Prior to July 1, 1837, parish church records are the source of vital records, as responsibility for recording births, deaths, and marriages fell to the Anglican Church, also known as the Church of England.
The completeness of the parish records, or their very existence, was dependent on the vicar or other person in charge of recording each christening, marriage, and death in the local parish church.
Also, some churches suffered fires or floods which destroyed their parish church records.
As a result, for some counties and/or parishes, the legible parish church records are quite sparse; in others, they are well documented and preserved.
Also, vital records are subject to the difficulties inherent in not having standardized spelling, as explained in my page Surname Variations and Name Changes.
While a summary copy of all parish church records (births, marriages, and deaths in a particular parish) had to be sent to the Bishop of the area each year, that vital records summary is only as good as the records that were kept throughout the year. It does not guarantee that everything was recorded, or that it was recorded well.
Also, since a hand-written copy of the parish church records was sent to the Bishop, the copies were open to transcription errors.
Many of the bishop's transcripts which I have seen appear to have been written on scraps of paper, rather than in a prescribed form which could be entered into a booklet or binder for safekeeping. Pages may therefore have been lost of misfiled.
Parish Church in the English Countryside. Owner: Sue Fenn
The parish church records are now held at local Records Offices in each county. Click on this link for a list of those offices in England and Wales, arranged alphabetically by city or town, and their locations. Most parish churches have submitted their vital records to these archival facilities, unless the church itself has facilities for archiving records in the appropriate manner.
Each county has a webpage listing the parish church records it has available at its locations. Some of these vital records are on microfiche or microfilm, while others are originals.
Most records office locations have a searching service, if you are unable to go to the office. They also provide certified copies of parish church records, such as birth, marriage, and death records. The procedures, and possibly the pricing, vary from location to location, so it is best to check before ordering to determine what procedure to follow.
Archives. Source: Wikimedia. Public Domain.
The Mormon church (also known as the Latter-Day Saints, or LDS) has a large number of parish church records in its free database at www.familysearch.org. They also have many parish church records available on microfiche.
These records can be loaned from one Family History Office to another. You can have them sent to the nearest location to you, worldwide, and then arrange to view them.
The Family Search site was not a personal favorite of mine until recently, when the website was revamped, and many new databases were added. I find I am using it more and more since they have changed it.
Free searches by name will return anyone at any location with that name in their databases. The search can be narrowed by using their 'filters'. Coverage is very good for England and Wales (ranging from the 1500s to the 1900s, at which point privacy considerations come into play).
The Family Search site also has a large number of records which are not yet indexed, but which you can browse. Parish church records for many locations in England and Wales are online.
To access these records, go to the home page, and instead of entering the data for a search, scroll down to the bottom of the page, where it indicates "Browse by Location". A number of continents are listed.
Clicking on "Europe" reveals the European countries for which records are available, including England and Wales.
Coverage is better for some counties, with respect to parish church records, than it is in others. In addition to Anglican church records, there are a number of non-conformist records in the database, as well. If your ancestors attended a church other than the Anglican church, you may well find those records here.
Another good free genealogy website is the FreeREG database.
This database is an ongoing project staffed by volunteers, with the goal of putting the contents of all England and Wales parish church registers online. As the name implies, all searching and access to transcribed vital records is free.
In my experience, it is better for some counties than for others, but this will change over time, to the extent that the vital records for different counties are available and are transcribed and added to the database.
Births in the FreeREG database usually indicate the names of the parents of a child and the date of christening, although not necessarily the date of birth. Often, the mother’s maiden name is not mentioned – it will simply state “John and Mary Smith” - although if you search for siblings of the child who is your ancestor, you may well find that at least one of the records will record the mother’s maiden name.
Occasionally, you will see a reference in a footnote at the bottom of the database form, stating “Elizabeth Barton, late James”. In my experience, the term “late”, used as in “the late Mr. So-and-so”, means that Mr. So-and-so has died. Not so in this context! Rather, it is stating that her maiden name was James.
Also, the file number is listed at the bottom of the record. You will need that, along with much of the information in this record, if you are requesting a certified copy of an entry in the parish church record.
Apart from the Anglican Church, there were a number of other religious groups in England and Wales during this period, all of which were deemed “nonconformist”.
Children who were not christened in the Anglican church, their births / christenings were not recorded, and there therefore was no “official” record of their birth.
One of these nonconformist groups was the Quakers, of which there was a large group in the Kings Lynn and Fakenham areas of Norfolk County. In the course of researching my own family tree, I have come across a number of entries in the Anglican baptismal record which lists the names of a number of children and their birth dates, but no christening date.
I knew from other sources that these children were born to Quaker families. It seems that this was the way that some among the Quakers attempted to have their children’s births officially recorded, without actually going through the christening "rite", with which they did not agree, on doctrinal grounds.
The FreeREG volunteers are beginning to add nonconformist records of christenings to the database, as well. Many of the nonconformist groups kept very good vital records with respect to their adherents.
Interestingly, I have found that the children of one family were christened twice - once when they were born, in the Anglican church, and later, when the family joined the nonconformist chapel. Naturally, this gives you more information about the family, its whereabouts, and its affiliations!
The LDS Family Search website provides similar information, in what I consider to be a more user-friendly format.
