Family History: How Far Back Can You Go?
There is absolutely no hard or fast rule about how far back you can go when tracing your family tree; it all depends on the available records. However, in general terms there are limits that people run into as they look back in their family history.
The Easy PartFor most people, tracing the family back to the beginning of public records in 1837 should pose no problem. Between the Censuses and the birth, marriage and death records you can usually go back to this point with no problem as long as your ancestors were born in the UK.
In most instances, you won’t even need to leave home to trace back to this point, as the records are available online. You’ll need to spend a small amount to obtain copies for your records, but the cost is minimal. The problems begin when you go back beyond this.
Parish RecordsTo head back into the 18th century or even further, you’ll need to look at parish records, and this is where you can encounter obstacles. For much of the 18th century there should be no problem with the records, as they will be intact. They might well be in local records offices, although in some cases they might well still be in the parish churches; you have to track them down, which involves some detective work.
Going back to the 16th and 15th centuries it can become a great deal more problematic. Many more of the registers will be missing (often due to the Civil War or just the depredations of age). Where there are no records, obviously you’re stuck, as the parish registers will cover extensive periods of time and the gaps might well be too great for you to continue.
MarriageThe only things noted in parish records and baptisms, Marriages and Deaths. All children would have been baptised, and all those who died would have been buried. But not everyone married. In many cases their unions would haven’t been sanctioned by the church, so there would be no record of it, forcing you to look for baptisms of children (or their own baptisms) and deaths. Even then, if they moved elsewhere and died, you could well be lost unless you had a general idea of where they’d gone. Even then you’d need to find the parish and hope the records still existed.
The simple fact is that by medieval times it can prove to be almost impossible to go any further for the average person. Even where they exist, parish records aren’t always complete, and the further back you go, the fewer there are of them.
AristocracyThings are different for the aristocracy, and even today there are those descended from nobility who can trace their ancestry back to the Norman conquest, and beyond in a few, rare instances.
This is because their marriages were largely commercial transactions, and they needed to be written down, with those records kept for reference in the event of legal disputes. Additionally, heraldry can be an important way to trace back these families, particularly in their unions.
Of course, most of us aren’t from these families, so we don’t enjoy that luxury. All we can do is keep on with the detective work and hope there are enough records for us to keep making connections.