England Church Records

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England Civil Registration  |  Census  |  Probate  |

Church of England Records

Church records are the main source for identifying people prior to 1837 when civil registration began. It is also a main source after 1837 in conjunction with civil registration. The Church of England was created in 1536, after King Henry VIII severed all ties to the church in Rome, he directed that each local parish be responsible to register all marriages, baptisms and burials. The governing of each parish created a group of records known as parish chest records.  The Church of England has dominated the religious scene in England; therefore it is likely that this is where you will find your ancestors. As time passes other religions began to organize and create records. Those that did not belong to the Church of England were referred to as nonconformists or dissenters. The main influence of the nonconformist was in larger towns and cities.

Although a nationwide order was given in 1538 that each parish keep a register of records, many parishes did not start to keep registers until some years later and some records have since been lost or destroyed. Beginning in 1598, copies of entries from many parishes were copied and sent annually to the bishop for the diocese for that area and these copies are known as Bishop’s Transcripts.

Parish. Each local parish keeps records. A parish is the jurisdictional unit that governs church affairs within its boundaries. Small villages often do not have their own parishes but are part of a parish headquartered in another town. A parish may have one or more chapelries, dependent district churches or chapels of ease, which often keep their own records.

Chapelry. A small parochial division of a large, populated parish. Most chapels or chapelries kept their own registers of baptisms and burials, and where authorization was granted, marriage registers were also kept. Many parishes throughout Lancashire, Cheshire, and several other counties comprised of numerous chapelries, i.e. Prestbury, Cheshire--some of them of ancient origin with 32 chapels.

Many parishes are grouped together under the jurisdiction of a bishop. A bishop heads a diocese. Some dioceses include one or more archdeaconries administered by an archdeacon. These may be divided into rural deaneries, headed by a rural dean. Each deanery consists of several parishes.

Parish Registers

The registers kept by the parish record christenings, marriages, and burials performed in that parish. The parish was also used by the government for taking care of the poor, the physical well-being of the parish, law enforcement, taxation and military conscription during the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. These functions required that the parish keep other records beside the registers. These other records are often called parish chest records (see the subheading Parish Chest Records in this article).

Earlier registers often contained christenings, marriages, and burials in one book, called a general register. In 1754 a law was passed that required marriages to be kept in a separate register. In 1813 parishes were required to use pre-printed registers. There were separate registers for christenings, marriages, and burials.

The amount of information recorded varies from parish to parish. Later records are usually more complete than earlier ones. However, content often changed when a new minister began keeping the records.

Some pre-1733 parish registers are in Latin and even records in English may contain some Latin words. Local dialects may have affected the spelling of some family names or places.

What's in parish registers?

Christenings (Baptisms)

Children were usually christened within a few weeks of birth, though christenings of some older children or adults were recorded. The parish registers give at least the infant’s name and the christening (baptism) date. Additional information may include the father’s name and occupation, the mother’s first name, the child’s birth date and legitimacy, and the family’s place of residence. In larger cities the family’s street address is given.

The pre-printed forms introduced in 1813 called for the child’s christening date and given names, both parents’ given names, family surname, residence, father’s occupation, and minister’s signature. The birth date was sometimes added.

What is in England parish registers?

Marriages

Parish registers often record only the marriage date and the names of the bride and groom. The records may also include the marital status and the parish of residence of both parties, the groom’s occupation, signatures of witnesses, and the minister’s name especially after 1754.

Starting 1 July 1837, the beginning of government registration, all parishes were required to use a new form. This form called for the bride and groom’s ages, residences, and occupations and the names and occupations of their fathers.

Couples usually married in the bride’s parish. Typically, the English married in their twenties.

You may find records that show a couple’s intent to marry in addition to the records of the actual marriage. Sometimes, however, the couple registered their intent to marry but never married.

There were two ways to meet the requirements to marry.

By Banns. A law required couples to have the minister announce or post notice of their intent to marry for three consecutive Sundays unless they obtained a license. This gave others the opportunity to object to the marriage. Beginning in 1754 officials recorded banns in separate registers. Banns registers contain information almost identical to marriage registers, but banns usually do not list the witnesses or marriage date. Note: Be aware that banns were only an intent to marry. The posting of banns doesn’t mean that a marriage took place after the reading of the banns.

