It’s a question many ask about genealogy. Will I be able to find all my ancestors and how far back can I go? Some seems to think you can go back to time immemorial, but can you?
Well unfortunately the answer is no you can’t. The records only go back so far. But don’t be downhearted as you can get a long way back.
Up until 1538 it was more than likely that only people born into the aristocracy who would have had their baptism, marriage or burial registered by the family. In 1538 Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII right hand man decreed that in the new Church of England all baptism, marriages and burials would be recorded by the parish priest at the local church with copies being made and sent to the bishop every three months. Thus the parish records came into being. This system continued until 1837 when the present system of receiving birth, marriage and death certificates was introduced when Queen Victoria ascended to the throne. Baptisms, marriages and burial were still recorded by the church when the events took place, but the official registration was still required.
So if you’re really lucky you may be able to get back to 1538. But a note of caution is needed. A lot of the records this far back are really difficult to read and they may be in Latin! This means that not only with you have to translate the date but also the names. For example it’s not too bad with my name Sarah as in Latin it’s Sara but some other names are really different. Walter in Latin is Ualterius and Louisa is Ludovica. Also the condition of the records may be so bad that when they are viewed they can have unreadable areas.
If we consider Dronfield in Derbyshire the records began in 1560 but the church itself was built in the 12th century. So we see there is a large discrepancy between when the church was built and the records began. This means you will miss out on so many ancestors, probably approximately 13 generations at 30 years per generation. Don’t be upset though as if you think about it up to the present day you can probably go back approximately 15 generations and 15 is better than nothing as it’s still over 4.5 centuries.
You also have to take into account what information is given in the parish records. There was no set format for the records, it was what the vicar or his clerk decided to include. This means it will vary, sometimes greatly, between the parishes.
For baptisms in most cases you will get the child’s given name, his parents given names and his father’s surname, so for example the basic information you may get is:
John son of John and Mary Smith baptised 1 January 1600
You may get lucky and find that the mother’s maiden surname is included. In the later records you got information such as where the family lived and the father’s occupation.
Marriage records are the ones that can be most annoying. It is not uncommon to just find that John Smith married Mary in the parish on a certain date. This gives so little information. Again the later the records the better as the woman’s maiden surname was included and perhaps the abodes or even father’s names and occupations for the couples.
Burial records in general were just the person’s name and when they were buried, but in some cases the place of death was recorded and even their age at death. I have even come across some records which stated what the person died from.
So all this means that just because the records are available doesn’t necessarily mean they are of any help and so you may not be able back to the 15 generations. With so little information in the records if your ancestors moved about you would have difficulty finding them.
But don’t give up hope, half the fun is the search. The old adage search and ye shall find is the mantra most genealogists adhere to. You never know what you will find until you look, so look and you may be pleasantly surprised as to what is available.
Hello and thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings on genealogy and history in general. I hope you find it informative and hopefully funny!