Church records are the single most important source for tracing your family history. However, the historic records are not held by Church House or, in most cases, by individual parishes. Local record offices have been designated to hold particular classes of records, and the following guide shows where you should look for particular sources.
Queries on current incumbents or church issues should be directed to Church House.
Tables of Contents
- Historic Records of the Diocese of Oxford
- Ordination Records
- Confirmation Records
- Returns of recusants
- Bishop’s Transcripts
- Marriage Bonds
- Court Records
- Correspondence and memoranda
- Other classes of document in the Diocesan Archives
- Wills and Probate Documents
- Historic Records of parishes within Oxford Diocese (Parish Registers, Poor Law Records)
- Other sources of information
- Useful addresses and websites
These are the records of the Bishop of Oxford, and cover the area of old Oxfordshire (the present county minus the Vale of White Horse) from 1542 to the 20th century, the area of old Berkshire (the present county plus the Vale of White Horse) from 1836 to the 20th century, and the area of Buckinghamshire from 1845 to the 20th century.
All these records are held at Oxfordshire Record Office.
Candidates for ordination to holy orders were required to submit a series of papers to the bishop, which may include letters testimonial, certificates of baptism, nominations to curacies, and correspondence. These can provide a useful picture of individuals being ordained. In addition, there exist various lists of ordination candidates. The records are as follows:
- Lists of ordination candidates 1776-1912
- Ordination candidates’ papers 1766-1940
- Miscellaneous papers (inc. correspondence) 1827-1939
Lists of candidates for confirmation, generally with their ages. In addition there are programmes of the confirmation activities of the various bishops. Survival of the lists of candidates is patchy, and the dates for which they exist are as follows:
Recusants were nonconformists, the individuals who would not attend or subscribe to the doctrine of the Church of England. As a result, through the 17th and 18th centuries, the Church kept a close eye on them, making sure they knew who these people were. The following records exist:
- Letters from the clergy of Oxfordshire parishes to Bishop Fell, responding to his request that they visit all the recusants within their remit, 1682
- Undated list of “popish recusants”, late 17th century
- Return for request for names of papists in Oxford Diocese; original returns for Oxford St Thomas and Enstone, and an abstract for the whole diocese, 1706
- Returns for parishes N-Y for request for names of papists, 1767
- Returns of papists and “popish schools” in parishes, 1780
All parishes in the diocese were required to send copies of the entries in their registers to the Oxford Diocesan Registry every year. These can be very valuable when part or the whole of an original register has been lost. However, they are far from complete themselves, and many were destroyed in a flood during the last century. For Oxford Archdeaconry they start at various dates in the 17th century, for Berkshire Archdeaconry in 1836, and for Buckingham Archdeaconry in 1845.
(NOTE: covers entries under both diocesan and archdeaconry)
Marriage licences were the documents handed out to couples to enable them to marry without bans being read. As they were handed out, they do not survive in the Church records. What do survive are the papers the couples handed in to get the licence, most notably marriage bonds.
The bonds are the earliest surviving records, and give security to the authority issuing the licence that the marriage was above board. They continue until 1823, when they were abolished by the Marriages Act. With them is found the allegation (called the affidavit by 1766, and surviving longer than the bond), which is a statement made under oath that there is nothing to hinder the marriage. From 1928, an application form for the licence is also found.
Both the bishop and the archdeacons were able to grant licences, so the bonds and related papers may be found in both collections. Regrettably the archdeaconry series for Berkshire was largely destroyed in 1943. The Oxford Diocesan series runs from 1634 to 1954.
(Note: covers entries under both Diocesan and Archdeaconry)
The Church authorities had the right to try cases relating to the clergy or the morals of the laity. This could be done in both the Bishop’s and the Archdeacon’s court. Because of rivalry between successive Bishops and Archdeacons of Oxford, and their tendency to use the same officials for the administrative work, it has never been possible to separate the records of the two courts.
The records are not easy to use. There is at present no index of personal names, individual cases are scattered through more than one volume, and the handwriting is difficult for a non-specialist to decipher. Nevertheless, the content is invaluable for any family historian seeking to move beyond a basic list of names and dates. Entries can go into considerable detail about the events which led to individuals being brought before the court – persistent drunkenness, violence in church, sexual immorality and slander all turn up regularly.
The records begin in 1567, and proceed with some irregularity into the 19th century.
A wide cross-section of correspondence has been preserved in the diocesan collections, between the bishop and his officials, and the parochial clergy. This covers the period 1666 to 1854.
