17th Century records

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Most people were poor and lived in rural parishes. The increase in population in the 16th century bought poverty and the Poor Law system was established, inc. the Settlement Act - where individuals had settlement status in a parish that would support them if necessary. Many emigrated. It was also the 'Little Ice Age'.

1662 London was 10 x bigger than Norwich, the next biggest city. Society and families were organised hierarchically. Peers were hereditary. The Gentry did the governing and generated the records. Records included: vestry and parish officials / Diocese and Arch Deacon / Quarter Sessions and Assize courts / Civil and Equity courts / Manorial courts / State papers.

Note: Southwark, London, was low and dodgy at this time. Women said to be from Southward are being accused of being prostitutes.

Note: Midwives were licenses to baptise sickly children and encouraged single women to declare the father. It was only later that they became medical.

Problems are in locating doc'ts, not easy to use, poorly kept, inconsistencies, law is hard to interpret, pre 1733 often in Latin, lesser courts declined as London grew, rarely indexed for names.

Quarter Sessions

1601 Poor Law Act was foundation for next 200 years - parish overseers were to maintain and set poor to work and to fund out of the parish rates; 1662 Settlement Act restricted migration between parishes. You had to rent a tenement worth £10 or have a job or be born in the area, to have settlement; The Petty and Quarter Sessions administered these acts, and the parish apprentice disputes in rural areas.

London - Middlesex Sessions / City of London Sessions - records held by LMA. Need to know the court it took place in, check both. 'London Lives' website has some Qu. Session material.

Church and Vestry

Only 800 parishes with registers that survive to 1538. Originals held in local county offices (note Ancestry doesn't have all marriages pre 1754).

1603 saw the 141 Cannon Laws that governed divine service and the teaching etc pertaining to church management eg: set age of consent for girls at 12 and boys at 14 - with guardian consent. There is the argument that the poor didn't marry but cohabited.

Civil war made safe keeping of record difficult. Have the Commonwealth Gap 1645-1660. Church Courts were in abeyance from 1645 so no marr. licenses. The Directory of Common worship replaces Book of Common Prayer. Every parish was to have a civil marr. register which could be held by the Magistrate. JPs might perform marr. So there are gaps in marriage records. Info could be retrospectively added. In 1660 pre war legislation was mostly reintroduced. Were then places that stayed free of the Bishop of London and marr. didn't need banns - St Janes Dukes Place / Holy Trinities Minories / St Boltophs, Aldgate / Tower of London / The Mint / Liberties of the Fleet Prison (lasted the longest).

1694-1706 a tax on marr, births and burials. Tax on bachelors and widowers ofr 5+ years. Fined if you didn't register events. This meant an increase in paupers and a decrease in no. of entries in the registers. Rise in no. of non parochial churches. Had unbeneficed clergy performing marriages. (Vicar of Tong performed clandestine marriages.)

From the 16th Century the Vestry took on many of the administrative functions of the medieval manorial court. It nominated the officers of the parish – church wardens, constables, surveyors of highways, overseers etc. It set parish rates to pay for the running of the parish and oversaw the accounts presented by the officers. It decided how parish money should be dispersed for the upkeep of the church, the parish and highways and to provide for its poor and infirm under the poor laws.

Church courts

Useful for genealogy c.1350-1850.

Covered probate, marr. licenses, matrimonial disputes, insect, formication, adultery, unseemly behaviour, heresy, witchcraft, clergy discipline, licensed midwives, schoolmasters, surgeons.

Were 100s of courts and each Diocese had several. A Diocese could cover more than one county. Hierarchy:

  • Top Archbishop Prerogative Courts in Canterbury and York - PCC & PCY.
  • Bishop Consistory/Commissary Courts in a Diocese.
  • Archdeacon Archdeaconry Court in an Archdeaconry.
  • Peculiars Crown, Cathedrals, Universities, Manors, other Dioceses or Archdeaconries, Vicars or Archbishop

Go to Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers. C.R. Humphrey-Smith, 3rd ed. 1851 jurisdictions at FamilySearch.

