Parish registers can take us back further in time than census and civil registration documents.
Church of England registers of baptisms, marriages and burials have been kept since the mid sixteenth century although not all of the earliest registers have survived and there are usually gaps during the civil war and commonwealth period of the 1640s and 1650s.
These registers are still kept, the current books will be held at the appropriate church and when full (unless the church has a fire-proof, bomb-proof, damp-proof, vermin-proof safe) they are deposited with the diocesan archives, which are usually also the county archives/record office.
In practice this means that virtually all of the extant completed registers are now in the custody of a local archive and most will have been filmed which means that access to them is very much easier and, importantly, they do not get damaged from general wear and tear. Much of the filming was undertaken by the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and copies of those films are available for viewing in LDS Family History Centres around the world for a nominal fee and free on their Family Search website.
If the register you are interested in has been filmed by the LDS and has a batch number which can be identified on Hugh Wallis’s website you can view any entries from that register; every entry or just the surname(s) you are interested in.
Many parish registers have been transcribed by various individuals and Family History Societies and the transcripts are available on film, fiche, CD or on-line from a variety of sources, and some registers have been digitized and can be viewed online.
The form of wording in the early registers was not proscribed and very often only minimal information, name and date, was recorded. Some are beautifully written but others leave a lot to be desired! Old handwriting takes practice to read.
Baptisms should record the child’s name and the names of its parents although some earlier records only name the father and most illegitimate children only have the mother’s name recorded. Baptism could occur at any time after the birth and it is not unusual to find several siblings of different ages baptized together, especially in the nineteenth century. Burial registers show the name and date of burial, usually only a few days after the death, and sometimes the husband or father’s name is recorded also.
In time it became usual for a little more information, such as occupations, to be recorded. The baptism of a stranger, ie someone not born in that parish was usually noted. The significance of that was that it absolved the parish from responsibility of providing poor relief to that child should he/she later require it. Seventeenth century burials often note that an affidavit had been received confirming that the corpse had been buried in a woollen shroud to comply with the laws in place to promote the woollen trade.
From 1813 baptisms and burials were recorded in printed registers. Baptism registers show the baptism date the child’s Christian name(s), the parents’ first and surnames, their abode and father’s occupation. Burial registers show the name, age, abode and date of burial.
Early marriage registers usually only record the date and two names, and occasionally their parish if they did not live in the one where they married. From 1754, following Lord Hardwick’s Marriage Act to prevent irregular and clandestine marriages all marriage entries were to be preceded by either banns being read on three consecutive Sundays or by obtaining a licence from the bishop. The Act also required that the marriage registers should be printed forms with space to record both names, their condition (bachelor, spinster, widow or widower) usual residence (parish) the date and place of the marriage of the marriage and signatures, or marks, of bride, groom and two witnesses.
With the introduction of civil registration in 1837 the church marriage registers were changed to match the format of marriage certificates and shows the date of the marriage, the names, ages, condition and occupation of bride and groom and signatures of two witnesses. Each CofE parish church had to maintain two identical marriage registers; one to be sent to the local register office when full, the other to be retained by the church, and now usually to be found in the appropriate diocesan archives. This means that if you know where a marriage took place you can often view the church register and pay a few pence for a photocopy without the need to purchase a certificate.
Roman Catholic and Jewish records are often held at the local county archives whilst a lot of other non-conformist church registers are held at the National Archives.