by Peter Badham, 2 July 2006

This article is based on a presentation given to the 2006 Annual Conference.

As family historians we do not expect to get back into the Mediaeval Period and, indeed, are pleased if one of our lines can be extended back to the period when parish registers started in the late 16th century. But wait; let us recap on the term “mediaeval.” Generally speaking this term is used in relation to European history from the 5th to the 15th century. In the context of the English Crown, the break to the Early Modern Period is often taken to be the end of the Plantagenet Dynasty following the accession of Henry VII after his victory in Bosworth Field in 1485. Historians with a centennial turn of mind may take the period on to the death of Henry VII in 1509. One-name studies with their focus on surname distribution and origins are essentially incomplete without some incursion into the Mediaeval since many surnames go back to the 12th century and therefore our interest is in the later Mediaeval Period. Incidentally, I remember taking a great deal of trouble to learn how to spell mediaeval using “ae” so get rather fed up with the present tendency to use the easy, modern way without the “a”.

Most family historians, however, also have an interest in local history and really if we are to do good work in either arena, topography and genealogy must go hand in hand. If we are to consult documents from this earlier period, the majority will be in Mediaeval Latin and in scripts that we find difficult to decipher. Occasionally French of an Anglo-Norman variety may turn up and the English, where it occurs, also differs from that we are used to reading. With these difficulties in mind for the non-professional family or local historian, one could be forgiven for suggesting we should find a new interest. This article, however, could easily be subtitled, “using the work of others’” since what is to be described is only possible because of the work of very many scholars over a long period. So what is out there?

Firstly we should refer to FONS or Family Origin Name Survey. This system was set up and is run by David Bethell, a professional genealogist who studied Mediaeval History at Cambridge. David spends a lot of time transcribing mediaeval records written in Latin and has built up a cross-reference index of surnames. Essentially with FONS, you register your surname and period of interest involved, which can include the Late Mediaeval, and what you receive in return is something of a lucky dip and currently will cost you £2 per entry after your registration fee for each name. There can, however, be rich pickings especially for the rarer surnames and where the originals are in Latin the extracts are presented both in transcription and in translation. Among other things this is helpful since it gives us access to what are often repetitive formulations, helping us to work on others where no translation is available. An example is shown below:

How else is the work of specialist scholars available to us in terms of original resources rather than written history? The most common form is the calendar and these documents are usually produced in relation to a particular collection, perhaps the archives of a family or of a department of the bureaucracy developed by the Crown. Given below is an example of an entry from a National Library of Wales calendar, although not mediaeval, it gives us an idea of the format and how an individual deed may, incidentally to its main purpose, show the presence of a family in a particular area and even the name of the tenement. This 1633 ‘Baddam’ example from Pembrokeshire is from the calendar of the Coleman Deeds held at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth and first published in 1921:

D.D. 383. INDENTURE, dated 2 Sept. 1633, being a grant from Thomas Phillippes of Velindre, in the parish of Llysyvran, co. Pembroke, gent., and Anne his wife, Phillipp Lloyd of Southfielde, in the same parish, gent., and Elizabeth his wife, to Thomas Vaughan, of Farthinshooke in.the parish of Henriesmoate, gent., of three messuages and lands in the town, fields and parish of Llysyvrane, in the respective tenures of Rees Reignold, Mary Higgon, and Evan David, another messuage in the same place, also a rent charge, of 9s. 2d. on the lands of Sir Richard Phillippes of Picton, co. Pembroke, bart., in Llysyvrane aforesaid and a rent charge of 2s. 4d. on two messuages called Tippin Herrogg, in Llysyvrane aforesaid, being the lands of James Phillippes of Pentibarch, gent, and now in the tenures of John Baddam and Evan Phillipp. Consideration £9I. Witnesses: Lewis Howell, clerke; Thomas Jones; Lewis Vaughan; Owen Edwardes; Thomas Phillipin; Evan Phillipe William; Alban Jones.

