England Historical Overview
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Effective family history research requires an understanding of the historical events that affected your ancestors and record keeping. Learning about wars, local events, laws, migrations, settlement patterns, and economic or religious trends may help you understand family movements. These events may have led to the creation of records, such as settlement certificates or military records that mention your ancestors. Your family history research will be more interesting if you learn about the events that shaped your ancestors' lives.
Here is a list of some key dates and events in English history.
- c. 480 Angles, Saxons, and Jutes arrived in England.
- 1066 Norman Conquest. William of Normandy (the Conqueror) invaded and was crowned King of England.
- 1215 The Great Charter. Barons forced King John I to sign the Magna Carta.
- 1455-1485 Wars of the Roses. These ongoing wars involved mostly knights pledged to lords or vassals. Few commoners were involved, and few records were kept.
- 1531 Henry VIII recognized as head of the newly created Church of England. All ties with the Pope and the church in Rome severed.
- 1536 England and Wales united politically.
- 1538 Thomas Cromwell ordered all parish ministers to keep records of christenings, marriages, and burials. These records became known as parish registers.
- 1559 From this date, various Acts of Parliament excluded Roman Catholics from governmental offices and fined them for not attending Church of England services.
- 1568 Some Puritans ordained their own ministers and tried unsuccessfully to separate from the Church of England. The Puritan movement split in two: becoming the Presbyterians and the Separatists.
- 1580 Robert Browne, a separatist, and his followers became known as Independents or Congregationalists.
- 1598 Parish ministers were required to keep their registers on parchment, and previous registers were copied onto parchment. Parish ministers were also required to send copies of their registers to the bishop of the diocese. These became known as bishops' transcripts.
- 1606 A law required Roman Catholics to be baptised and married by Church of England clergy and to be buried in the churchyard. A fine was imposed for not complying. Many people obeyed regarding burials, but Roman Catholic baptisms and marriages continued in secret.
- 1612 The first General Baptist church was organized.
- 1620 A group of Congregationalists sailed on the Mayflower to the New World.
- 1630 Puritans seeking church reform left for New England under the leadership of John Winthrop.
- 1642-1660 Civil War took place in England. Charles I was executed in 1649. Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England. Bishop's courts were abolished. Civil war caused political and religious upheaval. Parish registers were poorly kept. Many other changes affected record keeping.
- 1644 Presbyterian and Independent records began, but many of these early records no longer exist.
- 1656 Society of Friends (Quaker) records began. These records are unique among English religious records because they are so thorough.
- 1660 Charles II was restored as monarch, ending civil strife. Bishop's courts were restored.
- 1665-1666 The Great Plague struck England. London and other larger cities were hardest hit. This affected record keeping. The Great Fire of London followed the plague and destroyed many churches and their registers.
- 1685 The migration of Huguenot refugees to England, mainly from France, increased considerably.
- 1688-89 William of Orange from Holland was crowned King of England.
- 1695-1706 A tax was assessed on parish register entries. To avoid the tax, some people did not register events.
- 1707 England and Wales united with Scotland to form the United Kingdom.
- 1733 English replaced Latin in official records.
- 1735 The Wesleyan Methodist group was started by John Wesley and others. It didn't separate from the Church of England until about 1800. The earliest records date from about 1790.
- 1752 England adopted the new Gregorian calendar. The first day of the year changed from 25 March (Lady's Day) to 1 January. See Calendar Changes.
- 1754 Lord Hardwicke's Act outlawed marriage outside the Church of England (except for Quakers and Jews) and required that separate registers for marriages be kept. Common law marriages were also outlawed.
- 1756-1762 The Seven Years War, called the French and Indian War in North America, involved 120,000 British soldiers and began a continuous series of army records.
- 1756-1765 The first English navigation canals appeared. The industrial revolution began, and cities grew with the invention of the steam engine and the spinning jenny.
- 1775-1783 The American revolution occurred. The British army had 135,000 men in North America when fighting broke out. Some men remained in Canada after the war, but most returned to England. Records of Loyalists and others who remained in Canada are separate from other military records.
- 1778 Laws against Roman Catholics were repealed, and many priests started to keep records.
- 1783-1794 The Stamp Duty Act again assessed a tax on parish register entries. Only paupers were exempt, so many people were recorded as paupers when they were not. Others did not have their children baptized until after the act was repealed.
- 1800 Ireland became part of the United Kingdom.
- 1803-1815 The Napoleonic Wars occurred. Numerous battles across Europe involved 365,000 British soldiers and 300,000 seamen. These battles included the Peninsular Wars in Portugal and Spain. When the wars ended, the soldiers returned to Britain to find that many traditional occupations had been eliminated by the Industrial Revolution.
- 1812 The George Rose Act required Church of England christening, marriage, and burial records to be kept in separate registers on preprinted forms, starting 1 January 1813.
- 1830 The first railways appeared in England.
- 1834 Poor law unions took poor relief responsibilities away from parishes. Workhouses were established.
- 1837 Civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths began on 1 July. However, events could still be recorded in parish registers. Bishops' transcripts were kept less frequently. Queen Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1901.First missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began preaching in the Preston, Lancashire area.
- 1841 The first genealogically useful census was taken by the government.
- 1854-1856 225,000 troops were involved in the Crimean war (by the Black Sea).
- 1857 The Matrimonial Causes Act created divorce courts and made it easier for unhappy couples to obtain a divorce.
- 1857-1858 The Indian Mutiny occurred. Many of the troops discharged after the Crimean War were recalled to quell the revolt in India.
- 1858 Principal Probate Registry began handling all English probates.
- 1877-1902 The Boer Wars occurred. The first Anglo-Boer War led to South African independence in 1881. The second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) led to the unification of South Africa in 1910.
- 1882 Married women were given the right to use and dispose of their own property.
- 1914– 1918 About 3 million English troops served in World War I. 750,000 died.
- 1939–1945 More than 1 million British soldiers and civilians died in World War II.
The following are a few of the historical sources available at the Family History Library:
- British [or English] Historical Facts by Chris Cook, et. al. Five volumes covering 1485-1900, lists key dates, offices, and office holders in history.
- The Oxford History of England. Fifteen volumes organized by period and covers from 100 B.C. to A.D. 1945.
- Record Sources for Local History by Phillip Riden. Explains governmental changes and how they affect local and family history.
- Sources for English Local History by W. B. Stephens, explains historical records and lists sources with more detailed information.
- Chronicle of Britain: incorporating a chronicle of Ireland edited by Henrietta Heald. Arranged by year, it gives information about major events in the British Isles from the Ice Age to 1992.
Similar sources may be available at public and university libraries.
A local history describes the economy, prominent families, and the founding of churches, hospitals, schools, and businesses in a specific area. Even if a local history does not mention your ancestor, you may find important clues that suggest other records to search. Local histories also provide background information about your family's lifestyle, community, and environment.
For many localities, there may be more than one history. There are hundreds of histories about English parishes. The Family History Library has many histories, and they will be listed in the Family History Library Catalog. Use the Place Search and type a locality. Histories are often available at major public and university libraries and archives.
Victoria County Histories is an important ongoing series of local histories for most counties. Each entry includes general background and history from pre-Roman times and individual chapters on industry, economy, and history. Pedigrees or histories of prominent individuals and occupants of historic homes are often included. These call numbers for these histories are found in the Family History Library Catalog. Use the Place Search and type the name of a county.
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.