Understanding Your ...

Ancestors in the Records:
Parish Records

Parish records hold the central position in researching your ancestors from Western Europe. They contain a record of the basic events – birth, marriage, and death dates and places (as well as other information sometimes) - in nearly all of Western European ancestors’ lives. However, if you know what to look for, sometimes you can learn much more about your ancestors than these simple event dates and places.

To access parish records, you need to know the town in which your ancestors lived – or the town in which they attended church. Some towns were too small to support their own church. Often people from several small towns attended the same church.

In most countries, parish registers were kept by order of the government. Parish records do have their limitations, though. Fires plagued villages throughout Western Europe, sometimes burning entire villages – and all their records. In addition, some parish priests were not as thorough as they could be, sometimes forgetting to record events, or recording them incorrectly.

The quality and preservation of your ancestors’ parish records depends on which church they attended. The state churches usually kept consistent, well-preserved records – although varying in amount of information (Church of England parish records, for example, are often quite sparse). Nonconformist records (records for churches other than the state church) vary. Sometimes nonconformists records are excellent. Other times, their records are less complete (because of different beliefs, fear or persecution, or other reasons), and often they are less accessible (since they are usually not filmed as early as the records of the state-sponsored religion). It may take a little more searching to discover where noncomformist ancestors went to church since there were fewer of these churches and therefore people from a wider geographic area sometimes attended them. See the Religion section for more the churches your ancestors may have attended.

Of parish records, birth, marriage, and death records are the most common and often the most useful. However, many places kept some of other types of records as well. These records can sometimes be vital to tracing your family – and at the very least are interesting insights into your ancestors’ stories. Click on the link for more information. (Some of these pages are still in the development process.)

The Demographics section of this website serves as kind of a companion section to this section. It tells about the historical trends of births, marriage, and deaths and how knowing this information can help you locate your ancestor.

For a good introduction to parish records and what kind of information they can contain, first read my article Getting the Most Out of Parish Records.

The list below describes the information found on this site. Click on the link for more information. This section is still growing. Check back for more information about birth and marriage records as well as other types of parish records.

 Overview Article: Getting the Most Out of Parish Records
   Names of Relatives
   Previous Marriages
   Places of Residence and/or Hometown
   Other Types of Parish Records (this section is expanded below)
   Other Details
 Parish Birth Records
   Fertility and Family Size
   Applying this Information
   Using the Records
 Parish Marriage Records
   Marriage Customs and Controls in History
   Trends and Patterns in Marriage
   Contents of Marriage Records
   Marriage Banns
 Parish Death Records
   When They Died
   Why They Died
   Society’s View of Death
   What the Records Tell Us
 Other Types of Parish Records: Beyond Births, Marriages, and Deaths
   Confirmation Records
   Moving Out and Moving In Records
   Records Containing Family Groups
   Other Types of Parish Records