or noteworthy goods’
For most of our ancestors, once you’ve found the parish you know where to look for the probate or administration documents. However, technically, probate took place not where the testator died but where he or she held ‘property or noteworthy goods’.  What if your ancestor held land in several parishes or even several archdeaconries? The rule is quite simple: you go up a level in the church hierarchy until you reach the level that encompasses all the relevant lands. Hence, if a person held property in two archdeaconries within one diocese, probate was proved at the Bishop’s Consistory Court.  If property was held in more than one diocese, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) or Prerogative Court of York (PCY) was used; and if in both provinces, probate at both was usual. 

The rule may be simple but the difficult part might be knowing all the places your wealthier ancestor held land.

Regardless of the above, for some circumstances the Prerogative Court of Canterbury was preferred or required

  • Serving soliders and sailors, and people who died abroad but held property in England and Wales.
  • From 1818-1858, if the deceased held stocks and shares, the Bank of England would only accept wills proved at the PCC.
  • The PCC was preferred by Nonconformists who wished to lessen the connection to the local Anglican church structures.
  • It was also preferred for reasons of prestige.

Finding the Wills
Building on that background information we’re now in a better position to look for our pre-1857 ancestors’ wills. As with the post-1857 National Probate Calendar, wills are indexed by year of probate which, if disputed, could be several years after death, so be prepared to search further than the actual year in which you know your ancestor died.  There is, unfortunately, no centralised index, so we must make use of finding guides (see below), but here are some pointers:

  • Wills proved at the archdeaconry or an ecclesiastical peculiar will usually be lodged with the relevant county archives.
  • Those proved at the bishop’s Consistory Court may be lodged with a separate diocesan archive.
  • Records of manor-peculiars can be difficult to locate. Being private papers, they could have been lodged out of county if the former lord of the manor had a principal home elsewhere. They might also have been lost, or simply never been made available to the public.
  • The National Archives hold registered copy wills for all probates made at the PCC between 1384 and 1858. These are not the original wills – you won’t see your ancestor’s signature – but they are copies of the original probates written into volumes by clerks at the church courts. You can search them [here]. At the time of writing (because of limited access to the National Archives at Kew) some of these are available to download free of charge. Some of them (but not all) are also available on Ancestry.co.uk in the record set England & Wales, Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills, 1384-1858.
  • The Borthwick Institute in York holds half a million wills, dating from 1267 to 1858. Most of these are from Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, but there are some from Cheshire, Lancashire, Westmorland, Cumberland, Northumberland and Durham. The index for all these documents from 1688 is available on Find My Past, with an easy link through to Borthwick for ordering digital copies of the originals. (Any probate documents will show up under Birth, Marriage & Death records.) Pre-1688 Wills are indexed separately, both at the Borthwick archives and also in a series of Yorkshire Archaeological Society publications available online through Internet Archive, starting with YAS Record Series Vol. 6: Index of wills in the York Registry, 1389 to 1514.
  • Other wills may be available online, but it all depends on licensing arrangements made between the archives and one of the subscription websites. For example, Ancestry has a record set called Yorkshire, England, Probate Records, 1521-1858 which includes probate documents for a manor-peculiar of interest to my research.

Finding Aids
These include:

FamilySearch maps

Smith, Cecil R. Humphery: The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers – This is available on Ancestry.co.uk as the record set Great Britain, Atlas and Index of Parish Registers

J. Gibson & S. Raymond: Probate Jurisdictions: Where to look for wills 6th edition, The Family History Partnership, 2016 – This is an inexpensive booklet but is sometimes out of print. You can usually get second hand copies.  County record offices and local history libraries are also likely to have it.

Don’t forget that you can always ask the staff at the archives for advice if you get stuck.  I have only ever found them to be extremely helpful.

*****

This has necessarily been a whirlind tour.  I did a four-week course to learn how to find and use Wills, and if you wanted to do that too you can find the course [here].  But there is at least enough information here to get you started and I hope it helps.

