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Church records are the main source for identifying people prior to 1837 when civil registration began. It is also a main source after 1837 in conjunction with civil registration. The Church of England was formed in 1536, after King Henry VIII severed all ties to the church in Rome. Each local parish was responsible to register all marriages, baptisms and burials starting in 1538. The governing of each parish created a group of records known as parish chest records. The Church of England has dominated the religious scene in England; therefore it is likely that this is where you will find your ancestors. As time passes other religions began to organize and keep their own records. Those that did not belong to the Church of England were referred to as nonconformists or dissenters. The main influence of nonconformism was in larger towns and cities.
Although a nationwide order was given in 1538 that each parish keep a register of baptisms, marriages, and burials, many parishes did not start to keep registers until later and some early records have since been lost or destroyed. Beginning in 1598, copies of entries from many parishes were copied and sent annually to the bishop for the diocese for that area and these copies are known as Bishop’s Transcripts or BTs. For Lincolnshire and Norfolk, many Bishop's transcripts began as early as 1561. Archdeacon transcripts exist for Kent as well; some as early as 1560.
To view the most comprehensive and the largest database available on the Internet--for England church register transcripts, visit FamilySearch.org.
Parish. Each local parish keeps records. A parish is the jurisdictional unit that governs church affairs within its boundaries. Small villages often do not have their own parishes but are part of a parish headquartered in another town. A parish may have one or more chapelries, dependent district churches or chapels of ease, which often keep their own records.
Chapelry. A small parochial division of a large, populated parish. Most chapels or chapelries kept their own registers of baptisms and burials, and where authorization was granted, marriages were performed and registers kept. Occasional parishes throughout England, but especially most of Lancashire's 60-plus parishes, and many in Cheshire were comprised of numerous chapelries, i.e. Parish of Prestbury, Cheshire--many chapels of ancient origin and with 24 chapels overall by 1850 (see Lewis' Topographical Dictionary of England for pre-1848 and, for post-1848 chapelries--see the Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales for even more). To view all those chapelries attached to and lying within Lancashire's largest parishes, see the "Comprehensive Lists of Lancashire's Chapelries in Its Largest Cities and Township Parishes" under the names of each of its large parishes, here.
Diocese. Many parishes are grouped together under the jurisdiction of a bishop. A bishop heads a diocese. Some dioceses include one or more archdeaconries administered by an archdeacon. These may be divided into rural deaneries, headed by a rural dean. Each deanery consists of several parishes.
Church of England Records
As this was the state church, one should begin a search of church records in those of the Church of England.
- Main article: Church of England Parish Registers
The registers kept by the parish record christenings, marriages, and burials performed in that parish. The parish was also used by the government for taking care of the poor, the physical well-being of the parish, law enforcement, taxation and military conscription during the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. These functions required that the parish keep other records beside the registers. These other records are often called parish chest records (see the subheading Parish Chest Records in this article).
Earlier registers often contained christenings, marriages, and burials in one book, called a general register. Primarily due to concern over the number of clandestine (irregular or nonconformist) marriages occuring, Lord Hardwick's Act required that effective with 1754, all marriages had to be performed in the Church of England to be legal (exceptions for Jews and Quakers only). It also required a separate register for marriages be kept in every parish. In 1813 parishes were required to use pre-printed registers. From 1813, there were separate registers for christenings, marriages, and burials.
The amount of information recorded varies from parish to parish. Later records (particularly after 1812) are usually more complete than earlier ones. However, content often changed when a new minister began keeping the records.
Some pre-1733 parish registers are in Latin and even records in English may contain some Latin words. Local dialects may have affected the spelling of some family names or places.
To Search Parish Registers:
- The Family History Library catalog lists many parish registers/bishop's transcripts that are available on microfilm. These can be sent to a family history center. To search the catalog, use the Place-name search and search for a parish of interest.
- TheInternational Genealogical Index (IGI) was the largest index of extracted Church of England parish registers, and included some non-Church of England (nonconformist) records. It is now included in the current version of FamilySearch at www.familysearch.org website. .
- The current FamilySearch.org also has many additional parish records and more will be frequently added, such as for Warwickshire, Durham, and Cheshire counties.
- Free Reg is a wonderful site of indexed parish records, indexed by volunteers.
- There are several subscription Web sites that have parish records, especially at FindMyPast, Ancestry.co.uk, The Genealogist, and World Vital Records. These are free at family history centers and some of these web sites are available at large public libraries.
- You can contact the county records office and they will sometimes do a quick look-up for you for free--providing you do not ask for too much. If you have more extensive research you want done, they will recommend a researcher who knows their records.
