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Registration and RecognitionDocumenting the Person in World History$

Keith Breckenridge and Simon Szreter

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780197265314

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197265314.001.0001

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Registration of Identities in Early Modern English Parishes and amongst the English Overseas

Registration of Identities in Early Modern English Parishes and amongst the English Overseas

(p.67) 2 Registration of Identities in Early Modern English Parishes and amongst the English Overseas
Registration and Recognition

Simon Szreter

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

From 1538 the new Protestant church of Henry VIII provided a system of registration of baptisms, marriages, and burials in all parishes of England and Wales. This chapter re-examines the original motives behind the creation of this system, and explores the reasons for its effectiveness and persistence over the ensuing three centuries in Britain by surveying the comparative history of identity registration systems among the British overseas in the early modern period. A review of the variety of measures for registration set up in the North American and Caribbean colonies during the course of the seventeenth century confirms the importance of the security of property-holding in an increasingly commercial world as a motive for creating such systems. However, this review also indicates the importance of whether or not effective social security systems, giving entitlements to relief, accompanied these early identity registration schemes.

Keywords:   parish registers, England and Wales, sixteenth century, North American colonies, Caribbean colonies, seventeenth century, Poor Laws, human rights

Introduction: Thomas Cromwell’s founding injunction of 1538

ON 5 SEPTEMBER 1538, under the newly-Protestant monarch, Henry VIII, his Vicar-General and the most powerful man in the kingdom after Henry himself, Thomas Cromwell, issued an official injunction to every parish incumbent (parson, vicar, curate or rector) in England and Wales to make a written record in a book of every christening, wedding and burial ceremony conducted in the parish.1

Careful attention was given in Cromwell’s instruction to a set of four crucial, practical issues: first, the question of the accuracy of the record; second, its safe-keeping; third, its security from being tampered with or altered; and fourth, how to ensure compliance with the injunction from the parish officials.

To ensure accuracy, the entries were to be made regularly each Sunday, after the community’s attendance at weekly service, by the minister of the church in the presence of at least one other official witness – one of the parish’s two churchwardens (a parish office originating in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, whose primary function was to ensure the maintenance of the church fabric).

Secondly, the parish was to provide for the safe-keeping of the register book in a ‘sure coffer’. Thirdly, for security this sure coffer, or safe, was to have two locks, with the parson having charge of one key and the two churchwardens the other. Thus the book was not to be available to any single person alone, offering the opportunity for tampering with its contents.

Finally, to ensure compliance, there was to be a penalty of 3s 4d (one sixth of a pound sterling, a very large amount corresponding to about a good week’s wages for a labourer) for failure of an official to undertake the recording of the ceremony, with the funds so generated going to the churchwardens’ primary tasks of repairing (p.68) the church, presumably giving them an additional incentive to keep the incumbent to his new task.

To our eyes today there appears to be one apparent design weakness in Cromwell’s set of safeguards to ensure the system’s completeness and integrity. There is an absence in Cromwell’s careful set of provisions of any fines or penalties imposed on the lay population for failing to register a vital event, although there were, at least, no fees or taxes attached to the process, which could have been a deterrent, especially to the poor. As I will argue in the next section, in fact this may not have been an oversight at all but, rather, a vital clue to understanding one of Cromwell’s most cherished intentions for the scheme and, indeed, those of his Tudor successors, most significantly Elizabeth I and her advisers, architects of the English nation’s extraordinary innovative national social security system, the Poor Laws.

Parish registration in early modern England and Wales, 1538–1794: the creation of a system of civil rights by an exclusionary confessional state

During the next sixty years Cromwell’s initiative was considered to be sufficiently important that the injunction was repeated by all three of Henry’s Tudor successors, first by Edward VI in 1547, who added a modification that the proceeds of all fines were to be allocated to the parish’s poor. During the five-year reign of Mary, 1553–1558, when there was an attempt by the Crown to bring England back to the Catholic faith, the practice of keeping the parish registers in the manner set out by Thomas Cromwell was continued. The only modification to the registration system during this intermission of official Catholicism was attempted by Cardinal Pole in 1555 and again in 1557 when he required his bishops to ensure that the names of sponsors (godparents) were entered in the baptismal registers, an issue of particular interest to the Catholic church (Tate 1969, 45).2 This stipulation was promptly (p.69) dropped by Elizabeth I when she re-issued in 1559, under her new Protestant authority, Cromwell’s original registration edict.