Each document is referenced, transcribed and where necessary translated. Then a précis entry is made for the calendar which is usually, but not invariably, indexed. A word of caution here. Most of the individuals doing this kind of work are “pure” historians and they inevitably have to make choices about how to reduce the contents of the original. As genealogists we may from time to time be disappointed to find that the names of witnesses or other lists of people have been reduced or removed although usually such exclusion is noted. When using calendar indexes therefore, be aware that ancestral names may occur on the documents themselves that are not indexed. An approach focused on a location and then referenced through the calendar to the original document may turn up gold or at least give an indication of where the lode may be found. As a simple example, the confirmation grant of lands held by the probable progenitor of most Badhams, Adam Gwent or Adam ap Iorwerth, excludes the witnesses but it is not impossible for the determined non-professional armed with the calendar entry to access the original document and to discover who these were and, indeed, the way in which Adam’s job is described as “senescallo” or seneschal, the equivalent of steward.

You will have thought so far that a trip to various archive offices is necessary but part of my purpose is to alert you to how much is now available on the internet and therefore accessible from home or your local library. We saw above an example of an entry from a calendar from the National Library of Wales, however, these printed or typescript books are now all but redundant, since all the calendars of the large number of collections at Aberystwyth which were catalogued before 1999 have been digitised. This has been done in a format which allows online access and free text searches, thus giving us access to much modern material but also substantial amounts of Late Mediaeval archives as well. It is worth noticing that not all the material is for Wales but much is available for the areas of the former Marcher lordships and further afield.

The National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) has, since the mid 19th century, been producing calendars of its collections and predominating are those from the various series of records produced by Crown officers. I have mentioned patent rolls but there are many other series, such as the particularly relevant inquisitions post-mortem. These record what happens to estates and heirs when individuals holding land or offices directly from the Crown died. The full set of calendars, as it currently stands in the library at the National Archives at Kew, London, occupies full-height shelving on both sides of a bay about ten metres long. However, many reference libraries at the bigger cities in the UK and abroad have some of these series of calendars available, although usually not on open shelves. I envisage a time when all these will be available online, however currently I am only aware of the series of patent rolls from 1246 to 1452 accessible online from the University of Iowa, USA. They require a certain ingenuity if you wish to find the indexes but searching for a word like Abergavenny will often give you the first index page if you try the last page reference for that name. A little experimentation will give you the feel of it. Once you know the page numbers for the index for any volume you can then search for index entries for the place-name or surname you are interested in and then go directly to the page for the original calendar entries. This is a developing and improving site also in its early stages.

This method of calendaring is fairly universal and many other record repositories have such calendars. A prime example relatively recently undertaken, and possibly not quite ready for publication, is the calendar of the extensive archive at Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire, which contains a number of notable documents relating to earlier ap Adam generations. The national gateway to Access such Archive repositories across England and Wales is hosted by the National Archives and called, for obvious reasons, A2A. Although a useful resource and well organised, it is still in its infancy in terms of the amount of material added to it but will no doubt grow substantially. It is the site for finding that odd document stored away miles from where you might look and letters are a good example, as they will usually be held in the archive of the recipient.

If you do want to try your hand at deciphering Latin, perhaps an early will, there are a number of books aimed at helping the local historian but a very particular form of help is also available online. This is in the guise of the Perseus Digital Library. The part of the site which deals with the morphology of Latin words is an incredibly useful tool for those without a knowledge of Latin since it resolves a major problem for the novice. You may have tried to look up words in a Latin dictionary and eventually realised they are not there, because you are unable to distinguish the root form of the word and you need to do this before you can look it up in a dictionary. This site can usually do that for you and at least offer possible alternatives and translations. There is an online dictionary also available and the contents of the morphology section are based on the analysis of many original documents. Incidentally it is interesting to notice how different scholars treat the same text:


OUR gracious king Edward departing this life on the eve of the Nativity of Saint John Baptist, in the fifty-second year of his reign, Richard, son of Edward, prince of Wales, the eldest son of king Edward - a boy of eleven years, and fair among men as another Absalom - came to the throne, and was crowned at Westminster on Saint Kenelm's day.

