Perhaps the best source of genealogical information in the UK are the registers kept by the churches. The Crown had long wished to document inheritance facts, like marriage and births, but because the Established Church was a powerful entity and had the hierarchy and clergy who could read and write (for the most part) it took on the role of recording certain events in Parish Registers. In 1538, a decree went out to all Church of England ministers to keep a record of all baptisms (more properly called "Christenings"), marriages and burials. The Church wasn't interested too much in dates of birth or death.
In 1597, a law was passed that the registers had to be kept on parchment, and that a copy be sent each year to the Bishop of their diocese (these are what we call the Bishop's Transcripts). In some cases, the Bishop's Transcripts can be used to fill gaps when the original parish register is missing, but in many other cases the information sent to the Bishop may be less than contained in the register. And, of course, discrepancies exist between them from simple human error.
From 1648 to 1660, during the period when Cromwell controlled the country, civil officials were appointed to perform marriages, so you may find gaps in the parish record for this period. And prior to 1754, marriage laws had been very loosely interpreted and abuses were widespread, particularly in the major cities. Ecclesiastical law required marriages be performed either by banns or by licence, but English Common Law was much less stringent, and many couples entered into informal marriage contracts, recognized by the state. The legal age for marriage was very young (14 for a boy and 12 for a girl), although parental consent was required up to age 21. Naturally, many young people lied about their age to marry, as there was no such thing as having to prove your age or identity.
All that changed with the Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1754. The new law prohibited marriages being performed anywhere except in the Church of England, Jewish synagogues and Quaker meeting houses. See our Non-Conformist Records page. Most parish ministers began recording marriages in separate registers with standard printed forms. The forms usually had spaces for the signatures of bride and groom, and two witnesses, together with the marital status and residence of bride and groom. Hardwicke's Act also required that marriages be either by banns or by licence. Marriage by banns meant that notice of the marriage was given on each of the three preceding Sundays in the parish church of both the bride and groom.
Starting in 1812, standard registers were instituted for christenings and burials, and more information was required than previously. After the start of civil registration in 1837, a new marriage form was used which gave more information on both the bride and groom. After this time, the practice of making Bishop's Transcripts gradually died out.
Very early records may be in Latin. Records prior to 1730 are often in an older style of script that takes some training to get used to. Many records prior to 1700 have been ravaged by time - rotted, stained, crumbled, etc. Here's a note on corrections from a current parish priest: "As a parish priest, I occasionally have to make corrections. They follow in numerical sequence throughout that particular register book, with the correction made by first putting a line through the incorrect information, writing in what should have been there, putting the appropriate number (e.g. '3') by the side of the correction in the column; then in the margin writing out the name of the number (e.g. 'Three') and adding the initials of the registrar. I always kick myself when it's necessary (i.e. when I've made a mistake in the first place) but it does sometimes happen. Presumably the same procedure would happen in the case of Birth or Death registers."
England is divided into shires or counties for local governmental administration. In similar fashion, the "Established Church", or Anglican Church, divided the country into a hierarchy which had, at the bottom, the local church and the surrounding countryside, called a Parish. In a rural area, there is typically one village in a single parish. In towns, there may be several parishes serving the residents. Above the parishes in the hierarchy was a Deanery. Over time, parish boundaries have changed, new parishes created, two parishes merged, etc. A large parish may have had a second chapel for worshippers too far from the principal church - these would be called a Chapel of Ease.
Alas, a number of these early parish records have been destroyed by fire, flood, worms and acts of war. Some registers have simply been lost or stolen. And most suffer from entries with human error. Remember, too, that a number of other religions were practiced, sometimes by "circuit" ministers, so a search of those records may help you, but these are sometimes difficult to find. See our Non-Conformist Records page. The family usually paid the minister a small fee for registering the marriage, baptism or death of an individual, and the very poor sometimes avoided registering because the didn't have "the coppers." In 1783, the Stamp Act required a 3 Pence fee for every register entry, but it was widely unpopular and repealed in 1794.
For the Family Historian, Civil Registration often provides information on births, marriages or deaths, but only after July of 1837 when it was introduced (yet not universally enforced).
