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Heraldic Visitations were tours of inspection undertaken by Kings of Arms in England, Wales and Ireland in order to regulate and register the coats of arms of nobility and gentry and boroughs, and to record pedigrees. They took place from 1530 to 1688, and their records provide important source material for genealogists.
By the fifteenth century, the use and abuse of coats of arms was becoming widespread in England. One of the duties conferred on William Bruges, the first Garter Principal King of Arms was to survey and record the armorial bearings and pedigrees of those using coats of arms and correct irregularities. The officers of arms of England made occasional tours of various parts of the country to enquire about matters armorial during the fifteenth century. It was not until the sixteenth century that the process began in earnest.
The first provincial visitations were carried out under warrant granted by Henry VIII to Thomas
Benolt, Clarenceux King of Arms dated 6 April 1530. He was commissioned to travel throughout his province and was given authority to enter all homes and churches. Upon entering these premises, he was authorized to "put down or otherwise deface at his discretion...those arms unlawfully used". He was also required to enquire into all those using the titles of knight, esquire, or gentleman and decided if they were being lawfully used.
Map showing the number of visitations in each county. (See here for a key to the counties)By this writ, Henry VIII also compelled the sheriffs and mayors of each county or city visited by the officers of arms to give aid and assistance in gathering the needed information. When a King of Arms, or his deputy, visited a county, his presence was proclaimed by presenting the Royal Commission and the local gentry and nobility were required to provide evidence of their right to bear arms. The Sheriff would collect from the bailiff of each hundred within his county a list of all people using titles or arms. These were summoned to the visitation and the hope was that none would escape the enquiry. The people that were summoned were to bring their arms, and proof of their right to use the arms. Their ancestry would also be recorded. Where an official grant of arms had been made, this was recorded. Other ancient arms, many of which predated the establishment of the College of Arms, were confirmed. The officer would record the information clearly and make detailed note that could be entered into the records of the College of Arms when the party returned to London. These volumes now make up the Library of Visitation Books at the College, which contain a wealth of information about all armigerous people from the period. If the officers of arms were not presented with sufficient proof of the right to use a coat of arms, they were also empowered to deface monuments which bore these arms and to force persons bearing such arms to sign a disclaimer that they would cease using them.
The visitations were not popular with the landed gentry who were required to present proof of their gentility. Members of this class grew in power after the installation of William III in 1688, and further commissions to carry out visitations were not issued by William or his successors. This cessation of the visitations did not have much effect on those counties far removed from London. Over the period of visitations many of these counties were rarely visited. Those closer to London were more frequently subject to inspection. Also, there was never a systematic visitation of Wales. There were four visitations in the principality, and on 9 June 1551, Fulk ap
Hywel, Lancaster Herald of Arms in Ordinary was given a commission to visit all of Wales. This was not carried out, however, as he was degraded and executed for counterfeiting the seal of Clarenceux King of Arms. This is regrettable, since no visitation of all Wales was ever made by the officers of arms.
Thomas Hawley's books from his first tour of London are the earliest existing records of an English visitation.The original notebooks of the heralds during the visitations were not retained by the College of Arms and have been used as the basis for other manuscript copies which have been published by various groups. The only definitive records of the visitations are difficult to examine as they form part of the library of the College of Arms. These published sources do provide a great amount of detail on the subject. Many have been published by the Harleian Society, some by county record societies, and a few have been printed privately. Many of the manuscripts on which these published copies are based can be found today in the British Library in London.
|1. Allyn - Pedigree is taken from the Visitations of Devon 1620, by Col. Vivian