Tracing history through parish registers

I’ve spent a lot of time, in recent weeks, analysing the baptism, marriage and burial registers of Leeds in the 17th century.

All English genealogists working at intermediate level and beyond know about ‘the Interregnum’ – the period from the execution of Charles I in 1649 to the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 – and the devastating impact this can have on tracing back generations who might have been baptised, married or buried during this period. But have you ever looked at the parish registers of your parishes of interest to see how such events played out on a more general basis in the records being kept?

Before starting this particular research I contacted the local archives and was told the registers for Leeds were complete. I then started to investigate the period more fully, through background reading, and found that the Interregnum was just one of a whole series of contemporary social and political factors impacting on the town.

First, Leeds had both economical and tactical significance in the English Civil War, which began in 1642.  The Battle of Leeds took place on 23 January 1643, and while the parish burial register indicates relatively few deaths, the vicar of Leeds was forced to flee the town.  

Two years later, an outbreak of the plague wiped out one fifth of the population of the township.  The overcrowded, close-built housing, and particularly that on lower ground by the river and becks (streams) where fulling and dyehouses, and housing for the humbler clothworkers were situated, was perfect breeding ground for the disease.  In March 1645/46 the situation was so serious that the parish church was closed, and no religious rites performed there for some weeks. 

Extract from Leeds parish burial register for March 1645/46, indicating lists of numbers buried buring the plague.
Extract from Leeds parish burial register:
‘About the beginning of April 1646
came Mr Saxton to the vicar at w[hi]ch time
prayers and sermons begun againe at the
ould church then were burials taken notice of as before’

If you have a subscription with Ancestry you can see the whole of this page, and the notes on the preceding page [here].

Next came the Interregnum, which lasted from January 1649 until May 1660.  During this period the church was effectively disestablished. Moderate Anglican clergy were replaced with those of Puritan persuasion.  Custody of the parish registers was removed from the ministers and given to civil parish clerks, and solemnisation of the marriage ceremony became an entirely civil function.  Bishops (and hence Bishop’s Transcripts) were abolished, and although records were kept they were often badly organised. When Restoration came in 1660, and the role of the church returned to its pre-Interregnum position, vicars often refused to accept the validity of records handed to them by the secular clerks. 

In a practical sense baptisms did continue, but it seems the previous arrangements for local chapelries to report names of those baptised to the main parish church collapsed.

Note on Leeds parish baptism register, February 1649, in which the scribe blames parents for neglecting to report baptisms in the local chapels to the main church
Extract from Leeds parish baptism register, February 1649:
‘The most of the children baptized at the several chappelles
in this parrish for this last yeare, are not to bee found in this
book, because their careles parents neglected to bring in their
names, and therefore let the children or such as want the names
hereafter blame them, who have beene often admonished of it and
neglected it’

If you have a subscription with Ancestry you can see this note in situ [here].

Simlarly – and note that this is the same hand as above – the recording of marriages brought about much displeasure:

Note on Leeds parish register, dated October 1659, in which the clerk blames prties to marriages and other ministers for the breakdown of the marriage registers.
Extract from Leeds parish marriage regiser October 1659:
‘Those that come hereafter to search about Registering of marriages
from the 8 of June last until this present 11 of October 1659 may
take notice that the persons married within that time took the liberty
either to marry without publishing as many did or else they went to Mr
Browne Curate of the ould church and got married there and at
several chappels in the parrish without ever acquainting the Registrer
or paying him his Dues, and therefore if any occasion fall out to make
search for such they may judge who is to blame. those and many others before took the same liberty
October 1659′

If you have a subscription with Ancestry you can see this note in situ [here].

More strife followed with religious division, and persecution interspersed with periods of greater tolerance.  The population of Leeds was largely split down the middle in terms of traditional Anglican and adherents of a more hellfire-and-brimstone approach to the scriptures.  This, too, meant that at various times ardent Royalist or committed Puritan ministers in turn were ejected from the church, bringing about further disruption in the registers.

As a consequence of the above, although in terms of coverage of years it is true that the Leeds parish registers have no gaps, in terms of the content of those years, not only are there significant gaps, but also (as you can see in the two images directly above) the uniform, neat handwriting of the Interregnum years belie the fact that these are the church clerk’s later transcriptions of the contemporary notes formerly made by the civil parish clerk.  (And we all know that transcriptions may include errors and omissions.)

