Visitors to English parish churches are often struck by the profusion of heraldry to be found in so many of them. This is particularly true of the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Ingestre, because its builder, Walter Chetwynd, was an enthusiastic antiquarian and scholar of armorial bearings. Walter encouraged his friend Dr Robert Plot to write The Natural History of Staffordshire, which was published in 1686, ten years after the church designed by Sir Christopher Wren was completed. The hefty volume included a map of the county surrounded by the coats of arms of its most distinguished families. Some of these families could trace their ancestors and coats of arms back many centuries and descendants of several of them still live in Staffordshire today.

Cartography was still in its infancy in the 17th century but Plot’s map, though far from accurate, is still recognisable as Staffordshire. Conveniently, the author provided a simple grid-reference system which enabled subscribers to attribute a family name and coat of arms to their principal residence in the county. Each coat of arms has its own number as well as a grid reference, combining a letter and a number, enabling readers to see who lived where. Heraldry first appeared in the middle of the 12th century. In 1100 it did not exist but by 1200 it was widespread. At first, only members of the military aristocracy – the knights in shining armour – had any use for shields decorated with distinguishing devices in bright colours. People of lower ranks in society had no need for them and would not have been allowed to display them.

Over the centuries, others lower down the social scale began to use them but they were still limited to a small section of the population. In 1485, King Richard III granted the heralds a royal charter authorising them to award grants of arms to “eminent men”. The interpretation of this power has changed over time and has given rise to controversy. The decision to grant arms to William Shakespeare was hotly debated at the time, something which seems incredible today. Yet as early as the first half of the 15th century, the right to bear arms was extended to wealthy merchants of the City of London who had never fought on a battlefield. One such was Alderman Simon Eyre, who was elected Lord Mayor in 1444. During the 16th and 17th centuries, heralds appointed by the Crown toured the kingdom, recording what coats of arms were being used and ensuring that people not entitled to them were not using them. The records of these heralds’ visitations are among the most valuable kept by the College of Arms today. There follows a selection of some of the arms which surround Plot’s map with brief details of the families which bore them then, and whose descendants often still use them today. Frequently, these families were related by marriage. Heraldry has its own language, a form of shorthand known as blazon. Many of the terms are Norman-French but many more are plain English. In the examples which follow, some of these terms are explained. Along the top row can be found three versions of the arms of the Aston family of Tixall Hall in the parish adjoining Ingestre. Heraldically, these are described as a fess (a broad horizontal stripe across middle of the shield) below three lozenges (diamond shapes) “in chief” (across the top).

All the devices are black on a silver shield. The hall built by he Astons in the 16th century was demolished in the early 20th century, but its fine Gatehouse survives. The tomb of Sir Edward Aston and his wife can be found in the Collegiate Church of St Mary, Stafford – minus Sir Edward’s head which was knocked off in the late 18th century! Also towards the top are the arms of the Bagots of Blithfield, one of the old families in Staffordshire. The field of the shield is ermine (black spots on white) with two blue chevronels (narrow chevrons). Walter Chetwynd’s wife, Mary, was a member of this dynasty. In the upper right hand corner are the arms of the Bowes family, ancestors of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. These are also ermine with three upright archery bows coloured gold – a good example of heraldic punning. The Chetwynd family’s own arms can be found towards the top of the left hand column.

These are a classic arrangement of a chevron between three other devices, in this case three mullets (five-pointed stars) in gold on a blue shield. Simple arrangements like this in only two colours usually indicate the arms date from an early period and the Chetwynds have been using these arms since the Middle Ages. Further down on the left are the arms of the Fitzherberts of Swynnerton, which are also of mediaeval origin. These show a broad stripe across the top (chief) bearing a pattern of interlocking shields in red and gold (vairy gules and or) and over all a black diagonal stripe (bend). In 1913, the Fitzherberts inherited by marriage the title Baron Stafford. At the time Plot published his book, the Stafford Barony had been forfeit because the last holder, Sir William Howard, had been wrongly convicted on perjured evidence of conspiring to murder King Charles II. Sir William was beheaded in 1680, despite the King’s belief in his innocence.

The arms of his widow can be seen in the bottom row, displayed on a lozenge as is normal for an unmarried or widowed woman. Lady Stafford was created Countess of Stafford in 1688 by way of apology from King James II and the forfeiture of the barony was overturned in 1825. The Stafford arms, a red chevron on a plain gold shield, are also very ancient. The present Lord Stafford could display both the Fitzherbert and Stafford arms if he chose. Not far below the Fitzherbert arms are those of the Giffards, who have lived at Chillington since the 13th century. These are another simple arrangement of three gold riding stirrups on a blue shield. The arms of the Harcourts of Ellenhall appear in the same column. Another family who can trace their ancestry back to the Norman Conquest, they also have a simple coat of arms showing two gold bars (narrow horizontal stripes) on a red shield. Another ancient family are the Noels of Hilcote, between Stafford and Eccleshall. These show a pattern of interwoven diagonally stripes (fretty) in red on gold. In the upper left-hand corner is a small square (canton) of ermine. Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler, bought Halfhead Farm near Shallowford from the Noels in 1655. When he died in 1693, he bequeathed the property to the Borough of Stafford for charitable purposes.