If you believe a marriage took place but cannot find a record of it, search the banns register (if available). The banns should have been recorded in both the bride’s and the groom’s parish. The marriage is usually recorded only in the parish where it took place. For banns registers, look in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalogue under:

ENGLAND, [COUNTY NAME], [PARISH NAME] - CHURCH RECORDS

By License. A couple applied to the proper church authority, usually the bishop, for a license when:

  • Circumstances made it desirable to marry without waiting the three weeks required for the proclamation of banns.
  • The bride and groom lived in different dioceses.
  • A couple preferred not to subject themselves to publication of banns (common among upper classes and nonconformists).

Marriage licenses could be granted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, bishops, and archdeacons, or their surrogates within their respective jurisdictions. The licensing process created three types of documents, which may provide additional information to what the marriage record itself contains:

Marriage bond. A written guarantee made by the groom and another person swearing to the legality of the planned marriage. The bond usually lists occupations.

Marriage allegation. A statement filed by the couple in support of their license application. It records the couple’s names, ages, and parish of residence. The allegation sometimes lists where the marriage was to take place or gives a parent’s name or signature.

Marriage license. The actual document given to the couple to present to the minister. This document seldom survives but is sometimes found in family papers.

If a couple married by license but the bond or allegation cannot be found in the records for the diocese, check the records of the Vicar General and the Faculty Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, which had a higher level of jurisdiction.

The current location of original marriage license documents is given in:

Gibson, J. S. W. Bishops’ Transcripts and Marriage Licences, Bonds and Allegations. Fourth Edition. Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies Publications, Limited, 1997. (FHL book 942 K23b 1997.)

Many license records are in county record offices. The Family History Library also has a good collection, usually listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalogue under:

ENGLAND, [COUNTY NAME] - CHURCH RECORDS

Burials

A burial usually took place in the deceased’s parish a few days after the death. Pre-1813 burial records list the deceased’s name and burial date and sometimes mention the age, place of residence, cause of death, or occupation. The husband’s name is sometimes given on the wife’s burial entry. The father’s name may be on the record for a deceased child. After 1813 the forms called for the name, age, abode, burial date, and minister’s signature.

Burial registers may mention infant children who were not christened including stillbirths. Christening records never record stillbirths.

Bishop's Transcripts

Bishop’s Transcripts. Beginning in 1598 each parish was supposed to send a copy of its registers to the bishop of its diocese. Most parishes complied.

The current location of original bishop’s transcripts is given in:

Gibson, J. S. W. Bishops’ Transcripts and Marriage Licences, Bonds and Allegations. Fourth Edition. Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies Publications, Limited, 1997. (FHL book 942 K23b 1997.)

Many bishop’s transcripts are on film at the Family History Library, listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalogue under:

England, [county name], [parish name] - Church records

Most films contain all the years for one parish on one film. However, some are arranged by deanery and year. Those arranged by year and then by deanery are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalogue under:

England, [county name] - Church records

Parish Chest Records
The Parish Chest.jpg

Church records were kept in a chest (or strongbox) known as the "parish chest." Records other than the parish registers were called "parish chest records." Some of these records still exist from the 16th century, but many do not begin until the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.

Indexes to Church Records

The International Genealogical Index (see the Genealogy article) is the most comprehensive surname index of English parish registers. Other indexes to parish registers exist. Many of these indexes have been published by family history societies in England. Read more in the Societies article.

To see what indexes to parish registers are available at the Family History Library, look in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalogue under:

England, [county name] - Church records - Indexes

Indexes to marriages.

Boyd, Percival. Boyd’s Marriage Index. Bound typescript. N.p., n.d. This work is an index to marriages in 4,375 parishes throughout England. It is available on microfilm, on microfiche, and in paper form. Look in the Author/Title Search of the Family History Library Catalogue for library call numbers.

You can find an explanation of this series in:

Wells, Claire T. Wells, comp. A Key to the Parishes Included in Boyd’s Marriage Index. Second Edition. Salt Lake City, Utah: Family History Library, 1988. (FHL book 942 K22b 1988; fiche 6035667.)

A list of parishes is also given in:

A List of Parishes in Boyd’s Marriage Index. London, England: Society of Genealogists, 1994. (FHL book 942 K22l 1994.)

Some county record offices and other repositories have indexes to church records, some of which are on film at the Family History Library. Read the Archives and Libraries article for additional information, including addresses.

Privately held marriage indexes for most counties are available by correspondence at either of the following two sources. Many indexes are listed with the addresses of where to write in:

Humphery-Smith, Cecil R., The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers. Second Edition. Chichester, Sussex: Phillimore & Company, 1995. (FHL book 942 E7pa 1995.)

