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English Parish Registers

The recording of what the Americans call ‘vital statistics’ – the bare events of birth, marriage and death or, in the case of parish registers, baptism, marriage and burial – is something we now take for granted. We fret if our ancestors – through negligence, non-conformity, or being in the wrong parish at the wrong time –evaded that official with the quill pen. We might sometimes spare a thought for the men who invented, designed and developed these crucial records, which in themselves are an expression of the close and sometimes bitter relationship between church and state in English history.

Those of us with English ancestry – or whose livelihoods depend upon the discovery of it – have the formidable Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell (ca 1485 to 1540) to thank for the establishment of parish record-keeping so early in our history.

Cromwell’s own family history was startling; he rose to high office from inauspicious origins. His father Walter Cromwell, a clothier and blacksmith of Putney, was a heavy drinker who owned his own brewery and inn. Walter was frequently summoned to the manorial court for misdemeanours and he was eventually evicted from his property after being convicted of fraudulently altering tenancy documents.

By the 1530s, self-educated, well-travelled and full of religious zeal, his son Thomas Cromwell had established himself first as right hand man to Cardinal Wolsey and then to King Henry VIII himself. The story of his extraordinary career has enjoyed a recent revival through the award-winning novels by Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (the trilogy will be completed by the yet-to-be-published The Mirror and the Light) and he is soon to take the stage in a double Royal Shakespeare production based on Mantel’s novels, which will run concurrently with a BBC drama series in which Mark Rylance plays the great statesman.

Sir Thomas Cromwell (Wenceslas Hollar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sir Thomas Cromwell (Wenceslas Hollar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1535, having engineered the King’s position as supreme head of the English church, of which he was now Vicar-General, Cromwell turned upon the church his unique combination of religious and administrative zeal. The Valor Ecclesiasticus, a national census of church lands and wealth, was completed within a year, a bureaucratic masterpiece. At the same time he was determined that every parish church in the land should have a copy of the Bible in English, and this was for the good of the soul, not the royal powerhouse or coffers. Indeed, Cromwell contributed handsomely from his own purse towards the publication of Coverdale’s English Bible.

Those on the receiving end of Cromwell’s enthusiasm found it difficult to separate the religious from the bureaucratic. When his order went out, in September 1538, that every parish priest should keep a weekly record of ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’, many parishes ignored it, risking the fine of 3s 4d; they suspected, with traditional English cynicism, that something more sinister than historical record-keeping was afoot. Anger at the suppression of the monasteries was mingled with fear that the state might have similar designs on parish churches. At the very least, it seemed more than likely that this amassing of personal data was the prelude for some new tax.

The original order, which was to create for England an unprecedented wealth of information about families from the humblest to the highest, was to:

‘Keep one book or register, wherein ye shall write the day and year of every wedding, christening, and burying, made within your parish for your time.’

The book was to be kept secure in the parish chest with keys held by the incumbent and the churchwardens.

geograph-550586-by-Bob-Embleton parish chest

16th century parish chest at St Mary, Kempley, Gloucestershire: © Copyright Bob Embleton and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

Such was the lack of clerical enthusiasm that a second decree had to be passed in 1547, this time adding the stipulation that the fine should benefit the poor, for Cromwell was also concerned with social reform, and his Poor Relief legislation of 1536 was the first attempt of the state to address poverty on a parochial basis.

On 18 April 1540 Cromwell, who had already been elevated to the peerage, was created Earl of Essex; but his fortunes were already on a grim and downward path.  His reforming zeal had far overtaken that of his King; his involvement in the fiasco of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves had lost him the monarch’s trust; and in Tudor politics there were few exits from such high public office that were not bloody and brutal.  On 28 July 1540 the newly created Earl walked to the scaffold, charged with heresy and treason, and suffered a particularly gruelling execution.[1]  He left his King and country many legacies; but for the genealogist, those yellowing register books in the parish chest were among the most precious.



[1] Howard Leithead, ‘Cromwell, Thomas, earl of Essex (b. in or before 1485, d. 1540)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009.