Here is a list of laws and mandates regarding parish records in England.
It is not meant to be read, but used to glance through when you need to know something about the history of English parish records.
In medieval times in England, there weren’t parish registers as such. For some years prior to the Reformation, in monastic houses (especially minor ones) parish priests had started the custom of noting on the edges of the service books, all the births and deaths of the local upper-class families.
1538 – Through the hard work of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII issued a mandate for vicars, curate and parson were to enter every christening, marriage and burial in his parish into a book. The parish was to provide a sure coffer, or chest, with two different locks, the parson having the custody of one key, the wardens the others. The book entries were to be made each Sunday after the service in the presence of one of the wardens. The mandate was enforced under a penalty of three sols, four deniers for the repair’ of the church. These entries were made on paper, sometimes upon loose sheets. The bishop in their visitations was to see that the names of sponsors were duly entered in the registers of baptism. The parishioner’s penalty was divided between the poor box and repairs for the church.
1558 – Queen Elizabeth passed another law which was a duplicate of her father’s. Countless more registers started at this date. Often these very early records are hard to read due to handwriting plus most being written in Latin and are often very sparse – giving only the fathers name at a Christening and only the person’s name in a burial entry. These registers belonged to the incumbent minister, and each parish was required to maintain a chest in the parish church for the safekeeping of the same. In time other records were kept in the chest such as poor law records, which were civil parish records. Also removal orders, bastardy bonds, overseers of the poor accounts, Tithe award and Maps, Enclosure Awards and Maps, Church Wardens Accounts, etc.
1597 – Registers were now to be made of parchment rather than paper. Also, yearly reports of all parish register entries were now to be sent to the appropriate bishop. Some of the early parish registers, have gaps in, or they do not exist at all, because the paper has disintegrated, so they are longer available. In some areas, the earlier registers were destroyed at this time, and some were recopied onto parchment.
When ministers made copies for the Bishop, some did so as entries were made in the register. Some, however, waited until the end of the year to do these copies and entries were sometimes missed. Usually, the original parish entry the most complete.
1598 – The records dating back to 1538 that were written on paper, and sometimes on loose sheets, were ordered to be transcribed into parchment in books, which means any parish record that has survived to date is unlikely to be the original entry. Many of the earlier paper registers were lost before the transcription was ordered to be done.
1603 – Now every parish chest should have three locks, one for the Priest and two for parish clerks. They could now only be opened when all three were present. For this reason, many Priests kept notes in day books with the entries for Christenings, Marriages and Burials until all three could get to the chest. The other problems with parish registers included private baptisms did not go in the register, and early registers did not have any standard form to follow in recording the record and were left up to the ministers, so they depended on how much information the priest wanted to give.
1631-1706 A fee of 6 deniers was now introduced for registration of births, but the population were not interested in having their children christened. The priest was fined if he did not record the christening, and parents were fined if they did not bring their children to be christened; it was so hard to enforce it did not last too long.
Oath_of_Allegiance 1641-42 – Protestation rolls. These were a record of English males over age 18, registering if they accepted the Protestant oath of allegiance, which is to say, in part, that you will ‘live and die for the true Protestant religion, the liberties and rights of subjects and the privilege of Parliaments’.
The oath of allegiance was a result of the concern that the Protestant Reformation was failing, so Parliament created such these pledges between May 1641 and September 1643. It was intended to identify Catholics as those who refused to sign the pledge were presumed Catholic, who was considered by the government as unfit for holding office. But, this method of identification did not work in practice as some Catholics would take the oath anyway and some Protestants refused.
However, since from parish to parish, all males over the age of 18 were asked to take the oath these lists can prove very useful as an early census substitute.
Unfortunately, only around one-third of these lists survive today. These lists were compiled by place, either parish, township, hundred, or wapentake.
1643 – The ejection of clergy refusing covenant of Protestation.
1644 – By now more parents names were appearing in the baptism register, and each chapelry or parish in the country was expected to provide a fair Register Book of Vellum where all the dates of baptisms, plus the date of birth and the parent’s names were included.
1642-60 – During the time of the English Civil War registers were usually neglected, and Bishop Transcripts were not required.
1650 – After the civil war, priests went back to keeping records of christenings, marriages and burials.