In some English counties, a form of registry entry called the "Dade Registry" mandated a more complete and useful entry. Unfortunately, few Lincolnshire parishes used this format.
Many parish registers have been filed with the Lincolnshire Archives. This is what the Anglican Church asked the parish vicars to do with the registers. But, there are numerous reasons why registers are not/have not been filmed/archived. This is a list of reasons provided by Maria Borrill:
She adds: You can always contact the vicar of the church concerned (they may respond to written enquiries) to look at the registers, although there may be a fee. The charging policy isn't consistent. Some only ask for a donation, others apply a £5 fee plus £5 per half hour.
The fee for 2002 as set by the Ecclesiastical Fees Measure 1986 was £14 first hour or part of an hour and £11 for each subsequent hour or part of. This is made up of; Fee payable to Stipend of Incumbent £9.00p first hour or part of an hour and £6 for each subsequent hour or part of. Fee payable to Parochial Church Council £5 first hour or part of an hour and £5 for each subsequent hour or part of.
Anne Cole adds this description of Parish Registers and Bishop's Transcripts (copies of parish reg.):
"From 1538 to 1754 the parish registers will contain a mixture of baptisms, marriages and burials. The events may be separated out into different parts of the books, or mixed up; the latter is usually the case. Some registers have been "rebound" in the past, several books being bound into one, and not always in correct chronological order. Many of the early (1500s) books have obviously been copied up from an old paper register - Heckington is a very good example of this."
"From 1754 there should be a separate marriage register but many vicars continued to duplicate the information in the "general" register which contained the baptisms and burials. The marriage register was signed by the bride and groom and witnesses, presumably at the time of the marriage. Some of these registers also include entries for just Banns, or banns included with the marriage itself, occasionally even a marriage entry that took place at another church."
"From 1813 a separate baptism and burial register was used with columns for specific information. This unfortunately resulted in less information being given in many cases; e.g. name of parents of a child who was buried, but some books continued to squash this information into one of the columns."
"From July 1837 a new marriage register was used, the duplicate of the marriage certificates that you will all have. However, it is has become clear from our transcribing of these later marriages that the marriage entry and the certificate are not always the same!"
"I don't want to worry you, but this comes from the Lincolnshire Record Society Vol. 94 (2006)"Lincolnshire Parish Correspondence of John Kaye, Bishop of Lincoln 1827-53" page 389:"
"Bardney [COR B5/4/37/1[I/I]
From J. F. Wray, Horsington, 3 January 1852
Having found amongst my late father's papers the whole of the baptismal registers which he omitted entering from January 1832 to October 1845, comprising somewhat more than six hundred entries, I have copied them into the book provided for that purpose, and have deposited it in the iron chest in the presence of the churchwardens."
"We checked, and there are the relevant entries all neatly written in the same hand!"
All Catholic and Anglican churches are dedicated and given a name (like "All Saints") when they are built. There was no particular pattern to the naming. Either the person who gave the money or the Bishop probably chose the name. Since most churches were dedicated in the 15th century or earlier, some even in Saxon times, any reference to this would be in very old documents. They are sometimes re-dedicated if they are rebuilt or refurbished, but the name isn't usually changed.
Churches dedicated to St Nicholas are often found along the coast or in port cities. St Nicholas (amongst other things) was the patron saint of sailors.
A Bann was a document "Published" in the parish church on 3 consecutive weeks. Typically it was read aloud before the congregation. It allowed anyone with an objection to the marriage to speak up.
Some registers contain Banns of Marriage. A Bann was an announcement made three times, each a week apart, at Sunday church service indicating that a couple desired to be married. If the bride and groom were from different parishes, the banns were read in both their parishes. This was to give anyone who knew any reason why the couple should not marry to say so. The Bann didn't mean that the marriage took place. Banns typically do not include any names other than the would-be bride and groom. Here is Guy Etchells' description of Marriage by Banns:
Marriage by Banns is/was the normal way to get married, it involved going to the church and telling the vicar you wished to be married. He would then announce the intention of marriage (banns) on three consecutive Sundays prior to the marriage. This enabled anyone who knew of any impediment to the marriage to put their objection at any time during those three weeks. During the Civil War the banns were read or published in the market square.
