Using Parish Registers to Search Your Family Tree

Parish RegistersThe Parish Registers are a good way of searching for ancestors further back than the last two hundred years. The Birth, Deaths and Marriages records and the National Censuses do not extend much beyond the 1800s but religious records containing vital data and other information go back as far as the 1500s. Once you have exhausted the resources that contain more recent information it is a good idea to move onto the Parish registers which contain the religious records.

You can access the Parish registers by ordering the relevant parish register on CD Rom or you can look through them online. You can perform searches through forename, surname and date and pay for the searches you need. You can do this by looking up Parish Records Online.

The Parish Registers began officially in 1537 when Thomas Cromwell decreed that the priests keep the registers. They were expected to keep records of baptisms, burials and marriages. There were fines for not doing so but this was not followed up particularly well. Some priests were suspicious about why they had to do this and many did not bother keeping them. Others may have had some difficulty in keeping them as they were written in Latin and some priests may not have been educated well enough to do this easily so not all the records from this era are complete. Some records are more comprehensive than others as well because the guidelines were not clear enough. This was not the first time registers were practiced however which is why some records are as early as the 1500s.

From 1557 the record contained more information as the names of the Godmother and Godfather had to be stated. They also had to be organised properly and from 1563 they had to be written on good parchment paper and made into books which were sent to the Diocesan centre. Later in 1603 further discipline was inflicted as the priests were expected to read out the records each Sunday to ensure they were correct. It was of course very difficult to control this but the use of the parchment was more easily checked on the returns to the centre. The priests had to find the money for the parchment and may have sometimes charged for their record keeping services. Others disagreed with these charges and did not keep the records as decreed which meant that in this period in time further records were incomplete.

Later, Civil unrest disrupted the keeping of Parish Registries and during the time of the Commonwealth many of the records were not kept up to date. It was not until 1660 that the monarchy was restored and the records were kept once more. The laws began to shift again in favour of the records being kept properly and there were fines for those responsible for not recording information. This did not merely apply to the Church but to parents, for example, who had not had the birth of their child recorded. This also highlights, however, that prior to 1660 it is quite possible that there were quite a few unrecorded births particularly amongst the poor who may not have been able to afford the records services to pay for the good parchment.

After 1660 the system increased control over the parishes once more. In 1694 fines were issued for unrecorded births and register entries used as taxes. Again, this made it difficult for the poor so in 1704 the law changed in their favour and there were no taxes or fines. Later it was made easier for some priests as records were kept in English from 1733. The records from this time are fairly complete but the laws passed in this century also highlight useful information. In 1751 the law changed to revise the calendar which had previously begun from March 25. In 1754 Hardwick decreed marriages needed the signatures of witnesses and 1763 the age of consent was raised to 16.

In 1738 the Methodist registers began replicating the organisation of the state religion and later it was discovered other dissident groups also kept registers including Presbyterians, Quakers, Jews and Baptists. Many of these shared a common place of worship across a large area as there were so few. Many records have since been recovered such as the 1567-1779 Hugenot records compiled by the Southampton refugees. There is also the Worcester registers of Wesleyan Methodists, Congregationalists and Quakers. There are other records kept outside or separately to the main state registers which have also been recovered including Herber's book 'Clandestine Marriages' which charts the prison chapel records of marriages from 1680-1754. This shows that if you can't find records amongst conventional sources, there are other places to look for religious records.

Next: Censuses