The Ancient parishes of England were districts which were erected by the 13th century each having its own appointed priest who administered the sacraments to the inhabitants who, in return, paid tithes and ecclesiastical dues. The parish priest accounted to the bishop of whose diocese the parish was a territorial subdivision.
In England, regional churches (‘minsters’) were founded in the 7th and 8th centuries which were home to groups of priests who served large parochiae (ecclesiastical Latin from the Greek "district"). From the 10th to 12th centuries these large areas were broken up into as many as 5 to 15 smaller areas as feudal landowners built local churches to serve their households and their tenants. These smaller territories, often coterminus with the manorial holdings, developed into a formal parochial system in the 12th century. The expression "ancient" indicates that the origins of the parish boundaries was determiined by "no statute, and, so far as can be ascertained, by no royal decree or authoritative commission" but, as Archbishop Stillingfleet wrote in 1698 "upon an ancient and immemorial custom ... as the circumstances of times and places and persons did happen to make them greater or lesser".
Not all English land fell with an ancient parish.
During the 19th century ancient parishes diverged into two distinct units. The Poor Law Amendment Act 1866 declared all areas that levied a separate rate —extra-parochial areas, townships, and chapelries— become Civil parishes as well. The parishes for church use continued unchanged as Ecclesiastical parishes. The latter part of the 19th century saw most of the ancient irregularities inherited by the civil system cleaned up, with the majority of exclaves abolished.
- Sidney and Beatrice Webb, English local government, from the Revolution to the Municipal Corporations Act (1906, London, Longmans Green and Co.), vol 1 The Parish, Internet Archive edition retrieved 26 December 2012.
- "parish" in The Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 edition, vol. 20, pp 823-5 accessed 26 December 2012.
- "parish" in Edmund Wright (ed.), A Dictionary of World History (2nd ed., 2006, Oxford University Press) via Oxford Reference Online (eISBN: 9780191726927) accessed 26 December 2012.