Parish registers are some of the most familiar sources for parish historians. Introduced in the 1530s by Thomas Cromwell, they contain records of the baptisms, burials and marriages of parishioners and thus serve as useful genealogical and demographic tools. From information contained with these records, historians have been able to estimate population sizes, fertility rates and mortality rates, and genealogists have been able to trace their ancestry back into the sixteenth century.
But these records are not always just lists of names and dates. Authors of these registers took it upon themselves to record memorable local events alongside the sacraments. In Rowde, Wiltshire the first parish register opens with the a note that therein is contained all the ‘memorable accidents which have or shall happen within the parish’. Similarly, in the eighteenth century, Dr White Kennet, the Bishop of Peterborough, urged local clergy ‘to enter down any notable incident of times and seasons, especially relating to your own parish, and the neighbourhood of it’ when making his visitations. These local chronicles were seen as potentially instructive guides to future generations. William Auerell, clerk of Saint Peter’s, Cornhill, included a sixty line poem on the instructional value of the parish register:
Thus every age and calling,
May heare beehold theyr faces:
Theyr rising and theyr falling,
Theyr endes and wretched cases:
Which glasse weare it well used,
Life should not bee abused.
However, until relatively recently, and perhaps because of the registers’ value as demographic and genealogical sources, these local chronicles have been neglected. The Harleian Society published its early registers ‘to obtain as large a mass of genealogical information as possible in the shortest possible time’, thus leaving out ‘lengthened Annotations’ and other marginalia deemed ‘useless and uninteresting matter’.
There are some wonderfully evocative vignettes included in registers. My own interest is in flooding and other so-called ‘natural disasters’ in early modern Britain. Parish registers (the name for both the book and the person that wrote in the book) were particularly keen on noting down freak meteorological events. Henry Childe, vicar of Arlingham, a parish in a loop of the River Severn in southwestern Gloucestershire recorded the dramatic events of January 20th 1607, the Bristol Channel ‘tsunami’:
manye, about the number of 20, had lost their lives, or, at the least, binne greatly endangered to be pined or starv’d to death. Mr Thomas Yate and his eldest son, Mr Richard Yate, were then hemm’d in upon the Glass Cliffe with the water. I say it is an admirable memorandum, because it exceeded the fludd that was about 46 years before, a foot and a half at the least higher than it was then.
In Welford, an Avonside parish in Warwickshire, the end paper of the earliest surviving register records a flood on July 8th 1588. We read of a flood that was so sudden that ‘John Rennies wife then millward was soe amazed that shee sate still till she was almost drowned’, and was ‘much besides her selfe and so farr amist that shee did not know her owne child when yt was brought unto her’. In Pilton, Somerset, the register tells us of a snow so deep in February 1577 ‘that no man coulde travell wthout daunger of Drowninge therin’. These notes were obviously referred to by future generations, much as William Auerell had hoped: in Long Newnton, Gloucestershire, the Great Storm of 1703 is referred to as the ‘most generall calamitie that ever this nation felt. Neither can we find any paralell of it in our Chronicles’.
Despite the glum tone of this last memorandum, the Long Newnton chronicler was not down for long. In 1704 we hear of ‘this happie yeare [when] This nation had many remarkable occurences of Gods good Providence; in giving good successe and victory to our Armies & Fleetes’. The personal whims of authors could come through in accounts of more local events too. Henry Childe included a verse on his experiences of Arlingham’s seventeenth-century floods:
Thrice have I seen a fearful inundation
Within the space of two and twentie years,
As few of my coate have in al their station;
Which when it comes (as’t will) unto men’s eares
What hart so hard that can abstain from teares?
But woe is mee that I am first to dwell
Where seas, enradge with windes, so proudlie swelle!
God knows who shall survive to see the next,
To be, as I have binne, with feare perplext.
These ‘admirable memoranda’ and ‘memorable Recordes’ give us an interesting, very local perspective on important events in parish life. I would be very interested to hear of any memoranda in the registers of fellow My-Parishioners!
Will Coster, ‘Popular religion and the parish register 1538-1603’, in Katherine L. French, Gary G. Gibbs, and Beat A. Kümin (eds), The Parish in English Life 1400-1600 (Manchester: MUP, 1997), pp. 94-111., pp. 94-111.
Steven Hobbs, ‘‘The abstracts and brief chronicles of the time’: memoranda and annotations in parish registers 1538-1812’, The Local Historian, 38, 2 (May, 2008), pp. 95-110.
Steven Hobbs (ed.), Gleanings from Wiltshire Parish Registers (Chippenham: Wiltshire Record Society, 2010)
W.E. Tate, The Parish Chest; A Study of the Records of Parochial Administration in England (3rd edn., Chichester: Phillimore, 1983)