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Thu 22 Jul 2021
A Hint of Scandal?
Sandra Jones // Research Volunteer
Anyone who has ever tried to trace their family tree will be well aware of the problems encountered. This melting-pot of information recently gave rise to one of the more intriguing enquiries to have crossed our Curator’s desk. Research Volunteer Sandra Jones and Curator Philippa Wood explain...

In Spring 2021 a most unusual enquiry was received. 

A gentleman contacted us to ask if it were possible he could be the 8x great grandson of William Constable (1721 – 1791) through an alleged marriage in 1743 to Elizabeth Winter (1723 – 1803) and one of their five children, Hannah, born 1744. All of these events were said to have taken place in the Parish of St. Cuthbert, Edinburgh.

It was of course fairly clear from the outset that the William Constable concerned must have been a different man by the same name, and that somewhere in the tangle of the genealogical website’s uploads a set of dates had gone rather awry. After all

1. If such a marriage had taken place, how could it have been possible that no-one at Burton Constable was aware of it?
2. If William had children, why would the Sheldons have inherited?
3. Would William really have been the sort of man to then enter a bigamous second marriage to Catherine Langdale?

However, the query was too intriguing to dismiss, and Burton Constable’s excellent team of Research Volunteers were eager to tackle this puzzle as a neat re-introduction to their research after the hiatus prompted by the Covid lockdown.

On the Pitfalls of Genealogy

Anyone who has ever tried to trace their family tree will be well aware of the problems encountered.

Despite the many internet sites that now allow users to build beautifully colour-coded diagrams, the work behind the scenes that inform those sites is enormous and unchanged.

Historic handwriting is often difficult to decipher, and standard spellings were a surprising late invention. Transcribing historic documents not only relies on the ability of the reader to decipher handwriting, but also on their knowledge of the country where the documents originated. Local readers will tend to be able to recognise and record placenames more easily than those who are unfamiliar with the area. Mistakes were also made at the time the original sources were written; many were unable to read or write, so we are relying on the ability of the person taking their details to hear and record the information correctly - often with a limited education themselves.

Simply navigating the web of common names that occur can be a challenge. By the late 18th Century, 25.7% of women in Yorkshire were named Mary – that’s one in four! Among recusant Catholic families such as the Constables, that particular name was especially popular. Sir Thomas Aston's sisters were called Mary Barbara and Mary Isabella, and he married Mary Anne Chichester. Mary Anne’s son  Frederick Augustus 'Talbot' also married a lady named Mary Ann!

Some internet sites attempt to remove some of the above difficulties by providing information ready-transcribed for their users. This information is usually correct, but still relies on old handwriting being legible. Others rely on information posted by other researchers who might not quote their sources. Some are a mixture of both.

Question 1: Did William Constable (1721 – 1791) marry Elizabeth Winter (1723 – 1803) in 1743?

Simple answer - not that we have records for!

It is important to note, however, that marriage records are only available on the official website Scotland’s People from 1744 onwards.

More complex answer - also no!

As will become clear below, the information in the crucial question actually refers to two separate individuals - neither of whom was living in Edinburgh at the time the marriage took place.

Question 2: Did William Constable and Elizabeth Winter have five children – and could they have been the rightful heirs of Burton Constable?

As we've already discussed, there was a marriage between a William Constable and an Elizabeth Winter - or to be more accurate, there were two! However, as neither of these William Constables was the rightful owner of our own grand mansion, the modern day family and indeed the Foundation have no cause for concern over rights of succession.

To explain:

In Edinburgh, a happily married couple named William Constable and Elizabeth Winter had five bonny children. One of these children, and this is where the confusion partly occurs, was called Ann. Skip forwards several decades, however, and you have Elizabeth Winter/Constable sadly dying in 1770 aged 56, with her husband following on a couple of years later aged 62 - still living in Edinburgh. It is fairly clear then, that William Constable (1710 - 1772) is clearly not our very own William. 

