Church records are your most important tool when searching for ancestors in England. Records of the Church of England (the state church) began in 1538 and were the only records of life events until 1837, when the government began recording births, marriages, and deaths. So, if you are doing genealogical research in England, you will certainly want to use church records! In this article, I will explain some church record basics, including how to find indexes, what church records contain, and where to find the records today.
First some basics...
Each English county is divided into many parishes, or villages with a church and a clergyman. Beginning in 1538, the clergyman or minister was required to keep a record of all christenings, marriages, and burials that took place in the parish. The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers (Cecil R. Humphrey-Smith, editor, Chichester: Phillimore) contains the best maps of parishes by county. A list of parishes in each county can be found at www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHLC/frameset_fhlc.asp (go to "place search," type in your county of interest, and then click on "view related places").
Searching church records gives you invaluable information but can be very time-consuming. So, the best thing to do before searching church registers is to look for an index. The LDS Church (www.mormon.org) has extracted christening and marriage information from many of these records. This information is available online in a database called the International Genealogical Index (IGI). To find this information, go to www.familysearch.org, click on "search for ancestors" and then search the database for your ancestor. If you would like to know whether records for your ancestor's parish were extracted and for what years, go to www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHLC/frameset_fhlc.asp, click on "place search" and type in your ancestor's parish. Then go to "church records - indexes." Here you will see dates for parish records that were extracted and whether those records were of christenings or marriages.
Another valuable index is the British Vital Records Index. This also contains records extracted from christening and marriage records. It is not available on the internet but can be used for free at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and the index can be ordered on compact disc at www.ldscatalog.com. A list of the number of records included for each county in the British Isles is found at www.genoot.com/downloads/BVRI2/.
Other family history societies and individuals are working to index church records. See www.ffhs.org.uk for information.
What church records contain...
When searching church records, you will come across three different record types: parish registers, bishop's transcripts, and archdeacon's transcripts. The clergyman of the parish kept parish registers. Baptisms or christenings, marriages, and burials were generally kept separately, although some were "composite registers" and kept all together. Beginning in 1598, ministers were required to send copies of their parish registers to the bishop of the diocese. Some copies were sent to the archdeacon. These copies are what are referred to as "bishop's transcripts" or "archdeacon's transcripts." These records were generally copied once a year from the parish registers and include baptisms, marriages, and burials together on the same page. Parish registers are the best records to search. These were not copied from another register like bishop's or archdeacon's transcripts and thus have fewer chance of errors. Also, bishop's and archdeacon's transcripts are often missing years, especially during a civil war period from 1642-1660. The Family History Library Catalog will usually indicate which years are missing.
"Christening" referred to infant baptism, although some persons were christened later in life. A christening usually took place from a few days to a few weeks after a child's birth. A christening date is not the same thing as a birth date, but is often the closest date you will find to an ancestor's birth date before 1837. Christening or baptism records will generally include the child's given name and surname, the father's and often the mother's name (but no maiden name of the mother), and the date. After 1812, the parents' residence, such as a street name, is included in the record.
Before 1754, marriage entries generally included only the names of those being married and the date of marriage. Often the clerk would record a person's parish of residence if it was not the one in which he or she was being married (although a person only needed to reside in a parish for a few weeks to be considered "of the parish"). After 1754, a person's status at marriage was included, whether "bachelor" (single man), "spinster" (single woman), or "widow." The couple and two witnesses to the marriage would sign the register•these witnesses were often relatives so keep a look-out for this. An'x' and "his mark" or "her mark" near a person's name meant that he or she did not know how to sign his or her own name.
Burials generally took place within a week after a person died. As with christening dates, burial dates are not the same as death dates, but will most likely be the closest date you will have for a death date before 1837. It is common for the age at burial to be given after 1812.
Some parishes were too large to be covered by just one minister. These contained one or more chapelries, which kept separate records of christenings, marriages, and burials. If your ancestor lived in a parish with a chapelry, be sure to check those records as well. To find out if this was the case, either look at The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers, or look for chapelry records under "church records" for your parish in the Family History Library Catalog.
Where to find church records today...
The LDS Church has microfilmed most records of the Church of England. You can use these for free at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah or you can have the films delivered to your local Family History Center for a small shipping fee. These are located worldwide and the location of one nearest you can be found at: www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHC/frameset_fhc.asp. If you are researching in England, church records are found through local record offices. Look for information on these record offices at www.genuki.org.uk.
We have just covered a few of the basics here and much more could be said about church records. Something to remember is that your ancestors may not have been members of the Church of England (we call them "non-conformist"), so look for them in other church records as well if you don't find them in parish registers. Good luck and good hunting.