Finding Georgian Ancestors
Recent historical research is uncovering the potential of new resources for family historians, in the form of lists of people taking oaths of allegiance to George I in 1723.
Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary sardonically defined an oath as ‘a solemn appeal to the Deity, made binding upon the conscience by a penalty for perjury.’ In the sixteenth century, however, perjury was understood both as a crime and as a sin. People were warned by the church’s official homilies of the dire spiritual as well as secular penalties for swearing falsely. By their sin, the homilies declared, the perjured had utterly forsaken ‘Gods mercy, goodnesse and trueth’ and would be condemned at the day of judgement to ‘everlasting shame and death.’
These grave warnings reflected the central role that oath-taking played in public life in the early modern period (1500-1800). In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries oaths fulfilled three basic roles: they bound those in public office to carry out their obligations faithfully; they gave the assurance of truthfulness to statements given in court; and they tied subjects to giving obedience to their rulers. The lowliest of public occupations could carry an oath of office, binding the taker to fulfill their duties. A compendium printed in 1689 listed over two hundred oaths of this type. Midwives and ale tasters (the parish officials given the onerous task of checking that the local beer was passable), along with lord lieutenants and high court judges, swore to serve the crown or the parish faithfully. An oath of office is still required of many public servants today, including MPs, who cannot sit in the House of Commons until they have sworn an oath of loyalty to the Queen. Until the nineteenth century, these oaths effectively barred Catholics, Jews or Quakers from the Lower House.
Oaths were also essential for the administration of justice. In Anglo-Saxon law, the oath of the accused or the accuser alone was frequently not deemed adequate and had to be attested to by compurgators or ‘oath-helpers.’ Although compurgation had gone out of use in common law courts by the end of the twelfth century, in ecclesiastical courts, the procedure continued to be employed under the Tudors and Stuarts. The compurgator swore not to the truth of the statement made by the plaintiff or defendant but rather certified that the individual in question had made a good oath. This was the meaning of the jibe that Shakespeare placed in the mouth of Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night:
For those interested in genealogy, though, the most significant use of oaths in Tudor and Stuart England was as devices to test the loyalty of subjects to the government. The English reformation, and later the English civil wars, led to a transformation in the nature of oath-taking in Tudor and Stuart England. Firstly, these events led to the content of these state oaths becoming much more complicated (requiring subjects to commit themselves to an ideology – the Protestant faith, the Parliamentarian cause – rather than simply pledge fealty to a person). Secondly, they seriously broadened the category of persons expected to take these oaths, from only being required of those who held crown or ecclesiastical offices to being (theoretically) tendered to all adult males (and, as we will see, some women) for subscription.
The initial catalyst for these changes was Henry VIII’s break with Rome. The Henrician Oath of Succession imposed in 1534 was to be tendered to all men over the age of fourteen (in fact it was mainly taken by officeholders and clergy). By requiring the swearer to assert that the children of Henry and Anne Boleyn were the heirs to the throne it effectively required subscribers to side with Thomas Cromwell and the king against the Pope and Catherine of Aragon. Henry’s particularly violent brand of serial monogamy made taking such an oath a very risky business. The priors of King’s Langley and Dunstable, who, when asked to swear this oath, also promised to be loyal to any wife whom Henry might marry after Anne’s death, were clearly far-sighted. Barely two years later, in 1536 the trial of Anne for treason and Henry’s subsequent marriage to Jane Seymour necessitated a new oath of allegiance, this time binding the swearer to uphold the line of succession as it was defined in Henry’s last will and testament. The new oath also made it treasonable for any to protest ‘upon any interrogatories that shall be objected to them for or conc[er]ning this Acte as any thing therin contayned, that they be not bound to declare their thought and consciens.’ For the first time, the English crown was making clear that it felt it had the right to make windows into the souls of its subjects.
Oaths reached their greatest degree of ideological complexity under James I. In 1606, in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot, Parliament passed a new oath of allegiance specifically directed against England’s Catholic population. The oath required the swearer to declare that the Pope’s claims to be able to excommunicate or depose secular rulers were ‘heresy’ and demanded that they acknowledge James’ political authority. The oath also attempted to counter Catholic tactics which had been developed to evade earlier penal legislation. The 1606 oath incorporated complicated clauses, requiring those taking it to declare that they had not employed any mental reservations or equivocations in swearing. The Jacobean oath was successful in maintaining the appearance of moderation, apparently only penalizing those ‘bad’ Catholics who refused to recognize James’ temporal authority, whilst actually splitting the English Catholic community between those who would subscribe and those who would not.