Case study: Two ancestral lines, different naming patterns

In theory, we should be able to follow our paternal line with the same surname back through the generations, certain that it will continue beyond the earliest parish registers. If you (or a direct male descendant from your paternal line if you’re female) were to take a Y DNA test, then again in theory – provided there are no unexpected paternity events – you should even find the Y DNA haplogroup keeps step with the surname, right back through history. Our paternal line, though, does not comprise only endless lines of grandfathers. There is an equal number of grandmothers, and in just the same way that our foremothers married into the male surname and refreshed the gene pool, so too she refreshed the family’s traditions, recipes, ways of keeping house and, significantly for the topic of this post, the names given to children.

I wrote in two previous posts about naming patterns: the tradition of naming children in a specific order based on the names of their grandparents, parents and other significant family members. You’ll find those previous posts here (Irish) and here (English)

My last two posts have demonstrated that historically, women are significantly less likely to appear in official records. Their role was within the home, and in general the home was not a matter for public record. As we have seen, we have to get in the habit of reading between the lines regarding information about our female ancestors. For all these reasons their importance within society as a whole can easily be overlooked. Nevertheless they did have influence, even though their primary sphere of influence was domestic.

Today’s post will draw together all these topics. It’s a case study of a puzzle solved by focusing on traditional English naming patterns, and it highlights the importance and potential benefits for us as researchers of the merging of the women into the family.

When I was very young a fairly close member of my family married a lady with the same surname as his own. In more recent decades, as I progressed my genealogical research I found that this surname line on our side could be traced, still in Leeds, all the way back to the 17th century. I wondered if the same would be true for the paternal line of that lady marrying into my family, and if we would turn out to be distant cousins. Since this person is living I have changed the names. I shall refer to her as ‘Rose’, and to the surname we share as ‘Beccles’. Apart from these false names, all other information is accurate.

It was about ten years ago that I first started to work back ‘Rose’s’ paternal line. I knew her father’s name and was able to place him with his family in the 1911 census. From there, the preceding four generations were quite straightforward:

  • His father, Frank, residing with him in that 1911 census, was also located as a child in 1891;
  • Frank’s father, Samuel, residing with him in the 1891 census, was located with his own birth family in 1851-71.
  • Samuel’s father, Francis, was to be found with his birth family including father Samuel in 1841, and a baptism for Francis, son of Samuel was found in Leeds.
  • Samuel’s marriage a couple of years before that was also located, and his own baptism was in 1795. His father was Thomas.

I had now traced ‘Rose’s’ paternal line back to at least 1795, and I had the name of his father, Thomas. There was so far no connection between this and my own ‘Beccles’ line, but certainly both families were still in Leeds. I now needed a baptism for Thomas, probably around 1770; and this was where my research came to an end: there were too many Thomas ‘Beccles’ baptised in Leeds within a reasonable timeframe for me to be able to decide with certainty which was the correct one.

The solution came from an unexpected source. About five years later I discovered a new record set on Ancestry: the Leeds Township Overseers Records Apprenticeship Register. It seemed to start around 1740 and to continue until the end of the 18th century. I carefully searched the register, looking for any of my ancestors or their siblings, and found two of my ‘Beccles’ boys: my 4x great grandfather and his brother Nathaniel. It was Nathaniel’s entry that intrigued me: he was apprenticed to a master tailor by the name of Francis ‘Beccles’. I immediately started to wonder if there was some family connection between my Beccles line, known to be clothworkers, and this Francis.

Then I had my brainwave: ‘Rose’s’ ancestral ‘Beccles’ line and my own line had completely different forenames. Whereas the boys’ names repeatedly handed down in my line, prior to the 20th century, were Joseph, Nathaniel, Leonard and Benjamin, in ‘Rose’s’ line the naming tradition so far featured Samuel, Thomas and, significantly here, Francis. Could this master tailor, Francis ‘Beccles’, to whom my Nathaniel was apprenticed, be part of ‘Rose’s’ direct line?

