English Marriages

Tying the Knot: English Style


By Myra Vanderpool Gormley
Certified GenealogistSM
 Co-editor of RootsWeb Review/Missing Links


 apricot tree Between Banbury and Oxford snuggled among some apricot orchards on the edge of the Cotswolds lies the tiny village of Aynho--as typically English as any American genealogist could hope to find. More than 300 years ago a young couple went to the church there to be married--just prior to their departure to America.

The stone church of St. Michael's still stands in Aynho, but on a May morning its doors were locked and no sign of the vicar was evident. Stacked vertically around the perimeter of the churchyard were tombstones, standing like silent sentinels to guard old family secrets. Some of the stones date back to the early 1600s. The lush grass, high in spots, juts among moss-covered stones,  many so weathered by wind and rain that their inscriptions are no longer legible. Fortunately, the parish records have survived better than the tombstones for long ago they were sent to the Northamptonshire County Record Office to be preserved. Otherwise, one pedigree might have ended in this churchyard at Aynho.

On Sept. 5, 1538, English parish records were first ordered to be kept by Thomas Cromwell. This Cromwell was the vicar general of Henry VIII (the one who beheaded wives who displeased him). Earlier the monks kept rather unsystematic notes of births, marriages and deaths of noble and wealthy families as an aid to proving age and pedigrees for inheritance purposes. Cromwell ordered that vital records be kept of everyone. Since the clergyman was often the only local person who could write, and the church had been established by the king, it was the ideal organization to collect this information. The original law said that all baptisms, marriages and deaths were to be written down in a book after service on Sunday evenings,in the presence of the churchwardens. No doubt this was an imposition on the local folks who had to rush home to tend to their animals and chores. After the fall of Thomas Cromwell in 1540, parish registers were abandoned in many areas, and it was not until 1558 that they were again required.

 At that time some registers were kept on loose paper sheets, and this caused concern to then monarch, Queen Elizabeth I. In 1597, she ordered that all existing registers were to be copied into "fair parchment books." In large parishes, this was a mammoth task. Due to a loophole in the directive, some clergy simply started their task in 1558 and ignored what had gone before. Others dutifully re-copied the earlier registers. However, rarely has the original paper registers survived so a comparison of the two can be made. Hence, you will discover that many parish registers begin in 1558 rather than 1538, when they officially started. Also, starting in 1597, transcripts of these parish registers were suppose to be sent to the bishop within a month after Easter. This practice lasted until 1837 when civil registration began. Both the parish registers and bishops' transcripts have gaps--due to loss and fire--and researchers should always check both sets of records. There also is a large gap in most English parish records from about 1649 to 1660--called the Commonwealth period.

 Unfortunately, this is a critical period for many Americans searching for their 17th-century immigrant English ancestors. In 1653 all register-keeping was taken out of the hands of the clergy and transferred to a layman called the parish register. Some of these men selected were excellent record keepers; others were dreadful writers and spellers. Marriages during this time no longer took place in church. Instead, intention to marry was proclaimed three times in the market place, or from the church porch, and the couple then went before a justice of the peace to be legally joined. However, many people felt that this new system was not a proper marriage, and couples would slip off to church where clergy who had managed to stay in office would secretly wed them. After Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658; great-great-grand-nephew of Thomas Cromwell) died and the king was restored in 1660, these parish registers lost their jobs. In some instances the restored royalist clergy seized the registry books and destroyed them--only to discover that they had wiped out several years of the history of the parish. The conscientious ones went around to local families and collected entries from family Bibles and obtained oral history pertaining to birth dates of children born during this time. If your ancestors removed from their villages during this time, births of their children may not be mentioned in restored parish records. See also the marriage licenses issued by the office of the Vicar-General of the Archbishop of Canterbury for the period 1694 to 1850.

 About a century later -- in 1754 -- another event occurred in England that affects genealogists. That is the date of the Lord Hardwicke Marriage Act. It required that all marriages be performed in the parish church or parochial chapelry, except those involving Jews and Quakers. Marriages performed by Nonconformists and Roman Catholics were considered illegal. The main purpose of this act was prevent runaway marriages of heiresses and the consequent loss of control of their fortunes. This act also required that all marriages be preceded by the posting of banns or by licensing, that minors obtain parental consent, and that registers of banns be kept. However, the Hardwicke Act did not apply to Scotland, so, naturally, that is where some couples eloped to. At Gretna Green, and other places just over the border, were marriage mills of sorts. No priest or posting of banns was necessary--just a simple declaration of intent before two witnesses was enough. But, many of these runaway marriages, were re-solemnized in England.

London Bridge Before you make travel arrangements to go to England to find parish records, especially marriage records of your ancestors, you should know that the best place to start your search for a pre-1837 (when British civil records begin) record is in the IGI --
International Genealogical Index, available at all Church of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) Family History Centers and at the famed Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Of course, if you need an excuse to visit England, you can use this one. The IGI contains extractions of baptisms and marriages from many English and Welsh parish registers. Presently it contains about 80 million baptisms and marriages for the British Isles, dating from 1538 to 1875. Between 1925 and 1955, English genealogist, Percival Boyd, along with his associates, compiled an index to about seven million marriages in 4,200 parishes in England that occurred between 1538 and 1837. Boyd's Marriage Index, as it is called, is valuable, but researchers must remember that it only references about 15 percent of the total number of marriages for these dates. This index was mostly drawn from printed or typescript transcripts of registers, but also includes some from private manuscript ones.

Nevertheless, Boyd's Marriage Index, is an excellent source. It also is easily accessed--it's on microfilm--through the Family History Library system in this country. Boyd's work is arranged in three series, and each must be searched. The first series is arranged in order of county; series two is nationwide, and series three is one compiled after Boyd died by the Family History Library staff. It contains more than a million entries that are not included in the first two series. To find these marriage records, see the Family History Library Catalog and examine the available indexes first. Look under England/[county]/church records--indexes for the first series holdings and the call numbers. For series two and three check under England/church records-indexes.

Another alternative to trying to visit all the county record offices where records pertaining to your ancestors may be found is to include on your trip to London a visit to the Society of Genealogists' library. There you will find the IGI, Boyd's Marriage Index, plus an almost complete series of all parish registers that have ever been printed, plus hundreds in typescript and manuscript form, as well as many other genealogical treasures.

Then, armed with genealogical data about your English ancestors, venture forth and visit their ancestral villages. Stroll the cobblestone streets they once walked, light candles in the churches where they were baptized or married, and spend some quiet, reflective time in the churchyards where they are buried. This is finding your roots at its best.

Missing Links/Somebody's Links

RootsWeb Guide to Tracing Family Trees: English and Welsh Roots

1992-2002  by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

  Recommended Reading for English Research

  • Your English Ancestry: A Guide for North Americans, by Sherry Irvine.
    Available from  Ancestry, Inc. P.O. Box 476, Salt Lake City, UT 84110
  • Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History, by Mark D. Herber. Available from Genealogical Publishing Co
    1001 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21202
  • Monuments and Their Inscriptions: A Practical Guide, by H. Leslie White.
    Published by Society of Genealogists, 14 Charterhouse Buildings, Goswell Road,
    London EC1M 7BA, UK. Monumental Inscriptions for Genealogists by Rod Neep.
  • Nonconformist Records: A Brief Introduction, produced in 1988 by Surry Record
    Office, Surry County Council, County Hall, Kingston upon Thames, UK
  • Understanding the History & Records of Nonconformity, by Patrick Palgrave-Moore, BA, FSA, FSG, published in 1987 by Elvery Dowers Publications, 13 West Parade, Norwich, Norfolk, UK.  Norfolk Family History Society Web Pages.
  • Visit the British Isles via GenukiLogo.gif (3580 bytes) from the comfort of your home

Return to Shaking Family Trees Home Page