How to look for records of... Medieval and early modern family history
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
1. Why use this guide?
Use this guide if you are looking for records which contain genealogical information for the medieval and early modern period. It will introduce some of the major family history sources for the period and tell you how to search for them.
This guide is about records held by The National Archives, but you can find many more records in other archives. Search for an archive in the Find an archive directory.
2. Essential information
Information about ordinary people’s lives does exist, but it often occurs in records created for other purposes.
In general, archival records contain information about wealthier landowning members of society, so most ordinary people are less well documented.
Before 1538, when parish registers began, births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials were not officially recorded, though some notes may have been kept by the priest.
However, many other records which contain genealogical information start well before 1538, and continue long after.
3. Where to start?
Try searching Discovery, our catalogue for a name, a place or another keyword and refine your search by date range.
Any online search may be speculative or lengthy because many medieval and early modern records have not been digitised, or catalogued in detail. However, cataloguing is ongoing, so it is always worth doing a search.
Many medieval records have been published, or have detailed lists, calendars and indexes, and these published sources are often the best place to start. You will find lists of publications at the end of this guide.
Watch our webinar on an introduction to medieval and early modern sources for family historians for an overview of the sources available at The National Archives and elsewhere.
4. Reading medieval records
Medieval records are generally much more difficult to use than those from the 16th century and later.
- they are usually in a highly abbreviated form of Latin
- the use of English starts to become more common in informal documents in the late 15th century, but Latin was used in formal records until 1733 (except during the Interregnum)
- the handwriting and letter forms are very different from those of the present day alphabet
- the terminology and contemporary meanings of words may be difficult to understand
Use our tutorials on Reading old documents to help you decipher the records. Alternatively you may wish to consult published sources for further guidance. We will not translate or read documents on your behalf.
5. Looking for personal names
Tracing people by name in documents may not be easy because:
- the use of surnames became widespread by about 1300, but there was no consistency in spelling
- surnames were not always used, nor invariably passed from parent to child
- different surnames for the same individual could be used in different contexts and even a fairly distinctive surname may be difficult to trace
However, if you are looking for a person’s name, some types of records are likely to be useful to you because they are particularly rich in names. For example:
- Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills (1384–1858)
- Inquisitions post mortem (1236–c.1640), which give details of people who held land directly from the Crown
- records of Crown wardship of male heirs under 21 and female heirs under 14 (1540–1645)
- records of land conveyances (13th century onwards) and Crown, church and royalist lands (1642–1660)
- Privy Council records (1386 onwards)
- State Paper Office records (up to 1782) – many of these have been digitised and are available on the State Papers Online (£) website, and you can find calendars on the British History Online website
Also consult the various types of parchment rolls from the Court of Chancery (13th century onwards), in particular:
- patent rolls in C 66, which contain grants of land and wardship
- fine rolls in C 60, which include grants of wardship and marriage
- charter rolls in C 53, which contain grants of property in the presence of witnesses
- close rolls in C 54, which include enrolments of private deeds and writs of livery and seisin conveyances of freehold estates by deeds of bargain and sale enrolled on the close rolls after 1535
Although the Chancery rolls are largely concerned with people who were of sufficient status to have direct dealings with central government, they do contain many references to other people as well.
You can search for translations of public and private acts in the parliament rolls (C 65) on the Parliament Rolls of Medieval England website.
Use the Calendars of Treasury Books and Papers to locate records of the economic life of the nation. Read our guide on Treasury Board: letters and papers 1557–1920 for information on these records.
6. Looking for records arranged by place
Some records are arranged by place, so you will need to have some idea of where your ancestors lived to search them.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, people holding public office were required to swear an oath of loyalty to the Crown and the Protestant succession. You can find oath rolls at The National Archives, which are arranged by the place or county where the people lived.
The National Archives holds a considerable number of manorial documents, mostly from those manors which formed part of the crown lands. For more information on these records, read our guide on manors. Use our catalogue to discover the locations of manorial records in many different archives.
Feet of fines (1190–1833) are the records of fictitious law suits used to evade conveyancing restrictions.
Militia muster rolls (1522–1649) can be a valuable source of information, recording the names of able-bodied men liable for service in the militia. In some cases it is possible to gain an indication of the status of the family from the valuation made of a man’s lands and goods.
Taxation records (before 1689) can be useful in tracing rich and poor, although the very poor were usually exempt.
You may also find useful the extracts, mainly from CP 40 and similar legal records, made by General Plantagenet-Harrison in the late 19th century. There are several volumes, all hand-written with indexes, in PRO 66/3. Be cautious in trusting the accuracy of these pedigrees.
7. Useful websites
For information on what types of medieval documents are available, read Some notes on Medieval Genealogy.
8. Published sources
Consult this book list for practical guidance on:
- reading medieval and early modern documents and writing
- interpreting dates
Use this book list to find calendars, lists and indexes of specific records to help you locate records.
Read this book list for more information on particular kinds of medieval and early modern family sources.