Saturday, June 07, 2008

The English Parish Registers

While I slave away over a hot computer - Mrs McCormick quilts away!

The development of the English Parish Registers took place during times of turmoil in England. There was the Reformation, which established the Church of England. Then we had a civil war, which ended with the beheading of the King. We then tried out a Commonweath and after that we restored the Monarchy. As with the poor laws, there was a constant stream of acts of Parliament attempting to make everyone follow the rules.

In 1538 the government ordered that all parish priests should record all marriages, christenings and burials in their parishes. These records were to be kept under lock and key, with one key held by the priest and the other by the Church Wardens. There was a penalty of 3s 4d for failing to do so.

In 1598 it was ordered that the records, previously mainly on loose pieces of paper, were to be recorded on parchment in books. All records previous to 1538 were to be copied into the new books. Conditions being what they were, many of the register pages were missing, or damaged by damp, insects or rodents. Also, a later order emphasised that particular attention was to be paid to records after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I. Some priests interpreted this to mean that only records after 1558 should be copied. In 1598 it was required that an annual return should be made to the relevant Bishop within a month of Easter.

In 1563 the Roman Catholic Church ordered the keeping of registers of baptisms and burials. In 1645 it was empathised that baptisms should record the date of birth and the names of parents. In the mid-17th century there were changes following the civil war. These were superseded by the restoration of the Monarchy. In 1755 it was ordered that Banns of Marriage should be recorded. In 1812 it was required that each parish purchase a parish chest to store the registers and many other types of documents in safe and secure conditions.

Before 1538, the Roman Catholic Church was developing a system of parish registers. As early as 1497 instructions were issued in Spain that all baptisms were to be recorded. I have no idea if any such records exist. Perhaps deep in the vaults in the Vatican there are treasures yet to be found.

This information is taken mainly from “The Parish Chest” by W.E. Tate.

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