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family history

family history refers to the records of those groups comprising parents and their children and all those connected to them by blood or marriage, claiming descent from a common ancestor. In Britain, where property and titles conferring status and privilege were and are inherited according to blood relationships, accurate documentation is of great importance.

From earliest times, tracing ancestors and establishing proof of relationship had practical importance for the wealthy and privileged and, in particular, for the sovereign. Throughout the 15th cent., before, during, and after the Wars of the Roses, evidence about family relationships formed an essential part of the case advanced by every claimant to the throne of England. Records of the aristocracy and royal families had always been maintained by the earl marshal and, in Scotland, by Lyon King-of-arms. However, in 1484, the College of Arms was incorporated as a permanent institution comprising heralds, who had the task of investigating descent and establishing incontestable rights to titles and property. At lower levels of society, amongst the gentry and smaller landowners, it was equally important to have knowledge of the family tree. Recognition of property rights guaranteed social status and acceptance. Thus, after the civil wars of the mid-17th cent. and the consequent upheaval and changes in land ownership, both aristocracy and gentry supported the publication of detailed histories of counties in England and Wales, which included family histories, often illustrating coats of arms, houses, and estates. In a formal sense the arrangement of these volumes was territorial, but information about rank, ownership of land, and powers to act as magistrates and to nominate clergy to benefices was given great prominence. These county histories focused on the wealthier residents of each county, giving little information about other levels of society. This pattern was followed by Scottish historians, except that they emphasized the role of the chiefs of Highland clans, particularly those who took peerages.

In the 20th cent. interest in family history became widespread, particularly after the 1950s with the expansion of popular education, greater resources including more leisure time, and easier access to documentary evidence. Tracing family history has become a popular activity, not as a means of establishing rights to title and property, but as a recognition of the importance of family and ancestry at all social levels. By 1960 county record offices had been established in all areas of England and Wales, providing readily available sources such as parish records, ancient wills, and, where they existed, family papers. An additional source has been the census enumerators' books, which may only be opened 100 years after their collection and give details about family composition and relationships.

In the 20th cent. social historians used studies of family histories to illuminate processes of social and geographical mobility in earlier times. This approach to history, combined with popular interest in family history, suggests that we may be moving towards a situation where the common people may be as well documented as the rich and privileged of previous eras.

Ian John Ernest Keil

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