Why is the Tudor period so important for family history?


02 September 2022
Queen Elizabeth I
Steve Roberts take a look at why the Tudor period of 1485-1603 is so important to family historians.

The Tudor period spans 1485-1603 and the lead event happened several decades into the era. It’s all thanks to Henry VIII’s (in)famous civil servant Thomas Cromwell, whose Monday mandate on 5 September 1538 (for each parish to keep a record of the baptisms, marriages and burials of its inhabitants) that family historians have such name-rich records, giving details of our ordinary ancestors, to search today. 

The mandate applied to England and Wales; coverage is inevitably incomplete, but the 1563 requirement for the details of baptisms, marriages and burials of the parish to be copied into parchment registers (a rule that was employed retrospectively back to the start of the reign of Elizabeth I [1558] in some places) led to better survival rates. This was particularly so as 1563 also saw the introduction of Bishops’ Transcripts (copies of the parish registers being made and sent to the diocesan archives annually by each parish). It wasn’t until 1598 when these requirements were enforced that the survival rate really picks up though.

Aside from all the other records that we search – until we get to the civil birth, marriage and death records and densus records of the mid-1800s – the parish registers (and Bishops’ Transcripts) are the only record collections that cover people of all ages, genders and walks of life. So their widespread establishment in the Tudor period is transformative to our family history search into the lives of our ordinary ancestors.

Tudor record resources

  • The FamilySearch Wiki has a useful timeline of information regarding parish registers in England: 
  • Search too in the FamilySearch Wiki for your parishes of interest to learn about the survival rate of records from the Tudor period.
  • Phillimore’s Index to Parish Registers has long been the go-to reference for details of coverage with maps.
  • The FamilySearch map site allows you to search on places of interest, viewing, for instance, parish boundaries and coverage dates too: 

And of course – which records are online? Check the growing collections on the major online data providers: Ancestry, Findmypast, TheGenealogist, FamilySearch. See too the relevant family history society for your area of interest.

To read a transcript of the wording of Thomas Cromwell’s 1538 order about parish registers, see RootsWeb.

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Text extracted from an in-depth article on Tudor research in the October 2022 issue of Family Tree. Download your copy here.

About the author

Steve Roberts is a freelance writer and author of Lesser Known Christchurch.