Parish Marriage Registers
Parish Marriage Registers. In my post “Parish Chest Records “ I promised I would write more about each set of documents likely to be found in the Parish Chest. I am breaking the topic of parish registers into three posts; Baptisms, Marriages and Burials as I would like you to know the background to each so that you can approach searching parish registers with a good knowledge of the records and thereby get the most out of your researching.
This post is about the parish marriage registers, the when they started, why they were created and where to find them online.
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Parish Registers – Why and When did they start to be kept?
In 1538 after the split with the Roman Catholic Church Henry 8th Vicar General, Thomas Cromwell, sent out an edict that every parish priest must keep a record of each baptism, marriage and burial that took place in their parish. With some reluctance the parish clergy complied and as there had been no instruction as to how these records were to be kept some noted the events on loose sheets of parchment rather than a bound book. The parchment sheets would have been expensive to buy, but not as costly as a bound book and for many parishes this would be a major consideration. The entries were to be written at the end of each week in the presence of the Churchwardens. The records were to be kept in a coffer with two locks, one key to be kept by the priest and the other by the churchwardens. A fine was levied if the parish failed to comply.
By the time Elizabeth 1st came to the throne it was recognised that the parish records may have been recorded, but they weren’t being kept in an orderly manner by many parishes. In 1598 another ruling went out to the clergy that the parish must purchase a ‘great decent book of parchment’ and the previous entries “especially from the first year of Her Majesty’s reign” (1558) were to be copied into the new registers. As you can imagine some clergy only did the minimum and copied the entries from 1558, other entered all the entries from the loose sheets of parchment that they could find, whilst those parishes who had purchased a parchment book at the start in 1538 were very smug as they didn’t have to do anything at all!
The events were to be recorded in the register in the presence of two churchwardens once a week and then read out after Sunday evensong so that the whole parish knew what had occurred and no doubt so that any errors could be corrected. The books were to be kept in the parish chest which was now to have three locks, keys held by the Vicar and two churchwardens.
It was also at this time that Bishop Transcripts were to be made and sent each month (some parishes only sent them in yearly) to the Bishop at the local diocesan. These B.T’s as they are often called are a valuable source of information if the original registers have not survived. B.T’s may also have additional notes which aren’t recorded in the parish registers so are always worth searching.
It should also be noted that many parish registers have gaps during the Commonwealth Period 1653 – 1660 and some may have missing entries even earlier. A local resident was appointed at the time to record births, marriages and deaths. Sometimes the parish registers were used for this purpose, other times a new book was used. Plus to add to the confusion the person in charge of recording these events was called the Parish Register. I will cover the Commonwealth Period in a separate post.
Parish Marriage Registers
Marriages were important events to be recorded once the parish started writing down the ceremonies that occurred in the parish church. Marriage bestowed legitimacy on any children born to the couple and featured in the probating of estates. In some ways recording marriages was the most important entries in the parish register. From 1538 – 1754 the names of both the the bride and groom was recorded and often nothing else apart from the date of the event. If one or both parties were from another parish then this was usually, but not always noted.
In the early period entries were written in Latin, but do not be put off by this as there are several genealogy latin primers which can help with the task. I use two books, the first is Latin For Local and Family Historians by Denis Stuart and the other is A Latin Glossary for Family and Local Historians by Janet Morris. By 1733 it was decided that entries should be in English rather than Latin, but by then most of the registers were already being written in English.
Parish Marriage Registers Law
Marriages were subject to certain rules and restrictions. Banns had to be read on 3 consecutive Sundays prior to a marriage so that if they was a reason why the couple shouldn’t marry it could be brought to the attention of the church. If the couple or their families didn’t want banns to be read or there wasn’t the time a licence could be purchased from the diocese. This licence dictated where and when the marriage took place and also required a bond to be sworn that there was no impediment why the marriage shouldn’t happen. Parents had to consent to marriages where a bride or groom was under the age of 21 years. The minimum age of the groom had to be 14 years and the bride 12 years. Most people married in the parish church of either the bride or groom after banns were called.
