Church of England parish registers are an extremely important source for British research because there are surviving records for most places and they provide very early vital record information. A great number of people are listed in parish registers because the Church of England is a state church. For example, after 1753 it was required to be married in the parish church of one of the spouses by an Anglican (Church of England) clergyman, with only the exceptions of Jewish and Quaker ceremonies. Therefore, most marriages will be found in the parish registers after this date.
The parish has long been the smallest unit of both civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction in England. Depending upon the size of the parish, it may be the same size as the town of the same name, or a parish may be made up of several small villages. In 1538, the parish minister was asked to begin keeping registers of baptisms, marriages, and burials. However, only about 700 of the approximately 11,000 existing parishes obeyed the order. Sadly, this means that most parishes will not have records that far back in time.
There are several other dates affecting the parish records to note. In 1598, Queen Elizabeth I required that registers be kept on parchment and that a copy be sent to the Bishop. Therefore, we have a second surviving copy of some registers called Bishop's Transcripts. There may be more or less information included on this copy. Sometimes, this is the only copy that survived. The Civil War (1642-1660) often meant unrecorded, missing, and destroyed registers. In 1689, there was an Act of Toleration, which gave all nonconformist groups, except Catholics, some religious freedom. Therefore, the number of nonconformist records is much greater after this date. George Rose's Act in 1812 required four separate registers for christenings, marriages, banns, and burials. Keeping these dates in mind will be helpful as you go about your searches.
The detail of information in the records varies from parish to parish:
The average christening entry contains the date, first name of child and mother, and the full name of the father. Some registers include only a name and date, while a few even contain grandparent information.
Pre-1754 marriages contained a date, indication of license or banns, and the names. Most were married by banns, which meant that their names were posted or read aloud in the church three weeks, in case there was an objection to the marriage. This was a required ritual unless the couple obtained a license. A license was more expensive, but gave greater freedom as to the where and when the marriage could take place. After 1754, marriage entries might include occupation, parish of both bride and groom, witnesses, signatures, and previous marital status.
Burial records typically give only name and date of burial, with age also added after 1780.
When searching for parish records, it may be helpful to note that the Family History Library has the greatest collection of parish registers in the United States. If you are in Britain, the Society of Genealogists has the largest collection of records. Further, the county record offices have a great number of records for their jurisdiction. Some are still kept at the parish level. To contact the parish, look in a current edition of Crockford's Clerical Dictionary for an address.
To find out what records are available for your parish of interest and where to find them you can consult the following books: National Index of Parish Registers published by the Society of Genealogists and Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers by Cecil Humphrey-Smith.