Parish registers are records of baptisms (not births), marriages and burials (not deaths) made by the Church of England, and were introduced in the mid-16th Century. They are an invaluable resource for researching family genealogy because census and official records from the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths are not available prior to 1837.
Various Acts of Parliament and Ordinances have dictated the structure and content of parish registers over the centuries. Historical events have also impacted upon the consistency and standard of record keeping:
1538: Thomas Cromwell, Chief Minister of Henry VIII 1532-40, issued a mandate ordering clergymen to record all baptisms, marriages and burials in their parish on a weekly basis. These registers were usually written in Latin on loose sheets of paper and stored in a parish chest. Very few of these early records survive.
1553-58: The religious persecution of Protestants during the reign of Mary Tudor, a Catholic, resulted in some gaps in parish registers.
1598: Elizabeth I ordered that registers be kept in parchment books, and that all loose-leaf records from 1538 and, in particular, from the beginning of her reign in 1558, should be transferred to these new books. Unfortunately, not all of the older records were copied, and few truly original registers survive prior to 1597. From 1598 to the 1840s, copies of entries were sent annually to the diocesan bishop and are called "Bishop's Transcripts".
1642-60: Some parish registers were poorly kept, hidden or lost during the English Civil War and Commonwealth (i.e. following the execution of Charles I). Record keeping improved after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
1752: The Gregorian Calendar was adopted in Britain and New Year officially begins on 1 January rather than on 25 March (under the Julian Calendar). The introduction of the Gregorian Calendar therefore affects all dates in the parish registers, and care must be taken to distinguish between "old style" and "new style" dating in the period 1 January to 24 March prior to 1753.
1753 Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act: This Act was introduced to address the problem of clandestine marriages, and was the first statutory legislation in England and Wales to require a formal ceremony of marriage in a parish church. Quakers and Jews were exempt. Separate, printed marriage registers were introduced and included space to record the occupations and abodes of the bride and groom, and the names of two witnesses.
1783 The Stamp Act: The Act introduced a 3-pence duty on all baptismal entries. Some parents avoided the duty by not having their children baptised and, therefore, some family groups were baptised together after the repeal of the Act in 1794.
1812 George Rose's Act: Separate printed registers were introduced for baptisms and burials. (Separate marriage records had been introduced in 1753.)
1813: Every parish in England and Wales was issued with Register Books, containing printed columns and headings to be filled in according to a standard form. Prior to this date there was little conformity in style and content as the type and amount of detail included depended on the officiating clergyman.
1836 The General Registration Act: This Act, implemented in 1837, established the system of civil registration for all births, marriages and deaths. From 1837, therefore, all information on births, marriages and deaths was recorded and held by the Government in London, and used to issue official birth, marriage and death certificates.
The civil registration of births (not baptisms), marriages and deaths (not burials) began in England on 1 July 1837 as a result of the 1836 General Registration Act. Prior to 1837, there was no nationwide scheme of registration, and the Church of England was the recorder of baptisms, marriages and burials. According to the Act, the Registrar General keeps all records of births, marriages and deaths at the General Register Office (GRO) in London. Details from the GRO are only available through the purchase of Certificates (i.e. a certified copy of the registered information).