Children were usually christened within a few weeks of birth, though christenings of some older children or adults were recorded. The parish registers give at least the infant’s name and the christening (baptism) date. Additional information may include the father’s name and occupation, the mother’s first name, the child’s birth date and legitimacy, and the family’s place of residence. In larger cities the family’s street address is given.
The pre-printed forms introduced in 1813 called for the child’s christening date and given names, both parents’ given names, family surname, residence, father’s occupation, and minister’s signature. The birth date was sometimes added.
It is worth mentioning that it was common practice in families to use the same Christian name over and over again until a child survived with it. This means that individuals need to try and capture all of the family members listed watching for deaths and that same name being given to the next child of the same sex.
What is in England parish registers?
Parish registers often record only the marriage date and the names of the bride and groom. The records may also include the marital status and the parish of residence of both parties, the groom’s occupation, signatures of witnesses, and the minister’s name, especially after 1754. Starting in 1813, marital status and occupations may be given. Names of witnesses are also given.
Starting 1 July 1837, the beginning of government registration, all parishes were required to use a new form. This form called for the bride and groom’s ages, residences, and occupations and the names and occupations of their fathers.
Couples usually married in the bride’s parish. Typically, the English married in their twenties.
You may find records that show a couple’s intent to marry in addition to the records of the actual marriage. Sometimes, however, the couple registered their intent to marry but never married.
There were two ways to meet the requirements to marry.
By Banns. A law required couples to have the minister announce or post notice of their intent to marry for three consecutive Sundays unless they obtained a license. This gave others the opportunity to object to the marriage. Beginning in 1754, officials recorded banns in separate registers. Banns registers contain information almost identical to marriage registers, but banns usually do not list the witnesses or marriage date. Note: Be aware that banns were only an intent to marry. The posting of banns doesn’t mean that a marriage took place after the reading of the banns.
If you believe a marriage took place but cannot find a record of it, search the banns register (if available). The banns should have been recorded in both the bride’s and the groom’s parish. The marriage is usually recorded only in the parish where it took place. For banns registers, look in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalogue under:
ENGLAND, [COUNTY NAME], [PARISH NAME] - CHURCH RECORDS
By License. A couple applied to the proper church authority, usually the bishop, for a license when:
- Circumstances made it desirable to marry without waiting the three weeks required for the proclamation of banns.
- The bride and groom lived in different dioceses.
- A couple preferred not to subject themselves to publication of banns (common among upper classes and nonconformists).
Marriage licenses could be granted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, bishops, and archdeacons, or their surrogates within their respective jurisdictions. The licensing process created three types of documents, which may provide additional information to what the marriage record itself contains:
Marriage bond. A written guarantee made by the groom and another person swearing to the legality of the planned marriage. The bond usually lists occupations.
Marriage allegation. A statement filed by the couple in support of their license application. It records the couple’s names, ages, and parish of residence. The allegation sometimes lists where the marriage was to take place or gives a parent’s name or signature.
Marriage license. The actual document given to the couple to present to the minister. This document seldom survives but is sometimes found in family papers.
If a couple married by license but the bond or allegation cannot be found in the records for the diocese, check the records of the Vicar General and the Faculty Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, which had a higher level of jurisdiction.
The current location of original marriage license documents is given in:
Gibson, J. S. W. Bishops’ Transcripts and Marriage Licences, Bonds and Allegations. Fourth Edition. Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies Publications, Limited, 1997. (FHL book 942 K23b 1997.)
Many license records are in county record offices. The Family History Library also has a good collection, usually listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalogue under:
ENGLAND, [COUNTY NAME] - CHURCH RECORDS
A burial usually took place in the deceased’s parish a few days after the death. Pre-1813 burial records list the deceased’s name and burial date and sometimes mention the age, place of residence, cause of death, or occupation. The husband’s name is sometimes given on the wife’s burial entry. The father’s name may be on the record for a deceased child. After 1813 the forms called for the name, age, abode, burial date, and minister’s signature.
Burial registers may mention infant children who were not christened including stillbirths. Christening records never record stillbirths.
Bishop’s Transcripts (BT's). Beginning in 1598 each parish was supposed to send a copy of its registers to the bishop of its diocese. Most parishes complied. Bishop's transcripts should be an exact copy of the parish register but they often are not. This may be because:
- The minister was saving time and space by abreviating entries when copying them.
- The minister may have added more detail to an entry when he copied it into the BTs.
- BT's were on separate pieces of parchment and some may have been lost over the years.
- BT's may survive where the parish registers do not.
- Entries may have been accidently skipped or mis-transcribed when the record was copied for the BT's.
The current location of original bishop’s transcripts is given in:
Gibson, J. S. W. Bishops’ Transcripts and Marriage Licences, Bonds and Allegations. Fourth Edition. Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies Publications, Limited, 1997. (FHL book 942 K23b 1997.)
