Parish Registers: a bit of background

This is the first in a series of four blogs looking at parish registers which is often the first pre 19th century record used when researching your ancestors before the 1837 when civil registration began.

It is worth considering the political and ecclesiastical background to the early period of parish registers. Prior to 1538 no official registers were maintained by the parish churches although some monastic houses and parish priests had developed a custom of making a note of local births and deaths, especially of leading local families often in albums or the margin of service books. However, following a series of Acts of Parliament in 1532 and 1534 and in particular the Act of Supremacy of 1534 Henry VIII, broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and Papal authority and declaring himself supreme head of the Church of England. Monasteries and monastic houses were destroyed along with their records. Hence, very few ecclesiastical records exist prior to 1538.

Thomas Cromwell was Henry VIII’s Vicar- General at this time and having spent his early years in the Netherlands who introduced baptism registers in the late 1400’s he recognised the value of keeping baptism, marriage and burial records. A first attempt was made in 1536 to introduce parish registers. At this time there was strong resistance with revolts against the rule of Henry VIII and the establishment of the Church of England, particularly in the counties of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire with the “Pilgrimage of Grace” in Yorkshire and the “Lincolnshire Rising” in the autumn of 1536. The introduction of parish registers is likely to have been seen as being part of the bigger campaign to impose the authority of the new Church of England and one of the concerns surrounding the instruction of parish registers was the rumour that a tax would be levied on the entries, creating much concern and mistrust.

This first attempt to introduce parish registers failed and on 5th September 1538 Thomas Cromwell introduced an Injunction that every parish church should keep a book/register of all baptisms, marriages and burials which took place in their parish. The book/register should be completed every Sunday in the presence of two churchwardens. Cromwell did not introduce any tax levy on these entries although there was a penalty of 3s 4d imposed for the repair of the church for failure to comply with the mandate.

Many parishes in fact ignored this order and the Injunction was reissued in 1547 following the death of Henry VIII by the Council of Edward VI word for word save that the penalty was to be for the benefit of the poor of the parish. It would seem that many parishes may have still ignored this order, with Diocese of Canterbury enquiring whether the order had to be obeyed and in 1559, during the first reign of Elizabeth I, it was necessary to reissue the Injunction again word for word save that this time the penalty was to be divided between the repair of the church and the benefit of the poor. The need for the Injunction to be reissued twice demonstrates in itself that many parishes continued to ignore the order.

Baptism register 1609 from Shere Parish church,
SurreySurrey History Centre; Woking, Surrey, England; 
Surrey Church of England Parish Registers; Reference: SHER/1/1

These early registers were written either in paper books or on loose sheets of paper. The registers were therefore perishable and not suitable for maintaining permanent records and by the end of the 16th century many had already deteriorated or disintegrated. There had been no explicit instructions as to the qualities of the register itself. It was not until 1597 that the Convocation of Canterbury made a constitution ordering registers, where they existed, were to be written on parchment or vellum, with the old paper registers being transcribed onto parchment or vellum. Bishops transcripts were also introduced by this constitution whereby the parish registers were to be copied and sent annually to the Bishop, the main purpose of this being to prevent fraudulent entries being made into the registers and to ensure parish registers were being maintained.

By Canon 70 of the Book of Canons 1603, the constitution of the Convocation of Canterbury became binding in Canon law in that baptisms, marriages and burials were to be transcribed into parchment books “since the time that the law was first made …., so far as the ancient books thereof can be procured, but especially since the beginning of the reign of the late Queen”. In other words, from 1538 where the registers exist or from 1558 with Elizabeth I came to the throne. In reality many registers were only transcribed back to 1558 and therefore although parish registers were introduced in 1538, 1558 is the more realistic date they can be traced back to.

From the above, it must be borne in mind when looking at parish records from 1558 and earlier that they are not the original documents but transcriptions of the paper originals and all the problems of any transcribed document must also therefore be borne in mind. For example, missing entries, incorrectly copied entries, incorrect spellings, it is even possible that information was edited to ‘speed up’ the copying process. Many of these transcriptions were in fact not completed until many years later, well into the 17th century.

From 1597 and the introduction of Bishops transcripts, parish registers are more complete. Copies of the parish registers were to be sent annually by each Incumbent to the Bishop resulting in the keeping of parish registers being much more widely established. I will come back to Bishops transcripts later. It is worth noting that on 11 November 1563 the Roman Catholic Church also ordered the general keeping of baptism and marriage registers.

Throughout this period there continued to be unrest with the supremacy of the Church of England and the rule of the Monarchy. Charles I came to the throne in 1625. At this time Parliament played much more of an advisory role as and when summoned by the monarchy, however the manner in which Charles I reigned led to the Long Parliament being established on 3 November 1640 and the start of the first civil war in 1642. By this time the Church of England and parish registers had been a part of parish life for over 100 years.