After four decades of further operation of the registers, towards the end of her reign Elizabeth I approved the proposals of her ecclesiastical hierarchy meeting at Canterbury in 1597 to institute a significant upgrading in the various practical arrangements to ensure the fidelity of the registers’ information and to safeguard their permanence. From 1598 it was ordered that the originals of the registers in each parish church should now be entered on superior quality parchment to be purchased at the expense of each parish. Furthermore, all the old entries in the cheaper paper registers were now to be copied into the new high quality registers to preserve them. Secondly, the weekly entries were now to be made by the minister in the presence of both churchwardens and all three officials were to sign the foot of each page in the register to attest to its accuracy. Consequently the ‘sure coffer’ of safe-keeping was now to have three separate locks and three keys. Thirdly, a new method of ‘quality control’ by the community was introduced, in that the entries of each previous week were to be read out to the congregation after the Sunday service allowing public scrutiny of the accuracy of the entries. Finally, another important innovation was the provision that the churchwardens would be responsible for transmitting once a year to the diocesan registry a complete transcript of all the preceding year’s entries, thereby greatly ensuring the preservation of the records by institutionalizing an archived duplicate, while also establishing the facility for magistrates and legal practitioners of a single location within each diocese for consulting all its historic parish registers (Tate 1969, 45).

Of course we recognize in all this a very contemporary theme of the central state dreaming up a whole set of time-consuming tasks for local officials to carry out. Given that the role of churchwarden, though ubiquitous, was an unpaid voluntary role taken on often in rotation by respected members of the local community, and that the curate gained no fee for making entries in the register, it is an intriguing testimony to the authority and vigour of the youthful post-Reformation state and its new, Anglican church (according to the Oxford English Dictionary the term’s first recorded use was in 1598 by the future James I) that a large proportion – several thousand – of the sixteenth-century registers of England’s 10,000 parishes survive to the present day, indicating a high degree of compliance in 1598 (Wrigley and Schofield 1981, 2).

However, there were also other compelling reasons, beyond that of simple obedience to their religious leaders by the clergy of the established church and their (p.70) flocks, for the populace’s willing cooperation with compiling the registers – and for their careful preservation and historic survival. As can be seen from the foregoing, the central state and the church’s hierarchy were going to a lot of trouble – and were prepared to give orders that implied considerable inconvenience and effort for local officials – apparently in order to ensure that the parish records of christenings, marriages and burials were kept as accurately and securely as possible. One major reason for all this was that from their instigation Thomas Cromwell had deliberately created the parish registers to serve as legal documents which would be valid in a court of law, stand up to hostile cross-examination and so provide security of title to property and to the intergenerational transmission of property for that substantial proportion of the nation’s community who had items of value, even if not land itself, to pass on to widows, children and other relatives. Why? As I have argued elsewhere it is likely that there was genuine demand for this service (Szreter 2011, 337). The English populace probably enjoyed the most widely diffused ownership of modest amounts of individually alienable property in Europe at this time, rendering the issue of inheritance legally problematic for a much greater proportion of the populace than throughout much of the continent, where property was subject to stronger customs of patrimonial ownership and transmission.

In containing this legal, indeed civic, rationale as a motive in their design, the early modern parish registers of England (and Wales) constitute, I think, a historic innovation in law and government of some magnitude. They may well represent the first general registration system in history created to serve the civil and legal needs of a populace (Chapter 8 in this volume by Looijesteijn and van Leeuwen describes a wide range of such systems in Holland at this time but none of them general to the whole populace, due to Holland’s confessionally-divided population, partly a consequence of its systemic economic reliance on immigrant labour). This novelty has perhaps been obscured from view until recently by the fact that the registers were maintained by ecclesiastics, parish incumbents and their bishops, not by secular civil servants. With their ecclesiastical administrative structure of collection and compilation, the English parish registration system appears to resemble the other ancien régime parish registers established by the Catholic church in the previous century by Archbishop Ximenes in Toledo and also by the French Catholic state almost contemporaneously with Cromwell’s initiative, through the Villers-Cotterêt Ordinance, 1539. However in both these Catholic cases the documented motive for creating the register of communicants is believed to have been primarily ecclesiastical, not legal-civil. A key difference, therefore, was the equal attention given to burial registration in the English scheme, a neglected feature of the Catholic systems.3 In contrast, in the English case we have a clear and public (p.71) statement issued by Cromwell to the Justices of the Peace in every county explaining that the primary function of the parish registers was to provide individuals with attested family and kinship records with which to avoid or settle legal inheritance disputes. The registers were: ‘for the avoiding of sundry strifes and processes and contentions arising from age, lineal descent, title of inheritance, legitimation of bastardy, and for knowledge, whether any person is our subject or no’.4

