In Who Do You Think You Are?, Josh Duhamel discovered that his 12x great-grandfather, Thomas Norton, held prominent status in 16thcentury England, and was an influential figure in the war between Protestantism and Catholicism at the time. In this episode, Josh found answers to questions that many Americans ask about their own family tree: do I come from ancestors of great wealth or nobility? How can I find out? Fortunately, building your knowledge about class and pedigrees can help you find the answers.
In the search for noble heritage, you will likely find one of your ancestors belonging to the gentry class first. Gentry families belonged to the lower half of the British noble class, and were entitled to a “coat of arms” which was registered in the College of Arms. That registration included a “family tree” or pedigree, provided by the family. Josh Duhamel visited the College of Arms and discovered the registration of his ancestor, Thomas Norton. As the episode mentioned, Thomas Norton was referenced on the Norton tree as “Esq.” meaning “esquire,” which was the second lowest level of the gentry, just ahead of “gentleman.”
In the illustration below, Thomas Norton’s son, Robert Norton, was listed as “now living, a[nn]o 1634.” This indicates that he was the one who registered this pedigree, and it lists all seven of his children:
The birth order of the five sons is given with numbers. Matching birth records were found for all the children of Robert and Anne except Elizabeth. The third son, Thomas, was born in 1609, making him eligible to be the man of that name who immigrated to America, and therefore Josh Duhamel’s 10x great-grandfather.
Fortunately, you don’t have to visit the College of Arms in London (like Josh Duhamel did) to search for your ancestors’ pedigrees. Rather, volumes for each British county were published many years ago, and are available in many genealogical libraries and also online. Be cautious, however; the early generations on such pedigrees are often fanciful and full of errors, sometimes deliberate. Sometimes the pedigrees don’t provide any dates, places may be unclear and not all children might be listed. Also, most pedigrees only cover from about four to six generations and are based heavily on family records and recollections.
Still, these volumes of pedigrees are helpful aids. Since these volumes have been in print for 100 to 150 years, they have been heavily studied and used by earlier genealogists. Genealogical articles and publications identify and interpret many of these historic pedigrees. Such was the case with Josh Duhamel’s Norton family; an article in The American Genealogist(vol. 16) explored a branch of this Norton family and alerted current researchers to the gentry class status of this family. This helped in proving that Thomas Norton, Esq. was indeed Josh’s 12x great-grandfather, and the story of Norton’s dark deeds against England’s Catholic population were subsequently revealed.
Do you have noble or gentry ancestors? Check out your family tree and discover your connections to class and nobility today.
Tips from AncestryProGenealogists:
- Make careful use of quality, published genealogical accounts when dealing with colonial ancestors and their English origins. An article in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register(vol. 53) helped trace the American Norton family back to the Connecticut settler.
- Document published genealogies from contemporary records. Early English pedigrees will include recent generations who should be in parish registers.
- Learn more about the other people on the old English pedigrees, as they may also be family members.
- Y-DNA research can provide significant information and clues for the origins of colonial immigrants in Enland. DNA never “proves” an immigrant’s origin, but for Josh Duhamel DNA helped distinguished those Norton family groups who were not related to him.