Despite this, a search on Ancestry© for William Constable 1721-1791 results in some 20 family trees being listed - despite William having been recorded as having died without 'issue' (children, to you or I). So, how did this confusion occur? To answer this, we need to leap to the other end of the country. 

Nottingham, 1768: Isaac Stanfield married  Ann Constable (or Hannah Constable - an example of the issue that the lack of standardised spelling can cause).

In Norfolk, a lady Elizabeth Winter/Constable - a name that should by now seem very familiar to you, was recorded as being alive, well and the wife (not widow) of William Constable in 1803. This lady also seems to have been included in some family trees, despite the fact that her location and  date of death mean that she is clearly an entirely different Elizabeth Winter/Constable than the lady in Edinburgh.

I would forgive you, at this point, for being a little confused; this is an awful lot of unrelated families to be represented in one family tree!

Methods and a Muddled Link

How Family Trees are Built

Ancestry© and other similar websites holds details of many historical records, some transcribed from original documents and sources and some posted by researchers.

Two types of evidence are used when creating family trees:

a. Scanned documents such as birth certificates and census returns
b. Quotes of accessed family trees compiled by others

The family tree that was being used by our enquirer was using the second form of evidence.

How This Particular Family Tree Grew

The methods above lend themselves rather well to one small error in a single family tree being multiplied across many - with finding the initial mistake often proving almost impossible.

So, we have reached a result of 3 different families in one family tree (though the tree is starting to look a little like a small woodland by now)

In this case, it would appear that a person or persons unknown made the following errors while researching their family history:

-  William Constable of Edinburgh was mistaken for William Constable of Burton Constable

- The Elizabeth Winter/ Constable of Norfolk was mistaken for the Elizabeth Winter/ Constable of Edinburgh

- The Ann (Hannah) Constable married in Nottingham was mistaken for the Hannah Constable born in Edinburgh

These fairly easy mistakes to make were uploaded this to Ancestry where, voila! It was copied to a sizeable number of other family trees.

Once we had discovered these issues, we began to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

What Can We Learn?

Firstly, we can learn that it is quite amazing what can be unpicked from a slight tangle - and how important research volunteers are to an organisation like Burton Constable where only a small curatorial staff can be maintained!

For our readers, however, there are also a few small salutary lessons that can be taken away:

  1. Be wary of research where original documents are not available
  2. Never assume a sound-alike name is correct
  3. If you do not have original sources, note this fact for anyone copying your information
  4. Always look for actual documentary evidence
  5. Remember that information on the internet depends on the accuracy of the person uploading it!

This particular enquiry did allow our staff and volunteers a delicious snatch of intrigue, and a delightful flirt with scandal around a man whose aptitude for scandal was mostly quite limited - if one excludes the rather abrupt end to his brief engagement with Anne Fairfax of Fairfax House in York.

Despite the unexpected excitement, however, we are all rather delighted to have discovered that our very own William Constable remains an honest and affable gentleman – and one with a greater interest in landscape architecture, Science and the attempt to breed furry chickens than he did in the opposite sex!


William Constable 300

William Constable (1721 - 1791) will feature in a special exhibition in Autumn/Winter 2021 to celebrate his 300th Birthday. Want to know more about this remarkable man? Subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Twitter to get the latest news!


Acknowledgements, Thanks and Sources

I must here note my thanks for the Research Volunteers of Burton Constable, who invested a great deal of time to their studies into this mystery.

I particularly thank Sandra Jones who compiled most of the research above and wrote it up for me together with the lessons in genealogy and on the pitfalls an amateur genealogist might discover. This left myself, as the Curator, the simpler job of editing the information for this website and adding an introduction and conclusion .

Sources readers might find interesting which were used in the article above include: – contains accurate records for Births, Marriages and Deaths along with census and other sources.

Galbi, D. (2003). Sense in Communication (Exerpt - Appendix 1: Historical Popularity of the Name Mary). Available online at