Reading and interpreting registers
Layout of registers
Entries for baptisms, marriages and burials were entered chronologically. In many early registers, baptism, marriage and burial entries are jumbled together.
In others, the categories may be divided, with the baptisms at the front, burials at the back and marriages somewhere in the middle.
Parchment and paper were expensive, so clergy were careful to use all the available space in the registers. Later entries might be squeezed into any odd gaps found in the volume when the last page had been filled.
Be aware that some early registers may be copies of earlier registers which have not survived. These are known as fair copies.
Mistakes, omissions and transcription errors are occasionally found in both the original registers and fair copies.
Use of Latin
Most parish register entries are in English but a few members of the clergy wrote in Latin.
There are Latin dictionaries in our searchroom and staff will also help in translating individual entries. Here are a few common phrases used:
- baptisatus /baptisataest /erat /fuit – was baptised
- filia – daughter
- filius – son
- conjuncti fuerant – were joined in marriage
- copulati sunt/erant – were married·
- nupti erant – were married
- uxorem duxit – is commonly used for marriages (he took to wife)
- sepultus/sepulta – buried
- eodem die – on the same day (as the previous entry)
- ultimo die mensis – on the last day of the month of
- primo die mensis – on the first day of the month of
Names may also be given in their Latin forms. Here are a few examples:
- Alicia – Alice
- Carolus – Charles
- Gulielmus – William
- Jacobus – James
- Joanna/Johanna – Joan
- Johannes – John
- Maria – Mary
- Ricardus – Richard
- Xtopherus/Xpoferus – Christopher
Dates may be given in Roman numerals. See our separate guide to Latin terms for examples of this.
Before 1752, the year officially began on 25 March. Therefore January, February and most of March were the last months of the year.
To convert dates between 1 January and 24 March to modern dating, add one year onto the year given in the parish register.
For example, we would now interpret a baptism entry for 10 February 1713 as being in 1714. The accepted way to note this is '10 February 1713/14'.
The styles of handwriting used in the 16th and 17th centuries can sometimes be difficult to read.
There are several books on the searchroom shelves about reading old handwriting. Staff will also help with difficult entries.
Microfilm/fiche which is illegible
Check the lists to see whether there is an alternative copy of the register; this may be clearer.
In the case of illegible microfiche, ask a member of staff if you can use the master copy of the fiche.
You can also consult the archdeacons’ and bishop’s transcripts. These are contemporary copies of the original registers and may be helpful in clarifying an illegible entry.
If the above do not help, ask a member of staff if you may consult the original parish registers.
Some common terms used in parish registers
- Privately baptised/publicly baptised - Some babies were baptised at home soon after birth, especially if it was feared that they might not survive. Children of wealthier parents might also be christened at home.
- Received into the church - this is sometimes noted in the margin of a private baptism entry. It refers to the ceremony when the child was publicly welcomed into the congregation.
- Late [surname] spinster - Clergyman sometimes included the mother’s maiden name in register entries, such as Jane Jones, late Smith, spinster.
- Base born, natural son/daughter - the child is illegitimate. If no father’s name is given in a baptism entry, the child is probably illegitimate.