PARISH REGISTERS were instituted in England by an order of Thomas Cromwell, as vicegerent to Henry VIII., " supreme hedd undre Christ of the Church of Englande," in September 1538. The idea appears to have been of Spanish origin, Cardinal Ximenes having instituted, as archbishop of Toledo, registers of baptisms in 1497. They included, under the above order, baptisms, marriages and burials, which were to be recorded weekly. In 1597 it was ordered by the Convocation of Canterbury that parchment books should be provided for the registers and that transcripts should be made on parchment of existing registers on paper, and this order was repeated in the 7Oth canon of 1603. The transcripts then made now usually represent the earliest registers. It was further provided at both these dates that an annual transcript of the register should be sent to the bishop for preservation in the diocesan registry, which was the origin of the " bishop's transcripts." The " Directory for the publique worship of God," passed by parliament in 1645, provided for the date of birth being also registered, and in August 1653, an Act of " Barebones' Parliament " made a greater change, substituting civil " parish registers " (sic) for the clergy, and ordering them to record births, banns, marriages and burials. The " register " was also to publish the banns and a justice to perform the marriage. The register books were well kept under this civil system, but at the Restoration the old system was resumed.
A tax upon births, marriages and burials imposed in 1694 led to the clergy being ordered to register all births, apart from baptisms, but the act soon expired and births were not again registered till 1836. Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act (1754), by its rigid provisions, increased the registration of marriages by the parochial clergy and prescribed a form of entry. In 1812 parish registers became the subject of parliamentary enactment, owing to the discovery of their deficiencies. Rose's Act provided for their safer custody, for efficient bishops, transcripts, and for uniformity of system. This act continued to regulate the registers till their supersession for practical purposes, in 1837, by civil registration under the act of 1836.
In age, completeness and condition they vary much. A blue book on the subject was published in 1833, but the returns it contains are often inaccurate. A few begin even earlier than Cromwell's order, the oldest being that of Tipton, Staffs, (1513). Between 800 and 900, apparently, begin in 1538 or 1539. The entries were originally made in Latin, but this usage died out early in the 17th century: decay and the crabbed handwriting of the time render the earlier registers extremely difficult to read. There is general agreement as to the shocking neglect of these valuable records in the past, and the loss of volumes appears to have continued even through the 19th century. Their custody is legally vested in the parochial clergy and their wardens, but several proposals have been made for their removal to central depositories. The fees for searching them are determined by the act of 1836, which prescribes half a crown for each certified extract, and sixpence a year for searching, with a shilling for the first year.
The condition of the " bishops' transcripts " was, throughout, much worse than that of the parish registers, there being no funds provided for their custody. The report on Public Records in 1800 drew attention to their neglect, but, in spite of the provisions in Rose's Act (1812), little or nothing was done, and, in spite of their importance as checking, and even sometimes supplementing deficient parish registers, they remained " unarranged, unindexed and unconsultable." Of recent years, however, some improvement has been made. It has also been discovered that transcripts from " peculiars " exist in other than episcopal registries.
Outside the parochial registers, which alone were official in character, there were, till 1754, irregular marriage registers, of which those of the Fleet prison are the most famous, and also registers of private chapels in London. Those of the Fleet and of Mayfair chapel were deposited with the registrargeneral, but not authenticated. The registers of dissenting chapels remained unofficial till an act of 1840 validated a number which had been authenticated, and was extended to many others in 1858. Useful information on these registers, now mostly deposited with the registrar-general, will be found in Sims' Manual, which also deals with those of private chapels, of English settlements abroad preserved in London, and with English Roman Catholic registers. These last, however, begin only under George II. and are restricted to certain London chapels.
The printing of parish registers has of late made much progress, but the field is so vast that the rate is relatively slow. There is a Parish Register Society, and a section of the Harleian Society engaged on the same work, as well as some county societies and also one for Dublin. But so many have been issued privately or by individuals that reference should be made to the lists in Marshall's Genealogist's Guide (1893) and Dr Cox's Parish Registers (1910), and even this last is not perfect. The Huguenot Society has printed several registers of the Protestant Refugees, and Mr Moens that of the London Dutch church. There are also several registers of marriages alone now in print, such as that of St Dunstan's, Stepney, in 3 vols. Colonel Chester's extensive MS. collection of extracts from parish registers is now in the College of Arms, London, and the parishes are indexed in Dr Marshall's book. MS. extracts in the British Museum are dealt with in Sims' Manual.
In Scotland registers of baptisms and marriages were instituted by the clergy in 1551, and burials were added by order of the Privy Council in 1616; but these were very imperfectly kept, especially in rural parishes. Yet it was not till 1854 that civil registration was introduced, by act of parliament, in their stead. Some 900 parish registers, beginning about 1563, have been deposited in the Register House, Edinburgh, under acts of parliament which apply to all those prior to 1819. Mr Hallen has printed the register of baptisms of Muthill Episcopal Church.
In Ireland, parish registers were confined to the now disestablished church, which was that of a small minority, and were, as in Scotland, badly kept. Although great inconvenience was caused by this system, civil registration of marriages, when introduced in 1844, was only extended to Protestants, nor was it till 1864 that universal civil registration was introduced, great difficulty under the Old Age Pensions Act being now the result. No provision was made, as in Scotland, for central custody of the registers, which, both Anglican and Nonconformist, remain in their former repositories. Roman Catholic registers in Ireland only began, apparently, to be kept in the 19th century.
In France registers, but only of baptism, were first instituted in 1539. The Council of Trent, however, made registers both of baptisms and of marriages a law of the Catholic Church in 1563, and Louis XIV. imposed a tax on registered baptisms and marriages in 1707.
See Burn, The History of Parish Registers (1829, 1862); Sims, Manual for the Genealogist (1856, 1888); Chester Waters, Parish Registers in England (1870, 1882, 1887); Marshall, Genealogist's Guide (1893); A. M. Burke, Key to the Ancient Parish Registers (1908) ; J. C. Cox, Parish Registers of England (1910) ; W. D. Bruce, Account . . . of the Ecclesiastical Courts of Record (1854); Bigland, Observations on Parochial Registers (1764); Report of the Commissioners on the state of Registers of Births, etc. (1838); Lists of Nonparochial Registers and Records in the custody of the RegistrarGeneral (1841); Report on Non-parochial Registers (1857); Detailed List of the old Parochial Registers of Scotland (1872). (j. H. R.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)