What are parish records?

In the 1530's, a combination of historical events - involving the politicking of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII's desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon in favor of Anne Boleyn - led to Henry's excommunication from the Catholic Church and a split with Rome.

In 1538, the new official religious regime – the Church of England – decreed that records of baptisms, marriages and burials must be kept by every parish in the country. These parish records were to be kept up to date on pain of fine, recording in detail the lives of local families.

At first, some parishes neglected to complete the records, ignoring orders and potential punishment. Eventually, however, they were brought into line. Barring the English Civil War, records were consistently kept until 1837, when control was passed to the crown rather than the church, and records began to look more like the ones we recognize today.

These handwritten baptism records from over 350 years ago are valuable beyond the genealogical information they provide.

The parish records were transcribed and indexed mainly by family history societies, although a few dedicated individuals have also contributed data. You can contact the society or group that extracted the information for further details. Some may charge a small fee for research. Details can be found on search results pages.

Searching Parish Records

If you're searching for your family in the parish records, the chances are you're not new to family history research. You've probably built your family tree up to the 18th century, and have dealt with records in America and the British Isles.

However, even the experienced researcher will need to keep a few things in mind when searching parish records.

Head to our parish records!

Search baptisms by father's last name and mother's maiden last name

Search baptisms by father's last name and mother's maiden last name to get all the babies born to that marriage (you can put in a registration district and a range of years, say 10 or 20 years either side, to narrow down if there are too many results with the same surname)

If you can't search, browse

With some of our parish record collections with images you have the option to browse through the registers (type "browse" in the A-Z and then look for the parish record collections) – handy if you can't find a record by searching – go to the relevant register and thumb through (use the tool at the bottom of the image viewer to jump to the right place in the register) – your record might be mistranscribed or the page might be missing from the register or too faint/damaged to read.

Use your wildcards

When dealing with a record set that's as old as the 16th century, accurate transcription isn't always easy, and spelling wasn't necessarily accurate to begin with. This means that you may have trouble finding people when searching by name. For this reason, wildcards may be your friend.

A wildcard is denoted by a *, and you can use them anywhere in the first, middle or surname fields (but either the first or last name must have at least three initial characters). For example, if you want to search for Michael Addams you could search for Mic* *dams or Mi* Add*. For more details on wildcard searching, click here.

Searching for Mi* Add* will bring back results that include Michael Addams, Mickcill Addames, Millimay Addams and Mis Katharine Adderley (all real results).

*NB* you can't use search variants with wildcard searches.

Julian and Gregorian calendar

It wasn't until 1752 that the Gregorian calendar was adopted in Britain. Until 1752, the Julian Calendar was still observed, and the year officially started on the 25th of March. While Britain clung on to the Julian Calendar, much of Europe had already made the transition. This means that in some cases you'll see two dates in what is known as double dating, for example you might see 16 January 1746 "OS" (old style) and 1747 "NS" (new style) on the same entry.

Note the 1703/4 to the right of this entry

If you see a date in an index from between January 1st and March 24th and before 1752, ensure that the double dating problem has been taken into account. If you can't find the entry in the year you're expecting it, try a year either side.

The Civil War gap

The English Civil War ran from 1642-1651, and during this period record keeping wasn't necessarily top of everyone's list of priorities. If you're looking around the mid-17th century, this is always worth bearing in mind.

Pre 1837 birth? Check baptisms first

Civil registration didn't begin with consistency until after 1837, so if you're tracing your family before then, baptisms found in parish registers are the very first place you should look.

A baptism isn't a birth

One of the most common mistakes in looking at baptisms is mistaking them for birth dates. It was very uncommon for a baptism to occur on a birth date, and they sometimes could occur months or even years later. You may find a birth date mentioned, but if not just keep in mind what the date you have found means. What you may also find is that a baby was baptized twice - this is relatively rare, but some families believed that a second - or even third - baptism would heal a sickly child.

What type of marriage record can reveal

You'll find both marriage banns and marriage licenses in parish registers. Banns were publicly available notices posted several weeks before the marriage, giving the community a chance to object (again, remember that banns are evidence only of this event, not the actual marriage). For a fee, this period could be waved, and the couple issued a marriage license straight away. Usually only wealthy people waived the fee, so knowing this can give you an idea of how well-off your ancestors may have been.

Always inspect the image

While the important genealogical information is indexed, you'll often find very telling notes or comments in parish records. It's not uncommon to find notes about current circumstances or later life events in a baptism or marriage record.

Always check for a Gretna Green

Gretna Green is the first Scottish town across the English border with Scotland, and had far more liberal marriage laws. Young couples often stole away to Gretna Green, which had a shorter waiting period and didn't require parental consent. Now, a "Gretna Green" is any town with liberal marriage laws that enticed young, possibly eloping couples.

Things get more orderly after 1812

16th and 17th century parish records can be a mess. But thanks to the 1812 Parochial Registers act, forms became standardized and the templates were typed. Everything was filled in by grid lines, and we get a product that is much easier to decipher:

Missing a record? Try a Bishop's Transcript

Inevitably, many parish records have been destroyed or lost. Fortunately, another transcript may still be available if that's the case. Beginning in 1598, copies of the previous year's parish register was sent to the local Bishop. They weren't always exact copies (though sometimes they contain even more information) until 1812. To see our Bishop's Transcripts, navigate to our A-Z Record Search and enter the phrase "Bishop's Transcript" to see our available collections.

Searching for non conformists

Keep in mind most parish records only cover the Church of England, which was the state church and the most adhered to by far. If you're looking for an ancestor of another denomination, you'll want to look at non conformist church records, which were Christian churches that had broken with the Church of England. To see all of our collections, enter the search term "non-conformist" in our A-Z Record Search.

Understand the local history

Understanding the history of your parish will help you know what records exist for certain periods and how the boundaries have changed over time. Knowing the local history of the area will tell you if people were buried elsewhere due to an epidemic, or if the parish or town lines were ever divided.


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