There were in all three civil wars, 1642 to 1646; 1648 – 1649; and 1649 – 1651. In 1643 the Solemn League and Covenant was drawn up essentially being a treaty between the English Parliament and its Scottish Counterpart for the preservation of Calvinism to support the Parliamentarian side against Charles’ army in the first civil war and the so-called “reformation of the Church” to bring the Church of England to resemble more closely the Protestant Churches. Many incumbents were ejected for refusing to take the Covenant. This left the church in disarray and had a significant effect parish registers, with many parishes ceasing to complete entries.

In 1645 the Book of Common Prayer was abolished and the Puritan Directory introduced in its place, this led to more incumbents being ejected. However, it did “restore” parish registers, in that Ordinance 1644/5 ordered that, in the establishment of the Puritan Directory, registers should be kept, by ministers and other officers of the church, of baptisms (including the parent’s names) along with births, marriages and burials (to include the date of death) and that a “Register Book of velim” should be provided. These register books should therefore include more details than the earlier parish registers.

The authority of the Bishops also fell away with the rise of this puritan power resulting in episcopacy being abolished in the Church of England on 9 October 1646.

In 1645 the Parliamentarians effectively destroyed Charles’ army and in May 1646 Charles sought refuge with a Presbyterian Scottish Army. He was eventually handed over to the English Parliament and imprisoned and ended the first civil war. There followed two further civil wars in which the Parliamentarians were victors, with Oliver Cromwell defeating Charles II on 3 September 1651 effectively ending the civil wars.

There followed a period of a “rump” parliament and a “barebones” parliament until in 1653 Oliver Cromwell was appointed Lord Protector until his death in 1658. Confusion amongst the clergy continued and many parish registers continued to be neglected thus the “barebones” parliament established the position of “The Parish Register”. This was an individual elected every three years by the parishioners of each parish who was responsible for entering banns; marriages for a fee of 12d); births and burials each for a fee of 4d; and baptisms free of charge which was probably to undermine the significance of baptism. Essentially the register books were taken away from the clergy and surrendered to laymen much to the resentment of both Episcopal and puritan clergy.

Simultaneously, the Marriage Act 1653 took effect on 29 September 1653 ordering all marriages to be conducted before a Justice of the Peace instead of a clergyman by Banns only. Therefore, no marriage licences were issued between 1653 and 1660.

Following the death of Oliver Cromwell; the lack of confidence in his son, Richard, as Lord Protector; the dissolution of the Rump Parliament; and the Declaration of Breda, Charles II was declared King of England on 8 May 1660 and the monarch was restored to power. This period is known as the Restoration.

The ordinances of the rebel government from 1642 to 1660 were not valid in the eyes of the law and legal position of the church was restored as if the intervening ordinances had not existed. What this meant for parish registers was that they were returned to the custody of the clergy and brought back into general use. One consequence of this was that marriages conducted between 1642 and 1660 would essentially be invalid and any children of those marriages would be illegitimate. Therefore an Act of Parliament was passed to legalise those marriages which had taken place since 1 May 1642 thus legitimising any children of those marriages.

Three further Acts of Parliament were passed during this period which affected the parish registers:

  1. Burial of Woollen Acts 1666 and 1678 (to be discussed further in a later blog dealing with burial records)
  1. Tax on Marriages, Births and Burials 1694

This was an Act of Parliament passed during the reign of the impoverished William III and Mary to be imposed for five years to raise money to fund the war against France. The taxes dues were: 4s for burial, 2s for births, 2s 6d for marriages, bachelors and widowers 1s. The nobility however were subject to ‘super-taxes’, e.g. a Dukes marriage was £50, birth of his first son would be £30 and £50 for the burial of a Duke. Paupers were exempt.

This law was further enforced in 1696 ordering parents to register the birth of every child for which the fee was now to be 6d with a fine of 40s for failure to register within 5 days of the birth with the clergy also being fined if they failed to keep records of those born and not baptised. This left some clergy liable to colossal fines and in 1705 an act of indemnity was passed.

This act therefore left documents relating to the payment of these taxes. The records were set out as columns with five headings: ‘marriages’, ‘births’, ‘burials’, ‘bachelors’ and  ‘widowers’.

  1. There was a further Act of Parliament in 1711 which ordered that proper register books should be kept with ruled and numbered pages.

During these early years of parish registers information was often sparse but over the years, save for the civil war years, more details were added. Baptisms, marriages and burials were generally registered all in the same book in chronological order. Some incumbents used one book but separate sections for each type of event, whilst there were occasionally some incumbents who use separate books for each type of event

It must also be remembered that the early parish registers (certainly up until the end of the 16th century) were largely written in Latin rather than English. This practice gradually died out in the early 17th century and in 1733 the use of Latin in ecclesiastical (and legal) documents was abolished.

With this background in mind, the next blog in the series will look in a bit more detail at Baptism registers, so why not subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss out!

If you have any questions or would like help researching your family history in this period, why not contact me or visit my website to see how I can help.

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