P is for Parish: The History of Parish Registers

18 April 2019

What are Parish Registers and why do we use them?

Parish Registers have been around for at least five centuries, the oldest surviving registers dating back to 1303 in Givry, France. These handwritten volumes, usually kept in Parish Churches, keep the details of religious ceremonies such as births, marriages, banns (formal proclamations of intent to marry) baptisms and burials. They are a valuable resource for researching your family tree because the census and official records of birth, marriage and death do not go back further than 1837. As much as they are usual now, they were also very usual back then as the information recorded in registers was also considered significant for secular governments’ own record keeping, resulting in the churches supplying the state with copies of all parish registers.

Why are these lengthy volumes regarded as one of the most enlightening and valuable source in family history research?

Church Parish Steeple

Histories and origins

Parish registers were formally introduced to England in 1538 following the split with Rome. During this time, Thomas Cromwell, minister to Henry VIII, issued an injunction requiring the registers of baptisms, marriages and burials to be kept. Before this, a few Roman Catholic religious houses and parish priests had kept informal notes on the baptisms, marriages and burials of more eminent local families.

Church stained glass window

During the English Civil War from 1643 to 1647, records were poorly kept and many are now missing after being destroyed or hidden by clergymen. The neglect was of these records was solved by placing the registers in county record offices for safekeeping, it was here that they were also made accessible.

In 1812 (England), an “Act for the better regulating and preserving Parish and other Registers of Birth, Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, in England” was passed stating that “amending the Manner and Form of keeping and of preserving Registers of Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials of His Majesty’s Subjects in the several Parishes and Places in England, will greatly facilitate the Proof of Pedigrees of Persons claiming to be entitled to Real or Personal Estates, and otherwise of great public Benefit and Advantage”. Apart from this, printed registers were to be supplied by the ‘King’s Printer’, and used for baptisms, marriages and burials. These have mostly stayed the same to this day.

Church documents

If you wish to read up on a more detailed history of parish registers and the historical events associated with them, click here to see a timeline.

Examples of Parish Record contents

The contents have changed over time, not being standardised in England until the Acts of 1753 and 1812. Below is what you can expect to find in later registers, though in the earlier ones it is quite common to find only names recorded. Early entries will be in some form of Latin, often abbreviated, it is also worth noting that such information written in the parish records is the same as that on a civil marriage certificate.

For a marriage you expect to see the following;

  • The date of marriage for both man and woman
  • Forename and Surname
  • Whether bachelor or spinster, widower or widow
  • Age
  • Whether of-this-parish or elsewhere
  • Occupation (normally it would only be the man’s )
  • Father’s (of the woman) forename, surname and occupation or rank
  • Signature
  • Whether by Banns or by Licence
  • Signature(s) of witness(es)
Baptism record image

[Baptism record Image source: British family history]

An example would be:

Married 11 August 1836 Richard Knaggs the younger, age 20, bachelor, farmer of Kilham and Elizabeth Wilson, age25, spinster of this parish, by licence and with the consent of those whose consent is required.

For a burial you should expect to see:

  • The date of burial
  • Name of the deceased
  • Age of the deceased
  • Occupation, rank or relationship of deceased
  • Normal place of abode of deceased

An example of this would be:

Buried 19 July 1762 Thomas Knaggs, son of Thomas tailor of Byers Green and Elizabeth, age 13, drowned, double fees.

The Parish register of Maldron, Cornwall

[The Parish register of Maldron, Cornwall Image source: British library Flickr]

Interested in finding some records for yourself? Take a look to see what information is available on your family history here before 1837.

Now that you’ve read this, it’s a good idea to read up on the benefits of researching your family history here, no matter how time consuming it is! Or if you’re feeling adventurous, perhaps this blog would be of interest to you…

Written by Rhianna Selkridge-Carty

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