A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE REGISTERS OF THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND

When did parish registers begin?

Every parish of the Church of England was required to keep a register of baptisms, marriages and burials by the Injunctions issued in 1538 by Thomas Cromwell, chief minister of King Henry VIII, in his capacity as Vicegerent in Spirituals. The Injunctions were repeated at various times in the following sixty years, despite the religious changes, and were eventually reinforced by the Provincial Constitutions of Canterbury issued in 1597 and approved by Queen Elizabeth I in 1598. These required the existing registers, which were usually of paper, to be copied into more durable parchment volumes. Consequently, few of the original paper registers survive. Many of the copies made as a result of the Constitutions of Canterbury in fact only start from 1558 or later, and for some parishes the oldest surviving register begins in the seventeenth or even eighteenth century.

Are they continuous?

For some parishes the registers do not survive in an unbroken series, and there may be some substantial gaps in those of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly at the time of the Civil War and Commonwealth (1642-1660) and just after. Where can I look if registers of a specific parish are incomplete? If the register for a particular period does not survive, it may be possible to obtain the required information from the bishop’s transcripts (usually abbreviated to BTs). These are contemporary copies of the registers made by the incumbent of a parish or on his behalf, and sent periodically to the bishop. They were first required by the Constitutions of Canterbury but very occasionally copies for a period earlier than 1597 were also supplied. Survival of BTs for Derbyshire parishes in the period before 1642 is rare and between 1642 and 1660 they are non-existent. Nevertheless for some parishes they pre-date the earliest surviving register. They continued to be made until the practice was discontinued in the mid to late nineteenth century.

Throughout the period in which BTs were made, Derbyshire was in the diocese of Lichfield and Coventry. As a result the bishop’s transcripts for the county are kept as part of the Lichfield diocesan archives at the Lichfield Record Office, The Friary, Lichfield, Staffordshire WS13 6QG. A summary guide to what transcripts exist for each parish is to be found in the Guide to the contents of Lichfield Record Office. A copy of this is available for consultation in the Derbyshire Record Office search room.

What do the registers contain?

Parish registers vary in scope and content according to the date at which they were compiled. At first they were concerned in general only to record the name of the person being married or buried, with the names of the parents in addition to that of the child in the case of baptism. Although some incumbents did record more than this information, others did not even provide this much. In the reign of Mary Tudor (1553-58) and occasionally afterwards, baptism entries include the names of the sponsors or godparents. The normal format was to have all types of entry recorded in chronological order, although a few parishes separated baptisms, marriages and burials into different sections of the same register, and, occasionally, into separate volumes.

Are marriage registers different?

The first change in the recording of marriages took place in the mid eighteenth century. Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act (1753), which came into force in April 1754, required a separate register to be kept for marriages, and a set form of words to be used. Though not a requirement of the Act, most parishes adopted volumes of printed forms. Entries in the new registers had to be signed by both parties to a marriage and by at least two witnesses. The parish or parishes of origin of the two parties were also stated.

The format of marriage registers was standardised by Rose’s Act (1812), which made volumes consisting of printed forms obligatory from the 1st January 1813. These continued to follow the Hardwicke Act wording. The next major development in the marriage registers occurred with the advent of civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in July 1837. From that time officiating clergymen were obliged to record in addition the ages of the parties and the names and occupations of their fathers, and further, to register the information twice over in duplicate register books supplied by the General Register Office. Every quarter, a copy of the entries during the previous three months was sent to the local Superintendent Registrar for onward transmission to the General Register Office, where they were indexed. When the duplicate register books were full, one would be retained by the church and the other sent to the local Superintendent Registrar. The format of marriage registers and the system of registration remains substantially unchanged to the present day. If I cannot find a marriage in the parish I expected, where else can I look? Lord Hardwicke’s Act of 1753 also required for the first time the registration of banns of marriage, either in the marriage register or in a separate volume. In accordance with immemorial custom, banns were called in the parishes of residence of both parties to a marriage, which itself would have to be performed in one of the two parishes. The practice of registering banns tended to fall into disuse towards the end of the eighteenth century, but was revived by the Marriage Act of 1822, which required the keeping of separate banns registers, and since then it has been adhered to consistently. Entries in banns registers record the names and parishes of origin of both parties to a marriage, and dates on which the banns were called. In more recent times incumbents have sometimes annotated the entries with whether and when the marriage actually took place. The survival of banns registers is very haphazard, particularly for the half century after Lord Hardwicke’s Act. However, they can be used for finding out where a marriage actually took place if one knows the parish of origin of only one of the parties. It should be remembered that a marriage could take place without the calling of banns if the parties to it obtained either a licence from the bishop or, after 1837, a certificate from the local Superintendent Registrar.

What information can I find in baptism and burial registers?

The registers of baptisms and burials generally kept to the same format from 1538 to 1812, although in a very few parishes printed register volumes were used for baptisms and burials from 1783, in connection with the imposition of Stamp Duty. The form for baptisms recorded name, parents, and dates of birth and christening, and the form for burials, the name, age and parish of the deceased, and date of burial. Rose’s Act of 1812, already mentioned with regard to the registration of marriages, also required the introduction of separate volumes of printed forms of baptism and burial registers from 1st January 1813. The baptism registers record the date of baptism, the name of the child, the names of the parents, the profession and abode of the father, and occasionally the names of godparents. Dates of birth are also sometimes recorded in marginal notes. The burial registers record the name, age and abode of the deceased. Both types of register continue in use to the present day.

Will I find dates of birth and death?

Parish registers were required to give the date of the baptism and the burial of the people involved. It was not until the introduction of civil registration in 1837 that dates of birth and death had to be registered in any official records in England and Wales. A few members of the clergy chose to include the date of birth of the child being baptised but it was more usual only to give an indication of their age and this was at the discretion of the individual incumbent. Dates of birth are not routinely entered into the baptism registers until the present century. Similarly many clergymen noted the age of the person they were burying and in most cases this would have been within a few days of their death, but the actual date of death will not usually be given.