In addition, there exist the diocesan or Memoranda books. These are the records maintained by individual bishops of the clergy under their charge and the issues relating to them and the parishes they administered. The books vary in detail, but some (in particular those written by Bishop Samuel Wilberforce from 1845 to 1864) contain detailed character sketches of individual parish priests. The sequence exists from 1685 to 1888.
There are many other classes of document in the Diocesan Archives, but these are the principal ones of use for tracing your family.
Historic Records of the Archdeaconries of Berkshire, Buckingham and Oxford
Oxford Diocese consists of three archdeaconries. However, when it was first formed in 1542, it consisted of only one: Oxford. Berkshire Archdeaconry was added in 1836 and Buckingham Archdeaconry in 1845.
Berkshire Archdeaconry (roughly the area of present-day Berkshire plus the Vale of White Horse) records are held at Berkshire Record Office
Buckingham Archdeaconry (roughly the area of present-day Buckinghamshire) records are held at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies
Oxford Archdeaconry (roughly the area of present-day Oxfordshire minus the Vale of White Horse) records are held at Oxfordshire Record Office
Until 1858, wills were proved in the Church courts; after that date they went to civil probate in the Court of Divorce, Admiralty and Probate. However, the actual Church court in which a will might be proved was not a simple matter.
The Prerogative Court of Canterbury, the court of the Archbishop, was for the grandest wills in the land, and was intended to be used only by those who had property all over England. These PCC wills are now held in the National Archives. The Archbishop of York had similar jurisdiction for those with property across the north of England, and the wills proved in his court are now in the Borthwick Institute, York.
Those with property across a single diocese, such as Oxford, were supposed to have their wills proved in the Diocesan Court, and those with property in a single archdeaconry in the Archdeacon’s Court. However, there was social snobbery involved. Having your will proved in the highest possible court was a way of showing off after death, and many individuals forced their probate up into a higher court than it warranted. Conversely, many people didn’t bother about probate at all – it cost money, and if everyone was happy with the terms of a will it was just accepted without official sanction. Such wills turn up in no court, but may occasionally be found in collections of private papers in a record office. And of course many people never made a will at all. A wide search is therefore necessary if you are seeking a possible will, and the search may be fruitless.
Wills can tell a good deal about the people who made them, but even more so can inventories. These were the lists of all the property owned by the deceased, drawn up by the executors, and are mainly found in the 17th century – between about 1620 and 1710 in Oxford Diocese. Other papers such as accounts of the settling of an estate also survive.
In Oxford Diocese, the will proved by the Bishop and those proved by the Archdeacon have been hopelessly confused into one wills sequence, which runs from 1509 to 1857 and includes a few wills relating to the Archdeaconries of Berkshire and Buckingham which have come through the Bishop’s Court after 1836/1845. These are held in Oxfordshire Record Office. Berkshire Record Office holds the wills proved by the Archdeacon of Berkshire 1508 to 1857, and the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies similarly holds those for Buckingham Archdeaconry.
Marriage bonds (as above)
Court records (as above)
The basic unit of the Diocese is the parish, centring around the local church. Each parish has created a wealth of records of use for tracing your family history. Although the most important records – the parish registers – were only established in 1538 (and often do not survive until much later), the parish system is much older and records can survive from centuries earlier.
Under the Parochial Registers and Records Measure (1978) all parish records more than 100 years old have to be deposited with the appropriate record office, unless special dispensation is granted. Many parishes have deposited more recent material.
Parish records from parishes in Berkshire Archdeaconry are held at Berkshire Record Office
Parish records from parishes in Buckingham Archdeaconry are held in the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies
Parish records from parishes in Oxford Archdeaconry are held at Oxfordshire Record Office
IMPORTANT: records of parishes in the Vale of White Horse, although now in the county of Oxfordshire, are still in the Archdeaconry of Berkshire and thus held at Berkshire Record Office
Parish registers are the single most important source for family historians. The original order to parish priests to create lists of all those baptised, married or buried in the parish was made by Thomas Cromwell in 1538, but was often ignored. Further attempts were made to impose it, ending in a firm injunction which could not be ignored in 1598. This last insisted that all entries back to 1558 be copied into volumes, but such entries did not always exist. The start date for the registers of any parish can therefore be at any point between 1538 and 1598, even assuming the early ones have not been lost.
A further problem arose during the Interregnum from 1649 to 1660, when the registers of many parishes were left in abeyance as a protest against the new religious settlements and the shift of registration to a civil official.