However, these earlier oaths of loyalty were still largely targeted either at office-holders or specific religious groups (Catholics and puritans). It was the incorporation of oath-taking into the process of mass political and military mobilization necessitated by the English civil war which changed this and saw for the first time subscription to oaths of loyalty on a massive, national scale. By the 1640s not only the so-called ‘middling sorts’ but even some of the poorer members of society were being required to swear loyalty. Some parishes included the names of women as well as men on their returns, a feature of these documents which, as we will see, had become more common by the beginning of the eighteenth century.
The scale of some of these oath returns is really quite staggering. The 1641 Protestation oath bound subscribers to defend ‘the true reformed Protestant religion, expressed in the Doctrine of the Church of England’ against the perceived threat of ‘Popery’. In Devon, over 60,000 individuals signed or, if semi- or illiterate, added their mark to this oath. The content of the Protestation appeared quite uncontroversial (even some Catholics surreptitiously took it). However, in the fevered religious atmosphere of the 1640s, the Protestation was incredibly divisive. Some of those who signed the Protestation believed that it required them to attack ‘Popery’ by smashing ‘idolatrous’ stained glass windows, as the parishioners of St. Thomas the Apostle, London, did after taking the oath in June 1641. Many clergymen saw it as part of a puritan attack on the episcopacy, noting that the oath only bound subscribers to the ‘doctrine’ but not the government of the church. Nonetheless, despite the controversy that the Protestation aroused, it was the most widely subscribed of the oaths of allegiance imposed during the 1640s. Later Parliamentarian oaths, like the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 and the Engagement of Loyalty to the English Commonwealth of 1650 were intended for national subscription but only patchy returns survive.
The tendering of an oath of loyalty continued to be seen as a good means of dealing with a crisis of national security into the late-seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, the regime of William III faced continued threats from the remaining supporters of the ousted Catholic King James II. In 1696, a Jacobite assassination plot prompted the drafting of an Association of loyalty to William, modelled on Elizabethan precedent (a similar bond was drafted in defence of Elizabeth I in 1584), but this time imposed on a much wider section of the population. The returns for some English counties were even larger than those gathered for the 1641 Protestation. The historian David Cressy has estimated that there were more than 70,000 signatories to the Suffolk association. The 1696 Association certainly had a much greater geographical reach than the Protestation, being taken in Britain’s overseas colonies as well as the mainland. The detail recorded on these Association oath rolls was, in some cases, also much greater than that included in the Protestation returns of 1641. The Newcastle roll divided signatories by occupation with separate columns for bricklayers, barber-surgeons, tanners, coopers and free-masons.The humble professions linked with some of the names on these association rolls, including servants and journeymen, indicate that the Association was not only taken by property-holders. In St.Michael’s parish, Suffolk, the marital status of those signing was also recorded.
However, the Association, like the Protestation, was a divisive document. It required takers to acknowledge William III as ‘rightful and lawful’ king of England, something many Tories, with residual loyalties to the exiled James II, found very difficult to do. In Norwich itself, subscribers were actually split in two, as political factions within the city drafted rival versions of the Association: one, signed by Whigs and their supporters, which retained the original wording; and another more mildly framed oath, which was taken by Tories. Aside from Tories, the oath again threatened England’s Catholic community. Robert Throckmorton, a prominent Buckinghamshire Catholic, who had asked to stay at home with his sick wife, she ‘havving binn lately lyke to Dye’ and had offered profuse expressions of loyalty to the king, was nonetheless placed in custody in London.
