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Understanding Church of England Hierarchy For Your Genealogy Research

Church of England HierarchyUnderstanding Church of England Hierarchy For Your Genealogy Research

When using documents such as Parish Registers, Bishops Transcripts, pre 1858 Wills and Probate it is important to understand the Church of England Hierarchy as this can help you know where documents might be held and which databases to look for online. We will start with the smallest unit and work our way up to the top which is how you should conduct your search when looking for documents. The explanation below is a simplified version as this is a very complex subject with lots of exceptions and variations, but generally all you need to know is below!

Church of England Hierarchy

Parish – The parish is the smallest unit in the Church of England Hierarchy and the clergy allocated to the parish will oversee the day to day duties. Each parish will have a main church, but may also have one or more chapels also known as chapels of ease. Some counties have a much larger number of chapels than others such as Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cheshire and of course London. The parish registers of the main church may or may not include the baptism, marriage and burial registers of the chapels. Some chapels did not have burial grounds. Usually when reading the registers of the main church it is clear that some ceremonies were conducted at the chapels.

A small number of parishes are known as “peculiars” and these may consist of just one parish or a group of parishes. They did not come under the jurisdiction of the Archdeacon and/or the Bishop of the Diocese. They could come under the management of the Dean of a Cathedral, a university or the Monarch. Peculiar parishes had special privileges such as being about to prove wills and receive the fees payable for such work undertaken by the Peculiar Court.

Rural Deaneries – Rural deaneries are made up of a number of parishes and is headed by a rural dean who oversees the the vicars and rectors of the parishes which make up the rural deaneries. Not all parishes come under a rural deanery.

Archdeaconries – Archdeaconries are made up of a number of rural deaneries and is overseen by an Archdeacon who oversees the rural deans in his area.

Diocese – A diocese is a number of parishes grouped together and is overseen by a number of clergy who all answer to the Bishop who heads Church of England Hierarchythe diocese. The diocese is based in the town where the Bishop’s Cathedral is situated. Some dioceses, but not all, include one or more archdeaconries.

Province and Diocese of Canterbury & the Province and Diocese of York  – The province and diocese of Canterbury has jurisdiction over thirty of the forty two dioceses that make up the Church of England. The remaining twelve are under the jurisdiction of the Province of York. The head of the province of Canterbury is the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the province of York is the Archbishop of York. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the senior of the two Archbishop and has the greater power.

Church of England HierarchyWhy Is It Important To Know About The Church of England Hierarchy?

The reason why you need to have at least a brief understanding of the Church of England Hierarchy is because the church not only conducted religious ceremonies and kept records from 1538 of baptisms, marriages and burials they also held courts where those who were accused of committing misdemeanors could be tried and where wills could be proved and probate administered. All of this attracted fees and fines and as you can imagine this was  a very important source of income for the church as well as enabling them to wheeled considerable power within the country. In fact for many centuries the power of the church was secondary only to the power of the monarch.

We are all familiar with parish registers, but the church generated an enormous amount of paperwork that is of great interest to the genealogist and I am pleased to say that more and more of these documents are beginning to become available online.

I’ll write another day about the various records that you might find in a Church Court. There are lots of them and it will be fun teaching you all about them. All levels of society had interaction with the church courts so the records are very worthwhile searching as I can guarantee that some of your ancestors will be named in them! In the meantime you might like to read my posts on parish registers, the most basic of church records.

Parish Registers – Baptisms

Parish Registers – Marriages

Parish Registers – Burials

English Parish Registers Online – Worksheet

English Parish Registers Online – Where To Find Them

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