Although not an individual church record, per se, Marriage Licences were issued by each Diocese and are another good source for the Family Historian. Where ever there was a Bishop, Licences were issued. The following is from Fitzhugh's "The Dictionary of Genealogy":
"If the parties lived in different dioceses, they had to apply to the Vicar-General. If they lived in different provinces they applied to the Master of the Faculties of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In fact, the Archbishop of Canterbury could issue a licence to any couple in England. If the wedding was to be performed in a diocese other than that of either of the parties, a special licence had to be obtained, either from the Faculty Office of Canterbury or the Registry of York, or the Vicar-General of Canterbury. Licences could also be obtained from certain deans and chapters and archdeacons within their jurisdiction, and also from the Ordinary or presiding authority of peculiars, provided both the parties lived within."
Note: There are not many Marriage Licences held at the Lincolnshire Archives.
Marriage bonds and allegations are, in effect, 'application forms' for persons wishing to be married by licence. The groom and often the bride posted a surety and entered into a BOND and alleged that there was no reason for the marriage not to take place. No banns were read out in church. Of the three documents concerned, the Licence does not generally survive, the bonds and or allegations often do. (Thank you, Anne Cole, for that description.) Here is Guy Etchells' description of the details:
The licence is one of a trio of documents needed before a couple could be married other than by banns.
Here is a brief explanation, but remember, the existence of any one of these documents does not necessarily mean the marriage actually took place and in the absence of these documents there might still be a mention in the Act Book of the diocese.
A sworn statement, by one of the couple, that there was no reason for them not to legally marry. It contains; Date, name, parish and occupation of the person making the oath, age & marriage condition also name, parish, age and condition of their intended. It also states the church where they wish to marry.
A sworn statement, normally by the groom and a friend or relative, where they jointly bound themselves under risk of penalty that there was no legal impediment to the proposed marriage. The penalty was normally a large sum of money, but this did not reflect the wealth of the bondsmen. Sometimes the second bondee is fictitious. It contains; Name, parish and occupation of the person making the oath, name of the church official & sum of bond plus the date of the bond.
The bond did not guarantee that a marriage took place, only that there was no impediment. It also absolved the church of any involvement if an impediment was later found.
When these two documents have been completed a Licence to Marry was handed to the couple for them to give to the minister. It contained little detail and nothing in addition to what can be learnt from the Allegation & Bond.
After 1823, the bond was no longer required and the application consisted only of the allegation.
Also from Fitzhugh's "Dictionary of Genealogy":
Marriage License: was popular for avoiding the inconvenience of banns, no delays, no publicity. Application was usually made by the bridegroom who had to make a statement called an allegation that there was no impediment. If either was under age, parental consent was required. The bridegroom and a friend might be required (until 1823) to enter into a bond to forfeit a sum of money if the marriage was found to be contrary to canon law. The bridegroom then took the license to give to the clergyman. The marriage need not take place at the church named and issuance of a license does not mean that the marriage actually took place.
Marriage certificate: came about with the advent of Civil Registration in 1837. The record of the marriage (done by the clergyman) was kept in a duplicate registration book and sent to the Superintendent Registrar of the district and then on to London. A copy of this record is the marriage certificate.
All Lincolnshire marriage bonds are indexed up to 1800. The first index to marriage bonds and allegations (from 1628 to 1699) contains abstracts of the allegations in the allegations books which are in Latin and very difficult to read (in some cases where the books have been "repaired" by having brown paper stuck over them!). Allegations after 1699 are individual documents and are indexed with the bonds. The Lincolnshire Archives has a very comprehensive Index of Marriage Bonds and Allegations. The Archives will provide a copy of the bond or allegation for a fee.
Anne Cole advises that one should note: Quite a few of the bonds are for marriages that took place outside the county -- a left-over from when the Lincoln Diocese covered a huge area down as far as Oxford. There are many couples from Rutland and Northamptonshire, some from Nottinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Leicestershire, and even one or two from Huntingdonshire and Yorkshire. This is another reason why some of the couples cannot be found in the Lincolnshire marriage indexes.