I then started to wonder why this situation of two lines with completely different naming traditions might have come about, and the answer, when you think about it, is obvious. A surname is static. What gives it life is those who join it – in other words, the women who come into the family as wives. If we go back to the traditional naming patterns: the first son will take the name of the maternal or paternal grandfather; the second son will take the name of the other grandfather, and so on. What changes is that every wife at each new generation brings into the mix the name of her own father, her own mother and her own name. In my ‘Beccles’ line I knew who brought in Nathaniel, and I knew who brought in Leonard. These were the fathers’ names of my 6 x great grandmother and my 4x great grandmother. So now I needed to see if I could do the same for ‘Rose’s’ line, and if I could use this to help me find the correct baptisms for each generation further back. This would involve:

  • identifying all potential baptisms for Thomas ‘Beccles’, including the name and abode of the father;
  • guided by fathers’ names, abodes and dates, identifying baptisms of all other children born to these same men;
  • placing the children in age order so as to identify first-born and second-born sons (normally named for maternal and paternal grandfathers);
  • checking also the names of third-born sons (which should be the same as the father’s name, unless that name has already been used);
  • based on all this, identifying any family/families with strong similarities in children’s names with those given by Thomas and his wife to their children. i.e. In addition to the baptism for Thomas, was there also a Samuel, a Francis, and perhaps also daughters with names Thomas and his wife passed on;
  • homing in on the most likely family/families, using the date of the first-born child to identify a marriage, likely within two years previously. This would provide Thomas’s mother’s name;
  • and finally, looking for the baptisms of Thomas’s mother and father to ascertain their own fathers’ names.
  • And repeat, back through the generations.

Remember here that what we’re looking for is adherence to the traditional naming pattern. It may not hold good, but if it does it’s an extra bit of ‘evidence’ indicating your decisions so far have been valid. Remember also the extra value of finding the mother who brings a new name into the family, particularly if it’s an unusual name. It’s strong evidence that your research is correct.

For the avoidance of doubt, let me tell you – you really have to be ‘in the zone’ to do this!

But I did it! I found Thomas’s baptism. He was the first-born son of Samuel, the name given to Thomas’s own first-born son. Thomas himself was named for his maternal grandfather, Thomas. The master tailor Francis, whose name had started the alarm bells ringing turned out to be the nephew of this Samuel – son of his older brother George. So – our first identifiable ‘connection’ is that my 5x great uncle Nathaniel was apprenticed in 1789 to ‘Rose’s’ 1C6R (first cousin six times removed). I still haven’t found our common ancestor, but I’m working on it.

Using this method I managed to get ‘Rose’s’ paternal line back to the marriage of her 9xG grandparents in Leeds in the year 1627. When I passed all this information to ‘Rose’ she was astonished to see that two significant names still in her family – Frank (originally Francis) and George – had been handed down in her paternal line for several centuries. How amazing is that?!

Genealogy: Essential Research Methods

I remember the day I realised the records I had been finding, downloading and attaching to my online tree did not ‘belong’ to Ancestry.  Rather they had been photographed and indexed by/for Ancestry who, with permission from the relevant archives, made them available via their website. 

The progression from Beginner to Intermediate skills for the genealogist is peppered with such realisations.  Broadly, as we become more proactive in searching for specific records to close specific gaps we must develop our knowledge of the types of records that exist and which ones might hold the information we require.  Alongside this we must develop the skills to find them (since these additional types of record are less likely to have been made available online), analyse them and support each one with effective citation, keeping records of our progress and findings.  Helen Osborn’s work Genealogy: Essential Research Methods leaves aside the records themselves, focusing here on these essential skills of finding and using them.  It’s definitely not a book for Beginners; rather it’s a serious, diligent and methodical approach to genealogy.  You’ll get the most from it if you’re already working at a sound Intermediate level or higher, and looking to improve further.  For pretty much anyone who falls into these categories, I think there will be something to learn from this excellent work. 

The book focuses on researching within England and Wales. All references to archives and the records framework, and all examples from the author’s own work are from these two parts of the UK.  The principles of good research practice, however, are applicable everywhere, and from that perspective the book will be of use to anyone serious about developing as a genealogist and family historian.

