The History of Parish Registers
Parish Registers were first ordered to be kept by a mandate of Thomas Cromwell, Vicar General of King Henry VIII in 1538. Cromwell ordered that every parish must keep a register and that every Sunday, the incumbent, in the presence of the wardens, must enter all the baptisms, marriages and burials of the previous week. The register was to be kept in a coffer with two locks. Failure to comply brought a fine of 3s 4d (17p) which was to be spent on the upkeep of the church. The order was received with much suspicion - most people believed it was the forerunner for some new tax. Many parishes ignored it.
The order was repeated in 1547, during the reign of Edward VI, but this time the fine was to go towards poor relief.
In 1557 the clergy were instructed to record the name of Godfather and Godmother. This was an attempt to stem the soaring divorce rate! At that time it was only necessary to state you had in error married your Godparent's son / daughter. In the eyes of the church this was your spiritual brother / sister and the marriage was spiritual incest and therefore invalid. Godparents were sometimes referred to as 'sureties', 'witnesses' or the old English 'gossib' or 'gossip'
In 1563 Parliament passed an act which carried more weight. Records were to be kept in 'great decent books of parchment' and copies, or 'Bishop's Transcripts', of new entries were to be sent each month to the diocesan centre. Previous entries in paper registers were to be copied into the new books. Paper was at the time much cheaper than parchment (which is made from animal skins) and in many cases loose sheets of paper had been used (which got lost). Over time some paper registers had deteriorated to the point where the registers were unreadable, a fact not helped by the home made ink of the time. Unfortunately the act stated that the costs involved were to be met by imposing charges for entries. This was strongly opposed by many clergy and the act was not enforced.
1598. It was not until the ecclesiastical mandates of 1598 and 1603 from the Provincial Constitution of Canterbury that the act was enforced throughout the country. These instructed that henceforth registers were to be kept in parchment books and that all previous entries made on sheets should be copied up first in the new books, and especially all those entries since the accession of Queen Elizabeth. Complying with only the latter part of the injunction led to so many registers beginning in the year 1558. The original paper registers from the earlier years rarely survive. Those that do indicate the enormous task which faced those transcribing early paper registers. In those parishes where the original paper records/registers survive, additional information can often be found.
From the year 1598, the incumbent clergy of each parish were required annually to send a complete copy of the previous year's parish register entries to the diocesan register within a month after Easter. These copies are known today by researchers as Bishops' Transcripts (BTs for short). Some parishes had already been submitting copies to the Bishop. As with any "copied" record, the accuracy of the transcription depended on the person making the copy. Some BTs are a true copy of the parish register entries, some are not. When comparing the parish registers to the BTs researchers will sometimes find more detail in the parish register while some BTs have detail added that is not in the register. Where both the registers and the BTs survive, researchers would be well advised to compare both. The true value of BTs is that they will help you to fill in gaps where parish register entries are missing.
1649-1653: Following the execution of Charles I an English republic was established and represents a period in English history known as the Commonwealth (1649-1653). The Commonwealth proper ended in 1653 with the establishment of Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate. The Commonwealth is a most difficult time period for those of us engaged in family history research because there are large gaps in the records - especially in parish registers. Ironically, it was Oliver Cromwell's intention in an act of 1653 to remedy poor record keeping in parish registers by placing the responsibility for the records in the hands of appointed officers called "Parish Registers". The records kept by Parish Registers became known as Civil Registers but many do not survive. After Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Registers were dismissed (some appear to have become parish clerks). Restored clergy in some areas confiscated the Civil Registers and destroyed them. Other clergy simply went around the parish writing down vital events by asking people to remember what had happened in the previous years. Because of the loss of the Civil Registers, this time period is sometimes referred to as the "Commonwealth gap" by family history researchers.
During this same period marriages were no longer to take place in a church. An
intention to marry could be stated at a Market cross or the couple could go to
a Justice of the Peace to be legally joined. Many couples did not like the new
system and secretly went to the church to be married - if the clergy had
managed to stay in office! The importance of this little diversion in the rules
governing marriages is that following the restoration, marriages before
Justices of the Peace were just legalised in retrospect. Some clergy simply
refused to accept such blasphemy and forced a second marriage in the church or
simply branded the children illegitimate. This bit of history helps to explain the
entries and remarks in some parish registers such as, "
In 1694 the register entries were finally used as a tax to raise money for a war against France.
marriage 2s 6d
Even worse was a tax on all unmarried men of 1s per year! In 1696 an order was passed that a fine of £2 was to be imposed on all who did not report the birth of a child to the vicar within 5 days. Children who were not christened were to pay a tax of 6d to the vicar. Vicars who failed to record a birth were to be fined £2 for neglect. This highly unpopular tax was not abandoned until 1706 when it was realised that enforcing the penalties would ruin many clergy.
This tax resulted in some entries not being recorded in parish registers for lack of funds to pay the tax or others being recorded with a note that the parties were paupers and could not pay the tax. It is fortunate for researchers searching for family during this time period that the tax was short-lived.
1711: An Act was passed requiring that proper register books be used with ruled and numbered pages.
1733: A law was passed forbidding the use of Latin in parish registers.
1754: Hardwicke's Marriage Act, which affected England and Wales, came into force from March 25th 1754. The Act stated that a marriage could be solemnised only in a parish church or public chapel after the publication of banns or by a licence issued by the Bishop of the diocese. Banns books and marriage registers were required to be kept separate from the books containing baptisms and burials. With the exception of Jews and Quakers, marriages were required to be performed by a clergy of the Church of England. Parties under the age of 21 (minors) required the consent of parents or guardians to marry. Those embracing the Catholic faith or other non-conformists married in the Church of England and their own chapels/churches just to be sure the marriage was recognized as legal.
