From earliest times, tracing ancestors and establishing proof of relationship had practical importance for the wealthy and privileged and, in particular, for the sovereign. Records of the aristocracy and royal families had always been maintained by the earl marshal and, in Scotland, by Lyon king‐of‐arms. However, in 1484, the College of Arms was incorporated as a permanent institution comprising heralds, who had the task of investigating descent and establishing incontestable rights to titles. Recognition of property rights guaranteed social status and acceptance. After the civil wars of the mid‐17th cent. both aristocracy and gentry supported the publication of detailed histories of counties in England and Wales, which included family histories. These county histories focused on the wealthier residents of each county, giving little information about other levels of society.
In the 20th cent. interest in family history became widespread. Tracing family history is a popular activity, as a recognition of the importance of family at all social levels. By 1960 county record offices had been established in all areas of England and Wales, providing readily available sources such as parish records, ancient wills, and, where they existed, family papers.