The Lincolnshire Family History Society has published these indexes for your use:
To purchase these fiche, the LFHS recommends using the Federation of Family History Societies Bookstore, which allows purchase by Credit Card. Further indexes will be published as the bonds are checked and input to database. The society is currently working on 1790. There are over 700 bonds for some years.
Alternatively, you can try the online index at English Origins. The old website has been redesigned and renamed, but there are free surname indices to various things including:
Vicar General Marriage Licence Allegations (1694-1850)
Faculty Office Marriage Licence Allegations (1701-1850)
Here's some good information about more current experience with a marriage license (Contributor's name withheld):
I got married by Special License issued by the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury (I wanted to get married in a parish where neither myself or my husband lived at the time) and can tell you that the information given is the name and address and status of the bride and groom and the place the marriage is to take place and the date the license is issued. So it actually provides less info than a marriage certificate and it won't tell you why they were married by licence and not banns.
Prior to 1754, marriage entries normally show the date of the marriage, the names of the bride and groom, their marital status, the parishes they were from, and whether performed by banns or license. The couples normally did not sign the register. Some registers only contain the date and the couple's names. It was not unusual for the man to be in his late 20s and the bride to be between 18 and 21.
Starting in 1754, the entries should now show: the date of the marriage, the names of the bride and groom, their ages (may say "of full age" if over 21), their marital status, their residences, and whether performed by banns or license. The couple had to sign or mark (with an "X") the register, as did at least two witnesses. You will often find that one or two people frequently occur as witnesses over a period of time and these were usually people affiliated with the church or neighbors to it. Most places preferred witnesses to be over 16, but in law there is no actual age limit.
After 1837, the bride and groom's father's names and occupations appear in the registers.
Most people assume that a baptism and a christening are the same. But technically they are two different religious functions. A baptism "washes away sins", and a christening is the welcoming of someone, usually a newborn, into the church and the assigning of a name so that all members can recognize the new individual. Since they normally happen together, the terms have come to be interchangeable.
Prior to 1812, baptismal entries normally show the date of christening, the name of the child, sex and the name of the parents. Rarely would the date of birth be noted, and many make the assumption that it was three weeks or so before the registry entry. However, many children were christened months or years after their birth, sometimes when the father returned from sea or work away from home. Some children were christened twice or not at all.
For a list of whom you were "forbidden" to marry, see our Consanguinity Page.
Starting in 1813 (after the George Rose Act of 1812), and sometimes even much earlier, the register entry normally contains the date of the baptism, the name of the child, the parents' names, where they lived (hamlet or parish), the father's occupation and the cleric's name.
What if the parents were unmarried? Would the father's name be listed in the parish register? Likely not. The mother may give his name and the cleric might record "reputed father", but this was not required. The father was generally known in the community because he would be responsible for the child's "maintenance." Under Civil Registration, the father had to be present in order for his name to be recorded on a birth certificate, but that is a separate process from church policy.
An illegitimate child legally took its mother's surname. Whether he or she changed it later or not was entirely up to him or her, or those acting on the child's behalf.
Baptisms were usually held in the Church of England on Sundays, but if a child was sickly and the parents feared death, the child might be baptised at any time. Some of these are recorded as "P.B." or Private Baptisms. Church law held that, in an emergency, almost anyone could perform a baptism in order to save the soul, even after the individual had died. These would often be recorded in the church register at a later date.
The Church of England had a protocol that its clergy would not baptise the dead, but in practice this happened. Often it served as a valuable aide to the grief-stricken parents that their child was free of sin and would be accepted into Heaven.
What is a "Conditional Baptism"? Fred Dawson (a parish priest) in Berkshire tells us:
Conditional baptism is still practiced today, if an adult or young person is going to be 'confirmed' into full church membership and there is doubt as to whether he/she was baptised as a child. (Record keeping as always is important; parents of baptised infants are normally given a written record of the baptism which eventually gets passed on to the 'grown-up child'. But sometimes there is no surviving written record and if both parents are dead, no-one is quite sure whether the baptism took place or not.)