Historians and genealogists have been aware of the potential of the Protestation and Association oath returns as resources for some time. Aside from giving us an insight into the complexities of political life in the seventeenth-century, they have been used to calculate population levels, chart local migration and evaluate literacy rates. Less well known, and only now being fully explored, are the returns for the last major exercise in national, public oath-taking, the oaths of allegiance to George I tendered in 1723. Prompted, like the 1696 Association, by a Jacobite conspiracy, the Atterbury Plot, the oaths were to be taken by all persons over the age of eighteen (significantly, the legislation did not limit subscription to men). Although it was undoubtedly tendered nationally, returns do not survive with the same level of geographical coverage as for the Protestation or 1696 Association. However, where returns for this oath do exist, they are often on a similar scale to these earlier rolls. The Devon roll for the 1723 oath, which has recently been digitized by Simon Dixon, contains over 23000 signatories.
Moreover, the 1723 rolls are in many ways richer sources than either the lists for the Protestation or the 1696 Association. One common feature of all the rolls so far discovered is the very high number of female signatories on the returns. Approximately 3 in 10 of those signing in Devon were women and the proportion is about the same for similar lists found in Worcestershire, Norfolk and Yorkshire. Women do appear on other rolls but these are usually the names of widows who were often significant property-holders. Widows also appear on the 1723 lists but added to their names are those of spinsters and married women. In many cases, husbands and wives appear next to each other on the lists, like the soap-boiler William Long and his wife Hannah, who both signed the Norwich Cathedral Precinct roll on 7th October 1723. However, the appearance of so many women on these lists is not, unfortunately, an indication that female involvement in political affairs was increasingly accepted. Rather, it was because women had been heavily involved in the rash of anti-Hanoverian rioting which had broken out after 1715. The government of Robert Walpole clearly felt it wise to monitor the political loyalties of women, as well as men.
Some of the 1723 returns also provide us with a great deal of detail about the occupations of those that took the oath. Signatories to the York city oath roll included ‘stuffweavers’, ‘whitesmiths’ (tinsmiths), druggists, pewterers, merchants, brewers, cordwainers, carpenters, drapers, millers, fishmongers, warriners, physicians, apothecarys, glaziers, tanners, mercers, cutlers, stonecutters, haberdashers, plumbers, booksellers and, indicating what a cosmopolitan place eighteenth-century York was, one ‘translator’. (However, though it had butchers and bakers, there was no designated candlestick-maker). The York roll gives us a picture of a bustling northern city, with its plethora of shop-keepers and tradesmen, already well in the grip of the eighteenth-century ‘consumer revolution’. More importantly for those interested in finding their eighteenth-century ancestors, it gives us a clear indication that many of those below the ranks of the gentry added their names to these returns in 1723.
The practice of regularly ‘testing the nation’ via mass subscription to oaths of allegiance appears to have ended in 1723. Some contemporaries were already sceptical about the value of these devices. Arthur Onslow, who witnessed the public subscription to the 1723 oaths thought:
it was a strange as well as ridiculous sight to see people crowding to give a testimony of their allegiance to a government, and cursing it at the same time for giving them the trouble of so doing, and for the fright they were put into by it
He believed that the inconvenience of the whole exercise caused ‘more real disaffection to the king and his family … than from anything [else] which happened in that time.’ Some subscribers publicly registered their lack of enthusiasm for the task. One signatory to the 1723 oath in Worcester simply wrote ‘tell no lies’ in place of their name. However, we would be unwise to adopt as jaundiced a view of public oath-taking as Onslow’s, and not only because of the wonderfully rich historical sources it has left us. The end of mass subscription to these sorts of tests was a product of the relative political stability of the eighteenth century when compared with the turbulence of the seventeenth century. It was not evidence of a sudden decline in the value attached to sworn statements. Indeed, with the introduction in 2005 of new tests and declarations for those wishing to acquire British citizenship, it appears that the oath of loyalty is actually staging a comeback.
Ted Vallance is Lecturer in Early Modern British history at the University of Liverpool. He is currently writing a history of English radicalism from Magna Carta to the present day. His research into the 1723 oaths of allegiance was funded by the British Academy.
