Starting in 1538, each parish was required to register all baptisms, marriages, and burials. Parishes governed church affairs within their boundaries. The library owns a copy of A Genealogical Gazetteer of England which can help you find your ancestors' parish.
Registers can provide an incredible amount of useful information. Each parish decided what to include in their records so you may find that information varies parish to parish but here are some examples of items that might be included in the registers:
- Baptisms: parents' names, address, father's occupation, mother's maiden name, godparents, and date of baptism. (Remember this is not the date of birth! Sometimes parents waited until the children were older to baptize them as well.)
- Marriages: home parishes for both the bride and groom, marital status (bachelor, widow, etc), ages, witnesses, and groom's occupation. Sometimes marriages did not occur at parish churches; therefore, marriage records may not always exist.
- Burials: date, age, occupation, address, spouse or parents' names, and sometimes the cause of death.
The Church of England has acted as the primary religious institution in England since the 16th century so it is likely that you will find your ancestors in their records. However, dissenters and nonconformist religious organizations also kept records of births, marriages, and deaths so don't give up hope if your ancestor didn't belong to the Church of England.
You can find parish registers on FamilySearch. You should also visit FreeReg. FreeReg has made it their mission to transcribe and index parish registers and nonconformist records from 1538-1837. It is an excellent resource for English genealogy research!
If records are not available online, you will need to contact the appropriate County Record Office to research parish registers in person.