A cottage there is now his museum while the mortgage deeds for the £350 purchase price are in the Staffordshire Record Office, Eastgate Street, Stafford. The Noel arms can still be seen above the door to the chapel of the Almshouses built around 1660 by Sir Martin Noel, one-time MP for Stafford, in Mill Street, near St Mary’s church. The middle of the 17th century had been a time of immense political upheaval in England. The Civil War – the origins of which were as baffling then as they are now – led to the beheading of King Charles I, the overthrow of the monarchy, a political experiment with a republic and the imposition of a military dictatorship. Contrary to popular misconceptions, the one thing it did not lead to was anything remotely resembling democracy – which was then synonymous with anarchy. Despite the turmoil, the social order remained stable and coats of arms continued in use as before.

King Charles II attempted to reclaim his father’s throne but was defeated by the Parliamentarians at the Battle of Worcester on September 3rd, 1651. He fled through Staffordshire, famously hiding from his pursuers in an oak tree in the grounds of Boscobel House on the Shropshire border. Many people helped him escape to the Continent, where he spent more than eight years in exile. Eventually, people tired with the republican experiment and the monarchy was restored in 1660. Charles II then authorised the senior herald, Garter King of Arms, to reward all those who had helped him escape with “honourable augmentations” to their arms. A spectacular example of one of these is the coat of arms of the Lane family of Bentley, near Walsall, which can be seen in the right-hand column of armorial bearings on Plot’s map. The shield is divided by a horizontal line across the middle (per fess). Gold above and blue below, it features a red chevron between three stars, the upper two blue, the lower one gold. In the upper left-hand corner is a small square (canton) coloured red and bearing the three gold lions of the Royal Arms of England, prowling along with their right forepaws raised and looking out at the viewer (passant guardant). The right to bear a version of the Royal Arms, even in this diminutive form, is a very rare honour. It records the risks taken by John Lane’s family, particularly his daughter Jane, in providing cover for the fugitive Charles II to travel from Staffordshire to Bristol and on the south coast in search of a boat to France. Jane Lane must have seemed entirely harmless to the Parliamentarian troops searching for the King, who by now had a bounty on his head of £1,000 – an enormous sum at the time.

Charles was disguised as Jane Lane’s manservant. (Incidentally, Jane’s mother was a Bagot.) Another family rewarded in this way were the Whitgreaves of Moseley, near Wolverhampton, whose arms appear at the bottom. Their ancestral arms were divided into nine squares, alternately blue and gold, with a red chevron on each of the four gold squares. They were later granted a broad stripe across the top of their shield (chief) bearing a rose surrounded with a wreath of oak leaves. The Whitgreaves had lived in Seighford parish, west of Stafford and were related to the Noels of Hilcote/ Nearby are the arms of the Leveson family (pronounced Looson). The Levesons originated in the Wolverhampton area as merchants and acquired Trentham Park following the Dissolution of the monasteries. They married onto the Gower family (pronounced Gore) from Yorkshire and went on to become Dukes of Sutherland in 1833. Although only the Leveson arms of three gold laurel leaves on a blue shield (another heraldic pun) are shown on Plots map, there were already entitled to quarter these with the Gower arms, as is normal when two or more dynasties merge. Also in he right-hand column are the arms of the Littletons of Hatherton, near Penkridge. These show a black shield bearing a silver chevron between three silver scallop shells (escallops), which are common heraldic devices. Nearby are the arms of the Offleys of Madeley, near Newcastle-under0Lyme. These show a blue cross with the topes of fleurs-de-;is sprouting out of the flat end of each arm (fleuretty) on a silver shield. In the middle of the cross is a gold lion passant. Izaak Walton dedicated The Compleat Angler to his “most honoured friend” John Offley, whose grandfather had been a knight and Lord Mayor of London. Another black-and-white combination is the shield of the Pagets of Beaudesert, on Cannock Chase. These show a cross engrailed (with fluted edges) between four eagles displayed and bearing five lions, again in the passant guardant posture. The first Paget raised to the peerage was a minister of King Henry VIII who acquired the lands of Burton Abbey after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. His descendant, the Earl of Uxbridge, was a commander of British forces at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, where he lost a leg. He was rewarded by being created Marquess of Anglesey, where his descendants still live. The Paget arms appear on one of the memorials in Ingestre Church. Among the bottom three rows of shields on Plot’s map are the arms of the Sneyd family of Keele Hall, now part of the University. These show a black scythe (or sneyd) and fleur-de-lis on a silver shield. Captain Richard Sneyd, a junior member of this family, owned the High House in Greengate Street, Stafford. Here he entertained King Charles I in September 1642 when he was mustering his forces at the outbreak of the Civil War. Captain Sneyd bequeathed the house to his daughter Anne when he died in 1683, the same year as Izaak Walton. She in turn bequeathed it to her daughter, Anne Wettenhall, who married Walton’s grandson, John Hawkins. An unusual family to have a coat of arms were the Wedgwoods, who were to rise to prominence in the 18th century as suppliers of pottery to Queen Charlotte, consort to King George III. Their arms are four silver stars in a cross formation with a canton on a red shield.