E. Vallance, Revolutionary England and the National Covenant: State Oaths, Protestantism and the Political Nation 1553-1682 (Woodbridge, 2005)
D. Cressy, Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge, new edn., 2006)
(See also the links in the DIY article)
Tracing Ancestors Using Oaths of Allegiance
Census returns are a vital first port of call for family historians. But if you want to trace your ancestry back before 1800, similar resources can appear thin on the ground. Yet equivalent documents for the Tudor and Stuart period can be found in the shape of surviving lists of people swearing oaths of allegiance. Some of the ‘returns’ for these oaths (lists of names usually organised by parish or hundred), such as those for the 1641 Protestation and the 1696 Association, are truly national in scope, with lists available for most English parishes (and, in the case of the 1696 Association, lists are also available for Britain’s colonies). Many of these lists contain quite detailed information about those subscribing as marital status, occupation and place of residence was often included next to the individual’s name. Although initially directed at local office-holders, over the course of the seventeenth century political oaths of this kind were increasingly taken by most adult males. The 1696 Association return for Suffolk included some 60,000 signatures or marks. In some cases, the names of women as well as men can be found on these lists. Unlocking the potential of these documents can be a key step in discovering your Tudor and Stuart forebears.
Ted Vallance is Lecturer in Early Modern British History at the University of Liverpool.
1. Getting started. As with most family history research, it is important to gather as much information as possible about your ancestors. With the exception of the Devon oath rolls for 1723 (see below) and some 1641-1642 Protestation returns, this information has not been digitised and is not easily searchable. You will need to know the family name and have an idea of where your ancestors came from (county, parish and/or town).
2. Use the guides to oath returns. Jeremy Gibson has produced catalogues for two of the most widely subscribed oaths of allegiance in the seventeenth century: the 1641 Protestation and the 1696 Association. See J. S. W. Gibson, The Hearth Tax, other later Stuart tax lists and the Association Oath Rolls (Birmingham, Federation of Family History Societies, 1996) and The Protestation Returns, 1641-1642 and other contemporary lists (Birmingham, Federation of Family History Societies, 1995). Gibson’s guides also give information on whether printed transcripts of oath returns are available.
Many oath rolls have already been transcribed by local historians and published in local record society transactions. Local record offices and major public libraries will hold copies of these publications.
If your relatives came from the Devon area, take a look at Simon Dixon’s digitised transcript of the 1723 rolls, complete with extensive critical commentary:
A brief list of Protestation returns currently available online can be found here:
3. Be prepared to take a research trip. Many oaths rolls are only available in their original, manuscript form and you will have to go to a local or national archive to consult them. In the case of the 1641-2 Protestation Returns, the majority of returns are kept in the House of Lords Records Office. Most of those for the 1696 Association are kept in the National Archives, Kew. For guidance on the oath rolls held in the National Archives, see the following information page:
To be able to read these documents you will also need to learn some of the basics of reading early modern handwriting. You can make your own transcript of these documents by acquiring some palaeographical skills. Local record offices will offer courses in reading medieval and early modern documents. Alternatively, the National Archives offers a good, basic online course:
If you have a digital camera, you will probably also find it helpful to take some digital photographs – many record offices will allow you to do this for a small fee. The digital photographs will help you decipher difficult signatures by allowing you to zoom in on a specific portion of manuscript.
4. Don’t despair if you can’t find anything in the printed guides. Gibson’s lists for the Protestation and Association Oath Rolls are extensive but they are not completely comprehensive. If these are not helpful, or if you are interested in looking at other oaths of allegiance (like the 1723 oath which does not have printed guide) try the Access 2 Archives website www.a2a.org.uk, which pools the electronic catalogues of UK archive centres into one searchable database. Opt for a general search, or focus on the records of one particular archive if you know where it is you want to look. You can also try contacting your local record office directly to ask if relevant returns exist or if they have suggestions as to where you could start searching.
5. Collate the material from oath returns with other relevant documents. Once you have found the relevant return you can use other sources (which you will often find in the same record office) to flesh out the information you have gathered from the oath lists. Some returns give quite detailed information, including the marital status, occupation and place of residence of the person subscribing. In other cases, however, you may just have a name attached to a broad geographical area. Corroborating the material from oaths returns with the evidence from wills, registers of births, deaths and marriages and, for towns and cities, lists of freemen will help you not only identify the individuals listed but also find out more about their families (names of wives and children, occupation and wealth).
6. Be patient! Researching your family history using sources like oath rolls will undoubtedly take longer than investigating your ancestry via ‘user-friendly’ data such as digitised census returns. Making accurate transcripts of original documents is particularly time-consuming. However, the results can be very rewarding. You may find yourself researching in uncharted territory and your own work could help other family historians, too. Good luck!