THE CLERKS AND THE PARISH REGISTERS
A study of an old parish register reveals a remarkable variation in the style and character of the handwriting. We see in the old parchment pages numerous entries recorded in a careless scribble, and others evidently written by the hand of a learned and careful scholar. The rector or vicar ever since the days of Henry VIII, when in 1536 Vicar-General Thomas Cromwell ordered the keeping of registers, was usually supposed to have recorded the entries in the register. Cromwell derived the notion of ordering the keeping of the registers from his observation of the records kept by the Spanish priests in the Low Countries where he resided in his youth. Archbishop Ximenes of Toledo instituted a system of registration in Spain in 1497, and this was carried on by the Spanish priests in the Netherlands, and thus laid the foundation of that system which Thomas Cromwell introduced to this country and which has continued ever since.
But not all these entries were made by the incumbents. There is good evidence that the parish clerks not infrequently kept the registers, especially in later times, and from the beginning they were responsible for the facts recorded. The entries do not seem to have been made when the baptism, marriage, or burial took place. Cromwell’s edict required that the records of each week should be entered in the register on the following Sunday, in the presence of the churchwardens. It seems to have been the custom for the clerk or vicar to write down particulars of the baptism, marriage, or burial in a private memorandum book or on loose sheets of paper at the time of the ceremony. Afterwards these rough notes were copied into the register book. Sometimes this was done each week; but human nature is fallible; the clerk or his master forgot sometimes to make the required entries in the book. Days and weeks slipped by; note-books and scraps of paper were mislaid and lost; the spelling of the clerk was not always his strongest point; hence mistakes, omissions, inaccuracies were not infrequent. Sometimes the vicar did not make up his books until a whole year had elapsed. This was the case with the poor parson of Carshalton, who was terribly distressed because his clerk would not furnish him with the necessary notes, and mightily afraid lest he should incur the censure of his parishioners. Hence we find the following note in his register, dated 10 March, 1651: