Introduction to Medieval Genealogy

On Saturday 4th September our guest speaker was Gillian Waters a Medievalist who has taught in schools, universities and museums for over twenty-five years. For Gillian this means the period between 410 AD and 1485 ie from when the Romans left Britain to the accession of Henry VII after the Battle of Bosworth. However, as records are relatively scarce up to the 900s, Gillian emphasized that she would concentrate on the period from the 14th century onwards. Most family historians have relied on census records from the 19th century and parish records that really got started in the 16th century.

Gillian wanted to introduce us to the various websites available and to reveal the significance of heraldry and a family’s coat of arms. If a family historian can find an ancestor who owned a plot of land in the 17th century, it might be possible to research and make connection which could go further back into the Medieval period.  It’s possible to track conveyance and criminal records and then on to heraldry and coat of arms.  The latter was the prerogative of the monarch and it wasn’t only the knights who fought for the monarch or those aristocrats who held large country estates. A coat of arms could be bought by successful merchants in which could then be designed for them. These took the shape of shields for men and lozenges for women and have illustrations of beasts such as lions or leopards and various symbols such as arrow heads, crowns, initials and patterns referring to the surname of a family and so a means of identification. A coat of Arms could be on a shield, a banner or on items of clothing.

Gillian suggested that various websites such as ‘Visitations’ which can be found on, The Dictionary of British Arms, The Complete Guide to Heraldry, the Book of Crests and Mottos. Pemberley’s Dictionary of Heraldry was especially recommended along with The last two websites can lead to all sorts of sources but Gillian emphasized that they should be used with care.

Gillian obviously knew her subject well and she delivered her talk with enthusiasm and often with humour.