Even when working in later periods, when faced with a selection of potential records that don’t quite fit, it’s important to remember that record sets may be incomplete.  Records may have been lost or damaged, may not be available online, may have been mis-transcribed and indexed, or may never have existed – sometimes through clerical error at the time and sometimes because of an issue of wider application such as those outlined above.  It has been fascinating to read about these events in textbooks and then see for myself the impact on the registers, but also sad to realise that some of those life events that failed to make it onto the parish registers may have been my own missing ancestors.

If you’d like to try this for yourself
I’ve found the easiest way to browse record sets (whether that be to examine them line-by-line in search of an ancestor, or to browse them looking for the impact of historical events as I have used them above) is on Ancestry, and the easiest ‘way in’ to browse any parish register is to go to an existing record for any ancestor from that record set (already in my online tree) and then use the links at the top of the page to go to the exact parish and year I want. In the example below, the record set is for the whole of West Yorkshire for the period 1512-1812. If I click on ‘Rothwell, Holy Trinity’ I can select any other parish I need from the drop-down menu. Then if I click on the year I can change that to the one I want. From that point I can browse the whole year of baptisms, marriages or burials for the parish. After a while you can easily work out roughly where the marriages or the burials start, and go straight to the appropriate pages for each year. Obviously this will only work for you if Ancestry have a licence with the relevant archives for your parish of interest.

Screenshot from showing top of page from Rothwell parish registers and title header bar

On FindMyPast, if records from your parish of interest are on there, you can move backwards and forwards from any page for a record you already have, but this is cumbersome, and there’s no way of knowing how many more pages remain of the year you’re currently looking at before you’ll get on to the following year. However, some of the record sets are ‘browsable’, and this is an altogether better experience but not all record sets are available yet to browse in this way. The difference is that ‘browsable’ sets have a ‘filmstrip’ facility (see bottom left on image below) which you can click to open, and then whiz back and forth along the pages, quickly homing in on the pages you want.

To find these browsable record sets, select ‘Search’ from the upper menu bar, and then ‘All Record Sets’. Type ‘browse’ in the upper left hand box, and you’ll see the numbers of records reduce to just those collections that are browsable. Then, in the box below, select ‘England’, and finally type in your place of interest. I entered ‘Norfolk, England’, and from the 50 record collections available I selected ‘Norfolk Parish Registers Browse’. On the next page you enter a year range (or leave it blank) and an event (baptism, marriage, etc) or leave it blank, and then the parish. I haven’t yet found any records of interest to me that are browsable, but this will be a good facility when more are added – and you might be luckier than me.

Front cover of a 'Banns Book' showing location of link to open 'filmstrip' facility

On FamilySearch (free to use, you just need to register for an account) a huge number of images are available to browse, but not all parishes are covered, and even if your parish is, there may be gaps. To find them, from the upper menu bar, click ‘Search’, then ‘Images’. On the next page type in the name of your parish. I tried several of my parishes of interest before finding one for which images were available: Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. It may ask you to select from a few options, and then click ‘Search Image Groups’. On the next page you’ll see precisely what they have. For Great Yarmouth it was just marriage registers, with an almost complete coverage from 1794-1899, but some gaps.

It would be great to hear if you have any successes with this. Have you come across a significant event in your town and then verified it through parish records?

4 thoughts on “Tracing history through parish registers

  1. A fascinating article. These are some notes I made from the Rowley Regis (Staffordshire) Parish Register in the Commonwealth period

    12Mar 1654 William DOBBES, minister, buried.

    Thesenames of Birthes, Burials and Marriages above mentioned were entredin another paper booke by Mr Dobbes & written out in this as itwas entred by him.

    Stafford.At Wolverhampton the 20th day of March 1654.

    OTempora! Memorandum that Josias ROCKE, of Rowly Regis, was this daysworne before us by virtue of the Act of Parliament of the 24thof August 1653, to execute the office of Parrish Registor for Rowlyaforesaid according to his best skill and knowledge & accordingto the said Act so longe as hee shall continue in the said office.

    Witnessour handds the day and yeare above written.



    Staff.At Walsall, ye 22th June 1657.

    Beitt remembred that William WHITTORNE, of Rowley Regis, in ye saidcounty was this day sworne before mee to execute ye office of parrishRegister there according to ye forme of a late Act of Parliamt.Intituled An Act touching Marriages and the Registring thereof andtouching birthes and burialls soe long as hee shall continue in yesaid office.

    Witnessmy hand ye day and yeare above written.



    Severalpages of births, baptisms and burials follow. This marriage record isthe most detailed of those recorded and shows the effort required tobe married under the new system. Some of the marriages, starting in1655, had notice published in the church on three Sundays but otherswent through a more elaborate procedure.

