British Ancestry

Heraldry itself describes the various duties of the officers appointed by the Sovereign to decide questions of precedency, to superintend solemnities and ceremonial events such as coronations, creations of peers, opening of parliament and the like, according to the national customs. They also have the care of pedigrees and the bearing of coat armour. Heraldry is most commonly now confined to the subject of coat armory, marks of hereditary honour, usually given by authority to individuals for descent through their families. The expression, of course, comes from the fact that they were displayed not only on the shields on helmet, banner or flag and saddle-cloth, but also on the coat or tunic worn over the armour. Brydal, in his Jus Imaginis apuld Aglos p.53, states "as in ancient times, the statues or images of their ancestors were proof of their nobility, so, of latter times, coats of arms came in lieu of those statues or images and are most certain proofs and evidences of nobility. Hence, it followeth that Jus Nobilitatis is nothing else but Jus Imaginis; and the right of having images of their ancestors was the same as the right of having arms now with us". Brydal thus compared the images and hereditary marks of honour of the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and earlier civilisations with those of the feudal era.


A good deal of time could be spent discussing the origins and development of heraldry in the tilt field and the tournament in the crusades and the Holy wars, but we know that from the middle of the 12th century and beginning of the 13th century, there was already generally adopted a system of hereditary surnames and with them regular heraldic insignia so that the leading personages could be distinguished from each other in being represented in battle and the lists as well as in civil life.

J.R. Planche, in his The Pursuivant of Arms, and later in his edition of Clarke's Heraldry, establishes four propositions: that heraldry appears as a science at the commencement of the 13th century, while armorial bearings were already in existence, from some time previously, no precise date has yet been discovered for their first assumption; that the assumption of coats of arms was not as so many seem to suggest that the assumers had any special achievement or symbolism of virtue or qualification to symbolise, but simply to distinguish their persons and properties by designs that were readily recognisable, attesting their pretentions to honours and estates, their alliances and acknowledging their feudal tenures; that wherever it has been possible to sift the evidence, it has appeared that the popular tradition of the origins of certain singular coats of arms has usually been invented at a much later period, stories fabricated to account for the bearings and to flatter the descendants of the family by attributing to their ancestors the most improbable adventures and achievements; that the real value of the study of heraldry, while demolishing old and familiar legends, has importance in eliciting genealogical facts and providing clues to historical interpretation of monuments and documents, elevating the science to a degree of respectability. Those who wish to study the subject in more depth and origins in particular, will be well guided by reading The Right Road to the Study of Heraldry though several worthy new books have appeared since its latest edition,.

Heraldry has rightly been called the shorthand of history and from a genealogical point of view, there is no doubt as Stacey Grimaldi in his Origines Genealogica points out on page 82, Welsh families (for example) are more known by their arms than by their names and even an English family's persons of the same name can only now be classed with their proper families by inspection of the arms on their shields and the like.

Ralph Bigland, in his Observations on Parochial Registers, 1767, pointed out that he knew of three families who have acquired estates by virtue of preserving the arms and escutcheons of their ancestors in the antiquity of a church window for the proof of a match and issue had been delivered to a jury at an assize and had been accepted according to Burton's History of Leicestershire. In Harleian MS 1386 there is argument by the Officers of Arms against Sir Michael Plant, who endeavoured to prove himself the heir male to the body of Sir Walter, 1st Lord Mountjoy, based upon a glass window set up in the church at Ives in Buckinghamshire in the 15th century. Similarly, among the evidence presented in the Huntingdon claim to the earldom, examined by the Attorney General in 1818, support for the peerage was provided by a very old shield emblazoned with the armorial bearings of a Hastings out of the family of Huntingdon, quartered with those of Stanley as evidence of the marriage of Henry 5th Earl of Huntingdon to the daughter of Ferdinando Stanley, Earl of Derby, cited in Hubback's Evidence of Succession, pp.694-696. Symbolism could certainly be examined, but for the purposes of this study and the application of heraldry to genealogy, the first dictum is to learn how to blazon a coat of arms, as given in the first example, so that the individual coats of arms may be identified and the relationships indicated by impalements and quarterings properly pursued to determine the genealogical connections.

As with any other language, practise is important and for this reason the examples taken from the late Gilly Potter's work with the permission of his former student, the late Leslie Pearson, provides a good schooling. These notes can be obtained from the Tutorial Supervisor, The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, Northgate, Canterbury, Kent, CT1 1BA (http:/

An important aspect of heraldry in the genealogical studies is a proper understanding of the records of the Heralds' Visitations. I have gone into considerable detail in Armigerous Ancestors, 1997, on this subject and that work should be studied with particular reference to the introduction. This, incidentally, gives, for the first time, the dating of the various manuscripts in the British Library, helping researchers to identify the particular visitations to which they refer. It particularly stresses how the idea that heraldry is snobbish or for a particular caste or class of society is a total misconception. Because of the vicissitudes of English family life, individuals' ancestries may run up and down the social scale. Indeed, the best examples are that the grandmother of the queen was barmaid of unknown origin and the illegitimate son of a King died on parish relief as a bricklayer's labourer. So this essay on Tudor heraldry should be read carefully and noted.