The book was first published in 2012, although my copy was printed in 2020. It goes without saying that there have been changes in genealogy since then, in terms of wider online availability or records, website links, and even in the organisation of some of the archives themselves.  This issue is mostly limited to chapter 4 but for me is the only drawback, and is generally easily remedied with a Google search rather than simply typing in the sometimes defunct link.

It starts with a chapter setting out common genealogical and research challenges.  In the remaining chapters, techniques and ideas for working with and around these challenges are presented.  Yet it is not prescriptive; rather it reads as an ongoing personal exploration by a highly experienced professional genealogist, historian and qualified archivist inviting us to join in this exploration.  It is very readable. 

Within those chapters you’ll find the following:

  • How to seach online, using effective search terms
  • The importance of reading the particular website’s instructions
  • An understanding of the records framework for England and Wales, including the various jurisdictional levels and the legal, historical and geographic framework that underpins it
  • Different types of archives, the types of records they keep and how they are organised
  • Guidance on drawing upon work already done by others, including online trees and transcriptions
  • Analysis of each document in terms of value, bias and to get every last shred of evidence from it
  • Developing a thorough action plan and other ideas for when you get stuck
  • The importance of documenting sources, and different levels of citation
  • Why we should record our research process
  • Different ways of storing the info, including paper and digital; organising it in a way it can be passed on, perhaps to family or perhaps published in family history magazines or as a family history
  • Evidence and proof

Two meaty issues that have been a constant topic of interest for me – simply because there are no British genealogy ‘standards’ for them – are citation of sources (which has requirements for genealogy that differ from general academic fields in some respects) and advanced-level proof.  The former is dealt with in Chapter 8, with guidance on what needs to be in a citation and also what to record in a research log. The emphasis is on understanding ‘why’ rather than simply ‘what’. If we understand why such information should be noted we will develop the ability to create our own citations rather than simply adopt a formulaic approach. Proof is dealt with in Chapter 10. The two are of course linked, since it is through rigorous citation that we will record the evidence we are presenting as proof, thereby enabling not only ourselves but also others to follow our trail and decide for themselves if they are in agreement with our conclusions.

There is one more chapter that I know I will return to from time to time: Chapter 7 on Planning and Problem-solving. This entire chapter is about approaching brick walls in a systematic way, rather like having ‘a second pair of eyes’ to look for something you might have missed. There is advice about how to approach the problem solving in a systematic way, and also a checklist for record sources, some of which you might just have missed.

When I read this book I already considered my research and analysis skills to be well-developed but was looking for ideas to be more rigorous, particularly in documenting work done and developing action plans. I found I could mentally tick off much of the advice – yes, I’m already doing that – but there were also gems here and there where I knew I could do better, and which I’ve used to develop a personal action plan for improvement. If you’re serious about developing as a genealogist I recommend this book.

Click the image to find this book on Amazon.co.uk.
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Old Peculiars, New Peculiars…

For some months now, all in the cause of my Advanced Genealogy course, I’ve been up to my eyes in old manorial records and samples of archaic scripts. I’ve really enjoyed the ‘Manorial Documents’ module, and have several action plans for various ancestral lines, to be actioned when it’s safe to visit the archives. In case all this is new to you, I’ll start by saying that historically, a ‘manor’ is not a rambling, pleasant country house such as we see dotted about the English countryside. Rather the term refers to the land that came under the jurisdiction of the ‘lord of the manor’ who lived in that fine house, and to the relationship between him and the people who lived within its bounds. Originally, most of these people would have been bonded to the lord, although by the 16th century this was no longer the case.

Much of England was divided up between the patchwork of many and varied manors, and you can easily find out if land in your ancestral places of interest formed part of a manor by using the online Manorial Documents Register at The National Archives. You can search by name of manor or name of parish. Some manors have no known surviving records, but for the majority that do you can click on the results and find a list of collections, together with the archive where they’re lodged. Be warned! They are originals, written in contemporary script and sometimes in Latin…

Working on this Manorial Documents module has helped me get to the bottom of a mystery surrounding a number of my ancestors who lived in Pannal (Harrogate) and had their wills proved at Knaresborough Honour Peculiar.

