A gentle reminder or two

“You should study the Peerage, Gerald. It is the one book a young man about town should know thoroughly, and it is the best thing in fiction the English have ever done.”

Oscar Wilde – “A Woman of no Importance”

 These Wilde words should be branded into the brain of every amateur genealogist.  Both of the clauses in the second sentence carry their own kind of truth. 

The dismissive comment is a sharp reminder that not everything in print is to be believed, and, in particular, any genealogy based on male descent depends on the courteous myth that women are always faithful to their husbands.  The claim, often made in complete seriousness, of descent from antiquity “in the direct male line” may (usually with a few optimistic fudges) be justified on paper but, in terms of actual blood line, it is an honourable exercise in wishful thinking.

Nonetheless, the first part of Wilde’s sentence also remains true.  The unquestioning assumption of woman’s fidelity to her own given word was, and may still be, an essential ingredient of family life and a fundamental element in the orderly continuance of society.  The “Peerage,” the pedigrees in Heralds’ Visitations and the statements in wills or on tombstones were the agreed truth that gave social and family cohesion and enabled the transfer of property without constant recourse to bloodshed.  Any young man entering a society, whether it be the Victorian world of titles and family connections, or at her Majesty’s pleasure into a world of warders and underworld bosses, needs to know who, by the accepted convention of that society, is who.


“If the variety of Armes disclaim from any of these names, I will not stand upon a stiff justification: and yet it is to bee noted, that divers Cornish Gentlemen, borne yonger brothers, and advanced by match, have left their owne coats and honoured those of their wives with the first quarter of their shields.  Which error their posteritie likewise ensued, as also, that before these later petty differences grewe in vogue, the Armes of one Stocke were greatly diversified in the younger braunches”

Richard Carew of Antonie [1555 – 1620] – “The Survey of Cornwall” 1602.  (Quoted by S. Baring-Gould in “An Armoury of the Western Counties” 1898)

 In our late excursion into the pedigree of the Frampton family, we have noted that the custom of younger brothers adopting the coat armour of their wives was by no means limited to Cornwall.  It was, in fact, a practice that was widespread and continued long after Carew’s time.  For all I know, it continues today.

Carew refers to the practice as an “error,” but it need not be seen as an error if we accept that coats of arms represent a material reality, rather than an ideal concept such as “blood line.”  When the younger brother’s wife was heiress to property, part of that property was her coat of arms.  If her inheritance was greater than that which the younger son received from his own family then it would be quite right for the descendants to place their mother’s coat in position of more prominence than their father’s.  Before the College of Heralds took control of the granting of arms, younger sons chose to display whatever coat seemed to them most appropriate.  In subsequent centuries there are innumerable examples of husbands assuming the arms (or the surnames, or both,) of their wives with the full sanction of the heralds.

Carew also reminds us that the formalisation of using “petty differences” to show cadet lines was a recent growth in his time.  I don’t know who started it, (though I suppose I should,*) but in Plantagenet times any difference could be chosen, and ideally one obvious enough to be recognised by someone galloping towards you across a foggy field in Flanders. 

“A word of caution is perhaps necessary as to the reliance to be placed on all Heralds’ Visitations; it is constantly found when information is obtainable from other sources (such as wills, &c.) that the Visitations are full of errors, generations being missed out, a father and son represented as brothers, &c. And perhaps it is not too much to say that they cannot be relied upon beyond the grandfather of the “Armiger ” who was cited to the Visitation; but when all is said, they still remain a valuable (and sometimes the only) clue to a gentle family, whose name now perhaps only exists as that of a remote farm house.”

F. W. Weaver – preface to “The Visitations of the County of Somerset …” 1885

We found examples of this problem too when looking at the Frampton pedigree. 

The 1565 Visitation collapsed the pedigree in a very misleading way, compared with Burke’s version.  From the Visitation, there were three persons: Robert, his eldest son and heir James, then Edward the eldest son and heir of Robert.  Burke’s version resolves this anomaly by showing that the second Robert was the grandson of the first Robert’s younger brother.  Apart from the second Robert’s father and grandfather, the Visitation also omits two others who inherited the estates between the James and Edward who are included.  These two, however, died without issue so the Visitation could ignore them safely enough.

The Frampton entry in the 1565 Visitation, echoed by Burke, states that Edward’s son married Elizabeth, daughter of Nicholas Willoughby of Turners Puddle.  There is a pedigree for Willoughby of Turners Puddle in the same Visitation, but neither Nicholas nor Elizabeth is mentioned in it.  This omission need not shake our faith in Burke.

The senior branch of the family were omitted almost entirely from the 1623 Visitation.

So, the Visitations might well be the first port of call when investigating a family tree, but equally they might be a last resort in proving it.  Nonetheless, as stated earlier, they represent the “agreed truth” of the time.



* … The system of  “later petty differences” is attributed to Sir John Writhe, Garter King of Arms 1478-1504, but they are described as early as Henry VI’s time, as seen, for example, in the manuscript volume catalogue number 3533 in the library of Exeter Cathedral, England.



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