Gibson, Jeremy, and Elizabeth Hampson, Editors. Marriage and Census Indexes for Family Historians. Seventh Edition. Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies Publications, Limited, 1998. (FHL book 942 D27gjh.)

Some marriage indexes are on film at the Family History Library. To find them, use the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalogue under:

ENGLAND, [COUNTY NAME] - CHURCH RECORDS - INDEXES


Locating Church Records

To find an ancestor in church records, you should know his religion and the parish where he lived. The Locality Search of the Family History Library Catalogue usually uses the parish names as given in The Imperial Gazetteer. See the England Gazetteers in the Wiki for this source and for other help in finding a parish.

Local residents sometimes referred to their parish by the name of the parish patron saint (such as St. John) rather than by the location of the parish. In cities where there is more than one parish, the Family History Library Catalogue uses the patron saint’s name with the name of the city to identify records of different parishes.

Many parishes had "chapelries" that served a small area within the parish boundaries. Chapelries kept separate registers. Their records are usually listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalogue under the parish with which the chapelry is associated.

Copies of parish registers may be available in manuscript or published form. These copies include transcripts and abstracts that may have errors or omissions. Compare the transcript to the original parish register, if available.

Individuals and societies collect and compile copies of parish registers. Both the Society of Genealogists in London and the Family History Library has major collections of such records.

Some sources that describe the location or survival of church records are:

Lists of Non-parochial Registers and Records in the Custody of the Registrar-General of Births, Deaths, and Marriages. London, England: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1859. (FHL film 355544.) This volume from the Public Record Office series, Lists and Indexes, series tells which pre-1837 nonconformist parish registers are in the Public Record Office. See the Archives and Libraries article in the Wiki for the address.

Humphery-Smith, Cecil R., The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers. Second Edition. Chichester, Sussex, England: Phillimore & Co., 1995. (FHL book 942 E7pa 1995.) This gives the location and repository address for each parish register.

Parish Register Abstract. England: House of Commons, 1833. (FHL book Q 942 X2gbc; film 599640 items 1–2.) This book shows which pre-1813 parish registers existed in 1831.

Steel, Donald J., et al. National Index of Parish Registers. 13 Volumes. Chichester, England: Phillimore & Company, Limited, 1968–. (FHL book 942 V26ste.) This index helps identify church records and congregations. Not all counties are published yet.

Youngs, Frederic A., Jr. Guide to the Local Administrative Units. London, England: Royal Historical Society, 1979, 1991. (FHL 942 C4rg no. 10, 17.) This guide helps identify Church of England ecclesiastical jurisdictions and gives an outline history of changes to the parishes.

Records at the Family History Library

The Family History Library has many church records. The most common are:

  • Parish registers from their beginning up to the nineteenth century or later
  • Bishops’ transcripts from 1598 up to the mid- 19th century
  • Transcripts of parish registers
  • Parish chest records
  • Registers of nonconformist churches to 1837 (sometimes later)

You can determine whether the library has records, denominational histories, or religious society journals from your ancestor’s parish by looking in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalogue under:

ENGLAND, [COUNTY], [PARISH] - CHURCH RECORDS

ENGLAND, [COUNTY] - CHURCH RECORDS

ENGLAND, [COUNTY] - CHURCH HISTORY

ENGLAND- CHURCH HISTORY

ENGLAND- PERIODICALS

The Family History Library is always adding records to its collection. The catalo is updated periodically. If you need a record that is not at the library, you may write to the minister or to a repository to request a search.

Records Not at the Family History Library

Since England has no single repository of church records, the current location of records depends on several factors. Some counties have more than one approved repository. A few records remain with the parish minister. To determine the location of the original parish registers, use The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers. See the Locating Church Records section  in this article.

The following types of repositories often answer mail requests for information:

County record office. Contact the county record office to determine the procedure for searching records.

Local parish. Parishes will generally answer correspondence when a small donation is enclosed. Ask that your request be forwarded if the records are now in a repository. To find parish addresses, consult a church directory. See the Church Directories article in the Wiki.

Other archives. Some church records are in libraries, museums, or other repositories.

When writing to England for genealogical information, be as concise as possible. Do not add unnecessary history about the family you are researching. If staff members at the archive cannot look up the requested information, ask them to send you a list of recommended researchers. Send the following with your request:

  • An international money order for the search fee and postage or a donation to the church
  • The full name and sex of the person sought
  • The names of the parents, if known
  • The event you are looking for, with approximate date and place
  • Request for a complete copy (or photocopy) of the original record

If your request is not answered, write to the local family history society and ask if one of their members would do the search for you. See the Societies article in the Wiki.

