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The First Amateur Genealogists

Popular genealogy was born in the seventeenth century. While only a King of Arms could grant a coat of arms, anyone with the ability to read medieval documents could conduct genealogical research and compile a pedigree. Copying the pedigrees of royal families and noblemen also became an increasingly popular pursuit. As Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644) wrote in his notes for a history of his own family, "What is history but the pedigree of the world?"


This pedigree of Queen Elizabeth (image top right) is part of a collection of pedigrees and coats of arms that were copied out of a book in the College of Arms. It shows Elizabeth at the top of a leafy tree emerging from the belly of Edward III, who was the root of her family "tree." The largest coat of arms depicts the coming together of the House of Lancaster and the House of York in the marriage of Henry VII to Elizabeth, the daughter of Edward IV. The unknown compiler of this personal manuscript shows a clear interest in understanding the pedigrees of royal and noble Elizabethan families.


Edward Dering was the first person to write a records-based genealogical history of his own family. In this opening (image bottom right), Dering proudly traces his family in Kent back to Saxon origins, before the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066. He notes that the Domesday Book mentions one "Derinc," son of "Sired," whom he takes to be his ancestor. Dering obtained a warrant to search public records in the Tower of London, but when he could not locate genuine evidence, he filled the gaps in his family history with imaginative reconstructions, a practice also engaged in by a few professional heralds.

The pedigree of Queen Elizabeth from A Collection of Armes in Blazon. 1590-1591

Dering. History of the Dering family from the time of the Conquest. Manuscript, ca. 1635

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