Marriages where these regulations weren’t complied with were referred to as “irregular” or “clandestine” marriages. The ceremonies took place in institutions like the Fleet and King’s Bench Prisons, where clergy, who were in prison for debt, were very happy to make an income and therefore take a step towards paying off their outstanding bills and regaining their freedom. Some of these clerics although in prison were allowed to live outside the gates in areas that were called the liberties. Being allowed to live in the liberties meant that a payment had to be made to the prison warders so yet another reason to make an income as and when an opportunity to do so presented itself.
There was an attempt to stop clandestine marriages in 1711, but whilst it may have halted marriages within the prison walls it had no effect outside them.
Ancestry has indexed images of the Clandestine Marriage and Baptism Registers for London 1667-1754 which are held at The National Archives, Kew under reference number RG 7. These registers record marriages and baptisms that occurred in the Fleet Prison, King’s Bench Prison, the Mint Liberty and the May Fair Chapel. A history of the Fleet Registers is available for free download at Internet Archive – Click Here.
All in all a confusing situation which continued until Lord Hardwick decided enough was enough!
Lord Hardwick’s Marriage Act of 1754 came into effect to prevent these irregular and clandestine marriages. There had been numerous scandals where heiress were said to have been kidnapped and forced into marriage against their and their guardians will. In some cases how reluctant the heiress was is a matter of speculation. The new act demanded that only formal ceremonies were to be accepted as legal marriages and almost overnight the business of marrying without the benefit of clergy was stopped. The act also required that banns and marriages were to be recorded in a separate register from baptisms and burials. Preprinted books were usually, but not always, used from this time onward. This is a great help for genealogists as these registers are much easier to read and search.
Parish Marriage Registers – after 1837
Marriage and marriage registers remained unchanged until 1837 when the recording of the three major life events were taken on by the government. The church would still record the ceremonies of baptism, marriages and burials, but it was now required that records of births, marriages and deaths were to be kept so that a true idea of the rise and fall of population numbers and the legality of claims to be married could be more closely monitored.
The only event that both Church and Government were interested in was marriages and it was decided that preprinted books were to be distributed to all churches to be filled in at the time of the marriage. Two identical books were filled in at the time of the marriage. Then one of the books would be send in due course to the local registrar who in turn would send them to the central General Register Office. At this time marriages could also take place in the local registrar’s office, so check the GRO Marriage Index if you can’t find a marriage occurring in the parish church.
The marriage registers that are used in churches to this day are almost identical to those issued for the first time in July
Parish Marriage Registers – India
I just want to mention quickly, I will write an in-depth post in the future about the British in India, about the marriage records that are available online for the British in India. FindMyPast have a British India Office Marriages Collection which is made up of records held at the British Library and transcriptions compiled by the Families in British India Society. the Church of England has a presence in India during the Victorian period and earlier. If you have lost a marriage and you think it may have occurred in India then FindMyPast is the place to look.
Both Ancestry and FindMyPast have parish register indexes, transcripts and images online. It can be confusing which company has entered into an agreement with which county archives to digitise the parish registers. Because of this difficulty I wrote a post “English Parish Registers Online – Who Has Which Counties?” which I suggest you check to see where the parish registers you seek are available online. I will keep that post updated and reissued as changes occur.
There are websites like FamilySearch and FreeReg that offer indexes and transcriptions online for free. Whilst these can be very helpful, especially when there aren’t any other online sources for the parish you wish to search, I strongly advise always reading the original register yourself as it is only human that errors in transcripts and indexing will occur. Likewise if a search on Ancestry or FindMyPast brings up a nil result then search the original parish register images yourself page by page over the time period and in the parish where you think the marriage should have happened. Both FindMyPast and Ancestry also have transcripts and indexes online especially when they do not hold the original register images.
Parish Marriage Registers – Summary
I hope this brief run down of parish marriage registers has given you a better understanding of what to expect when you are searching for a marriage. It is vital to know as much as possible about why a record was created and how it was recorded when you are creating your family history, also it makes the search that much more interesting.
The next post in this series will be on Parish Burial Registers and then one on Bishops Transcripts.