Find your Church of England ancestors: Top five free genealogy websites
Genealogist Stuart Raymond presents his top five free of charge websites for finding Church of England ancestors, particularly those who lived before Civil Registration.
If you are of English descent, you will have ancestors who were members of the Church of England. Subjects of the Crown during the reign of Elizabeth I and her Stuart successors were automatically regarded as members of the Church of England; indeed, even today, the Anglican parish priest has an obligation to serve everyone in his parish, regardless of religious affiliation. It is therefore highly likely that your English ancestors could be identified amongst Church of England records.
Many of these – although far from all – are available online. Some of the most useful websites are mentioned in my Tracing your Church of England Ancestors: a guide for family and local historians. Many of these are fee based. However, some are free. If you want to investigate your ancestors at minimal cost, especially before census and civil registration records began, then you could do worse than search the five free sites mentioned below.
Registers of baptisms, marriages and burials were instituted by Thomas Cromwell in 1538, and continue to be kept to this day. These are the first port of call for anyone trying to trace ancestors before the census and civil registration began. Numerous websites are devoted to them. In recent years, many registers have been digitised. That means you can read them online for yourself, without relying on fallible transcribers. Payment for viewing those on my first top website is not required. Just visit Family Search.
1. Family Search
This website of the Latter Day Saints has numerous digitised, fully indexed, and browsable parish registers from Cornwall (with a handful from Devon), Manchester, Norfolk and Warwickshire. This means that you can not only search the index for specific names, but you can also browse through the register itself to see what else it might tell you. Collections from some other counties are also available, but have to be viewed from one of the Latter Day Saints’ Family History Centres. The website also hosts the International Genealogical Index, the largest online index to baptisms and marriages, and provides access to millions of other records which are in the process of being made available online.
2. Internet Archive
The Internet Archive has digitised many out of copyright books. Amongst these is an index to the marriage licence allegations (petitions for licences) of the Vicar General of the Archbishops of Canterbury between 1660 and 1694, which provide a useful complement to the numerous printed parish registers on the same site. Search this website for G.J.Armytage’s Allegations for Marriage Licences issued by the Vicar-General of the Archbishop of Canterbury. (5 vols. Harleian Society, 1886-90). Note that this site has also digitised numerous other printed transcripts and indexes of genealogical sources.
3. National Library of Wales: Wills
Until 1858, the Church of England was responsible for proving wills. That responsibility was exercised through numerous probate courts, and, again, there are numerous websites hosting transcripts, indexes and digitised copies of wills. The most extensive free collection covers almost the whole of Wales.
4. Cause Papers in the Diocesan Courts of the Archbishopric of York 1300-1858
The Church was also responsible for adjudicating disputes over moral and probate issues. Its courts created masses of documents. In particular, the interrogatories and depositions of witnesses provide vivid eye-witness accounts of life as it was lived hundreds of years ago – and frequently provide information on family relationships. Cause papers from the Northern Province have been digitised and indexed and you can explore them here.
5. CCEd: The Clergy of the Church of England database
The Church also, obviously, kept records of its clergy. If you have clergy ancestors, you are in luck! Many of the sources needed to trace clergymen have been indexed for a major database, which aims to provide some basic data for every priest who served in the Church between 1540 and 1835.
Stuart Raymond is the author of Tracing your Church of England Ancestors: a guide for family and local historians (Pen & Sword, 2017; ISBN 1473890640; £14.99).