    JohnMARTINE, of Rowly, Co. Stafford, Joyner, & Joyce COLBURNE, d. ofJohn COLBURNE, of Rowly, Gentleman, was published in the market towneof Walshall (being conceived to bee the next market towne to the pishchurch of Rowly afforesaid) three market dayes sevrally each afterother between the howers of Eleaven & two of ye Clocke (that isto say) the 14th, 21th and 28 dayes of August 1655,without contradiction of any. As by the Certificate of the pishRegister of Walshall doth appeare. The said John MARTINE & JoiceCOLEBURNE ABOVENAMED WERE DECLARED Husband and Wife Sept 29 1655

    Bymee, Hen Stone.

    Thereare then several pages of ‘marriages performed by theseMagistrates Wyrley and Stone, most of which say that they were performed at Hampsted (by Wyrley),a few at Walsall or Kidderminster (13 miles away). This must have been really daunting for ordinary folk in this humble village, I suspect many of them would never have left the village before. And there would not have been much public transport in those days. 

    Notethat Walsall (9 miles away) and not Dudley (less than 4 miles away)was deemed to be the closest market town, presumably because Dudley (which was and remains a busy market town) was in Worcestershire and Rowley was in Staffordshire!

    Iwas puzzled by the references to Hampsted as I wasn’t familiar withthis place, despite having grown up in Rowley Regis. The only Hamstead I could find anywhere near was on theHandsworth border, more than seven miles away from Rowley and not on a known route. I couldn’twork out for years why marriages should have taken place there. Then, while Iwas reading “A Birth, a Death and a Barrellage” by Kate Creedwhich is about Ridgacre at Quinton, she commented in connection withsome land transactions

    “TheWyrleys were the earliest family recorded as being seated atHamstead. They came from Little Wyrley and although some of them werereferred to as ‘de Hamstede’, they finally adopted the name deWyrley. They continued to hold Hamstead for generations and becamethe largest landholders in Handsworth.”

    Sothat was why so many Rowley marriages took place in Hamstead, JohnWyrley, who was one of the magistrates appointing the Register rightback at the beginning, lived there and anyone wanting to be marriedhad to go through the rigmarole of giving notice at Walsall for three consecutive market days, obtain a certificate to this effect  and then travel to him in Hamsted or another magistrate. Imagine the nuisance for really poor folk who had to missa days work and walk a fifteen mile round trip, instead of being ableto be married in the parish church – one suspects quite a lot justdidn’t bother! And if they did go, did their families go with them to attend the wedding?  By 1658 there is no mention of where the marriagestook place and by 1659 it seems that some marriages were happening inchurches again, but it isn’t absolutely clear.

    Thisalso seems to have given rise to a number of families in Rowley beingknown by aliases as later priests refused to acknowledge any marriageswhich had taken place during the Commonwealth period (or not!) so the childrenwere given the surname of their mother, alias the name of theirfather. I suspect a lot of men would have been really peeved that their children were denied their name and some of the aliases continued in use for several generations. Little wonder that the puritans with their new-fangled requirements were unpopular.  As you say, it is most interesting to be able to read the original registers.  Kind regards, Glenys


    • That’s fascinating Glenys. Your notes have far more information than mine about the actual procedures and by implication, the impact on the people, whereas mine are written from the perspective of the Church parish clerk who was cross at the impact on his records! I wonder what the impact was of the Church refusing to acknowledge the children as legitimate. It could have impacted on Settlement examinations, breaking up a family, and also perhaps on inheritance rights. I’ll bet there is much to learn from reading different parish records from this period and combining/ comparing the information in them.


  2. Context is definitely important in our work – so often it’s easy to forget that while on the hunt for names and dates. I too love to browse parish registers, but admit, I don’t always go back as far as I should to get the full sense of the history of the parish.

    Re: FamilySearch – I also find it helpful to use the Place search in the catalogue – for instance:
    England, Cambridgeshire, Guilden-Morden
    brings up all the record sets available for that location, even those that haven’t been indexed. Too many times, the Images search hasn’t revealed records that at Place search does.


    • Thank you Teresa. I’ve tried what you suggest. You mean click on Search then Catalog and then input place name? I’ve used this many times before to get a list of records and books, etc, and then sometimes found some of them on Internet Archive as transcripts. But I’ve just tried again as you suggest, and I don’t find any images of parish registers this way, even though there may be a lot of listings. I tried restricting to Online results, but still nothing returned was available online for me to browse, although I think they would be available at my local FamilySearch history centre. Have I misunderstood or perhaps gone in via the wrong route?


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