Ingenious tips on taking your research back to the English Civil War and beyond.
By Else Churchill
Last updated 2011-06-09
Ingenious tips on taking your research back to the English Civil War and beyond.
Many people find problems researching earlier than 1800. The Georgian period (1715-1837) saw incredible changes in society that also impacted on the records of the time.
This era saw an increase in migration and colonialism. It witnessed the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. The growth of the city, especially London caused many to leave rural parishes. This was a period of wars with the Scots and the French and others in between.
There were huge extremes of wealth with a considerable criminal underclass and poor as well as incredibly wealthy aristocrats and gentry. There were few in the middle, but this period did see the blossoming of a mercantile class who dominated the trade in luxury and manufactured goods.
An act of 1696 designed to prevent electoral fraud also authorised the publication of copies of the results of polls for the election of Knights of the Sire and Members of Parliament.
Throughout the 18th century, the right to vote was the privilege largely of landowners and those who rented property of a sufficient value. Nonetheless, these lists of the men who voted, showing also how they voted, can be an invaluable resource.
Sometimes all you can show about your ancestor is that he was 'flourishing' in a certain place at a certain time. Some poll books may indicate the trade or profession of the voter. The Society of Genealogists holds many copies of poll books in its library and has published a guide Directories & Poll Books, including Almanacs & Electoral Rolls, in the Library of the Society of Genealogists (Society of Genealogists, 1995).
A growing and influential navy and army enabled the empire to grow as Britain gained and lost colonies in America (to 1776) and the West Indies and Caribbean. This was the century of the Seven Years War (1756-1763), in which Clive captured Plessey, India (1757) and Wolfe captured Quebec, Canada (1759).
The records of the army and navy can be found at the National Archives (TNA) and some of these records are available online through its website. Soldiers who served in the army before 1854 are listed on theNational Archives Catalogue. But unless the records you want are online and searchable by name, it is vital for this period that you know the ship a sailor served in.
Incidentally, if an ancestor served at Trafalgar it is possible to find him through the Trafalgar Ancestors Database. Officers in the army and navy are listed in the army and navy lists of the period.
Taxation became increasingly sophisticated during this period as the continuing wars with France impinged on the import of goods. Smuggling was rife because of the introduction of expensive duties. The significant tax records of the period are:
For example: David Garrick paid £6 in tax for the year 5 April 1756 on his four-wheeled chariot and two-wheeled chase.
The records of Quarter Sessions (found in Local Record Offices) and Assizes (at TNA) can be useful. However, a remarkable resource for this period is the website of the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London 1674 to 1913.
www.oldbaileyonline.org is a fully searchable online edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing accounts of almost 200 000 criminal trials held at London's Central Criminal Court. Many criminal records for England and Wales 1791-1892 are also available at www.ancestry.co.uk.
The 18th century equity courts are rich in information about those who went to court to argue about estates, inheritances, contested wills, marriages contracts and all manner of fascinating family squabbles. Many of the Chancery records at the National Archives are being indexed onto TNA’s catalogue which can be searched via its website.
A significant index of thousands of names in Chancery Records before the middle of the 18th century can be found in the Bernau Index held at the Society of Genealogists.
The 'Commonwealth gap'
For those lucky enough to research back that far, the era of the English Civil Wars and the subsequent 'Interregnum' or 'Commonwealth' period (1653-1660) can be beset with problems.
There are often gaps in the keeping of records as war and its aftermath had its effects. It is for this reason that the missing entries are said to fall into the 'Commonwealth gap'. Hence genealogists have to try to substitute the more commonly used parish registers and create a picture of a family before and after the civil wars.
The visitations of the Heralds carried out before the outbreak of hostilities in the 1630s, and those undertaken upon the restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s can provide a snapshot of the pedigrees of middle and upper class families that bore coats of arms.
Most of these pedigrees are published by the Harleian Society, drawn from records at the College of Arms and the Harleian Manuscripts and the British Library.
Most church courts were in abeyance during the Commonwealth. Wills that would usually be recorded in the local courts were proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and hence the records are online at the National Archives Documents Online website.