The thinking is this. To be confirmed, one must first be baptised. Conditional baptism is administered with the sub-text "this only counts if it hasn't happened already". Most Christian churches other than the Baptists work on the basis that baptism is a 'once-in-a-lifetime' event and is on no account to be repeated. (To be fair, I suppose the Baptists would hold that too - it's just that they don't count 'infant baptism' as the real thing). Hence the 'conditional' nature of this particular situation.
It is still possible today to be baptised as an adult, particularly just before a marriage. If you have no proof of baptism, the clergyman may demand that you be baptised before the wedding ceremony. Just to make sure! But it is OK if you were baptised in another faith. That does not require a new baptism.
Burial registers normally contain entries on those interred in the churchyard. On rare occasions, the entry is for the memorial service only, with the burial somewhere else. In such cases the burial location is usually noted. Cremation has been around for a long time, yet would rarely be noted in a burial register.
For example: If a burial takes place in a municipal cemetery or particularly crematorium and the service is held in that chapel, then there will be no record of the event in a parish record. Unless the ashes are buried in a churchyard later, then an entry is made. Sometimes a memorial service will be listed in a parish church if held there prior to a burial in a municipal cemetery.
The minimum information that many clerics recorded prior to 1812, was the date of the burial and the name of the individual. Rarely would the date of death be noted, although you can typically assume it was within the ten days prior. So some registers are Spartan in their entries: "Buried, 14 April, John Brown", with no indication of age or relationship to anyone. If a body appeared, there was little investigative effort to identify it or to determine the age: "Buried, 14 April, a man found drowned." Reading the old registers can be a sobering experience when one finds out how often disease took a massive toll or to see firsthand that child mortality was greater than 50%.
Starting in 1812, the register entry normally contains the date of the burial, the name of the deceased, their age, where they lived (hamlet or parish) and the cleric's name. It was still not required to show relationship to anyone, although some entries may show occupation or identify a person as "wife of John Sutton."
To be buried under the Burial Laws Amendment Act of 1880 normally means that the person buried was a non-conformist; the burial service was performed by a Non-Conformist minister, but in a Church of England church, as the burial was going to take place in the churchyard. Before that time, non-conformists could not be buried in parish churchyards. See our page on Non-Conformist Church Records.
In America, they use the phrase "Six feet under" to refer to a burial. In 1977, the British Cemetery Order 1977 for Cemetery Management stated that graves be 7' for a double grave (husband and wife). A grave site is not purchased, only the right to inter someone there, and that right lasts for 75 years. Some churches with limited graveyard space have reused gravesites after their 75 years.
One of the stranger pieces of legislation was an act designed to increase the sale of wool in England, to protect the domestic wool industry. The Burial in Wool Acts of 1667 and 1678 required that all bodies were to be buried in wool only, unless they had died from the Plague, and an affidavit was sworn accordingly by the cleric. The penalty for not doing so was £5. There may have been an earlier Royal Decree, but that is unclear. Sometimes you will note entries in the registers that an individual was exempt. These Acts were repealed in 1814. Occasionally, the affidavits were kept in the Churchwarden accounts, rather than the burial register.
For more information, consult "The Family Tree Detective: Tracing your ancestors in England and Wales," Looking for Deaths, Chapter IV, pg 226. Manchester Unity Press. ISBN 0-7190-5213-0.
Most cultures mark the graves of the departed. Romans are known to have left gravestones in England, but few grave markers or monuments survive from times before the Norman Conquest in 1066. It is hard to find readable gravestones earlier than 1500 unless they are inside a church. And many prior to 1700 haven't survived weather, war and other abrasives. If you find a gravestone, feel free to photograph it, but please don't do a rubbing until you've learned the proper techniques. We want to preserve what's left as long as possible.
The majority of people buried in any churchyard did not have a headstone to mark their grave for the simple reason that the family could not afford them. [Clive Asher]
Some churchyards have had monuments removed to make way for road improvements. The monuments may be stacked to one side or laid flat and buried under new sod.
