If you have spent some time tracing ancestors in the UK, you will probably know that most online resources will only take you as far back as the early 1800s. If you want to trace your ancestors further back, you will need to use offline resources. After the internet, your main source of information will be the UK parish registers. These are held at the county record office for each county and you will need to either go there yourself or hire a professional genealogist to do the research for you.
What are the parish registers?
Parish registers have been kept since 1538, when Thomas Cromwell ordered that every baptism, marriage and burial should be recorded. However, not every parish has records going back this far as many of these earlier registers have been lost or destroyed by fire.
The first registers were recorded on paper and therefore of poor quality, but after 1598 they were recorded on parchment. At this time all earlier records were supposed to be copied onto parchment, but some parishes only did this from the time of Queen Elizabeth I's accession in 1558.
Early registers are often written in Latin, but do not be put off by this. The entries are usually very short and you only need to know a few Latin words and phrases to understand them. Many record offices sell Latin genealogical phrase books that will be of help.
Parish registers are one of the main sources for tracing ancestors and can often help you to confirm and back up information that you find in other sources, as well as continue your searches well into the 18th, 17th and, if you are lucky, the 16th centuries.
How to Search the Registers
The county record offices have filmed the vast majority of parish registers on microfiche or microfilm in order to conserve the original registers.
Most archives now operate a self-serve system where you can look up the parish register you need in an index, note the reference number and then take the relevant film or fiche from a drawer or cabinet. In some record offices you may need to fill in a withdrawal request slip.
You will find that the records look very different in different periods of history. When you start looking it will be very easy because after 1812 the parish registers were written on specially formatted pages, so they are much easier and quicker to read.
Before 1812 only marriages were written on formatted pages, and baptisms and burials were written on separate pages with entries written up one under the other across the page. You will find yourself being very grateful when you discover that the incumbent had a tidy and clear style of handwriting!
In earlier registers often the baptisms, marriages and burials were written up in the same books, usually on separate pages, but quite often all jumbled up together, and occasionally not even in chronological order, so you will need a lot of patience and a good set of eyes at times!
Because of these different ways of keeping the records, you may find that you have to change your researching tactics from time to time.
For example, it is much easier to search for specific ancestors in the later registers where the information is laid out neatly in separate books, but once the records get to a more disorganised stage, I find it best to note down every instance of your family surname that you can find and then go over your notes later to try and make sense of them.
This can save a lot of time because you do not want to have to go back over the same registers again just to look for a separate marriage or burial, parents or siblings.
If you have a lot of ancestors in the parish, it can be quite enjoyable to do this, putting together all the information you have noted like a jigsaw later.
Tracing ancestors in the UK parish registers is a fascinating activity, though at times frustrating. Sometimes you will find extra information that the incumbent decided was important, such as whether a child was illegitimate (e.g. "natural or base born" or "bastard") or if the couple getting married had come from another parish. This kind of information is priceless for the family historian and can help you to establish further lines of research. At other times you will come to a brick wall and need to use other resources to try and establish family connections and origins.