My suggestion would be to search both free genealogy websites, as coverage may be more complete in one than in the other for different sorts of vital records.
There were two routes to follow, administratively, in order to get married in England and Wales: by banns, or by obtaining a marriage license.
Banns were instituted as a requirement of marriage by the Church of England, in England and Wales, in 1215.
"The reading of the Banns" was an announcement of the couple’s intention to marry. The banns had to be read in the parish church where they were marrying on three consecutive Sundays prior to the wedding. Anyone who knew of a legal reason why the couple could not be married was given an opportunity to come forward at each reading.
Interestingly, in Canada today, marrying by banns is still an option, although most marry by license.
Marriage by license involved filing a “bond” (a form on which the groom promised to pay a sum of money if the marriage proved to be contrary to canonical law), in an attempt to ensure that the marriage was legal, and an “allegation”, which identified both parties by name, age, and parish, and stated that there was no reason in law that they could not be married.
The license began to be used in the Middle Ages in England as a “substitute” for banns, if the couple did not wish to wait the required three weeks for the banns to be read. It also became somewhat of a status symbol, as it required the payment of a fee, and therefore indicated that the couple had some wealth at their disposal.
The documents needed to apply for a license were completed at the Archbishop of Canterbury's office (which allowed the couple to marry at any Anglican church in England), or at the local Bishop's office (which allowed them to marry at the churches over which he had jurisdiction).
The records of the applications for a marriage license were kept at the office where the license was applied for. However, it seems that at least some of these records have now been moved to the archival facilities, along with the parish church records, for the various counties. You will need to check with the records office to determine where those records are located.
"The Tailor-made Girl" - 1888, England
When it states in the parish church records that both the bride and groom are from a particular parish, this may not be entirely true. There was a time period during which both bride and groom had to be resident in the parish if they were marrying by banns. They were considered resident if they had been living there at least a month.
A groom from another parish, then, could solve that problem by coming to the bride’s parish a month before the wedding and boarding somewhere, so that the requirement was fulfilled. (As a general rule, where the bride and groom were from different parishes, the marriage took place in the bride’s parish). There therefore would be no record of the groom having come from another parish on the marriage record, although parish chest records might have recorded it.
The alternative was for the couple to marry by license.
As previously noted, there were a number of “nonconformist” denominations – that is, any denomination other than the Anglican Church – which also existed in England. From 1752 and on (although it had been the practice before this), the only two groups which were officially recognized by statute as empowered to perform marriages outside the Anglican Church were Quakers and members of the Jewish faith.
Individuals who were members of a nonconformist congregation, then, if not Jewish or Quakers, had to be married in the Anglican church in order to be considered legally married in England.
Marriage documentation in the freeREG database and on the LDS Family Search website generally includes the names and parishes of the bride and groom, the groom’s occupation, and sometimes the names and occupations of the fathers of both.
English War Bride, Australia, 1942. (Public Domain)
They also provide the “condition” of the bride and groom. Rather than referring to their physical fitness, this refers to their marital status at the time of the marriage, and usually is answered by bachelor / spinster or widower / widow.
Marriages on the FreeREG database are indexed by the groom’s surname. If you search under the bride's name, you will be presented with a list of grooms, their location, and the date of the marriage. It also lists any instances of the name where an individual of that surname was a witness to the marriage, or where it was the bride's surname. If you know any of those variables, you can narrow your search considerably.
The "Notes" category in the FreeREG results often contains some interesting tidbits. In one record I looked at, it stated, "Banns. She signs X". This tells us that the couple was married by banns, and that the bride was illiterate. Presumably, her husband signed his name, as nothing is mentioned about his signature.
The Register number, file number, name of the church, the date of marriage, and the names of the bride and groom are very relevant information if you are requesting a certified copy of a marriage certificate from the local records office.
The LDS Family Search website, on the other hand, allows you to search by name for either party to the marriage, and returns results listing all instances of that name, the date and place of the marriage, and the spouse's name. Clicking on the arrow at the far right of the record opens up the details, without leaving the page.
Documentation of a death generally will identify the deceased, along with his or her abode (i.e., village, or, if a city, the street name) at the time of death, and possibly their age, with little more information, unless the deceased was an infant or child. In that case, the child’s parents may be named, and the age of the child at death will be recorded. Generally speaking, it is the date of burial that the parish church recorded, rather than the date of death.
Early 20th-Century Horse-Drawn Hearse - Public Domain
Again, this sort of information – especially the file number and the name of the church – are very helpful to the people at the records office who search for the records for which you are requesting copies.
Parish Church records are very important to the family history researcher, but are not always easy to come by. I recall one person posting a notice on a bulletin board stating that she had noticed one thing about her family members: they never seemed to die!
Sometimes one has to get creative in finding these records for ancestors, keeping in mind surname variations, the lack of consistency in parish church record-keeping, the fact that a woman's name changed at marriage and at remarriage, and so on.
Occasionally, you either have to make a trip to the appropriate records office yourself and look at the original documents, or hire someone to do it for you. However, the Family Search website has begun placing free digital copies of parish records on its website, which you can browse - a real help to those of us searching from afar!
Sometimes you can find at least partial records in other places, such as census documents, social assistance documents (in those days, called "poor laws"), and so on.
Good luck with the search!
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