Many bishop’s transcripts are on film at the Family History Library, listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalogue under:
England, [county name], [parish name] - Church records
Most films contain all the years for one parish on one film. However, some are arranged by deanery and year. Those arranged by year and then by deanery are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalogue under:
England, [county name] - Church records
For Lincolnshire, many Bishop's transcripts begin as early as 1561.
Archdeacon transcripts exist for many Kent County parishes--some as early as 1560.
Parish Chest Records"parish chest". Because the Church of England was ordered by the Crown to keep records on all their congregants, any recorded business other than the christenings, marriages and burials of the parishioners was kept in this chest and are known as "parish chest records." Some of these records still exist from the 16th century, but many do not begin until the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.
These records may include information regarding the care of the poor, settlement examinations, removal orders, apprenticeship indentures, militia certificates and workhouse accounts. And many give detailed information on individuals and families!
Watch a Video Presentation on Church Records
To watch a video presentation on Church Records created by the staff at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, click here.
Indexes to Church Records
Indexes to church records can save you time because they usually cover a broad geographical area and a broad time period.
Indexes to church records have been published by family history societies in England. Read more in the Societies article.
To see what indexes to parish registers are available at the Family History Library, look in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalogue under a county of interest and the topic of Church Records - Indexes. See also England Vital Records Index (FamilySearch Historical Records)
Several Internet web sites also have indexes to church records:
- www.familysearch.org - records span billions of names across hundreds of collections—including birth, marriage, death, probate, land, military, IGI extracted, and more.
- Ancestry.co.uk - vast entries for Greater London and other regions of England - about 10 million entries. Includes Pallot's marriage index.
- BMDRegister.co.uk - about 10 million entries
- FindMyPast.co.uk - nearly 70 million entries
- FHLFavorites.com- links to millions of entries from many areas of England; many are at no cost
- forest-of-dean.net - indexed and transcribed records for the Forest of Dean area in Gloucerstershire
- FreeReg.org.uk - about 10 million entriesOnlineParishClerks.org.uk - millions(?) of entries
- Marriage Locator: Helps to locate the church where the marriage took place
- OriginsNetwork.com - approximately 10 million marriages and other events
- TheGenealogist.co.uk - has nonconformist as well as parish register entries; over 12 million
- UKBMD.org.uk - millions of entries throughout many (but not all) counties of England
- www.uk-genealogy.org.uk/Registers hundreds of parish registers and other BMD transcripts in their collection, and they are working to put them all online.
In additon, thousands of English church records are available on microfilm or microfiche through the Family History Library system.
Online County Indexes
- fhlfavorites.com - a categorized list of websites. Look under the county of interest and the subject "Church Records" to see a list of church records online for that county.
- Google the following search terms: 1) "Index", 2) "Church records", or "baptism", or "marriage", or "burial" and 3) name of place, e.g. "Westminster"
- FindMyPast has over 70 million entries from parish registers and Bishop's transcripts
- UKBMD.org.uk - has numerous online databases and indexes
- Access to Archives (A2A) - provides a marvelous view into county record office and numerous other catalogs and inventories to their genealogical records
- England Wiki article - search under each county of interest to find valuable links and ideas for enhancing your research; the "Church records" and "Parish" sections are currently being constructed
- Mailing Lists at Rootsweb.com
- Genealogical networking web sites (a great way to find and work cooperatively with distant relatives who are working on in-common family lines), include:
Indexes in the United Kingdom
- Society of Genealogists: For about a hundred years this marvelous society has dedicatedly indexed and transcribed parish and church registers (and many other types of records) throughout England and Wales. Of the 12,800-plus parishes in England, they hold transcriptions to nearly 11,000 parishes!
- Some county record offices hold in-house and sometimes, online indexes to their own records holdings. Contact via e-mail, mail, telephone or fax.
- Many family history societies have published in booklet-form, or on microfiche, or on CD-ROM numerous countywide or parish church records transcriptions and indexes.
Privately held marriage indexes for most counties are available by correspondence at either of the following two sources. Many indexes are listed with the addresses of where to write in:
- Humphery-Smith, Cecil R., The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers. Second Edition. Chichester, Sussex: Phillimore & Company, 1995. (FHL book 942 E7pa 1995.)
- Gibson, Jeremy, and Elizabeth Hampson, Editors. Marriage and Census Indexes for Family Historians. Seventh Edition. Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies Publications, Limited, 1998. (FHL book 942 D27gjh.)
- Some marriage indexes are on film at the Family History Library. To find them, use the Place-name search of the Family History Library Catalogue and search for a county of interest and the topic of CHURCH RECORDS - INDEXES.
