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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > Family Tree January 2018 > Your ancestors & the Church of England

Your ancestors & the Church of England

Those of us with English roots before the 19th century are certain to have Church of England ancestors – and the good news is there are many more historical records created by the Established Church to explore. Stuart A Raymond reveals some of the genealogical treasures available

From court to occupational records & more


The church at St Levan, Cornwall

Were your ancestors before c1800 members of the Church of England? If they were English, the answer is always going to be yes. The subjects of the English Crown were automatically assumed to be members of the Church. Indeed, subjects were required to attend church under Elizabeth and the Stuarts, and could be fined for failure to do so. Even today, every Anglican parish priest has a duty to minister to the spiritual needs of everyone in his parish, regardless of their religion.

The Church of England has kept an abundance of records since the medieval period. It is highly probable your ancestors were recorded in them. Parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials recorded the vital events in all of their lives. But there is far more to Church of England records than just parish registers. The church not only registered marriages, but also exercised legal jurisdiction over marriage disputes and sexual matters. It not only registered burials, but also exercised jurisdiction over the estates of those it buried, granting probate to executors and administrators. Burial, incidentally, meant fees for the church, recorded by churchwardens. The records of the church are extensive, ranging from parish records to the interrogatories and depositions of the church courts, from probate records to the papers of the Church Missionary Society.

Parish registers

Every English genealogist needs to consult parish registers. They were introduced to help the landed classes trace their descent, and thus prove their right to property. Hence they are one of the few sources which were explicitly intended to be used for genealogical purposes. Thomas Cromwell brought the idea of registers back from his travels on the continent. When Henry VIII gave him authority over the Church, he issued an injunction requiring priests to record all baptisms, marriages, and burials. This 1538 injunction is still in force even today, and parish registers continue to be compiled by parish priests.

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About Family Tree

Make the most of hibernation indoors this winter with our January 2018 issue. It’s full of family history tips and stories, plus a masterclass guide to essential church records. In addition, there are this issue’s Family Tree Academy challenges for our genealogy learn-along. If you have a new smart phone or device, you’ll love our new series with technology tips for family historians (don’t miss a trick that the web or your mobile can help you out with!). There is so much to enjoy, there’s no time to waste! Wishing you a very Happy New Year of family history to come.