On 5 September 1538, following the split with Rome, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's Vicar General, ordered that each parish priest must keep a book, and that the Parson, in the presence of the wardens, must enter all the baptisms, marriages and burials of the previous week. The book was to be kept in a "sure coffer" with two locks (one key for the vicar, the other for the wardens). A fine of 3s 4d was to be levied for failure to comply. Many parishes ignored this order, believing it to be the forerunner of some new tax.
The order was repeated in 1547 with the stipulation that the fine was to go to the relief of the poor.
From 1598 records were to be kept in 'great decent books of parchment' and copies or 'Bishop's Transcripts' of new entries were to be sent each month to the diocesan centre. Previous records (especially from the first year of Her Majesty's reign (1558)), often on scraps of paper, had to be copied into the new books, but many had deteriorated and were unreadable. The costs of the new books were to be met by charging for entries; this was opposed by many parishes and the act was not enforced until 1603. Finance was to be born by the Parish, and the books were to be kept in a chest with three locks. The week's entries were to be read out each Sunday after evensong.
During the English Civil War (1643–1647) and in the following Commonwealth period, records were poorly kept and many are now missing after being destroyed or hidden by the clergy. During 1653–1660 the registering of births, marriages and deaths was taken over by civil officers (confusingly called Parish Registers), but the registers were returned to the churches following the Restoration in 1660.
In order to encourage the wool trade, an act was passed in 1678 making it compulsory for all corpses to be buried in a shroud made of wool, an affidavit having to be made (and recorded in the register) that this had been done.
In 1694 the costs of each entry were drastically increased in order to finance a war against France (Marriages 12d => 1s 6d, Burials 4d => 4s, Baptisms 4d => 2s). In 1696 a tax of 6d had to be paid for any birth not reported within five days, and vicars were fined £2 for neglecting to record a birth; this was abandoned in 1706.
In 1711 it was ordered that the pages of registers were to be ruled and numbered (generally ignored) and in 1733 entries had to be made in English rather than Latin.
Prior to 1751 (when the calendar was reformed), the register year would go from Lady Day to Lady Day (25 March) so, for example 31 December 1740 would be followed by 1 January 1740 (actually 1741).
In 1754 Lord Hardwick's Marriage Act came into being. A separate Marriage Register was to be kept (later with pre-printed forms), and Banns were enforced and Clandestine Marriages made illegal.
In 1763 the minimum age for marriage was fixed at 16 (earlier only with a Licence from the Bishop) and parental consent was needed for anyone under 21. A stamp duty of 3d was imposed on entries from 1783 to 1794 but was exempt for paupers.
In 1812 an "Act for the better regulating and preserving Parish and other Registers of Birth, Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, in England" was passed. It stated that "amending the Manner and Form of keeping and of preserving Registers of Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials of His Majesty's Subjects in the several Parishes and Places in England, will greatly facilitate the Proof of Pedigrees of Persons claiming to be entitled to Real or Personal Estates, and otherwise of great public Benefit and Advantage". Separate, printed registers were to be supplied by the King's Printer, and used for baptisms, marriages and burials. These are more or less unchanged to this day.
In 1853 the Cemetery Act allowed for civic cemeteries, many churchyards being full to overflowing.
In the United States, at least the parishes in the Roman Catholic dioceses maintained a similar practice of recording baptisms, marriages, burials, and often also confirmations and first communions. From the earliest pioneer churches ministered by itinerant priests, the records were written in ecclesiastical Latin. But after the Second Vatican Council and its reforms that included translating the Mass into local languages, most register entries gradually came to be written in English. In Protestant communions with stronger similarities to Roman Catholicism, parish registers are also important sources that document baptisms, marriages, and funerals. In Protestant and Evangelical churches, individual ministers often kept records of faith-related events among the congregation, but under much less guidance from any central governing body.
Since Victorian times, amateur genealogists have transcribed and indexed parish registers. Some societies have also produced printed transcripts and indexes — notably the Parish Register Society, the Harleian Society and Phillimore & Co. The Society of Genealogists, in London, has a very large selection of such transcripts and indexes. The LDS Library in Salt Lake City also has a vast collection of films of original registers.
The LDS, for its own purposes, has also produced an index (the IGI), of very many register entries — mostly baptisms and marriages. The IGI is available as a searchable database on the world-wide web at and on microform matter at local "Family History Centers". Like all transcripts and indexes, the IGI should be used with caution, as errors can occur in legibility of the original or microfilm of the original, in reading the original handwriting, and in entering the material to the transcription. "Batch entries" are generally more reliable than "individual submissions."
See also: Nonconformist register