What’s a Peculiar?
The Court of Probate Act, 1857, created a Court of Probate along with probate registries in London and districts throughout England and Wales. In doing so, it removed responsibility (and power) for the granting of probate from the ecclesiastical courts, making this a civil function. Prior to this Act, the granting of probate and letters of administration when someone died had been the responsibility of those ecclesiastical courts: usually the courts of the diocese and archdeaconry. However, for many centuries, certain places had been exempt from the usual jurisdiction of the bishop and archdeacon. These were referred to as ‘peculiars’.

Ever since learning about my Pannal ancestors and their wills I had assumed the ‘peculiar’ was the parish. In fact this didn’t really make sense, because Pannal (where they lived) and Knaresborough (where probate was granted) are two different parishes. Now, after a good deal of research, troubling over misleading definitions and scratching of the head, I understand that peculiars can be parishes, manors or liberties. Where a peculiar is a manor, we can refer to it as a manor-peculiar. This was not a privilege granted to all manors: it was, after all, ‘peculiar’. Where this manorial right does exist it can generally be traced back to some former connection with an ecclesiastical corporation, such as the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem.

As I said, untangling the above was not straightforward. Most definitions of ‘peculiar’ mention only parishes. Even when I got to the bottom of the concept of the manor-peculiar, I still had to unravel the reason why Knaresborough’s manor-peculiar had jurisdiction over Pannal; and this is because it was an ‘Honour’. An Honour, such as Knaresborough Honour where these wills of my ancestors were proved, was a sort of overarching manor, the seat of a lordship with several dependent manors. It’s likely that my ancestors held land within the Manor of Pannal or the Manor of Brackenthwaite (also in Pannal), but that this manor came under the rule of the Honour of Knaresborough. (I hope to be able to confirm all this when I can eventually visit the archives.)

Identifying peculiar jurisdictions
You can find out if a parish of interest to you came under peculiar jurisdiction by using FamilySearch maps. If you’ve never used this – it’s brilliant! Try it now by searching for Pannal (It’s the one in Yorkshire). The map shows you the boundaries of the parish, and a box pops up with three mini pages: ‘Info’, ‘Jurisdictions’ and ‘Options’. Click on ‘Jurisdictions’, and amongst other jurisdictional bodies you’ll see that before 1858 Probate was dealt with by The Court of the Peculiar of the Honour of Knaresborough. By contrast, the adjacent parish of Kirkby Overblow had the usual probate arrangements: Exchequer and Prerogative Courts of the Archbishop of York. Now try this for any parish you like, and it will tell you if there was peculiar or the normal ecclesiastical jurisdiction for probate. Then it’s a matter of finding out where these probate records are kept, and whether they are available online. In my case, some of the wills proved at The Court of the Peculiar of the Honour of Knaresborough are online with Ancestry. These ones are lodged at the West Yorkshire Archives, because Pannal and Knaresborough were formerly in the West Riding. The rest are at the Borthwick Institute in York, which is where the main collection of ecclesiastical records for the Archbishop of York’s province is lodged.

Old Peculier
But this is New Year’s Day, and I’m still appreciating the down time. So the real reason I’m writing about this today is that one of the oddities that turned up in my research was about Theakston’s ‘Old Peculier’. The name of this beer (note the archaic spelling of ‘peculier’) is actually a reference to these historic courts. On the website Theakstons say ‘The name pays tribute to the unique ecclesiastical status of Masham [where the brewery is located] as a ‘Court of the Peculier’ and is also reference to the strong characteristic of the beer.’ (Having just drunk the glass in the above photo I can confirm it is very nice! 🙂 ) Using FamilySearch maps we can see that Masham was indeed subject to the testamentary jurisdiction at the Court of the Peculiar of the Prebend of Masham. Not ‘unique’, though… but definitely peculiar.

It seems fitting to end this very peculiar year with a bottle of ‘Peculier’ beer of Peculiar origins, and to raise a glass to 2021 in the hope of it being decidedly less, well… peculiar. I hope this finds you and your families happy and healthy, that the festive season, although low key, was enjoyable, and that we can all look forward to what the New Year holds.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, peaceful and successful 2021 for us all!

