History of Parish Registers in England

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Medieval - In medieval times there were no parish registers. For some years before the Reformation, monastic houses (especially the smaller ones) the parish priest had been developing the custom of noting in an album or on the margins of the service books, the births and deaths of the leading local families.

1538 - Through the efforts of Thomas Cromwell a mandate was issued by Henry VIII to keep parish registers. This order that every parson, vicar or curate was to enter in a book every wedding, christening and burial in his parish. The parish was to provide a sure coffer with two locks, the parson having the custody of one key, the wardens the others. The entries were to be made each Sunday after the service in the presence of one of the wardens. The mandate was enforced under a penalty of 3 sols, 4 deniers for the repair' of the church. These entries were made on paper, sometimes upon loose sheets. The bishop in their visitations were to see that the names of sponsors were duly entered in the registers of baptism. The parishioners penalty was divided between the poor box and repairs for the church.

1558 - Queen Elizabeth passed another law that was a duplicate of her father's . Many more registers began at this date. Many of these very early records are hard to read plus being written in Latin and are often very sparse - giving only the fathers name at a Christening and only the persons name in a burial entry. The registers were the property of the incumbent minister and each parish was required to maintain a chest in the parish church for the safe keeping of the same. In time other records were kept in the chest such as poor law records, which were actually the civil parish records. Other records kept in the chest were removal orders, bastardy bonds, overseers of the poor accounts, Tithe award and Maps, Enclosure Awards and Maps, Church Wardens Accounts, etc.

1597 - Registers were to be made of parchment instead of paper, and annual reports of all parish register entries were required to be sent to the appropriate bishop, called Bishop's Transcripts (BT). No doubt the reason we have gaps in some of the early parish registers or they do not exist at all, is that the paper had disintegrated and were not available. In some areas earlier registers were destroyed at this time and some were recopied on parchment.

Some ministers made copies for the Bishop as entries were made in the register, some waited until the end of the year to make these copies. Some entries could have been missed. Most often the original parish entry is more complete.

1598 - The entries that were made on paper, sometimes upon loose sheets, and sixty years later these registers were ordered to be copied upon parchment in books, so that the registers which still survive dating back to 1538-1539 (perhaps about 1400 to 1500 in number). Therefore, any parish which survived this date are rarely the original entries. Some of the earliest paper registers had disappeared even before the transcription was ordered.

1603 - Every parish chest should have three locks one for Priest and two parish clerks to have keys. Only could be opened when all three could be present. Priests sometime keep notes in day books with entries of Christenings (Chr.), Marriages (Marr.) and Burials (Bur.) and was kept until all could get to the chest. Other problems with parish registers. Sometimes private baptisms did not get into the records. Early registers did not have any form to follow in recording the date and was left entirely up to the ministers. So depended on minister how much information he wished to give.

1631-1706 A fee of 6 deniers was introduced for registration of births which was generally ignored. People were not having their children christened. The minister was fined if he did not record the vital records and people were fined if they did not bring their children in. This was hard to enforce so did not last long.

1641-42 - Protestation rolls.

1643 - Ejection of clergy refusing covenant of Protestation.

1644 - More parents names appear in baptism register. and each parish or chapelry in the country should provide a fair Register Book of Vellum wherein were to be recorded the dates of baptisms as before, plus the dates of births and parents names. The regulation as to marriage entries remained unchanged.

1642-60 - During the Civil War registers were neglected and Bishop Transcripts were not required. Remember this was the war between parliamentary forces and the Royalists and during this tine Charles I was beheaded.

1650 - In the restoration of Charles they went back to the church to keep christenings, marriages and burial. The civil records that were kept were filed in with the parish in their registers. it is quite usual to find entries explaining the situation during the Interregnum. One rector stated that on 23 April 1643 "Our church was defaced our font thrown down and new forms of prayer appointed". Another minister not quite so bold wrote "When the war, more than a civil war was raging most grimly between royalists and parliamentarians throughout the greatest part of England, I lived well because I lay low".

1653 - Cromwell, whose army had defeated the Royalists, was made Lord Protector and acted as king. He was a Puritan. The parish church of England was disorganized, many ministers fled for their lives, some were able to hide their registers and other registers were destroyed. Cromwell ruled that there would be no one religion in England all religions could be practiced. The government took away from the ministers not only the custody of the registers, but even the solemnization of the marriage ceremony. The marriage ceremony was entrusted to the justices to form a new Parish Register (not Registrar) elected by all the ratepayers in a parish, and sworn before and approved by a magistrate.. Parish clerks of the church were made a civil parish clerk and they recorded deaths, births and marriages in the civil parishes.

