The sixteenth century saw one of the greatest developments in the history of record keeping in England and Wales. In 1538, Thomas Cromwell issued a mandate which ordered every parson, vicar or curate to enter in a book every christening, wedding or burial in his parish, recording the names of the parties. The entries were to be made every Sunday in the presence of one of the churchwardens. The mandate was to be enforced by fines for non-compliance.
To begin with, entries were often made on paper and on loose sheets. Survival was not good, even when the law was observed. In 1598, however, it was ordered that these early registered entries be copied into parchment books, parchment being much more durable. The order stated that all the entries from the older registers should be copied, but “especially since the first year of Her Majesty’s reign”. Many registers therefore only begin in 1558, rather than 1538, but quite a number only start in 1598 too.
Before the introduction of civil registration in 1837, parish registers provide the main primary source for the study of family history and population studies.