A Secretary Hand survival guide

Handwriting dated 1678

Unless we limit ourselves to transcripts of documents, sooner or later every genealogist has to confront the challenge of archaic handwriting styles.  Later eighteenth and nineteenth century handwriting styles generally pose no difficulty for me (although I’m aware from online genealogy groups that this is not universal) but earlier than that it’s a whole new ball game.

Developments in handwriting were not an accidental process.  Different styles of writing were devised to meet changing needs.  Hence ‘Textura’, the beautiful calligraphic script we know from illuminated manuscripts, was very formal and tidy, but the clearly separated letters were themselves composed of separate strokes, the pen being lifted from the page after each stroke.  Beautiful it may have been, but the process was very slow and painstaking.

The evolution of cursive handwriting in the middle ages was a significant development, making the process of writing quicker and more efficient.  Formed with as few strokes of the pen as possible, the whole purpose of the new cursive texts was the speedy copying of official documents or records.  The earliest cursive script we’re likely to see in parish registers is ‘Secretary Hand’.  Imported to England from France and Italy in the fourteenth century, its use became widespread in the late fifteenth to seventeenth centuries – exactly the period when the keeping of registers of baptisms, marriages and burials became mandatory.

The handwriting example above is definitely one of the easier examples I’ve seen.  It was written by my 8xG grandfather in 1678.

The difficulties of reading Secretary hand can include:

  • It was popular at the same time as other cursive scripts, including ‘Italic’ (which I find easier to read) although the two hands were used for different purposes.  By the mid seventeenth century a hybrid style developed incorporating aspects of these two and what was to become the (much easier to read) eighteenth century ‘running’ hand.  We’re likely to see examples of all of this as we look at parish registers and other documents of the period and on occasion we will need to try to decipher them all.
  • There were of course unique individual handwriting styles and idiosyncrasies, just as we have today
  • The formation of certain letters can actually look like other letters to our modern eyes
  • Writers still used the now obsolete Anglo-Saxon letter y, or þ (known as ‘thorn’) to represent a ‘th’ sound, the long s, which we can easily confuse with an f, and sometimes the Middle English letter ȝ, easily confused with a z but in fact known as yogh, and used where modern English has gh or y.
  • Words may be abbreviated or contracted
  • Some syllables or letter combinations were replaced with hieroglyphs
  • Writers were not consistent in the use of the above, even in the same document or the same sentence
  • Spellings were not uniform, and certainly were not the same as today’s
  • In the case of surnames and placenames, the scribe may have written down what he ‘heard’

However, there is lots of help available online.  I’ve put together a list of resources from respected bodies you might find useful when trying to decipher Secretary and other sixteenth and seventeenth century scripts:
Basic guidance, abbreviations and editorial conventions for reading Secretary Hand from Folger Shakespeare Library
Recognising different letter forms of medieval scripts from University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections
Secretary Hand alphabet examples from FamilySearch

Or if you’re really determined, and have the time to devote to it, here are a few online courses, made freely available:
English Handwriting Online 1500-1700 from University of Cambridge
Palaeography tutorial & exercises from University of Oxford
Palaeography: reading old handwriting 1500 – 1800: A practical online tutorial from The National Archives
And finally:
Early Modern Scottish Paleaography: a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) that I’ve just completed in preparation for commencing the Advanced Genealogy Diploma.  The benefit of this course is that the basics of paleography are introduced via a series of mini ‘programmes’ (videos) by Dr Lionel Glassey.  These are excellent and perfectly targetted for the general interest audience – although I’m still finding the older Secretary Hand difficult to read.  (I’m hoping this will improve with practise, since this is a major part of the first year of my forthcoming course.)  The MOOC is provided via futurelearn by the University of Glasgow.  The paleography is intertwined with Scottish history, and is therefore doubly useful for those with Scottish roots.  However, these sections can be speed-read if you wish.  If you do have Scottish roots you might be interested in using your new skills to help in transcribing the kirk session records of Govan Old.  There is a link to learn more about this right at the end of the course.