1656 - The year of the plague and many burial entries in the parishes. Also the fire of London destroyed London Bridge and many of the records of London destroyed at that time.

1666 - 1669 One had to be buried with a wool burial shroud.

1673 - Affidavit from Magistrates required for burial in woolen shroud. If "Affidavit" appears on burial records it means that the person was buried in wool.

1680 - Charles 11 passed an Act requiring all corpses to be buried in wool, to bolster the woolen industry. The affidavit required only from the Minister.

1694 - A duty of 2 shillings per birth, 2 shillings 6 denier per marriage and 4 shillings per burial of all non-paupers with a sliding scale rising to 30 pounds for the birth of the son of a Duke, 50 pounds for a dukes marriage and burial. All births were to be notified to the rector or vicar within five days, under a penalty of 40 shillings and he was to record them for a fee of 6 denier under a like penalty. The government thought it would be a good way to raise money for the crown to carry on the war against France, It was specially provided that a birth should not be exempt from tax merely because the parents failed to have the child christened, but nevertheless it seems likely that in many parishes such births were not registered and presumably no tax was paid. In other parishes, however, there is clear evidence that the parson in his capacity of tax-collector looked up the neglectful parishioner and collected the tax, plus, his six pence. Many pleaded poverty at the time of burial.

1695 - A fine of forty shillings for anyone failing to report birth within 5 days of the birth. Vicars were likewise fined for failure to keep a record of those who were born and not christened. Such recording cost the parents sixpence.

1705 - This act was not carried out very well and it was thought necessary to pass an act of indemnity on behalf of the clergy who had neglected to obey this mandate.

1733 - Latin was discontinued in parish records. What a big relief, but we still have to struggle with the old English handwriting.

1752 - The Gregorian Calendar was adopted and the first day of the year was changed from March 25th (Ladyday) to January 1st. Up to 1752 use double dating between Jan.1st to Mar. 25th.

1754 - Lord Hardwick's Act required separate registers for marriages (plus banns books). These were recorded on printed forms. The act exempted only Quakers and Jews from being married in the Church of England. The act was passed for the preventing of Clandestine (secret) marriages. This law required that separate registers be kept for marriages. Prior to this time the record of marriages had been entered with the christenings and burials. To make the Act more effective, a special printed form was devised which called for the signatures of the officiating minister, the two witnesses and those of the bride and groom. An indication of the marital status of the bride and groom (spinster, bachelor, widow, widower) and their resident parish was given. Marriages were to be either by banns (announced from the pulpit on three successive Sundays) or by license and could not be performed in parochial chapelries unless special permission was obtained.

It ordered that records should be kept both of banns and of marriages, that these should be in books of vellum or good and durable paper, to be provided by the churchwardens. The entries ware to be signed by the parties and to follow a prescribed form, and the registers were to be carefully kept and preserved for public use.

1783-1793 - The Stamp Act of 1783 granted to the crown a stamp duty of threepence upon every register entry of burial, marriage, birth or christening, the officiating minister, who collected the duty being allowed a commission of 10 per cent for his trouble. Two years later this act was extended to cover Nonconformists. This legislation was the 2nd attempt to use the register for fiscal purposes.

1812 - After the 31st of December 1812, registers of public and private baptisms, marriages and burials were to be made and kept by the rector, in books provided by the King's printer at the expense of the respective parishes.

  • Registers of baptisms, marriages and burials to be made in separate books.
  • The rector, etc., as soon as possible after the solemnization of the rite, to enter in the proper register book the several particulars described in the schedules and to sign the same; and in no case (unless prevented by sickness or other unavoidable impediment) later than seven days after the ceremony.
  • The register books to be kept in a dry, well-painted iron chest, in some dry, safe and secure place within the usual residence of such rector, etc.

1814 - Burial in woolen repealed

1837 - Since Civil registration of 1837 church marriage registers are now kept in duplicate, the incumbent sending each quarter a copy of all marriage entries to the district superintendent registrar, who sends it to the Registrar general, together with records of births, marriages and deaths he has collected through his secular registrars. When the marriage registers are filed, one copy is retained in the parish and the other goes to the secular registrar.