Many gravestones (traditionally called "monument inscriptions" to include plaques and memorial statues) have been indexed. Here are some notes from Fiona Poulton (edited) on the topic:
Following on about Gravestones, our little band of workers (Great Grimsby Family History Group) have indexed all Gravestones (MI's) for this part of the County. In fact they are almost complete County wise, all deposited at Lincoln Archives, but also for this part of the county at Grimsby Central library. These are very good sources, as in some instance were indexed as far back as 1982, and now are either unreadable or missing, so always check before you make the journey. We usually supply maps of the churchyard also, which enables you to find roughly were it is.
Asking for blanket searches for surnames is a little unrealistic. There are about thirty books with their own indexes at Grimsby and about 300 at Lincolnshire Archives. If you think you can find someone to wade through these books abstracting all the "Whatevers" you are wrong. But, if you were to email the library, and ask for a specific person buried at a specific graveyard they may reply...... They may!
For more information on this topic, see Anne Cole's Monument Inscription notes.
Although the family may technically own the headstone, the work of preservation and maintenance usually falls to the churchwardens. If you want a headstone cleaned or repaired, check with church authorities first. If the churchyard is "closed" for burials, the town council has likely taken over the churchyard maintenance. Many formerly upright monuments have been lain flat for safety reasons.
Memorial Cards were not church records. They were printed by the family and handed out at funerals or mailed to distant relatives. They often contain a photograph of the deceased (or a picture of an angel), place and date of death and the name of the church where the burial took place. These were privately printed and were common across Europe until about World War I. You may find some in private collections, but these were not archived.
Confirmation is the process by which a person affirms their beliefs and demonstrates their understanding of the religion and the Bible. Young people are confirmed, usually around age 13, in a church service attended by their family and others of the congregation. In some parts of Europe, the young girls wear white dresses and the boys their local finery. There may even be a parade in their honour.
In England, it is usually a low-key event, but it is considered a big day from the church's point of view. A local Bishop may attend. To be "confirmed" is a rite of passage into being accepted as an adult in the church. In some cases, gifts were given to the young adults, but these were usually Bibles or religious items.
A few adults went through this process, too. I found a distant relative in his 30s listed with a bunch of young children aged 12 to 14.
In many congregations, you were expected to be baptised into the religion in order to marry. In some cases, the local vicar might demand that you be confirmed before you could consider such an event.
Alas, finding any confirmation records can be a daunting task. Many were not saved or archived. A few have been photographed by LDS volunteers and can be found in the Family History Library at Salt Lake City. A few are in local archives. There was no law or custom establishing that these were important documents.
Confirmation Lists are often just a list of names and ages. No parents, siblings or relationships are stated.
Adoption was never a "church function". Please see Civil Registration.
Yes, there is such a document. It simply tells you that a person had received Holy Communion at their church and would be signed by the vicar and a churchwarden or two. It does not tell you where they were baptised or who their parents were. These were given to individuals, so you might find it in the family papers, but the church did not keep a copy, nor are they in the Archives unless an individual's records that were archived included one. These are generally dated between 1672 and 1828.
Pope Gregory introduced the "Gregorian" calendar in 1582 to correct a "drift" in the time of midsummer. He deducted ten days from the year 1582 to correct for errors in the Julian calendar. Most of Catholic Europe adopted the new calendar that same year.
Almost all of the Western world had converted from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian one by 1700. England was a holdout. Finally, nearly 200 years later, in 1751, Lord Chesterton introduced and had passed an Act of Parliament to change the calendar from Julian to Gregorian and to skip 11 days to bring the calendar into synchronization with the rest of Europe. There were riots all across the country because the government was taking 11 days away from people's lives. Until this act the New Year had begun on the 25th March, Lady Day. Thus 1752 began on the 1st January 1752. The 2nd September 1752 was followed by the 14th September 1752 to adjust the calendar. So you will often see dates from 1730 to 1752, where the date was from Jan. 1 to March 25th, shown as 1751/2 to indicate that they fall in different years depending on the calendar used.
Here's an interesting resource for finding Ecclesiastical Dates, like Easter in 1841 or for converting Julian to Gregorian.
Parishes are grouped together into Deaneries. Just what is a Deanery and what records are available?
Here are some additional resources you might consider:
The links for church photographs have been moved to a new page: Church Photos.
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