This period saw the first tentative steps towards the 'civil' registration of marriages with acts that legalised marriages, not before the vicar in church, but by the local justice of the peace.
After the Restoration, these were often retrospectively legitimised by the church and may be recorded much later after the event in the parish registers . Examples of this can be found in the parish of Marshfield in Gloucestershire.
The registers of Sholden in Kent were obviously recreated some years after the events from memory and other contemporary copies. The vicar wrote: 'This book was lost for five years, being carried away by Mr Nichols when he was sequestrated and came not into our hands till anno 1662 after my sequestration and restoration'.
Thus we are introduced to terms and events common of this period - the sequestration of the estates of those deemed by parliament to be delinquents, that is, recusant Catholics (Roman Catholics who did not attend the services of the Church of England) and royalists.
Records of the delinquent royalists and their fortunes, lost in the encumbered debt -ridden estates sequestrated by parliament, are to be found in the state papers at the National Archives.
After the seizure of their estates, most royalists and non-combatant Catholics could appeal or 'compound' to have their lands restored to them in return for the payment of a fine, which was valued at a fraction of the capital value of their property.
In compounding, the delinquent would produce evidence of the condition of the estate, the charges upon it and hope to convince the committee to reduce the fine. Thus the royalist 'Composition Papers'.
The calendars can include vast amounts of information about marriage contracts, dower rights and annuities to younger sons, which were in effect 'tax deductible'. Movable goods were to be inventoried and sold, the land and property were to be leased for the profit of the state.
Evidence of this delinquency was based upon the word of an informant rather than by detection and it is in the nature of the 17th century that neighbours informed upon each other.
Once delinquency was proved and the estate was seized the owner was allowed back a fifth of the estate for the maintenance of his family and another fifth went to the informant (who is also named in the records).
Even if your ancestors did not have property, these records are still of interest. The detailed inventories of the estates can list every tenant and employee. It is worth trying to establish the estates your ancestors might have lived on and check the calendars of the state papers to see what might have become of the owner.
Throughout this period, heavy taxes were levied and Catholic recusants were taxed doubly. From the 'Free and cheerful gift' levied in 1625, to Ship Money, Collections in Aid of Distressed Protestants in Ireland, Subsidies, Poll Taxes and the Hearth Tax, we have lists of those persons who paid tax. Information on who was eligible for tax and the amount they paid were drawn from the records of the Protestation Returns. There are two excellent guides to these listings:
The taxes are generally to be found at the National Archives or in county record offices and the Protestation Returns are at the House of Lords Record Office. The National Archives website has a database that list the taxes that survive for towns and parishes in the E179 series of exchequer/tax records. Try also www.hearthtax.org.uk/ for the Hearth Tax.
There were terrific religious and political upheavals at this time when those who held military or civil office made Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy which were recorded in the Association Oath Rolls (both at The National Archives).
AG Matthew's edition of Calumy’s Account of the Ministers and Others Ejected and Silenced 1660-62 (1934) lists Commonwealth clergy and his edition of Walker’s Suffering of the Clergy (1948) lists royalist clergy ejected during the Commonwealth.
Information on Friends (Quakers) imprisoned for their beliefs can be found in the State Papers and of course Recusants – Roman Catholics, Nonconformists and other Protestant Dissenters continued to be fined for refusing to comply with the rites of the Established Church of England and are recorded in the county Recusant Rolls at The National Archives.
Throughout the 16th century, the justices of the peace adjudicated on Poor Law bastardy orders and settlement appeals, as well as licensing such activities as victualling. They administered the pensions of ordinary soldiers who had taken part in the Civil Wars, first on behalf of the parliamentary committees, and later for the restored king. Many of the order and session books of this period have been published by local record societies. A useful book is Quarter Sessions records for Family Historians by Jeremy Gibson (The Family History Partnership, 2007). Many local quarter session records have been catalogued and indexed into the Access to Archives website.
Else Churchill has been the Genealogy Officer of the Society of Genealogist since 1998. Formerly the Librarian of the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, Else has worked for the SOG since 1994. Her main interests lie in the 17th century and sources for people who lived through the English Civil Wars but she also specialises in using the records of the Victorian censuses.
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