LMA have good records for Diocese of London

Court of Arches - for disputes and appeals within the prov. of Canterbury.

High Court of Delegates also for disputes and appeals form PCC, PCY and other high courts.

Presentments - offenders presented against eccles'l laws, written out by church wardens. Eg: Leicestershire Archdeaconry church court example index 1679-1820

Act Books eg: of the Peculiar Court of Banbury 1625-1638.

London Courts at Doctors Commons - offices of PCC sat here, with some others. Other English courts also kept records here.

London Consistory Court Depositions can be found at British History Online (1586-1611); FMP has an index; LMA has lists on open shelves (not useful for common names) but the catalogue has more names from c.1887.


Pre 1858 wills found at County/Diocesan Record Offices/Borthwick Institute/ TNA.

TNA research guides for finding PCC wills and FMP has indexes to see if a will exists.

Disputed wills for Arch. York 1300-1858, best online source is Borthwick.

1640-1660 (civil war) only PCC dealt with wills - on Ancestry.

Most wills were not PCC or disputed so are found in the lesser local church courts (more are being digitised).

Try BYU probate guides

General rules:

  • Land/property all in one archdeaconry =ARCHDEACONRY COURT
  • Land/Property in more than one archdeaconry but within one diocese =CONSISTORY/COMMISSARY
  • Land/Property in more than one diocese but all in Province of York = PCY
  • Land/Property in more than one diocese but all in Province of Canterbury = PCC
  • Land/Property in both Provinces = PCC (senior)
  • Outside archdeaconry but still in jurisdiction of Consistory or Province = PECULIAR

What else did they do?

Issued marriage licenses / church monies and dues / governed morals of the time

Bawdy Courts:

  • Equivalent to parking fine levels
  • Corrupt and religiously zealous and not popular with Puritans
  • Expensive and disliked
  • Could focus on changing fashionable issues of the day eg: 1587-99 the repair of church buildings, 1600-09 not receiving holy comm'n, 1620-30 sex before marriage

Two categories of business:

1) Office cases

  • Disciplinary, moralistic, criminal
  • Short procedures in a book
  • Often ended in excomm'n

2) Instance

  • eg: two parties on dispute such as defamation or tithes.
  • Longer cases could lead to reams of documents inc. depositions, interrogatories, sentences, decrees, citations, libels, allegations
  • Could be taken onto another court
  • Often held in County Record Offices
  • Often doc'ts on same case can be filed in separate places
  • Private index to witnesses at Consistory of Canterbury (East Kent) by Duncan Harrington [Is this a book, not sure]

Social roles

Husbandman - can be a rank not just an occupation. A free tenant, farmer or small landowner. "Knights, esquires, gentlemen and yeomen were also husbandmen if occupied in agriculture, but were never styled husbandmen because of their right to be styled knights, etc. The agriculturist who had no right to be styled Knight or esquire or gentleman, and who, not being a forty-shilling freeholder was not a yeoman, was described as husbandman.“

Yeoman - a person qualified by possessing free land of 40/- (shillings) annual value, and who can serve on juries and vote for a Knight of the Shire. A small landowner, a farmer of the middle classes.

Landed Gentry - historical British social class consisting in theory of landowners who could live entirely from rental income, or at least had a country estate. It belonged to Aristocracy, but was socially below British Nobility or Peerage. They often worked as administrators of their own lands, while others became public, political, religious, and armed forces figures.

The above individuals left wills which (may include inventories), were listed in estate records and manorial court records.

For the upper classes - look to county visitations pedigrees / education / magistrate / professions / City of London Guild and Livery co.

Where to find records

Local record offices. Records are not always online. FamilySearch Library cat. has records but they're not always indexed. Inc. vestry minutes, churchwarden a/cs (pew rents, church rates, civil duties etc)

Thomason Tracts at the BL for the civil war - search for place names.

'BCW Project' British Cvial Wars project online, has a biographical index. Note that Regiments were raised locally.