But what about marriages where the bride and groom were from different parishes? Many marriage entries after 1754 will simply state of this parish. It is important for researchers to remember, of this parish does not necessarily mean the party had resided in the parish for any great length of time. Three weeks was the legal requirement for clergy to make such a note. Many conscientious clergy simply described a temporary resident as a sojourner and usually did not state their parish of origin. It was also accepted practice for the marriage to take place in the bride's parish. Hardwicke's Marriage Act had far reaching consequences for the way in which marriages were recorded as well as the variety of records that resulted for family researchers to use today. For example:
Banns: Banns were simply the announcement of an intention to marry between two people. The announcement was made (called) in the parish church for both the bride and groom, each Sunday for 3 consecutive weeks. The entry of banns, which are often recorded in a separate section of the marriage register or even in their own register, may provide the parish of origin of one or more parties in the marriage or point to a marriage in another parish. A groom who resided in a different parish from his bride would be required to have his banns read in his home parish and a certificate stating the banns had been read sent to the parish where the actual marriage was to take place. Often the groom simply moved to the bride's parish in advance of the wedding to avoid having to deal with two sets of banns and the fees for each set of banns being read. Just because there is an entry in the banns register for a planned marriage does not mean that a marriage took place. Some couples called off the banns, while other banns resulted in the marriage being called off because an impediment was alleged. Occasionally the banns register will state the reason why the marriage was called off. Banns do not exist before 1754.
Marriage Bonds and Allegations: If a marriage entry in the parish register appears with the words "by licence" next to it, then a researcher should make an effort to search for the marriage licence allegation and bond. A normal marriage licence from a Bishop was issued after the parties made an allegation and bond. The allegations and bonds will often provide researchers with additional information NOT found in the marriage register such as: the exact age of the parties, parish of residence, occupation of the groom, the names of the bondsmen who guaranteed the marriage would be performed (bondsmen were sometimes related to one of the parties). Much like Bishop's Transcripts, marriage licence allegations and bonds, where they survive, will be found with other records of the diocesan archives because they were issued by ecclesiastical officials such as a Bishop, Archbishop or Archdeacon. Hardwicke's Act also resulted in the keeping of a special printed register for the recording of marriages. The register usually had four printed boxes per page with spaces to be filled in for name of the groom, his parish of residence, the name of the bride and her parish of residence; date of the ceremony, the groom's occupation, the marital status of the parties, whether the marriage was by banns or licence. The couple were required to sign the register (or place a mark next to their names if they could not write). For the first time, the signatures of the witnesses and the clergy were also required.
1763 the minimum age of marriage was fixed at 16
Prior to this date, the church accepted the marriage of girls aged 12 or more and boys aged 14 or more. In addition, a dispensation on licence could be obtained from a bishop which allowed marriage at a younger age.
1783: A Stamp Act was passed that called for a duty of 3d to be paid for every entry of a birth, christening, marriage or burial. The incumbent was to be given a 10% commission. The Act came into force on the 1st of October and was not repealed for 10 years. There are few interesting consequences of this Act which can be found in many parish registers. During this time period researchers will find the letter P next to entries in the parish register. Some believe the P stands for Pauper and therefore a person who was not required to pay the fee. Still others argue that the P stands for Paid. In practice, researchers will often find both the words paid and pauper and even just the letter P next to entries in the parish registers during this time period.
1797 Bishop Shute Barrington entries
Bishop Shute Barrington was the bishop of Durham and Northumberland and also an amateur genealogist. He asked that all parish registers in Durham and Northumberland be kept in great detail. Here's a typical Bishop Shute Barrington baptism entry from Gainford parish register:
1805: Margaret Chapman, born November 18, 1804, baptised March 31st 1805. Second daughter of John Chapman of Headlam, schoolmaster, (son of George Chapman) native of Lartington in the parish of Romaldkirk, Yorkshire, by his wife Mary Robinson (daughter of William Robinson) native of West Rounton, Yorkshire.
Bishop Shute Barrington entries affect only Durham and Northumberland for the years 1797 - 1812 but, offer valuable information and are worth looking for. Even if your ancestor was born outside these dates - look for the birth records of a sibling.
1812: George Rose's Act (the Parochial Registers Act) was introduced which required the use of specially printed registers, with separate books for baptisms, marriages and burials. Baptismal entries were to now include the names, address and occupation or status of the parents. In the country the residence of the parents (or abode) was usually listed as simply the village, hamlet or even a farm. In urban areas the residence was often recorded as the actual street address. Burial entries in the register were to include age and place of residence of the deceased. Marriage registers from 1813 are similar to those from 1754, but had only three entries to a page instead of four. The actual form of the marriage register did not change again until 1837.
1823 Marriage Act: This Act declared clandestine marriages (i.e. those without banns of licence) valid, but the officiating minister a felon.
1836 Marriage Act: Superintendent Registrars were empowered to issue licenses for marriage in the office of a registrar or in a non-conformist church. After 1837, the marriage register kept by the parish church was laid out to look much like the actual civil registration certificates which began in that year. It is also important to note that whereas before 1837 everyone who was not a Jew or a Quaker had to marry in the church, after 1837, it was possible to marry in a Register Office, or in a Catholic Church or a nonconformist chapel that had been licensed. By 1900 it is estimated that some 10% of marriages occurred in register offices.