Anglican Parish Registers in England

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The most widely known of church records are parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials.  For the Anglican church in England these commenced in 1538, though few original registers survive from this date.  The contents of a few however were copied into later registers as a result of a Constitution of the Province of Canterbury (1598) which required parchment registers to be kept and previous baptisms, marriages and burial entries be copied into them, especially from the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1 (1558).  Not all parishes complied and gaps are inevitable prior to 1598.

Further information: History of Parish Registers in England

Coverage of registers for an individual parish can be found in the National Index of Parish Registers, a series of regional volumes published by the Society of Genealogists and Phillimore Ltd.

Most pre 1600 parish registers are written in Latin, but, other than first names, the number of Latinised words used is very small.  Difficulty in reading comes perhaps more from the style of writing and spelling, which had yet to be standardised.

Because it was not stated how entries should be kept, ministers and parish clerks devised their own formats.  In some registers baptisms, marriages and burials appear in separate columns on the same page, in others they are grouped separately in different parts of the book, or all three may appear together in chronological order.  Information supplied varies from a very unhelpful 'a child of Thomas Browne was baptised', to the very detailed Dade registers of the late eighteenth century, which included details of a child's position in the family, names of all four grandparents and where they lived, as well as the more standard parents' names and father's occupation.

From 1598 it was also required that copies of parish register entries (known as Bishop's Transcripts) were to be sent annually to the Bishop's Registry.  An exception to this is Norfolk, where for six out of every seven years, copies were sent to the relevant Archdeacon (either Norfolk or Norwich), only in the seventh year were they sent to the Bishop.  This makes Norfolk somewhat more complicated to search since the two sets of transcripts are kept separately.

Because BTs were written on individual pieces of paper, many have sadly become lost, particularly prior to 1700, but they are well worth consulting since they may contain additional information to that found in the parish register.

The non appearance of an ancestor in a parish register/BT may arise for a number of reasons, neglect on the part of the minister/parish clerk being a frequent one.  Neglect on the part of parents in relation to baptisms is another.  Adult baptisms and baptisms of whole families occur in all eras and it is well worth widening the scope of your search in terms of years.  Taxation had the same effect.  In 1783 a duty of 3d was put on every baptism, marriage and burial recorded in England, Wales and Scotland.  Some people avoided the tax by not having their children baptised.  Earlier the English Civil War of 1642-1660 disrupted the keeping of registers in many parishes and between 1653 and 1660 marriages became a civil matter, so many church registers of this period do not record them.

Marriages are a particular problem prior to 1754.  From medieval times the church required couples to marry in their parish church either by marriage licence or after the reading of banns.  Other marriages , though strictly legal, were deemed 'irregular' or 'clandestine.'  The latter appealed to all sorts of people: those wanting to avoid paying for a licence or banns; those needing secrecy; or just because they wanted something quick.  Certain churches became well known for clandestine marriages, including prison chapels, of which the Fleet Prison in London was the most famous.  350,000 couples from all parts of the nation married in or around the Fleet between 1680 and 1754.

This led to 'great Mischiefs and Inconveniences' which Hardwicke's Marriage Act (1753) sought to change.  Henceforth all marriages, except Jews and Quakers, had to be conducted in a parish church after the publication of banns on three successive Sundays or by obtaining a licence.  Parental consent was necessary for those marrying under the age of 21 and marriages were to be recorded in printed registers with numbered pages (to avoid fraudulent entries being added later or pages torn out of the register) and the minister, the couple and two witnesses were to sign the register.