In family history we rely on recorded information to prove as best we can who begat whom. Civil registration is a relatively modern invention prior to which the established church - the Church of England - was the recorder of baptisms, marriages and burials.
This article explains why the records came to be, and may explain a lack of information. When using records you will form opinions about a particular incumbent: you may find them charming, never making judgement on their flock; you may find them profuse in the detail in their registers written in good ink with a fine hand; you will find those who wrote little, illegibly and who frequently castigated the locals!
Registers for baptisms, marriages and burials were first introduced in the mid-16th century. Periodically since then Acts of Parliament, other instruments and actual events have affected the keeping of Church of England (referred to as the "Church" in this article) registers.
1538 Thomas Cromwell's injunction, re-iterated in 1547 and reinforced in 1558, required the recording of baptisms, marriages and burials performed in Churches. Few truly original registers survive prior to 1597. In north Warwickshire, Coleshill (1538), Corley (1540), Fillongley (1538), Gt Packington (1538), Kingsbury (1539), Nether Whitacre (1539) and Shustoke (1538) would suggest we have a reasonable survival rate of early registers, but examination of each is necessary to establish if they are originals or copies created under the following instrument of 1597.
1597 A Constitution of the Province of Canterbury and approved by Queen Elizabeth in 1598 ordered the keeping of parchment registers and required previous entries to be copied into them, especially from 1558 [see above]. Some parishes copied entries from 1538, and where registers begin with pre-1598 entries there are inevitably some gaps. Another requirement from 1598 and continued to the 1840s was for copies of entries to be made and annually sent to the diocese. These records are known as Bishop's Transcripts - those for north Warwickshire are held at the Lichfield Record Office; there are missing periods in most parishes and some are short in their detail.
1642-1660 The English Civil Wars of the 1640s, and the Commonwealth that followed (after the execution of Charles I) disrupted the keeping of registers. Frequently, entries tail off in the early 1640s and are at best sporadic until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
1653 An Act of the Barebones Parliament introduced civil registration of marriages. A 'Parish Register' was elected by the ratepayers to record entries. Banns were called in public at such as a market square. Some marriages are recorded in parish registers, and sometimes include details such as the names of fathers of the parties. If you have a clutch of children and no marriage, do not assume the couple were not wed - it may have been a civil marriage.
1666, and to greater effect 1678 Acts for burials in woollen were passed to promote the wool trade and not repealed until 1814. Some parishes kept separate registers of burials in woollen, and some gave more details about the deceased than usual; but others merely continued with the existing registers, perhaps noting "buried in woollen" or "affidavit" to confirm compliance with the Act.
1694-1709 A tax was imposed on baptisms, marriages and burials of non-paupers, on a sliding scale according to status (2s 6d for the cheapest marriage). Not surprisingly, this met with resistance, but some parishes do include entries of births separately from entries of baptisms. This tax can explain why children were not baptised.
1752 A new calendar! New Year's Day up to and including 1752 was Lady Day - 25th March. After 1752, New Year's Day was 1st January. Care must be taken to distinguish between 'Old Style' and 'New Style' dating in the period 1st January to 24th March before 1753. You will find many pre-1753 dates shown in transcriptions as, for instance, 1730/1 denoting that the original entry was 1730 (1 Jan-25 Mar), but on our modern calendar it was in 1731. You can find a baptism dated, for example, 20th March 1730 that followed a marriage dated 1st April 1730 in the old style calendar, and wrongly presume it was an illegitimate birth.
1753 Hardwicke's Marriage Act, applied from 1754, required that all marriages other than those of Quakers and Jews, be performed by banns or by licence in the Church in the parish of residence of one of the parties. Printed marriage registers were introduced (but not used by all parishes); either a single volume with provision for recording banns and marriages, or separate volumes for banns and for marriages. The layout included space for the signatures of the parties and witnesses. Many brides and grooms made their marks, and witnesses were often 'regular' witnesses (for example, the parish clerk). However, work on the North Warwickshire Marriages Index project shows that some couples made their mark yet subsequently signed registers as witness to other events. We believe that in some instances, incumbents filled out all the details and invited the bride and groom to "make their mark".
1783 The Stamp Act introduced a duty of three pence on entries of baptisms. Special printed registers were available and were used in some parishes, but exemption could be granted provided that the duty was paid on entries recorded in the regular register. The Act was repealed in 1794. During this eleven-year period some parents avoided the duty by not having babies baptised and consequently, you may find family groups being baptised together in 1794 or soon after.
1812 Rose's Act which, from 1813, introduced set-pattern printed registers for baptisms and for burials. Baptisms had to record the date, given name, parents' forenames and surname, abode, father's occupation, and the clergyman's signature - there was no requirement for the date of birth. The burial register gave the name of the deceased, abode, date of burial, age, and signature of the clergyman but no date of death. Only minor changes have since been made to this pattern. It is interesting to note that, from 1813, many clergy felt a need to write something in each allotted space of the new marriage registers - you will find entries "with consent of friends" or "with consent of parents". The latter thought to indicate one or both of the marriage partners had not attained 21 years of age. Don't believe it - check.
1836 The General Registration Act, which came into force in 1837, brought marriages into civil responsibility and passed to the Registrar General, who was also responsible for registering births and deaths. The pattern of entry in the new marriage registers included the names and occupations of the father of each party; this information should be verified from other sources, as a bride or groom may not have known the truth about their parentage. Details from the Registrar's records are accessible only through the purchase of certificates; however, you can view many church marriage registers in record offices or on film in local libraries - a print-out is far less expensive than a purchased, certified GRO copy of the same information!
1978 The Parochial Registers and Records Measure required parish registers and records ending over a hundred years ago to be deposited in the diocesan record office. In practice many parishes have deposited much more recent volumes. The original records remain the property of each parish even if within the care of the diocesan record office. Microfilm copies have been made and are available for searches to save wear and tear on the originals. Should the microfilm copy be defective (such as an odd page has been omitted in filming, or entries have been omitted at the top or bottom of a page, or a margin note is only partially filmed) you can request to see the actual register.
Whilst the set-pattern register of baptisms and burials from 1813 and marriages from 1754 are fairly easy to use, those before are less straightforward. The amount of information given varies from a bare minimum in some parishes (a child's forename and surname only in a baptismal entry or simply "son of" and the father's name; the groom's name only in a marriage entry) to a delight of detail for the genealogist.
When trawling registers, particularly before 1754, remember that some parishes chose to record all entries in one chronological sequence, while others recorded baptisms, marriages and burials separately year by year, or in separate blocks in different parts of the same register, so that there is a danger of missing entries in searching - especially so when using microfilm. If there is a period lost from parish registers prior to approximately 1840, you may find there are extant Bishop's Transcripts that cover the period.
Your research will rely heavily on Church registers. You may find relevant information on the International Genealogical Index (IGI), but please remember it is only an index and you must see the original entry in a parish register for yourself - it can provide considerably more information. Remember also that the IGI generally does not include burials/deaths - so a baptised child may not have lived to be the one who married two-or-so decades later.
Knowledge of the effects of the above instruments on the keeping of Church registers and records will, we hope, enable you to make sense of entries you find - or explain why some do not exist.
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Revised: 24 January 2010
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