At first, all the entries were written into the same volume, but in 1754/5 separate registers were established for marriage entries with pre-printed forms to avoid false marriages being faked. In 1812 baptism and burial registers were separated into different volumes.
With the coming of civil registration in 1837, the parish registers were of less administrative importance to the state, but continued to be maintained for Church purposes. For the first time births and deaths were recorded, but not in the Church registers (a few priests had entered them in the baptism and burial registers, but only a small minority), and births and deaths can only be found with the Civil Registrar. It is important to remember that the parish registers are administrative documents of the Church and that their use for family history is only a by-product; their organization and the making of copies is determined by the needs and purposes of the Church.
The Parochial Registers and Records Measure (1978) ruled that all registers more than 100 years old from the last entry must be deposited with the designated local record office. Many parishes have deposited more recent registers too, but a tiny number have sought special dispensation to retain their registers in the parish. The registers for parishes in each of the three archdeaconries (Oxford, Berkshire and Buckingham) have been deposited in the relevant archdeaconry record office, each of which has a comprehensive catalogue of the registers it holds.
Before the 19th century, the Church carried out many administrative functions for the state, and some of these created records of interest to the family historian. In particular, poor relief was a Church duty. From 1572, overseers of the poor were created in each parish, and in 1601 the Poor Law Act created a parish taxation system to underwrite the poor and set them to work where necessary. Because the poor tended to drift into rich parishes where they could be well looked after, creating a crushing rates burden, the system of settlement and removal was established in 1662. Every individual was deemed to have a parish of settlement in which they belonged – either by being born there or marrying into it – and to which they could be sent if they became a burden on the poor rate. With a few amendments, this system continued up to the creation of the civil Poor Law Unions in 1834.
The following records (among many others) were created by this system, and can often be found within the parish collections:
Settlement certificates – stating where individuals belonged for poor rate purposes
Settlement examinations – the result of an investigation into the background of a particular pauper, giving such details as birth, places of abode, apprenticeship, etc
Apprenticeship indentures – by which poor boys and girls were apprenticed to a trade to lift them out of poverty
Bastardy bonds – by which fathers of illegitimate children undertook to pay towards their keep
Overseers accounts – often giving lists of the people to whom the overseers paid poor relief.
Important non-Church sources
Certain family history sources which started as Church records later moved on to the civil side. Prominent among these are:
Records of birth, marriages and death. Parish registers deal with baptism, marriages and burial, and are the only source which give any indication of birth and death before 1837. From that date, actual births and deaths, together with marriages, started to be recorded by the civil registration service. Details can be found through the Superintendent Registrars of Oxfordshire, the five unitary Berkshire authorities and Buckinghamshire. The central source for post-1837 birth, marriage and death records for England and Wales is the General Register Office, and records can be accessed through the Family Records Centre.
Wills ceased to be proved in Church courts from 1858, and moved to the Court of Divorce, Admiralty and Probate. They can be consulted at Record Keepers Department, Principal Registry of the Family Division, First Avenue House, 42-49 High Holborn London WC1V 6NP (Tel. 020 7947 7000) or information on them obtained through the Courts Service: Probate Records and Family History. Indexes to the wills from 1858 to 1943 are held at the National Archives, the Family Records Centre, Oxfordshire Record Office, and Oxfordshire Studies.
Lambeth Palace Library
Enquiries, Lambeth Palace Library,
London SE1 7JU
020 7898 1400
Berkshire Record Office
9 Coley Avenue
Reading RG1 6AF
Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies
Bucks HP20 1UU
Oxfordshire Record Office
St Luke’s Church
Oxford OX4 2HT
Society of Genealogists
14 Charterhouse Buildings
London EC1M 7BA
020 7251 8799
The National Archives
Surrey TW9 4DU
020 8876 3444
Berkshire Family History Society
BFHS Research Centre
131 Castle Hill
Berks RG1 7TJ
0118 950 9553
Buckinghamshire Family History Society
PO Box 403
Bucks HP21 7GU
Bucks Genealogical Society
Secretary: Eve McLaughlin
Bucks HP17 8JP
c/o Oxfordshire History Centre
St Luke’s Church
Oxford OX4 2HT
01865 358151 or email@example.com
Other useful sites
Oxfordshire County Council: Local studies and family history in libraries
Gov.uk: Adoption Records | Birth Marriages and Deaths | Wills and probate search
GENUKI: UK and Ireland Geneaology
Find My Past
British Newspaper Archive
Originally compiled by Carl Boardman, County Archivist