You have traced an ancestor back to the late 1600s in England. From that point, the parish registers for the area no longer exist. You look at Marshall’s book of printed pedigrees, and it refers you to a Visitation done in 1680. On examining this, you find a family tree taking your ancestry back to 1150, and it is marked as recorded in the College of Arms in London. How marvellous! A genealogist's gold mine, all the work done for you. After all, the College of Arms was the official repository of pedigrees, so it must be accurate, right?
There’s good news and bad news. The bad news first. To quote the late G.A. Moriarty, "the Visitation Pedigrees compiled by the Tudor and Stuart Heralds vary greatly in accuracy and completeness, according to date and authorship. Certainly, the work of many antiquaries of this period was uncritical, and often downright dishonest." Translation the gold mine may be pure nonsense. But what was a Visitation Pedigree?
In early days, the King’s main job was to lead his armies into battle with other Kings. His chief military officer was the Earl Marshal, whose main job was to make sure that the men who went into battle could follow the right leaders in the right direction. Flags, crests, shield and clothing designs, and colours all helped illiterate soldiers recognize their own group. The Earl Marshal employed deputies, called the Kings-at-Arms, to organize these symbols. They in turn had deputies called Heralds and Pursuivants to carry messages and attend to details. Gradually, as kings no longer led armies, and armoured knights disappeared this group became responsible for state ceremonies and for determining who is entitled to use the symbols and titles of gentry and nobility. They are called the College of Arms.
There are three major KingsatArms, known as Garter (the chief one); Norroy (for northern England, and also called Ulster for Northern Ireland)’ and Clarenceux (for southern England). There are six Heralds, Windsor, Chester, Richmond, Somerset, York, and Lancaster. The Pursuivants have much more colourful names, based on their robe designs, being Rouge Croix; Blue Mantle; Rouge Dragon; and Portcullis.
Most of the country’s wealth was held by the nobility and gentry. If a family died without heirs, the King received the family wealth. Whenever someone inherited a title, a fee was payable to the King, and to the College of Arms. So in their own financial self-interest, the King and the College were very interested in tracing family inheritances.
Every so often, the College would send one of its officers to an area, and call in everyone who had a claim to nobility or gentry, with their documents to prove their claim. The trip was called a Visitation. The results would be written down as a family pedigree, and taken back to the College. Anyone with an unproven claim would suffer the financial consequences. The records are called Visitation Pedigrees.
The uncritical pedigrees are those where the visiting officer simply accepted what he was told. Many people in those days did not know their grandparents, who had died before they were born. How accurate then is a pedigree going back six generations, from a person like this whose documents do not support his claims? And yet, many were faithfully written down, and filed with others done perhaps 30 years previously on the same family, showing an entirely different ancestry.
The dishonest pedigrees are those where the claims were sufficiently shaky that the officer was probably bribed to confirm the pedigree. A clearly forged and phony charter, or a record of a marriage that never took place, can be recorded as easily as a real one. One of the minor officers at the College was found to have made extensive additions to a substantial number of pedigrees, as he sat in his London office thinking who might possibly be related.
Most Visitation Pedigrees are charts of people with spouses and children identified. No birth dates, marriage dates, or death dates are given. No Wills are mentioned. How do we know how accurate these are?
The good news is that certain officers were "antiquaries of the first rank." Glover, Dodsworth, Camden, and Dugdale are examples. Their pedigrees tend to be quite short. Most people knew their parents, brothers and sisters, children, nephews and nieces. Those pedigrees contain some dates and references to charters and other material. Wills and real estate records usually confirm, not contradict, these pedigrees, and the references in the pedigrees can also be checked.
A great many Visitation Pedigrees have been published by the Record Societies, particularly in the Harleian Society publications. These are available at the Metro Reference Library in Toronto, and indexed in Mullins’ Texts and Calendars, Pages 179-189.
Here is an example from the Harleian series. Volume 56 is the for Visitations of Berkshire, made by Thomas Benolte, Clarenceux anno 1532; by William Harvey, Clarenceux anno 1556; by Henry Chitting, Chester Herald and John Philpott, Rouge Dragon for William Camden, Clarenceux anno 1623; and by Elias Ashmole, Windsor Herald for Sir Edward Bysshe, Clarenceux anno 1665-66. In this one book, you can trace the Berkshire gentry and nobility over a period of 130 years. This kind of information is well worth looking at, even if some of it may be unreliable.
It is always necessary to double-check any pedigree done by someone else, against all available information. For example, Henry Fishwick was a Lancashire antiquary of the first rank about 100 years ago. He was hired to do a family history of a prosperous cotton manufacturing family, and despite his efforts, it contains several major errors. We have better access today to records than Fishwick had, as so many have been published. Fishwick himself was one of the major founders of the Record Societies, which have published these records. If he could make major mistakes, the work of pedigree compilers 400 years ago should be viewed with skepticism and used with care.
Chances are that a pedigree to 1150 contains more wishful thinking than fact. But if you can find proof, then indeed you have found the genealogist’s gold mine.