Reliable sources for pre-1700 profiles in England

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England Project | Reliable Sources for Pre-1700 Profiles Category Page | Reliable Sources for Pre-1700 Profiles


Reliable Sources

The most reliable sources are contemporary records that were created at the time the person lived.

  • Parish Records: Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, and other acts such as confirmations, recantations... Not every parish record has survived, and the earlier the person lived, the less likely that the event was even recorded. The actual Parish Registers are generally available at the County Record Office or are sometimes held at the actual church. Subscription sites such as Ancestry*, FindMyPast and the Genealogist also have collections, but no one online site has a complete set of parish registers. Some records can be found online at the various England counties (please see the specific County Resources page linked below) which are free. Transcripts or indexes of various parish records can be found on Family Search (including England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975, Free Reg(free), and some 'Online Parish Clerks (OPCs)' eg Cornwall Online Parish Clerk and Lancashire Online Parish Clerk and facilitate access to the actual parish record.
  • Quaker Monthly Meeting records These exist from 1650 onwards to record Quaker births, marriages and deaths. Found at both FindMyPast (paywall) and They are usually highly detailed and legible!
  • Wills, Administrations & Probate and Inquistions Post Mortem: Wills proved through the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) are available at The National Archives - PCC wills 1384-1858 or at Wills proved at the lower courts may be located at County Record Offices. Only a small number of people who lived in England before 1700 left a will. See FamilySearch Guide to England Probate Records for more information.
  • Court and Chancery records
  • Manorial records Under the feudal system, each parish typically had between one and half a dozen "manors", each with a lord who held a court and had certain rights and powers. Manors maintained individual records concerning land transactions, court proceedings and inheritances. Records are now at local record offices, at the National Archives or in private hands. The National Archives maintains a Manorial Documents Register as a finding aid.
  • Other land and tax records. This includes Hearth Tax records, 1662-1689, which records taxable households. They have been published for various counties, listed at the Roehampton University site.

Usage Guidelines for 'Reliable Sources'

  • The best option is to cite and transcribe the original record or a digital image of it. As well as original records, the England Project has decided to include indexes and transcripts of contemporary records as reliable sources, although the original or digital version of a record is always preferable.
  • A name does not constitute a source. Just because you find the name you are looking for in a record, doesn't mean that it is a source for the specific person you are researching. See Sources v Evidence section below.
  • Proper usage of records held on subscription sites: Just because a record is behind a "pay wall" on sites such as Ancestry and FindMyPast, does not mean it should not be used. If possible a link should be provided to an image of the source. Wikitree has a very informative help page: Links to Ancestry which should be used when adding these sources.
  • Inline sourcing is preferred as the specific information provided by the source then directly provides the evidence for the fact that is referenced.

Reliable Secondary Sources

Although no source is perfect the sources in this section are generally well sourced. As with any secondary sources always try and seek out the original source.

  • G.E. Cokayne, The Complete Peerage - eg - generally volumes edited by Cokayne are based on primary sources and verifiable secondary sources. Always check Some corrections and additions to the Complete Peerage for updated information on the Cokayne volumes.
  • Douglas Richardson, numerous volumes, also generally reference reliable sources
  • Academic, scholarly or historical volumes, especially if primary sources are referenced.
  • County visitations. These are armorial records, which give pedigrees which have been validated by the College of Arms. There are 19th Century transcriptions of these visitations which are available online. See discussion on Visitations, including need for caution at Medieval Genealogy and the College of Arms

Check soc.genealogy.medieval for discussions that may be helpful if using the above sources.

Usage Guidelines for all Secondary Sources

  • These sources should always be critically appraised (see Sources v Evidence section below)
  • Only use secondary sources if they are themselves sourced (preferably with primary sources) and if possible seek out the original source.
  • Please only use a secondary source (particularly Richardson) if you have actually cited the relevant section of the book. Include a complete reference, including the page number of the volume.
  • If possible at least one contemporary source should be included on the profile along with any of these sources.
  • Inline sourcing is preferred as the specific information provided by the source then directly provides the evidence for the fact that is referenced.

Unreliable Sources or 'Actually Not Sources At All'

  • Online Trees, including User Contributed trees. These are completely unreliable and may contain all sorts of errors, including basic research errors. They should never be used as a source on English profiles, although when attempting to source an existing gedcom, they may be added to the research notes to assist in attempting to orient to the particular family line. These types of trees can be found on the following sites:
- FamilySearch (including Pedigree Resource File and other submitted genealogies - User-submitted genealogies included now as part of FamilySearch Genealogies
- MyHeritage
- Rootsweb
- Geneanet
  • User Databases

These may not be supported by primary or credible secondary sources, and should not be used. Such a database is the Millennium File - a database created by the Institute of Family Research and available online at

  • Websites with online trees and genealogical information

These may provide some guidance but please do not cite them as a source. If there is a source cited seek that out, confirm the information and use that as your source. Some commonly used examples include:

