King Henry VIII and the colourful history of the parish register…

by Laura Manning.

The Blackmore Vale Family History Group welcomed the secretary of the Somerset and Dorset Family History Society to open its new season of talks at The Exchange, Sturminster Newton, when Ted Udall gave an entertaining and illuminating presentation on ‘Parish Registers: A Social History’.
It is hard to overestimate the amount of information contained in these registers but, as Ted explained, they are ‘not the whole truth’.

Henry VIII introduced the registers in 1538 after he became Head of the Church of England and incumbents were ordered to record baptisms, marriages and deaths. However, widespread scepticism surrounded the order – perhaps it was to herald a new tax? The official explanation was to ensure that lines of sanguinity were adhered to – certain relationships were not permitted then which are not regarded as problematic nowadays. As always, laws were easier to enforce in London than in more far-flung parts of the country. And, as ever, local people devised ways to pay lip service to the decree – while, generally, ignoring it.
From time to time, laws were enacted requiring every entry into the new register to incur a charge – this was waived for paupers and thus a generous minister was sometimes inclined to write the letter P next to entries, which indicated that the family was unable to pay the fee. Penalties were levied against defaulters with half of the fine being paid to the informant.

Under the Henry VIII law, clergy were required to enter the details of all church activities into their register on a Sunday, after the morning service. However, weddings, funerals and baptisms could have happened at any time throughout the week – it is probable that many entries were not made and were forgotten about due to adherence to the Law.
Ted showed examples of register entries – including one from Gillingham in which the vicar confirmed that the unfortunate person who had committed ‘self-murder’ was interred, as the law required, away from the main church burial ground between the hours of 9pm and midnight. However, by this time (1834), the requirement to drive a stake through the heart had been repealed.

The vicar was extremely rude in this entry from 1742 in the Shillingstone Parish Register about two people he had just married

The vicar was extremely rude in this entry from 1742 in the Shillingstone Parish Register about two people he had just married

It is worthwhile taking the time to translate any Latin phrases and entries researchers may find in a parish register – at a time when few people could read or write in English, the clerics felt safe in inserting sometimes scurrilous remarks into the register. Several humorous examples were given – including one from Shillingstone Parish Register in which the vicar was exceedingly rude – in English – about two people he had just married.
It was not until 1753 that the format of recording marriages was standardised and parishes were obliged to record more than the bare facts, for example, not just the names of the people getting married. As the church was required to buy these special books from the Government, many preferred to use every page of their current register – although most did, then, enter all the required details. Marriages could now only take place by banns or by licence – and this had to be noted. The names of witnesses were also required, along with the names of the fathers of both the bride and the groom.

These details make family history research much easier, of course.
Ted explained where parish registers are now kept and how they may be accessed – although some were destroyed during the Civil War. He said ‘typos’ are a feature of any modern transcription – his advice was to read the transcription and compare with the original document, if possible.

• The group’s next meeting is on Wednesday 19 October at 7pm in The Exchange – an earlier start than usual. The speaker, Dr Penny Walters, who is attached to Bristol University, will talk about UK censuses from 1801 to the present. Members are looking forward to hearing about the 1921 census taken after the First World War and the flu epidemic – the data from this was only released this year. Further details from or Felicity Harrison on 01258 472942.

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