Indexes at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City
- Family History Library Catalog (FHLC):
- Search for a county name; click on the topics of both "Church records" and "Church records - Indexes" to find countywide indexes. [Note: The Family History Deparment at FamilySearch.org has a comprehensive "Acquisitions" program for obtaining transcriptions/indexes of church records for all periods of time.]
- Search for a parish name for "Church records - Indexes" for possible "hits" [Many indexes can be found via Batch number obtained from IGI entries at FamilySearch.org.]
Indexes to Marriages
You can find an explanation of this series in:
- Wells, Claire T. Wells, comp. A Key to the Parishes Included in Boyd’s Marriage Index. Second Edition. Salt Lake City, Utah: Family History Library, 1988. (FHL book 942 K22b 1988; fiche 6035667.)
A list of parishes is also given in:
- A List of Parishes in Boyd’s Marriage Index. London, England: Society of Genealogists, 1994. (FHL book 942 K22l 1994.)
Some county record offices and other repositories have indexes to church records, some of which are on film at the Family History Library. Read the Archives and Libraries article for additional information, including addresses.
If your ancestor was a clergy member in the Church of England you may find them listed in The "Clergy of the Church of England Database." This is being funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Lambeth Palace Library
Lambeth Palace, located in South London, is the seat of the Holy See and primate of the Church of England. It is the dwelling (palace) residence of The Most Rev and Rt Hon The Lord, Archbishop of Canterbury, and also found on its premises, the Church of England's archival collections and holdings.
Lambeth Palace Library is the historic library and record office of the Archbishops of Canterbury and the principal repository of the documentary history of the Church of England.
The Library does hold some records relevant to genealogy, but it is unlikely to be the best starting point for such research. The Library holds very few parish registers, however it does hold records relating to those marriages where a licence was issued under the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Library has written a research guide on the family history records it holds, and a guide to the marriage records in its collections:
For further information on the Library’s collections and services, please see its website: Lambeth Palace Library.org
County Record Offices
Most of the Church of England parish registers and Bishop's transcript copies of same, are deposited in the county record offices throughout the country. Additionally, while a majority of the nonconformist church registers have been deposited at The National Archives, some of these church registers have been deposited in the county records offices.
These record offices are open to the public and all have a web site by which you can learn more about their services, the records and their availability, and online offerings.
Locating Church Records of England
- Main article: Locating Church Records of England
Nonconformist Church Records
A nonconformist church is any denomination not conforming to the Church of England, including Roman Catholics, and Quakers. For information on the different nonconformist denominations and their records, read England Nonconformist Church Records.
Most synagogues have retained their own records.
For historical information, contact:
- Jewish Historical Society of England
33 Seymour Place
London W1H 5AP England
In the mid-20th century, a Jewish genealogist named Isobel Mordy collected and indexed a group of English Jewish records. Her collection is now available on microfilm at the Family History Library.
For more information, see:
- Gandy, Michael. My Ancestor Was Jewish: How Can I Find Out More About Him? London, England: Society of Genealogists, 1982. (FHL book 929.1089924 G153.)
The Gregorian calendar, the one commonly used today, is a correction of the Julian calendar, which, because of miscalculated leap years, was 11 days behind the solar year by 1752.
England began using the new calendar in 1752. Eleven days were omitted to bring the calendar in line with the solar year. The day after Wednesday, 2 September 1752, became Thursday, 14 September 1752.
Also at that time, the first day of the year changed to 1 January. Before 1752, the first day of the year was 25 March.
Pre-1752 dates may be confusing. For example, the day after 24 March 1565 was 25 March 1566. Dates between 1 January and 24 March are often recorded using a technique called double dating. An example of double dating is 16 February 1696/7.
For more information, see Handbook of Dates for Students of English History, by C. R. Cheney.
Related Web Pages
Also, there is a Norfolk Churches site that is worthwhile looking at to see photos, etc.
Wiki articles describing these collections are found at:
- England Births and Christenings (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- England Marriages (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- England Deaths and Burials (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- England Bristol Church of England Parish Registers and Bishios' Transcripts (FamilySearch HIstorical Records_
- England Cheshire Church of England Registers and Bishops’ Transcripts (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- England Cheshire Nonconformist Church Records (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- England Cornwall Church of England Parish Registers (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- England Derbyshire Church of England Church Records (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- England Durham (Diocese) Bishops' Transcripts, 1700-1900 (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- England Dorset Church of England Church Records (FamilySearch Histaorical Records)
- England Essex Church of England Parish Registers and Bishops' Transcripts (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- England Kent Parish Registers and Bishop's Transcripts (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- England Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Parish Registers (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- England Norfolk Church of England Archdeacon's Transcripts (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- England Norfolk Marriage Bonds (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- England Norfolk Church of England Parish Registers (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- England Northumberland, Miscellaneous Records (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- England Warwickshire Church of England Parish Registers (FamilySearch Historical Records)