During this king Richard's reign great things were looked for. But he being of tender years, others, who had the care of him and his kingdom, did not cease to inflict on the land acts of wantonness, extortions, and unbearable wrongs. Whence sprang that unnatural deed, when the commons of the land, and specially those of Kent and Essex, under their wretched leader Jack Straw, declaring that they could no longer bear such wrongs, and above all wrongs of taxes and subsidies, rose in overwhelming numbers against the lords and the king's officers, and, marching to London on the eve of Corpus Christi (12th June), in the year of Our Lord 1381, struck off the heads of Simon Sudbury, archbishop of Canterbury, then the king’s chancellor, Sir Robert Hales, the treasurer, and many others, hard by the Tower of London. (Edward Maunde Thompson, 1904 pp. 137–8)


The aforesaid noble Edward having departed this life on the eve of the Nativity of St John the Baptist in the fifty-second year of his reign, his grandson Richard, a child of eleven years, the son of the same king's first-born child Edward prince of Wales, and the fairest of men, like a second Absalom, succeeded him and was crowned at Westminster on the feast of St Kenelm. Many great things were hoped for in the time of this Richard's reign; but, because he was of tender age, other persons who had charge of him and of the kingdom did not cease to inflict wanton evils, extortions, and other intolerable injustices upon the realm.

Jack Straw. As a result of this, there came to pass that monstrous time when the common people of the kingdom, and especially those of Kent and Essex, rising up with overwhelming force under their wretched leader Jack Straw against the lords of the realm and the king's ministers, and declaring that they were no longer able to endure oppressions of this sort, and especially the taxes and other collections, made their way to London on the eve of Corpus Christi in the year of our lord 1381.

Beheading of the chancellor and treasurer. And they beheaded Master Simon Sudbury, archbishop of Canterbury, at that time the king's chancellor, and Sir Robert Hales, his treasurer, and many others, just by the Tower of London. (C Given-Wilson, 1997 p. 3)

The above texts show two versions of the beginning sentences from The Chronicle of Adam Usk which covers the period 1377–1421. Adam is a person we are interested in because of his links with Usk and because he had ap Adam cousins. The first translation is an early 20th-century one by Edward Maunde Thompson and the second, a recent one by Chris Given-Wilson, which even starts differently and is in a way perhaps more expressive of Adam’s intention to make his chronicle follow on from the Higden chronicle to which it was physically appended. You can see that there is an element of creativity about translation and that paying attention to context can be very important.

Below you will find references to the websites and other resources mentioned together with a few other general reference books. What more could you want? Get started now.

FONS (Family Origin Name Survey)
67 Chancery Lane, London WC2A 1AF


Access to Archives:
Foundation for Medieval Genealogy:
Institute of Historical Research:
Internet Medieval Source Book:
Internet Resources for History:
Introduction Search Calendar Patent Roll:
Medieval Dissertation Preparation: a handlist:
National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth:
Perseus Digital Library, - Morphological Index:
Vocabulary tool:


C Given-Wilson (ed. and trans.), The Chronicle of Adam Usk 1377–1421 (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1997)

Francis Green (comp.), Calendar of Deeds and Documents, Vol.1, The Coleman Deeds (The National Library of Wales: Aberystwyth, 1921)

Edward Maunde Thompson (ed. and trans.), Chronicon Adae De Usk AD 1377–1421 (Henry Frowde: London, 1904)


Christopher Coredon with Ann Williams, A Dictionary of Medieval Terms & Phrases (D S Brewer: Cambridge, 2004)

Eileen A Gooder, Latin for Local History (Longman: Harlow, Essex, 1978)

Michael Hicks, Who’s Who in Late Medieval England (Shepheard Walwyn: London, 1991)

Stuart A Raymond, British History and Heritage on the Web (The Federation of Family History Societies, 2004)

Nigel Saul, A Companion to Medieval England 1066 – 1485 (Tempus: Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2005)