The First Parish Register

The oldest existing parish register for St Nicholas church covers almost an entire century, from the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I, to the early years of the Commonwealth in the 1650s (with a smattering of records from the 1660s and 70s).

This first register started as a copy – evidence suggests that the original registers went back as far as 1538, the year where such records were first taken, but if this was the case, those registers have been lost for centuries; in 1812, under a brand new Act for “regulating and preserving Parish and other Registers“, the vicar of the time, William Whinfield, conducted an audit of all the existing registers, and wrote on the front that the register in question was “No. 1 from 1559 till 1652”.

The copy appears to have been created shortly after Hugh Branham took over as vicar in 1574, and was undertaken by himself and the churchwardens of the time.

The reason behind this blog post is that this register holds much more information than the names and dates contained within – the structure, the gaps and vacancies, the styles of handwriting, and even the languages used, tell tales of intrigue, and of conflicts and struggles within the church in that era.

One such tale comes from a gap between May 1565 to June 1571 where, barring a couple of exceptions, no birth, marriage, or burial records were taken. This large gap is best known for being the period when Christopher Jones, master of the Mayflower, would have been born and baptised, but such a record, along with many others, is lost to the mists of time. The reason for such a significant gap has never been made clear, but it may be related to another unusual quirk of the early years of the register.

Back in these days, and indeed officially until 1752, the first day of a new year was on March 25, so the days between January 1-March 24 were still considered part of the previous year (for example, I am writing this in January 2019, but under the old system it would currently be January 2018). The early years of the register, up until 1564 inclusive, follow this as expected, but for an unknown reason, a decision was made to treat January 1 as the start of the year, so the few existing records for 1565 begin from that date.

It is possible that this was seen as an act of Catholic defiance, at a time when the Protestant monarch was the subject of plots involving replacing her with her Catholic cousin. The refusal to record parish affairs may have in itself been a protest. However, when records resumed in 1571, it is clear no compromise was made, as January 1 was still taken as the start of the year for the next decade. The start of the year eventually reverted to being March 25, but in rather confusing circumstances.

As stated, from 1571, when births, marriages, and deaths were once again recorded, up until 1582 inclusive, January 1 was taken as the first day of the year, which as a reminder was highly unusual for the time. But in 1582, the Gregorian Calendar was formally introduced and adopted by a number of Catholic countries, which for many of them also meant the start of the year was January 1. This appears to have prompted a reversal in the St Nicholas register, as follows…

1583 began like previous years, with January 1 being taken as the start of the year, and from then until March records were taken as normal. However, in bringing things back to “normal”, for the period of time when both calendars agreed the year was 1583 (so from March 25 to December 31), no records were taken. There is therefore a seamless gap in the register at this point, until the following January, when marriages and burials were recorded again – this period, from January 1 to March 24, was now considered part of 1583 (but what we would consider 1584), and from March 25 all records resumed, it officially being 1584. I said it was confusing!

In the decade or so that followed, there is still evidence of the occasional slip up, but for the most part the beginning of the year was taken as March 25, in line with the rest of England.

As this is going on a bit, there will be a second part, discussing this first register in the 17th century, with stories of Latin and neglect.