Most people will know Henry VIII had six wives, and some will know that in order to have his marriage to his first wife Catherine of Aragon annulled so he could marry Anne Boleyn, he took the drastic step of splitting from the Catholic Church and became the Head of the Protestant Church of England so changing this county’s religion. However few realise that this latter action was to create a legacy that continues today and which helps every genealogist in England and Wales to research family histories.

Parish Registers:
In the 1535 Henry VIII gave the role of Vicar-General to Thomas Cromwell, who set about establishing and reforming the new Anglican Church. One of his reforms was the creation of Parish Registers to record baptisms, marriages and burials.

The 1538 Act requiring parishes to keep these registers was not initially very popular as many thought that it would create a new way for the King to tax his people, however no tax was every attached to these records. This was not a totally new idea as some parishes already kept such records, but this was the first time it became a National requirement.

As the parishes had to purchase the record books from their own budgets original registers where made of cheap paper and for this reason few early registers still exist. It was during the reign of Henry’s daughter Queen Elizabeth in 1597 that further legislation ensured that parish registers were made of parchment, and that copies of previous paper registers had to be made starting from the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign in 1558.

Bishops Transcripts:
Another key feature of the 1597 legislation was that church wardens had to copy the register entries on an annual basis close to Easter time and send the copies to the diocesan archives.

The main reason behind this decision was the prevention of fraud as it was known that original entries could be altered to allow or prevent an inheritance or create a legitimate birth by adding a fake marriage record. These copies became known as the Bishops Transcripts and are an invaluable source to genealogists when the original register has been lost or damaged.

Parish registers have gone through a few changes over the years, but they are still the most important set of records before (and in some cases) after the introduction of civil registration in 1837, and it is all thanks to Henry VIII.