Baptisms, Marriages, Burials

The earliest parish registers go back to 1530s and were the only records of baptisms, marriages and burials until the introduction of civil registration in 1837.

The earliest parish records started in 1538.

In the 1530s Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome and started the English Reformation.  Part of this included The Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1540 which swept away all religious houses, monasteries, convents and friaries, in the land and completing changing the daily lives of the whole population.

Before the Dissolution, religious houses had kept detailed records but not of births, deaths and marriages.  What was important to their record keepers were financial, wages, rents and pensions.

In 1538, Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s Vicar General, required that every church in the land should contain a bible, to be read in English, and that each parish should record the baptisms, marriages and burials that took place within the parish.  Records had to be kept, but that did not necessarily mean a register, notes on parchment would suffice.

To begin with, record keeping was somewhat inconsistent.  It was up to the incumbent how the information was recorded.  In1596, towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, some uniformity was introduced – but completely.  Some parishes chose to list baptisms, marriages and burials chronologically.  Others chose to use page 1 for baptisms, page 2 for marriages and page 3 for burials and then move on three pages as each filled up.  The problem with this system was that there are always more baptisms or burials than marriages.  The space in the register was too valuable to waste to every available space was eventually used up making following the entries difficult.

As part of the 1596 legislation, a annual list of all entries had to be sent to the Bishop, in addition to the entries in the original registers.  These became the Bishops Transcripts (BTs) and provide a valuable secondary source, either to corroborate the register information or to fill the gap where it is missing.

Half a century later, the English Civil War brought chaos to both the country and to the keeping of parish registers.  When the Commonwealth ended in 1660, there was considerable confusion about the reliability (in civil and religious terms) of any contracts entered into during the Commonwealth period and as a result, many records were simply destroyed.  It was safer in many ways than being seen to support a regime that had been discredited, to use modern phraseology.

The Calendar Change 1752, Julian to Gregorian

Most of Europe had changed from the Julian calendar to the more modern and accurate Gregorian calendar in 1582.  It took England and Wales until 1752 to catch up.  Scotland, of course an independent state until the Act of Union in 1701, had changed over in 1600.  It also changed New Year’s Day from Lady Day on March 21st to January 1st.

The implication for family historians is that dates from January 1st to March 20th were at the end of the year before 1752 but at the beginning of it afterwards.   So, for example, the day after December 31st 1700 was January 1st 1700.  To avoid confusion, dates in January, February and March before 1753 are best written as fractions, eg in the case above, it would become January 1st 1700/01.


Hardwicke’s Marriage Act 1753

This was brought in to prevent ‘clandestine marriages’, and regularised many of the rules governing marriages.  It also brought in the first printed registers, providing further uniformity in the way information was recorded.  Hardwicke also stipulated that with the exception of Quakers and Jews, all marriages had to take place in a Church of England church.

The register required the name of the bride and groom to be filled in, their marital status and where they were living at the time of the marriage.  It also required them to sign (or make their mark) for the first time as part of the marriage ceremony.

In addition, the officiating minister had to sign the register along with two witnesses.  Whether the marriage was by banns or licence was also included.

The final innovation brought in by Hardwicke’s Act was the Banns book.

More information on Hardwicke’s Marriage Act.

1812  Registers Act

The recording of parish registers  was much improved by the 1812 Act for ‘the regulating and preserving Parish and other Registers in England’.   Hardwicke’s Act had ensured that marriage records were well and accurately kept but it was the 1812 Act that greatly improved  the recording of baptism and burial recordings.

It had been compulsory since 1711 for all parish registers to be ruled and numbered but this had been largely ignored.

The marriage register was already a separate book and after 1812, burials and baptisms also had to be kept separately in their own registers.

It is the style of register introduced in 1812 which is, with very minor amendments, the same as that used today.

1837 Registration Act, Civil Registration

In 1837, general civil registration was introduced requiring that all birth (not baptisms) marriages and deaths (not burials) should be recorded by the civil authorities and a certificate  issued detailing the event being recorded.  Again, the style of certificate has changed very little to the present day.

After 1837, parish registers still continued, as they do today, but they became a secondary source of information and back up to the universal, at least in theory, records of the civil authorities.

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