Very often armorists are challenged to show the value of heraldry in genealogical studies. Here is an example. Many years ago a pair of candlesticks was brought to me. The silver was by John Schofield and dated 1779. The coat of arms appearing on each was blazoned quarterly of six with an escutcheon of pretence, Sable, on a chevron between three pistols Or, three roses Gules and a canton Or charged with a chief engrailed Sable and on a bend engrailed Gules over Or, three bezants; 1, Sable, a helmet closed between three pheons Argent; 2, Ermine, on a bend Sable three goats heads erased Argent armed Or; 3, Sable, three lions passant in pale Argent; 4, Gules, a lion rampant Or between four crosses patonce Vert; 5, Argent, on a chevron Gules three sheldrakes Argent and on a canton Gules a rose Argent barbed Vert seeded Or; 6, Ermine, an eagle displayed Sable beaked and membered Gules debruised with a bendlet compony Or and Azure.

Many hours with the aid of Papworth's Dictionary of British Armorials and assistance from a colleague produced the pedigrees via J.B. Whitmore's A Genealogical Guide 1953, and George Marshall's The Genealogist's Guide 1973, producing a pedigree showing a considerable degree of implection, identifying the coats of arms of Dolben, Mulsho, English, Reason, Sheldon and Rose with Hopkins of Ovinghouse, Buckinghamshire, in pretence, and Hallet of Cannons, Middlesex, on the canton in chief. Without identifying the coats of arms and the names associated with them, the family tree could not have been produced and the particular provenance could not have been sorted out.

There can be little doubt that this achievement represents the marriage in 1779 of John English Dolben, eldest son and heir (and eventually the fourth Baronet) of Sir William Dolben, Baronet and Fellow of the Royal Society, with Hannah, daughter of William Hallet of Cannons in Middlesex who was heiress to her mother, the daughter of John Hopkins of Brittons in Essex.

Great confusion is caused by this exceptionally rare occurrence in heraldry where the heiress bears the arms of her mother's father with the arms of her own father appearing merely in a canton upon that maternal coat, but I have already referred to such distinctions in my article "Quarters for a Difference" (Coat of Arms, N.S. Vol.1 (no.92) pp.98-105).

John Hopkins of the house of Hopkins of Oving in Buckinghamshire died immensely rich on 25 April 1732 and was succeeded by his nephew John Hopkins, whose eldest daughter and heiress Hannah, on his death about 1772, inherited his whole estate. She married William Hallet described as "worthy cabinet-maker" who, upon the death of the First Duke of Chandos, who had inherited Cannons through his first wife, purchased the estate. That explains the inescutcheon. He built an enormous villa there which is now the North London Collegiate School for girls.

The arms of Dolben appearing in the first quarter were granted to the Right Reverend John Dolben (1625-1686), Archbishop of York (DNB vi.189). As can be seen from the pedigree that I have constructed, he married Catherine, the daughter of Ralph Sheldon of Stanton, Esquire, and niece of Gilbert Sheldon, Archbishop of Canterbury. Their son, Sir Gilbert Dolben who was First Baronet (1658-1722) married Anne, the eldest daughter and co-heiress of Tanfield Mulso of Finedon in Northampton, gentleman, from whom he inherited a considerable estate which took the Dolben family to Finedon and gave Gilbert the opportunity, coupled with his father's position, to acquire a Baronetcy. The arms of Mulso which his son, the Revd Sir John Dolben, Second Baronet, (1683-1756) inherited by this marriage were granted by William Dethick, Garter King of Arms, to Robert Mulshoe of Goathurst, Buckinghamshire, on 10 December 1587. You will see that there is a nice cant in the appearance of the goats' heads in the arms.

The Revd Sir John Dolben married the Hon. Elizabeth Digby, second daughter of William, Lord Digby, but since she was not an heiress or co-heiress, no arms were transmitted to the next generation. Their son, Sir William Dolben, Fellow of the Royal Society (1726-1814), married as his first wife, Judith, daughter and heiress of Somerset English by Judith, daughter and co-heiress of Hugh Reason of Hampnet in Sussex, and her mother was the daughter and co-heiress of Sir Joseph Sheldon, the Lord Mayor of London in 1676 and the brother of Catherine the wife of the Rt Revd John Dolben, Archbishop of York. This, then, was a marriage of third cousins, Sir William Dolben married as his second wife, Charlotte, the widow of John Scotchmer and daughter of George Affleck by his wife Ann, daughter of John Dolben by Elizabeth the other daughter and co-heiress of Tanfield Mulso of Finedon. This John Dolben was the brother of Sir Gilbert Dolben, the First Baronet, and, therefore, Sir William's second wife was his second cousin!

Sir Joseph Sheldon married Margaret, the daughter and co-heiress of George Rose of Eastergate in Sussex, and her sister, Judith, widow of Sir Maurice Diggs of Chilham Castle in Kent, Baronet, married Sir Joseph's brother, Daniel Sheldon. The Roses were granted arms on 16 February 1681, so that Rose could, in fact, be represented by the two Sheldon brothers. At the same time, on 16 December 1618, the Lord Mayor, Joseph Sheldon, was granted new arms based on the ancient coat of Sheldon incorporating the canting sheldrakes.

Sir John English Dolben had one son, William Somerset Dolben, and five daughters. His son died twenty years before he did but left a daughter, Frances, who married two years before his death, William Harcourt Isham MacWorth who took the name of Dolben by Royal Licence.

Without the heraldry, which was identified rellatively readily as the pedigree was built up, it would have been difficult for any genealogist to construct this complex account.

1 August 2007

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