Another way to access some church records and indexes is through the Internet. On the Internet there are lists of people who volunteer to search various types of records for certain areas free of charge. You can locate these lists through the GENUKI. On this site,

  1. Click the county of your choice.
  2. Click the topic Genealogy.
  3. Click Look-up Exchange.

Search Strategies

As you search church records, use the following strategies:

  • Search parish registers, bishops’ transcripts, and all other available records for the time period.
  • Note all entries, including burials, in the parish registers for the surname unless the name is very common.
  • Note gaps or missing pages in the record. This may suggest that you should search alternative records for that time period.
  • If the church records do not contain enough information, search for hints (residence, occupation, and so on) that suggest other records to search.
  • If you find little or no mention of your family in Church of England parish records, search neighbouring parishes and nonconformist records.
  • Search both Church of England parish registers and bishops’ transcripts, as either may contain entries missing from the other.

Some of the parish records transcribed on www.familysearch.org have an easy link to be able to search LDS web site files.  The web page is located at http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~hughwallis/IGIBatchNumbers.htm. Please read the introduction to this site to learn more. The search is focused on the USA or UK. The search is by parish/towns in the counties. Each of the record batches are listed alphabetically by place, with notations of time periods, separated into groups of christenings or marriages records. The site does not contain a list of names but is a portal to the specific parish record linked to transcribed records on the www.familysearch.org web site by searching for a surname. If you are not able to enter the batch number, try using a common surname. When the search page is connected, surnames can also be changed from search to search. First name only searches are possible, parent searches are possible, father only searches using his surname or first name are also possible. The results show spelling varations of the surname. Transcribed records may still have omitted information found in the orginal record. 

Some church records have been destroyed by fire, lost, stolen, defaced, or damaged by dampness or aging. To protect their records, most parishes have deposited their early registers in county record offices. Addresses of the county record offices are given in: Humphery-Smith, Cecil R., The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers. Second Edition. Chichester, Sussex: Phillimore & Company, 1995. (FHL book 942 E7pa 1995.)

Parish maps can help you determine which parish to search. Maps will reveal neighbouring parishes to search if your ancestor is not listed in the parish where you expected him or her to be. See England Maps for more information.

Online Training from the Family History Library for British Church Records

The Church’s Family History Library has been providing classes to patrons for many years.  In the past, a patron would have to travel to the Library to take advantage of these classes, but no longer. The Library will begin testing different methods of exporting these classes to patrons who reside outside of the Salt Lake City area. The first method to be tested is a set of five lessons in a classroom setting in a video format. These lessons are now available on www.familysearch.org and cover the basics of getting started with family history research in England. Go to FamilySearch and select Education under the Family History Library menu. The five lessons are called:

Family History Research Series Online

Lesson 1: Research Overview

Lesson 2: Census Records

Lesson 3: Civil Registration

Lesson 4: Church Records

Lesson 5: Find Your Ancestors

Nonconformist Church Records

A nonconformist denomination is any denomination not conforming to the Church of England, including Roman Catholics, Jews, and Quakers. The registers of these religions sometimes contain more information than those of the Church of England, often including the person’s birth date, baptism date, father’s name and residence, and mother’s name (including maiden name). They rarely contain marriage records (except for Quakers and Jews).

Nonconformist registers contain some burial entries, though nonconformists were usually buried in parish churchyards until the chapel obtained its own burial grounds or until civil cemeteries opened.

It is not uncommon to find an ancestor affiliated with more than one religion during his or her lifetime. Search all religions and all chapels of a particular religion if an ancestor might be a nonconformist because some people changed religions and travelled long distances to attend their meetings. Ministers often travelled large circuits keeping the vital statistics of several places in the register they carried with them.

A law passed in 1836 required many nonconformist groups to send their registers into the Public Record Office. The Family History Library has microfilm copies of those that were deposited. Many of these records have been extracted, and the names appear in the International Genealogical Index.

The following two works contain more information about nonconformist sects:

Steel, Donald J. Sources for Nonconformist Genealogy and Family History. London, England: Phillimore, 1973. (FHL book 942 V26ste, vol. 12.)

Sources for Roman Catholic and Jewish Genealogy and Family History. London, England: Phillimore, 1974. (FHL book 942 V26ste, vol. 3.)

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