The History of Parish Registers

Marriage EntryIn a previous article I have mentioned the Ipswich Parishes which had deposited their Parish registers at the Suffolk Records Office. But what are Parish Regsiters and how have they evolved over the years?

1538 and Thomas Cromwell the Vicar General to Henry VIII

The most significant year for Parish Registers was 1538 when Thomas Cromwell, the Vicar General to Henry VIII ordered every church in England and Wales to record all their Christenings, weddings and burials in a register. To ensure the integrity of the records the register was ordered to be kept locked in a strong chest secured with two locks. One key was to be held by the minister and the other by the Churchwardens. The entries in the register were to be made by the minister every Sunday in the presence of the Churchwardens.

Parchment Books Used From 1598

Bearing in mind that the parishes had to pay for their own registers they initially used cheaper paper books. Unfortunately paper does not survive well so in 1598 an Act was passed requiring all entries to be copied into more expensive, but more hardwearing, parchment books. Unfortunately the wording of the Act said that the entries were to be copied “especially since the first years of Her Majesties reign” so some ministers only copied the entries from 1558 rather than from 1538.

Practical Problems With Early Registers

One problem you will find with early Registers is that there were no real rules about exactly what data should be recorded or how it was to be entered in the Register. Some ministers recorded more information about the people being Christened, married or buried than others. Also some ministers would intermingle all three events in chronological order in the Registers while other ministers would divide the Register up into separate sections for Christenings, marriages and burials. Bearing in mind the relatively high cost of parchment books you will also find that some ministers tried to make maximum use of all available space so you may start reading through the Christening entries then come across a note to jump forward 10 pages to a space at the end of a burials page where the minister squashed in half a dozen Christenings and then jump another 4 pages for another handful of entries hidden at end of a page of marriages.

English Used From 1733

Early entries in Parish Registers were often written in Latin but this was stopped in 1733 when all Entries were ordered to be written in English.

Hardwicke’s Marriage Act 1754

The next significant change to Parish Registers was Hardwicke’s Marriage Act which came into force on 25 March 1754. This Act tightened up the rules regarding marriages and introduced many requirements. The marriages were to be recorded in Registers with ruled and numbered pages (to ensure Entries were not added or removed). Each Marriage Entry had to be signed by the minister, bride & groom plus 2 witnesses. All marriages were to be proceeded by having Banns read out in the church during the 3 Sundays before the wedding or else a License must be obtained. The minimum age of consent was 12 for girls and 14 for boys and parental consent has to be obtained if the bride or groom were under 21 years of age.

Every Entry To Be Taxed from 1783

In 1783 every Christening, marriage and Burial Entry became liable to threepence duty. This duty was repealed in 1794.

Rose’s Act of 1813

Rose’s Act required each parish to buy pre-printed books for Christenings, marriages and burials from the Kings Printers. This was the first time separate books were required for each type of service. The printed forms meant that there was more consistency of the data recorded than in previous centuries. There were also strict rules for the timescales of the Entries. Marriage Entries had to be made at the time of the marriage and Christenings and burials had to be entered within 7 days of the event.

Civil Registration Act 1837

From 1837 all births, marriages and deaths began to be recorded by the government. The main impact of this on parish Registers was the redesigning of the printed forms used in the Marriage Registers. The redesigned forms introduced are almost identical to those we use today.

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