In the 17th century, some people might have sniffed at the idea of a family of manufacturers being allowed a coat of arms. But times were changing and soon no one would question the right of such a distinguished pioneering family of the Industrial Revolution to bear arms. The days of knights in shining armour were long gone. Nearby appear the arms of one of the survivors of the Age of Chivalry, the Wrottesleys of Wrottesley, near Wolverhampton. These show three black triangles (piles) reaching down from the top of a gold shield and converging in the base, with an ermine canton in the top left-hand corner. In 1348, Sir Hugh Wrottesley was one of the founding members of the Order of the Garter, still England’s premier order of chivalry, along with Ralph Stafford, second baron and first earl of Stafford. Another ancient Staffordshire family represented in the bottom row are the Wolseleys of Wolseley, east of Stafford. These show a red Talbot (large breed of hunting dog, now extinct) on a red silver shield. Legend had it that the Wolseleys were granted their lands for banishing wolves from Staffordshire. Whether or not this is true, they owned lands in the area for around 1,000 years. The baronet (hereditary knight) Sir Charles Wolseley was elected MP for Stafford in 1660, prior to the Restoration of King Charles II. The most distinguished coat of arms of all is that of the Earl of Shrewsbury, which also appears towards the bottom. These arms show a gold lion rampant (on the rampage) within a gold engrailed border all on a red shield. His principal seat in Staffordshire was at Alton, in the far north of the Staffordshire Moorlands, although he owned many estates in other counties as well.

A larger version of the Shrewsbury arms appears next to the map and displays the arms of many other families from whom he claimed descent. Whether or not to display all the armorial bearings one can is a vexed question in heraldry as a complicated shield can be almost impossible to decipher, which defeats the object of heraldry as a system of identification. Although it was once fashionable to display many coats (quarterings), the modern preference is to keep the shield simple. The 12th Earl of Shrewsbury was major statesman and was promoted to a duke in 1694, but had no son to inherit the dukedom, which died with him in 1718. The present 22nd Earl of Shrewsbury is a remote kinsman, descended from the second earl who died in 1460 at the Battle of Northampton in the Wars of the Roses. He is also descended from the Chetwynds of Ingestre and is patron of the living of Ingestre Church. So Plot’s map is much more than a mere list of distinguished Staffordshire 17th century. It is a guided tour through the county’s history and social development. Another contribution parish churches make to genealogical research comes in the form of their parish registers. King Henry VIII ordered that every parish church should keep a record of all baptisms, weddings and burials, all of which had to be performed there.

Until civil registration of births and deaths was introduced by act of Parliament in 1837, these records are often the only clues we have to the dates of birth of even the most distinguished people. Using Izaak Walton as an example again, his date of birth is not recorded anywhere, but the parish register of St Mary’s, Stafford, shows that he was baptised there on September 21st, 1593. Sometimes the registers record other events. The earliest register for St Mary’s, Stafford, records a great storm on March 21st, 1594, which blew down the church spire, causing immense damage. According to Plot, it was supposed to be one of the tallest spires in England. Few churches have surviving records going back to the reign of Henry VIII but registers dating from the reign of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, are quite common.

The register of Ingestre Church starts in 1676, the year it was completed. As with most parish churches, such valuable records are no longer kept in the church itself but in specialist archives, usually county record offices. Ingestre’s registers are kept at the Lichfield Diocesan Record Office in Lichfield, but copies are available on microfiche in the Staffordshire Record Office, Eastgate Street, Stafford. Census records offer another source of information about who lived where from the 19th century onwards. These were held every ten years beginning in 1801 but detailed information about individuals, including their addresses and occupations, was not recorded until 1841. The most recent census from which information is available to the public is 1911. Again, these records are kept in the Staffordshire Record Office.