Our conventional framework of historical periodization for thinking about the history of censuses, registration systems and the political and ideological relations between governors and governed in general envisages the period from the late seventeenth century through the eighteenth century as a crucial watershed era, encompassing the rise of Enlightenment and secular reason, scepticism at received religious doctrines, growing state toleration for religious diversity, and the emergence of a commercial and civic society and of an accompanying liberal theory of citizens’ rights. Thus, Lynn Hunt has recently published a book titled Inventing Human Rights (2007), which, she argues, occurred during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.5 Yet here we have, over two and a half centuries before most of the texts discussed by Hunt, an early sixteenth-century European monarchical and confessional state endowing all its non-voting subjects with the practical basis for the effective exercise of their individual human rights in relation to the fundamental issue of personal property rights, through a state-sanctioned legal identity registration system. Furthermore, before Elizabeth I’s reign was over the Tudor state had also proceeded to endow all subjects with a ‘legal personally enforcable right to relief’ (Charlesworth 2010, 5, 35) through a universal social security system, the Poor Law, thereby also equipping them with the basis of that set of social and economic rights enshrined in the late-twentieth-century UN Covenant (p.72) on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which remain today a dream for the citizens of many of the Covenant’s democratic signatory states. How could it be that an early modern monarchy and confessional state could have not only conceived but implemented such a system – as a practical, governmental, social and economic reality, whose constitutional and philosophical principles, the historians of political ideas tell us, were not going to be invented for a further quarter millennium?

It is also of course the case that we tend to define as civil registration systems those which were created from the nineteenth century onwards, in contradistinction to the earlier systems of ecclesiastical registration found in many European countries. A distinguishing feature of such ‘modern’ civil registration systems is supposedly that they register the biological events of birth and death, not the religious rites of baptism and burial, and that, by acts of liberal nation states in the nineteenth century, they were deliberately created to be ‘secular’, applying to all citizens regardless of religious faith. It would seem to be particularly anachronistic, or perverse, therefore to claim that a state-sponsored system registering the ceremonies of the established church, administered by its parish incumbents in the middle of the century of the religious wars of reformation and counter-reformation, could possibly be characterized as a civil registration system. However, perhaps we touch here upon a further and much more subtle politico-ideological purpose, which also lay behind Cromwell’s injunction, something which even Geoffrey Elton, despite his suspicions and for all his intimate acquaintance with the Tudor governing elite, does not seem to have considered.

Was Cromwell’s innovative institution in fact also a measure whose ingenious design was intended, in the long term, to act to disenfranchise from their dynastic property and wealth all subjects who would not voluntarily consent to have their marriages conducted according to the Protestant liturgy of the established church, who would not have their children christened by the Church of England’s ministers, and who would not consent to be buried according to its rites? For such recusants and dissenters there would be no legally-valid set of records created to ensure their legal inheritance in the brave new world of the Church of England. Thus, I would suggest Thomas Cromwell’s political motive lay lurking in the final, apparently casual clause of his statement to the Justices of the Peace, explaining that the new registration system would also give ‘knowledge whether any person is our subject or no’. Given that the English monarch was also head of the established church, whether a person was ‘our subject or no’ in this context in 1538 really meant ‘whether Catholic or no’, a meaning which would not have been lost on the contemporary magistrates who received the message from the king’s Vicar-General.6 Cromwell had thus created a brilliant, subtle, insidious and long-acting (p.73) weapon which used individuals’ voluntary inclusion or exclusion of themselves and their families in the registers of the established church as a means to acquire or forfeit recognition of their legal status and civil rights to transmit property. If a correct inference, this then would explain the surprising lack of any clauses compelling the populace to register, mentioned at the outset above as an uncharacteristic, apparent lapse in Cromwell’s failsafe design for the system’s operation. Cromwell was quite happy to allow those rejecting the new universal faith of the established church to exclude themselves from the new registers, which were so carefully constructed to be public records of permanent legal validity. This was to place themselves, their families and their property outside the legal registration system and at a permanent economic disadvantage to all others in society.7

I think, then, that this line of reasoning may provide us with a plausible political motivation, appropriate to its proper historical context. This motive was not dissimilar to that of the Catholic church’s attempts, since the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, to devise forms of parish registration as a means to distinguish between the faithful communicants and heretics.8 Nevertheless, as so often happens in history, the institution which Cromwell launched in part to achieve his subtle political and ideological aim of gradually extinguishing the resources of dissenting families, also provided an important basis and model for English subjects, during the course of the next two centuries or so, to enjoy many of the civic virtues and legal services that only the much later civil registration systems of the nineteenth (p.74) century were to provide in the rest of Europe for the citizens of liberal nation states in the post-Enlightenment period.

