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English Parish Records

Michael Turner

4 February 2019

How far back?

What is the earliest date for which parish records in England can be found? That’s a frequent question when searching for ancestors. 

Church records are vitally important to genealogists. They provide, almost the only, evidence of births, deaths and marriages prior to 1837 when civil registration of these events commenced. Births, marriages and deaths continued in Parish records after the introduction of civil registration and for that reason it is often possible to find them in both sets of records.

  • Parish records begin 1538.Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) initiated the process of keeping parish records and a mandate was issued by Henry VIII in 1538 to keep parish registers.
  • Queen Elizabeth duplicated the law in 1558 and more registers began at this date.
  • Bishops’ transcripts and use of parchment instead of paper 1597
  • Copies of the registers were sent to the local Bishop, sometimes the copies were made contemporaneously and some ministers waited until the end of the year.
  • The original records are generally more reliable than the transcripts however, some of the earlier paper records did not survive.
  • Early registers did not follow any standard form and the details included were at the discretion of the minister.
  • 1642-1651 English Civil War
  • Parish records were often neglected and Bishops’ transcripts were not required.
  • 1754 Lord Hardwick’s Act. This required separate registers for marriages.
  • 1812 Introduction of a standard register
  • Separate books were to be used for baptisms, marriages and burials. The rector was required to record the details in the register at the time or no later than seven days after the ceremony.  The rector was obliged to keep the register in a secure, dry well painted chest within his usual residence.
  • 1837 Introduction of civil records for births marriages and deaths
    The marriage record from 1837 was made in duplicate one copy kept by the parish and the other passed to the secular registrar.


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