Church of England Records
Church records represent the foundation of any British research prior to the advent of civil registration and informative census records in the mid-19th century. Most people with roots in England prior to the 20th century will find their ancestors in the registers of the Church of England. The Church of England was the established church of the state from the 1530s onward and everyone in England was required to attend church services up until the Revolution of 1688/89. There were plenty of non-conformists, Catholics, Jews, Quakers and members of other denominations who lived in England throughout the past few centuries, but a majority of the population was affiliated with the Church of England through the start of the 20th century.
It was in 1538 that priests began keeping records of baptisms, marriages and burials performed in their parishes. The registers over the years have gone through changes. The records from the 16th century typically only recorded the most basic of information and were commonly in Latin. The amount of information recorded by the ministers over the years varied from parish to parish, until the registers were largely standardized in the 18th and 19th centuries.
From 1538 through to 1812, a typical baptismal record would provide the name of the child, the names of the parents and the date of baptism. However, many ministers omitted the name of the mother through to the 18th century, and some into the 19th century. On the other hand, you may be lucky enough to find a baptismal entry wherein the maiden name of the mother was also registered. The following is a typical entry from a 17th century baptismal register:
1684 Baptismal Register
From 1813 onward, ministers of the Church of England were supposed to use standardized registers that recorded the baptismal date, given name of the child, names of the parents, occupation of the father and the family’s residence. The maiden name of the mother and the birth date of the child were not required, but some ministers registered this information any way. Further, if your ancestors lived in a populous city, you will often find a specific address of residence listed.
1824 Baptismal Register
Up until 1753, it was common for marriage entries to simply record a bare minimum of information, such as the names of the marriage parties and the date of marriage. Sometimes parishes of residence, occupation of the groom or marital status would be listed.
1666 Marriage Register
From 1754 onward, all individuals wishing to be married needed to do so in the Church of England in order for the marriage to be valid. The only exceptions were those married in Jewish or Quaker ceremonies. Thus, you’ll typically find your Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist ancestors marrying in the Church of England up until 1837. Church of England marriages were registered on standardized forms in which the minister recorded the names of the marriage parties, their parish of residence, marital status and often the occupation of the groom. The minister was also required to note whether the marriage was performed after the calling of the banns or through the presentation of a marriage license. Occasionally, you may also note the consent of the parents wherein a minor was getting married. The marriage record was then signed by the marriage parties (often with an “x” for those who were illiterate) and by two witnesses.
1777 Marriage Register
In 1837, many of the rules pertaining to legal marriage were relaxed and so non-conformists could marry in their own churches. In that year the Church of England began recording marriages on forms identical to the standardized civil registration forms, which you can read about on our page regarding civil registration records
Burial registers were largely uninformative through to 1812. Typically, the burial entry recorded just the name of the decedent and the date of burial. Sometimes an age would be listed and occasionally a place of residence if outside of the parish of burial.
1702 Burial Register
Starting in 1813, burials in the Church of England were listed on standardized forms that asked for the name, age, residence and burial date of each individual buried. The same forms were used into the 20th century.
1816 Burial Register
The above represents the basics of Church of England registers. However, there are often complexities to consider. You may find, for example, a significant gap in the registers during the years of the Commonwealth in the 1650s. During those years records of birth, marriage and death were typically not recorded in church registers but rather in civil registers that have not survived except in a few instances. Non-conformity in your ancestry may also explain the absence of your ancestors in the records where you would expect to find them. Consider also, that for many parishes there will be a second copy of parish registers called bishop’s transcripts (copies sent to the bishop). These can help fill in the gaps where parish registers may be missing.