Quality of the Sources

This is the Mark II upgrade of my view on Sources. In the five years since I last examined this, I have changed, or developed, my mind quite seriously. Instead of writing an essay on the quality of Sources referenced, I am now concentrating on information obtained.

The advantage of doing genealogy in the British Isles is that, particularly in England and Wales we are blessed with vast quantities of original documents about our ancestors. These documents are written in English, though the handwriting can be a little difficult, the documents survive from the sixteenth century, and very many of them have been copied and the images made publicly available for acceptable fees.

No longer do we have to rely on painstaking people copying from the ancient documents and putting what they found in books that are published at some expense. Instead the internet age is upon us and we can download copies straight into the comfort of our homes. This is transforming genealogy. We can ourselves work from the source documents.

So my view about the Quality of Sources is that we should if possible and if not too expensive, get hold of those sources and quote them as evidence for the facts we present about our families. I have made it my purpose to, if humanly and financially possible, find copies of the original documents for the births, marriages and deaths of our ancestors, relations and close in-laws.

This is a slow process. I had been developing my methods in my studies of the descendants of all our 61 known gt-gt-gt-gt-grandparents, a project that is unlikely ever to be completed. But now I have branched out on a project to catalogue and provide a framework of all descendants of Sir Thomas Powys (c.1649-1719). He is a 7 times great-grandfather of mine and this looks like working through some 1500 odd descendants; a nice achievement already has been to find the photo of the original baptism of his eldest son. The index of all British baptisms on Ancestry (which is not 'all' but no matter) did not include this first son.

The evidence I had showed that all Sir Thomas' and Sarah Holbech's children had been baptised at the same church, St Giles in the Fields, Holburn. Further it seems from other evidence that the Thomas the eldest son in fact was also the first born. The search then started in that church's register and nine months before the birth and baptism of Sarah the next born on 27th Nov 1688. I think I then moved through some 50 pages of baptisms and found Thomas' loudly and clearly listed; why this was missed off Ancestry's index I do not know. But no other transcript from any other publication had found this. The entry even included his birth date as well as that for his baptism: it could hardly be better. The point is that the whole of the baptism register had been photographed and made available to us in the comfort of our armchairs at home. Good genealogy has never been easier.

A reason for starting with Sir Thomas is that we have peculiar genetic information about him, that from the identity of two people who have been found to hold the same Y-DNA and for whom Sir Thomas is the first common ancestor, we know what his Y-DNA was.

The difference between my framework and most others of this nature is that I am including all descents, male and female. So the majority of the descendants will not even be Powys - nor will they carry his Y-DNA, of course.

With the current element of precision, what of my earlier work?

My earlier work was to explore our ancestry, particularly with a view of capturing any more heraldic heiresses to join the plethora of such we had already and then to make a Heraldic Pedigree of them all. This was treading into country I had never visited before and of which I had, and still have, little real expertise, that of the middle ages.

In the beginning I thought all I needed to do was to find a few pedigrees and then enter them up on my computer. It never even occurred to me to do what I am doing now, finding orignal documents which state facts, reading them, abstracting the facts and setting it all out in my computer program. Middle ages documents are few and far between, they are in a foreign language or two, they tend to be heavily abbreviated, the handwriting is almost unintelligible and they refer to customs and values we do not now share.

Others patiently allowed me to find the error of my ways and slowly I developed a methodology that allowed me to make a way through the medieval maze. There are scholars out there who can read and understand the ancient documents. Many of them have shared what they have found and opened their contributions to discussion and evolution of the best interpretations of what appears on surviving documents. What this means is that modern genealogy and modern accounts of old history has a greater chance of being accurate. More documents become available (as well as less as time destroys some that had survived) and more discussion is done on what they imply; the result is better genealogy than what went before.

All I can say of these medieval quests is that I found the following books very good value, they were researched by competent scholars and gave excellent information to answer the questions of who begat whom:

  • Complete Peerage, edited by a few, contributed to by many, a pleasure to read and with the later Corrigenda, an increasingly reliable account of the families involved.
  • Domesday People and Domesday Descendants by Katherine Keats-Rohan. Another work of major scholarship and the only usable source for people of those early Norman times.
  • English Baronies by I J Sanders.
  • Early Yorks Charters by Farrer and Clay with other books by Clay.
  • Together with books studying descents from medieval gateways, particularly Plantagenet Ancestry by Faris and The Ancestors of Dorothea Poyntz by Bodine and Spalding.
  • Hearings of Peerage claims by the House of Lords Privileges committee, specifically for our spectacularly heraldic Barrington ancestors. To see High Court judges demand and scrutinise the evidence is a real priviledge. All those claims failed for legal reasons, not the genealogy which was cast-iron.
  • Finally I should add the post-medieval heraldic visitations, they give hints that are worth pursuing by more scholarly means. Though too much of the visitations are bereft of evidence.

Tim Powys-Lybbe
May 2022