'Cromwell Association' has directory of parliamentarian army officers (on British History Online website).

Civil War Petitions.


  • Research guides for Sequestration and Compounding. Parliamentary committees administered seized estates - Books and Papers 1643-1653 Seq. Comm (SP20) / Books and Papers 1643-1653 Delinquents (SP23). Has info on marr., dower rights, annuities - they could pay money to Parliament as compensation to regain their estates.
  • State Papers Online (doesn't include Comm. for Compounding as the project ran out of money).
  • Quaker registers (R66) [also look online at BMD Registers and Friends House Historical Society and Quaker Family Historical Society].
  • Huguenot registers [also see Huguenot Society].
  • Loyalty Oaths - see TNA research guide.
  • Tax records - see below.

'Compton census of 1676' ed. by Ann Whiteman. Ecc'l survey. Can tell how non-conf the parish was that you are researching.

Try local record societies - often publish material. Also the Record Society.

Heraldic visitations of 16th and 17th centuries. Pub'd by Harleian Society. Important source of genealogical information for armigerous minor gentry and those middle class families who prospered by buying land and property (and status) after the dissolution of monasteries after 1530s. Use with care and confirm with comtemp. records if possible. Start with Cecil R. Humphrey'-Smiths book to see the family names - 'Armigerous Ancestors'.

Taxation documents:

  • Recusant rolls 1591-1691: for fines imposed on Catholics and some non-conf. for non-attendance at church. (TNA E376 -379)
  • TNA (E179 database) for tax records. Not so name rich. Get tax lists for counties you are interested in but need to view at Kew.
  • Ship money 1630-1640 lists may have names. Based on rents, annuities & offices but limited scope.
  • Protestation returns: 1642 closest thing to a census. Adult men swore an oath that was sent to Parliament. Survive for about 1/3 of English counties. Many published in Parliamentary Archives online.
  • Hearth Tax 1662-1689 (E179)
  • 1641 Poll Tax at Canterbury Christ Church Uni.

Best resource for Yorkshire records is Borthwick Institute for Archives (Uni of York).

Court depositions are held at Uni of South West England.

Archdeaconry of Nottingham. "research resource in the primary context of ecclesiastical court history, and touches also on many issues of local church estates and property, parish and community concerns, family structure and individual lives. For particular periods - such as the mid-17th century - analysis of the documents can enable historians to see how local patterns reflected national changes in religious observance. Genealogists make use of the series of marriage bonds dated 1565-1884."


YouTube for videos on 17th century Britain - 'crash course on...'

The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England.

Institute of Historical Research has online videos.

BBC videos.

History Extra. Stuart Britain: what was life like for ordinary people?

Heralds' Visitations and the College of Arms.

Hearth Tax digital.

Recent Indexes to English and Scottish Probate Records - www.dur.ac.uk/a.r.millard/genealogy/probate.php


'The history of parish registers in England' by John Sutherland Burn.

'The parish registers of England' by John Charles Cox.

'Tracing your ancestors’ parish records' by Stuart Raymond.

'The Civil War and Interregnum: sources for local historians' by G.E. Aylmer and J.S. Morrill.

'The story of England: a village and its people through the whole of English history' by Michael Wood.

'The weaker vessel: woman’s lot in 17th century England' by Antonia Fraser.

'Restoration London' by Liza Piccard.

'Concise Pepys Diary'

'Coffers, clysters, comfrey and coifs: the lives of our 17th century ancestors' by Janet Few.

'Global crisis: war, climate change & catastrophe in the seventeenth century' by Geoffrey Parker.

'My ancestor was a Londoner' by Cliff Webb.

'Tracing your Huguenot ancestors' by Kathy Chater.

'Huguenot heritage' 2nd ed by Robin Gwyn.

'Records of the established church' by Dorothy M. Owen, British Records, Association 1996.

'Church court records' by Ann Tarver, Phillimore & Co, 1995.

'Wills and probate records: a guide for family historians' by Karen Grannum and Nigel Taylor.