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?

  • Some

1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide for advice on pre-19th century records held by The National Archives that may be of use when looking to trace the history of a family. We introduce some of the major family history sources for the medieval (974-1485) and early modern (1485-1714) periods and tell you how to search for them.

Most of the records we cover are not viewable online. You are welcome to visit us to do the research here in person, where you can view documents free of charge. Check our website for opening times and what you need to know when researching here.

In general, archival records from the early modern and medieval eras contain information about wealthier landowning members of society, so most ordinary people are less well documented. Information about ordinary people’s lives does exist, but it often occurs in records created for other purposes.

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.

As a starting point, you can try a search in our online catalogue. However, the majority of our medieval and early modern records, with some notable exceptions, such as wills proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and equity suits heard at the Court of Chancery, are not described in detail online, and simply searching the catalogue by keyword is not likely to reveal comprehensive results. Furthermore, the vast majority of medieval records are not available to view online so even if you find a reference to one in our catalogue, you will most likely not be able to view it straight away. To take your research further, you may therefore need to visit us to use our onsite finding aids and reference library. Many medieval records have been published, or have detailed lists, calendars and indexes, and these published sources are often the best place to start. Use this book list to find calendars, lists and indexes of specific records to help you locate records.

As an alternative starting point, watch our webinar on medieval and early modern sources for family historians for an an overview of the sources available at The National Archives and elsewhere. To complement this, look through this list of books, all of which are held at our library, for more detailed guidance on particular kinds of medieval and early modern records.

Finally, though not officially endorsed by The National Archives, Some notes on Medieval Genealogy is a website you may find useful for information on what types of medieval documents are available all around the country.

3. Reading medieval records

Medieval records are generally much more difficult to use than those from the 16th century and later because:

  • they are usually in highly abbreviated medieval Latin, Anglo-Norman French or occasionally Middle English
  • 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 award-winning tutorials to help you understand Latin and to read old documents and consult this book list for practical guidance on:

  • reading medieval and early modern documents and writing
  • interpreting dates

4. Searching by a person’s or family’s name

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, the following types of records are likely to be useful to you because they are particularly rich in names:

The England’s Immigrants Database 1330-1550 has opened up National Archives records documenting immigrants from the medieval period. You can search by surname and forename as well as by nationality or place.

You can also consult the various types of parchment rolls from the Court of Chancery (13th century onwards). 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. In particular, look at:

  • 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

Lawsuits are another rich source of information about individual people. You can search many of those heard at the Court of Chancery by names of plaintiffs and/or defendants in our catalogue. For more detailed advice, consult our guides to:

5. Searching by place

Some records are arranged by place, so if you have some idea of where your ancestors lived you may be able to use these records to trace families. The following record types can be searched by place:

  • Oath rolls. 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.
  • Manorial records. 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. You can also read the guidance for manorial records and deeds created by University of Nottingham.
  • Feet of fines (copies of agreements following disputes over property). Feet of fines (1190–1833) are in fact largely records of fictitious law suits used to evade conveyancing restrictions but you can search them both by place and sometimes by a person’s name. Our guidance on feet of fines will get you started.
  • Records of local militias. 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. See our guide to records of militias for more.
  • Taxation records. These records are more useful for tracing wealthier families and individuals but poorer families do appear in them, although the very poor were usually exempt. Our guide to records of taxation before 1689 explains how to search.
  • Pedigree charts in plea rolls. The plea rolls in KB 26, KB 27 and CP 40 contain numerous pedigree charts. Read Pedigrees from the Plea Rolls, 1200–1500 by G Wrottesley, held at our library, to find out how to locate these pedigree charts. You may also find the hand-written volumes, with indexes, in PRO 66/3, useful. They were compiled by General Plantagenet-Harrison in the late 19th century and provide indexes for and extracts of CP 40. Be cautious in trusting the accuracy of these pedigrees.