Thursday, June 3, 2010

Helpful Terms in Parish Register Research of Interest for England Genealogists

England’s Crown government began the standard of keeping church registers by the year 1538 and another set of registers called Bishop's transcripts in 1597. This was to ensure a continual and running record of as many of the birth and christenings, marriages and burials of the population as possible. [Note: In England where land and landed estates required provenance of property ownership and in proving rightful heirs, the need for parish register-keeping, becomes clear. Parish registers began not necessarily due to mere ecclesiastical expediency only but perhaps as much to help ensure property succession in England. The rights of primogeniture or first-born entitlement and most family inheritance matters were a major contributing reason for the existence of parish registers. The parish registers stood at the fore as evidence of proof sufficient to be upheld in the courts of law.]

While searching church registers of various kinds, there are terms used in them which may be confusing, or un-clear to the researcher. So here is a list of both common and un-common terms and words found in parish registers, which should define and bring some clarity to all research enthusiasts and genealogists:

Chrysom = Infants dying within a month of birth, were called by this term.1 Note: Infants were often anointed with chrisom oil and clothed in a swaddling cloth—called a Chrisom cloth—for up to a month after birth, when the chrisom cloth was returned to the parish church and at the time the mother was “churched” (see below). The practice of Chrisoming ceased mostly after the 17th century.

“Churched” or “Churching” = The public appearance of a woman at church to return thanks after childbirth.11 Their public appearance was often accompanied by a small gift offering given by fellow parishioners and friends.

Baptisms = baptism is the immersion of and naming of the infant.2

Christening = is the public receiving of the infant before the parish congregation at a service in the Church of England as a member of “all of Christ's flock” 3.

"Half Baptized" = the term half baptized refers to private baptismal ceremonies. “To baptize privately or without full rites, as a child in danger” of [dying]4.

“Received Into the Congregation” = an infant brought before the congregation at a service--usually a christening service and is “received” into the congregation5.

Illegitimacy = children who are born out of wedlock. Infants may be referred to in parish registers according to many of the following terms and phrases: “base” child, base born, or bastard child, natural child or an illegitimate son/daughter; there are more obvious descriptive words and expressions used and of great variety. Records indicating such births and christenings in ancestral research often exist and frequently contain more detail than that of the legitimate6, 2.

Woolen = usually meant that a person was buried in woolen cloth. As early as 1667, Parliament passed the act which heavily supported the woolen trade by requiring a controversial burial tax by forcing parish vicars and rectors to enforce this law and assess all who were to be buried, to be buried in and to pay for, a (burial) woolen cloth-- an obvious move to strengthen the one manufacturing industry. As a result, numerous burials--especially among the population’s poor--often went un-recorded; it was later repealed in 18147.

"Private" baptisms = during the 18th century the custom to privately baptize infants was very usual. In some registers nearly all of the baptismal entries for many years are marked” private. Concerned mothers indulged in this custom out of concern for the life or imperilment of their infant children. The mortality rate on infants before the mid to late 19th century was exponential, and many mothers knew this and desired the Church of England baptismal or christening rites for their respective child or children8.

Linen = a piece or pieces of linen, especially in strips of linen for use as bandages12; were used as grave clothes used to wrap a body in at burial.

Illegitimacy = terms used to denote that a pending birth or an infant child born out of wedlock and brought to the parish church to be christened may include any one of the following descriptive terms or phrases which would identify an illegitimate birth: spurious [child], base-born, beast-born, putative father, anonymous father, son of a strumpet, natural-born, or when parish register entry identifies the two parents by their respective surnames, etc., and any other more obvious terms used in modern-day vernacular to denote such a condition in a christening record9.

Further Reading
1. Bradbrook, William. The Parish Register. Walton-on-Thames: Charles A. Bernau, 1910; pg 43
2. Ibid pg 25
3. Ibid pg 31-32
4. Ibid pg 25
5. Burn, John Southerden. The History of Parish Registers in England. Pg 73 London: Edward Suter (see at
6. Bradbrook, William. The Parish Register. Walton-on-Thames: Charles A. Bernau, 1910; pg 33
7. Ibid pg 44
8. Ibid pg 31
9. Ibid pg 33
10. Ibid pg 14
11. The Oxford English Dictionary (second Edition). Clarendon Press, 1989
12. Bradbrook, William. The Parish Register. Walton-on-Thames: Charles A. Bernau, 1910; pg 45