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The nature of parochial registration in England, 1538-1837

The nature of parochial registration in England, 1538-1837

Peter Kitson

Thomas Cromwell established the system of recording the baptisms, marriages and burials performed in each parish in England in the late 1530s. These sources have been widely exploited by population historians seeking to recover the demographic experiences of the English population from that time on through to the nineteenth century, with a great deal of success. These approaches have relied upon treating these ecclesiastical rites of passage as being substantially equivalent to the vital events of birth, entry into sexual behaviour and death. However, the broader contexts of religious change and local politics ensure that baptism could not always be related straightforwardly to birth, and that marriage could not always be related straightforwardly to the onset of sexual activity and family formation. Moreover, the content of parochial registration changed over time, with increasing levels of detail being recorded during the eighteenth century. At the same time, a growing proportion of the population was not resorting to parochial registration either through religious conscience or by simple omission. Accordingly, a series of varied research projects united by a desire to further our understanding of parochial registration are being pursued. At the same time, they seek to demonstrate that parish registers can be exploited successfully for religious, social and economic history.

Religious change and the timing of baptism

The introduction of the Book of Common Prayer in the mid-sixteenth century had a profound effect upon the timing of baptism. The medieval Church had encouraged parents to baptise their children promptly after birth. In contrast, the reformed Church sought to ensure that this rite of passage was performed publicly on Sundays and other holy days, as a means of collectively reminding the congregation of the vows made on their own behalf at their own christening. Accordingly, the distribution of baptisms across the days of the week and of the year began to reflect the sacred calendar. However, not all communities were equally assiduous in their adherence to these new requirements. Parishes in more religiously conservative areas such as parts of Lancashire and Cheshire did not adopt the new regulations until well into the seventeenth century, while other communities ministered by puritanical clerics came to abandon them at the same time. Parish registers can therefore be used as an indirect means of following adherence to one aspect of religious conformity through both space and time.


  • ‘Religious change and the timing of baptism in England, 1538-1750’, Historical Journal (accepted September 2008, subject to revisions).

When shall we marry?

Whereas the medieval church had fairly simple rules governing the timing of baptism, the constraints relating to marriage when marriage could be performed were labyrinthine. Couples were forbidden from formally celebrating their marriage in church during Lent, Advent and Rogationtide: a period covering in excess of one third of the entire calendar year. The ecclesiastical hierarchy neither formally abrogated nor approved these prohibitions following the Reformation, and they were a source of contention for some time. Using parish registers it is possible to measure adherence to these prohibitions, and they changed markedly over time. These were clearly associated with broader shifts in the climate of religious change in early modern England, as a period of decline was superseded by a return to their observance during the 1630s. However, they virtually disappeared during the period of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, before returning again to gentle decline following the restoration of the Anglican hierarchy in 1662.

The study of marriage seasonality has been used as a way of studying shifts in the composition of the agricultural labour force between servants and wage labourers, as well as for studying the emergence of regional specialisation in arable or pastoral farming, and thus the progress of market integration in England between the mid-sixteenth and mid nineteenth centuries. However, the methodology devised by Ann Kussmaul during the 1980s that underpins the study of marriage seasonality does not always yield reliable results, as the distribution of parishes between her typology of communities into different farming types is sensitive to the frequencies of marriage records for each parish register. The analysis of a large sample of marriage registers recording events between 1539 and 1548 suggest that there were indeed significant differences between the English regions at this time. The greater number of communities lacking an autumnal peak in the number of weddings in eastern England suggests either that farming there relied more extensively upon waged labour, or that the regional economy was less dependent upon agriculture, or both. This does not seem to have been the case for the English Midlands, where a substantial autumnal peak suggests a greater reliance upon service as a form of agricultural labour.

One final aspect of the timing of marriage is the day of the week upon which the ceremony was performed. This changed markedly over the course of the parish register era, as Sunday became less popular. In the early sixteenth century, around 40 per cent of all marriages were recorded as taking place on that day. However, this had declined markedly by the middle of the eighteenth century. By this time, in some industrializing parishes, Monday began to emerge as an important day for marriage. This has been identified by some historians as emblematic of the ‘St Monday’ phenomenon, signifying the comparative absence of rigid working hours throughout the week, and a low threshold for the operation of the backward-bending labour supply curve. By studying how these patterns emerged both spatially and chronologically, it will be possible to develop a deeper understanding of this process. Additionally, the use of occupational information in conjunction with parish registers will also assist in identifying which particular occupational groups were prone to marry by day of the week.

Occupational recording in the parish registers of England and Wales

While it is often assumed that the recording of occupations for those participating in the events recorded in the Anglican system of parochial registration was rare, it was in fact far more common than is perhaps realised. As part of the ESRC-funded project entitled ‘Male occupational change and economic growth in England 1750-1851’, searches for periods when the occupation of the father at baptism is consistently recorded in parish registers were undertaken for all extant parish registers in England and Wales. This demonstrated that around twenty per cent of all extant parish registers from the eighteenth century record occupational information for fathers at the baptism of their child for at least one year. Moreover, there were important regional variations in the extent to which such information was recorded. In southern England, it was comparatively rare for these details to be included in parochial registration, apart from when the Marriage Duty Act was in force at the start of the eighteenth century. However, in northern England, it was far more common for such details to be recorded for the final three quarters of this particular century, and all diocesan authorities in the province of York seem to have attempted some form of initiative to encourage the recording of occupational information as a means of improving the overall quality of parochial recording. Only one southern diocese –Norwich – seems to have pursued a similar scheme to improve the quality of recording, and that was oriented towards the recording of the mother’s maiden name at the baptism of her children.

These significant variations in the administration of parochial registration are of great importance to understanding the various nineteenth-century endeavours to reform parochial registration, as well as giving key insights into regional variations of in the social and economic structure of eighteenth-century England. The greater diversity in the occupational structure, larger parish sizes and more diffuse settlement patterns, combined with rapid population growth, ensured that the collection of this information was a useful way of differentiating between individuals within each locale. In southern England, and especially in rural areas, the rapid growth of the agricultural labouring population would ensure that there would be an insufficiency of distinctive titles to differentiate between individuals, as in many locations well over half of them would be described as labourers.

The emergence of non-conformist identities and Anglican registration, c.1780-1837

Record linkage methodologies, when applied to the use of parish registers, are usually concerned with the reconstruction of family histories. However, it is also possible to trace families’ religious identities by following parents as they baptise their children in different nonconformist churches. An ongoing project is exploring this phenomenon in the parish of Sedgley (Staffordshire). This large industrialising parish was well served by nonconformist denominations of all types: Roman Catholics, Unitarians, Congregationalists and Baptists. While some of these denominations objected violently to infant baptism, they still registered the births of their children with their respective congregations. Some exclusively used these registers, while others often flitted between different congregations, and between non-conformity and the Anglican Church. While of course it is difficult to reconstruct religious belief simply from these patterns of behaviours, it is hoped that this approach can be used to look at the processes that lead to the widespread emergence of nonconformity, as well as the decline in the quality of Anglican registration, in the industrialising communities of nineteenth century England. Moreover, the ample provision of occupational information in these registers should shed some light upon the socio-economic composition of these denominations.