(Note: If you find this history a little complicated or long, view the timeline which is a quick summary.)
Cromwell, the Vicar General to King Henry VIII, ordered that every parish must keep a register. The order stated that every Sunday, the Parson, in the presence of the wardens, must enter all the baptisms, marriages and burials of the previous week. The register was to be kept in a coffer with two locks. Failure to comply imposed a fine of 3s 4d (17p) which was to be spent on the upkeep of the church. The order was received with much suspicion - most people believed it was the forerunner for some new tax. Many parishes ignored it. The order was repeated in 1547 during the reign of Edward VI but this time the fine was to go towards poor relief.
In 1557 the clergy were instructed to record the name of Godfather and Godmother. This was an attempt to stem the soaring divorce rate! At that time it was only necessary to state you had in error married your Godparent's son / daughter. In the eyes of the church this was your spiritual brother / sister and the marriage was spiritual incest and therefore invalid.
In 1563 an Act was passed that meant the records should be kept in 'huge books of parchment', and copied and sent to the bishop each month. (These copies are known as the Bishop's Transcripts.) However, many parishes could not affod this and unfortunately the act stated that the costs involved were to be met by imposing charges for entries. This was strongly opposed by many clergy and the act was not enforced.
Registers were poorly kept during the English Civil war 1643 - 1647 and in the commonwealth period which followed it. Many were abandoned or hidden by the clergy and in some cases were lost completely. It was during this period that civil registers were set up and civil marriages allowed, however a fee was charged for entries (4d for baptisms and burials, and 12d for marriages).
Registers were returned to churches after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
In 1694 the register entries were finally used as a tax to raise money for a war against France. (Marriage: 2s 6d, burial: 4s, birth: 2s). There was also a tax on all unmarried men of 1s per year! In 1696 an order was passed that a fine of £2 was to be imposed on all who did not report the birth of a child to the vicar within 5 days. Children who were not christened were to pay a tax of 6d to the vicar. Vicars who failed to record a birth were to be fined £2 for neglect. This highly unpopular tax was not abandoned until 1706 when it was realised that enforcing the penalties would ruin many clergy.
In 1733 a law was passed forbidding the use of Latin in parish registers. Then, in 1738, Methodist registers commences. At the time the registers had to be hidden since they were illegal.
1751 was the year the calendar was reformed. Prior to this, the year commenced on Lady Day - 25th of March. So, in previous registers, December 31st 1750 would have been followed by January 1st 1750 and not 1751 as it would today.
Lord Hardwick's Marriage Act was enforced in 1754 - a separate marriage register was pre-printed, and included witnesses, the signature of the bride and groom, the parish where married, and the signature of the minister. It also enforced banns and made clandestine marriages illegal.
In 1763, the minimum age of marriage was fixed at 16. Prior to this date, the church accepted the marriage of girls aged 12 or more and boys aged 14 or more. In addition, a dispensation on licence could be obtained from a bishop which allowed marriage at a younger age. From 1763 a person below the age of 21 required the consent of parents to be married in England.
In 1812, new printed baptism, marriage and burial registers were to be used by all parishes with separate volumes for each. This act was called Rose's Act.
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