1653 – Cromwell, was now made Lord Protector and acted as a sovereign. He was a Puritan. The parish church of England was disorganised, and many ministers fled for their lives. Some managed to hide their registers, but other registers were destroyed. Cromwell decreed that there would be no one religion in England any and all religions could now be practised. The government took the registers and also the solemnization of marriage from the church, and now justices performed and recorded marriages. Parish clerks, who worked within the church, now represented the government, not the church, and recorded births, deaths and marriages within the parish.
1656 – The year of the plague caused an influx of burial entries in the parishes and not all were recorded correctly, as the sometimes the family had died, or were dying, out.
1666 – The Great Fire of London devastated many London records.
1673 – An affidavit from the Magistrates is now required for burial in a woollen shroud. If “Affidavit” appears on the burial records, it means that the person was buried in a woollen shroud.
1680 – Charles II now passed an Act requiring all bodies to be buried in wool, to bolster the woollen industry. The affidavit is required from the Minister.
1694 – A duty of a minimum 2 shillings 6 denier per marriage 2, shillings per birth, and 4 shillings per burial of all non-paupers with a sliding scale rising to 50 pounds for a dukes marriage and burial and 30 pounds for the birth of the son of a Duke. All births had to be notified to the vicar or rector within five days, under a penalty of 40 shillings. The government believed this to be an excellent way of raising money for the crown, for the war against France, It was noted that births should not be excused from tax just because the parents did not have the child christened, but many births were not registered, to avoid the tax. In some parishes, however, there is clear evidence that the parson, in his capacity of tax-collector, found neglectful parishioners and collected the tax, plus his fee of six pence. Many opted for a paupers burial.
1705 – The above act was not carried out too well, and so it was thought essential to pass an act of indemnity on behalf of the clergy who had neglected to obey this mandate.
1733 – Latin was now discontinued in parish records.
1752 – The Gregorian Calendar was adopted and the first day of the year was changed from March 25th (Ladyday), to January 1st. Up to 1752 often double dating is used between Jan 1st and Mar 25th.
1754 – Lord Hardwick’s Act came in requiring separate registers for marriages as well as banns. The act now had exemptions for only Quakers and Jews, from being married in the Church of England. This act was passed to stop clandestine marriages. Before this, act, the recording of marriages had been entered with the christenings and burials. To make the Act useful, a particular printed form was devised, to the joy of genealogists, which called for the signatures of the minister, the two witnesses and those of the bride and groom. The information required included the marital status of the bride and groom (spinster, bachelor, widow, widower) and their resident parish. Marriages could be either by banns (announced on three successive Sundays) or by license and could no longer be performed in parochial chapelries unless special permission had been obtained.
Records of both of banns and of marriages should be kept, and these should be in books of vellum or decent quality, durable paper, to be provided by the churchwardens. The entries were to be signed by the parties and to follow a set form, and now the registers were to be carefully kept and well-preserved for the use of the public.
1783-1793 – ‘The Stamp Act of 1783’ granted the crown a stamp duty of threepence for every register entry of burial, marriage, birth or christening. Again the officiating minister, who collected the duty was allowed a commission of 10 percent for his work. After two years the act was expanded to cover Nonconformists. This legislation was the second attempt to use the register for financial purposes.
1813 – From the 1st January 1813, registers of baptisms, both public and private, marriages and burials were all to be made and saved by the rector, in books supplied by the King’s printer and paid for by the respective parishes.
- Registers of baptisms, marriages and burials now were made in separate books.
- The rector, as soon as possible after the solemnization of the rite, was to enter, in the correct register book, the several particulars described in the schedules and to sign it. This must be done (unless prevented by sickness or another unavoidable impediment) no later than seven days after the said ceremony.
- Register books need to be kept in a dry, well-painted iron chest, in a dry, safe and secure room within the usual residence of such rector, etc.
1814 – Burial in woollen repealed
1837 – Since Civil registration of 1837 church marriage registers are now kept in duplicate, the incumbent sending each quarter a copy of all marriage entries to the district superintendent registrar, who sends it to the Registrar general, together with records of births, marriages and deaths he has collected through his secular registrars. When the marriage registers are filed, one copy is retained in the parish, and the other goes to the secular registrar.