Jamie Allen's Family Tree & Ancient Genealogical Allegations (Fab Pedigree) - The opening page of this site contains a warning 'PLEASE do not treat the information in this genealogy as authoritative' - enough said.
The Peerage - Provides sources but relies heavily on secondary sources or even personal emails as a source.
Our Royal, Titled, Noble, and Commoner Ancestors & Cousins (Marlyn Lewis). Uses some good sources, eg, Richardson, Cokayne, and less reliable ones such as Burke, but many entries have no sources at all. Also uses Ancestry user trees as a source.
Tudor Place. An unsourced personal website.
Find A Grave. Many entries on this site are similar to user created trees. Do not use Findagrave unless there is a photograph of the gravestone/monument. Of the pre-1700 gravestones that still exist, many are no longer legible.
  • Personal genealogy websites: As with the member trees, these can be a good guide for research, but not as a source.
  • Unsourced privately published genealogies: These are the print equivalent of personal genealogy. Again, as with user trees and personal genealogy websites these may be a guide but should not be used as a source. These genealogical volumes may rely on oral evidence or even wishful thinking.
  • Burke's Peerage and other volumes written by John Burke or later members of his family. These volumes rarely reference sources - always use Cokayne or Richardson in preference to Burke, especially if there is a discrepancy in the information.

Usage Guidelines for 'Unreliable Sources'

  • As with the sources section above, these sources should always be critically appraised (see Sources v Evidence section)
  • These sites and books may contain trees with precise dates and places or other information that provides clues with where to search for reliable sources. Occasionally these trees have sources. Look for the source and check it for yourself, do not use the member tree as source.
  • It is not acceptable to create a new profile using a source that is unreliable.
  • When working on existing unsourced profiles or lines, a relevant unreliable source may be added to the profile to assist in orienting to a family. In this situation, the 'unsourced' template should not be removed from the profile.

Links to other resource pages

Sources v Evidence

Understand the difference between a source and evidence. On Wikitree a source is where you found the information. It could be a primary source such as a birth, death or marriage record, land transaction, employment record etc. It could be a physical document in a library or archive, an online index, online document, image, sound recording etc, or it could be a secondary (derivative) source such as a monograph or article either in print or online. This is not necessarily evidence that an event occurred. To become evidence the source should be directly relevant to the fact it is supporting. If not a primary source, it should be able to be corroborated by other sources. This doesn't mean that you need seek out every available reference to a given fact, but you should apply some level of critical appraisal to the sources (especially secondary sources) that you are using.

A baptism record for John Smith, son of William Smith is no guarantee that it is the same John Smith as the one you are researching.

Critical appraisal means objectively looking at your source and considering at a minimum:

When was the source created? A baptismal entry recorded at the time of the event – good
A gravestone erected at the time of death – probably good for the death date but other information may be inaccurate
If it is a secondary or tertiary source and there is no supporting evidence – not a reliable source

Who created the information? An original government record of employment, a land transaction, migration – good
The subject of the profile, eg a diary, reminiscence – reasonably good but subject to memory, embellishment

Why was it created? A record created for official church or legal purposes – good
A privately published genealogy – suspect, may not be supported by evidence

Who provided the information? Parents present at a baptism – good
Information supplied for a death certificate – good and bad, the actual death date and place would be considered a primary source however other information supplied by an informant may not be accurate.

Is there a potential for bias? Was the creator of the source commissioned to produce the work, eg a financial incentive – not so good
'19th century pedigrees' - would 'stretching' the truth have an impact on social status?

What do you do if you are not sure if a source is reliable for a pre-1700 English profile?

You can ask on G2G by going to the edit screen of the profile you are thinking of using the source on and click on the 'Ask for Advice' link on the yellow banner at the top of the profile. Make sure you provide details of the proposed source. Make sure you add the ENGLAND and PRE-1700 tags. If you are an England Project member you can also ask the project discussion group. The answer may help someone else as well.

England Project | Reliable Sources for Pre-1700 Profiles Category Page | Reliable Sources for Pre-1700 Profiles

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Please rate The Townsend (Townshend) Family Records as a reliable source or not.
posted by William Foster Jr
As that site is mainly concerned with Irish genealogy, it would be better to ask the question to the Ireland Project.
posted by John Elkin
Hi, I answered a comment from RJ Horace on this guide, as s/he was concerned about the addition of 'only' these sources in the draft guidlines on sourcing.

In general I think this guide encompasses most sources that we might wish to use. I wonder though if to be a little more explicit we might say that the list of primary sources is not exhaustive.i.e These are commonly used examples .We are never going to be able to list all possibilities. (my to go to sources for many of the people living in 17th century Dorchester include two diaries plus municipal records) Another addition I thought of are the growing number of academic data bases.There are several, two that I've used recently are and

posted by Helen (Coleman) Ford
I'm surprised to see Burke's Peerage listed as an "unreliable source" alongside online trees. Should this be more nuanced (eg "less reliable source")?
posted by Andrew Turvey
Regarding the statement "Transcripts of various parish records can be found on ..."

Transcripts of parish records are not themselves primary sources. You should use the information you find in these transcripts as a guide for locating the correct page in the appropriate parish register but you should not treat the transcript as definitive unless you have confirmed it matches the original register. Many of the available online parish records indexed in FamilySearch, FreeReg and subscription sites have transcript errors or are transcripts of secondary sources (such as copies of parish registers made by other parties) which have errors. You will not know if they are correct unless you check the original register or image of it.

posted by Ray Hawkes
Moving the question to G2G
posted by Debi (McGee) Hoag