A few words about genealogy and heraldry....
The likely root of the word genealogy is the Greek term genea logos; "knowledge of generations". It is the study of families – their relationships and lineage – which is often illustrated in a pedigree chart or family tree.
The practice of genealogical research was originally undertaken by antiquarians who researched the pedigrees of ancient gentry and nobility, often in order to confirm the rights to property ownership or the inheritance of money or title.
From the sixteenth century genealogy became closely linked with heraldry - the study of coats of arms and the families who bear them.
Coats of arms were granted to a particular individual and their legitimate (usually male) descendants, rather than being bestowed upon all those who bore the surname. In order to ascertain whether one is entitled to bear arms the family tree would need to be traced back in the male line to find out if a coat of arms was granted to an ancestor. Those who have inherited the right to bear arms are termed armigerous.
Throughout history there have been many instances of erroneous assertions of kinship to armigerous families – particularly in the Victorian era and the advent of the Gothic Revival, when there was a resurgence of interest in heraldry and all things mediaeval. These claims were often made by the newly rich (or nouveaux riches) who were eager to acquire a coat of arms and perhaps an entry into one of the volumes of published pedigrees to confirm their arrival into the upper echelons of society.
Some enterprising families even had their own ‘fake’ coats of arms created for them. As these coats of arms were not authorised by the College of Arms they have no official recognition.
Similarly, and with the exception of some of the more unusual family names, simply sharing a surname does not automatically indicate a familial connection. Hereditary surnames in England evolved following the Norman Conquest in 1066. Initially these surnames were flexible and changeable. Often a surname originated in the occupation of its owner – names such as Butcher, Baker, and Thatcher have these roots. A surname can also be related to its original bearer’s nickname or appearance.
Another type of surname derived from the father’s (or in some cases mother’s) first name – potentially resulting in a different surname for each generation. The tradition of a child taking the first name of their father or mother as their surname was carried on in some parts of Wales until the nineteenth century. There are examples of some Welsh families where each son had a different surname - having used their father’s first name, their father’s surname and the mother’s first name respectively. This of course can make research rather challenging!
The category of surnames known as locative or topographical are linked to the place of origin or features in the landscape– and it is important to note that the meanings of names can differ in relation to the area in which they originated.
Until the twentieth century many people could not read or write and the spelling of names varied accordingly. Accents varied enormously and people recorded names as they sounded to them - resulting in various different spellings for the same name.
The growth of genealogy sites on the internet is both a blessing and a curse, and unfortunately there is much misleading information about. However, the recording of inaccurate family histories is not confined to modern times and during the course of my widespread research I have discovered much erroneous information, including several fabricated family histories!
Although much genealogical material is now available to view online there are still a huge number of extremely important records which can usually only be accessed by visiting local and diocesan records offices and libraries, and The National Archives in Kew. These documents include poor law records, chancery court records, and manorial records. These can provide vital information about our ancestors, but as they are often unindexed their examination can be confusing and time consuming to the unacquainted.
How far back can a family be traced? In most cases a family tree can be taken back to the late eighteenth century. Prior to the nineteenth century parish registers are the main sources of information, with some registers dating back to the sixteenth century. However many registers are missing, inaccurate or illegible. Other complicating factors may be an illegitimate forbear or an extremely common name.
For obvious reasons you are fortunate if you have a more unusual surname. You may even find that surname has already been researched by the Guild of One Name Studies. In the great majority of cases it will not be possible to trace ones family beyond the fourteenth century when the widespread use of surnames began to develop.
Professional Family History Services UK
(Banner image at head of page: Pedigree of the De Euro family, of Northumberland, barons of Warkworth and Clavering,by Robert Glover English Officer of Arms, genealogist, and antiquarian 1544-1588 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)