Once created, the parish registration system subsequently flourished and developed into a comprehensive and efficient system, which persisted not just for decades but for centuries. This is a remarkable historical fact, given not only the modest literacy rates in the populace,9 but also the radically devolved and essentially voluntary nature of the scheme. In order to explain the popularity of registration and the consent of the populace to continue to use parish registration in a nation that in the course of the seventeenth century became, first, religiously bitterly divided to the point of civil war and then religiously plural as a statutorily-recognized fact (the Act of Toleration of 1689), we need to understand how certain crucial further legal and social developments provided important incentives for all to participate. Constitutional and legal developments came to amplify yet further the importance and value of the parish registration system for English subjects of all kinds, rich, middling and poor. It was this almost universal appeal and genuine functional value of the parish registration system to virtually all persons, in their variety of economic circumstances – not just those with property to dispose of – which probably accounted for the persistence and survival of parish registration as a universal practice, despite the practical awkwardness of maintaining it in a society of relatively limited literacy, growing religious diversity, and widespread (if not as widespread as elsewhere) poverty.

If we return now to the narrative history of successive legislative modifications, we can explain how the Henrician and Elizabethan parish registration system acquired its widespread social appeal and how it managed to survive the turmoil of England’s century of constitutional and religious revolution, the literal decapitation of the head of the Anglican church, Charles I, and the decade, 1649–1660, of parliamentary Commonwealth and Puritan rule under Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate.

In 1598 when Elizabeth I supported her bishops’ efforts to upgrade further all aspects of the registration system to give its records the legal virtues of accuracy and permanence, this was also the year in which her government promulgated the first of two epochal statutes which established the legal basis of a comprehensive national social security system for England and Wales of a sort which had never been seen before. These were the Poor Law statutes of 1598 and 1601, which followed a number of earlier attempts, notably in 1536, 1547 and 1572, to devise a satisfactory administrative solution to the perennial problems for the poor of periodic high prices, unemployment, illness, old age and orphanhood (Slack 1988, 1990). A crucial, innovative feature of the Poor Law from 1601 onwards was that all property-owners in every parish were compelled to contribute to a fund to support the poor of their parish. For the next two centuries every householder in the parish was rated (p.75) in proportion to the value of their property holdings to contribute to the parish fund, and every individual with a legal settlement in that parish had an entitlement to support from the fund in times of hardship. Justices of the Peace, holding their appointments at the pleasure of the Crown – not at the behest of the local elites – scrutinized the annual rating list each year to ensure it was fair and adequate. The fund had no limit – a plea of lack of funds in the parish was not admissible in law. Poor individuals, if refused relief, had a well-recognized right to approach a magistrate (Justice of the Peace), in his court, even in his home or on the hunting field, state their destitution, explain that aid had been refused and ask for help. The Justices could, and often did, make an Order that relief must be given. This was not an appeals procedure; it represented a long-standing personal right that was eventually given a procedural formality in the terms of an Act of 1714. Parish officials were bound to assist the pauper and obey the magistrate’s Order; failure to do so was contempt of court and officials incurred a personal liability (Charlesworth 2010).

Thus, not only did property-owning individuals now have a powerful interest in the efficient working of the parish registers to provide them and their heirs with uncontested legal title to their property, but so, too, did the parish’s propertyless poor. Entitlement to a share of the parish’s funds in times of difficulty was a right, and therefore a quasi-property, well worth having for oneself and one’s children. An essential step to ensure this right was registration of all baptized children in the parish register, since the place of birth conferred any individual’s primary right of entitlement (known as a person’s ‘settlement’) in that parish, though for all women a correct marriage registration was equally significant, since on marriage a woman’s parish of ‘settlement’ became that of her husband. It was possible to change one’s place of settlement during the course of a lifetime, especially if moving to take up long-term paid work in another parish, but it was strictly observed by all officials administering the Poor Law that any individual could only possess one parish of settlement at a time.10 Much of our historical knowledge of the Poor Law has been generated from documentation of legal disputes between parish overseers of the Poor Law concerning which parish was financially liable to support various mobile individuals, with the production of parish register evidence often playing a role in this (Snell 1987; Hindle 2004).11

(p.76) Given the importance therefore of accurate registration to everybody in the parish, rich and poor, now that all were bound together by the Poor Law in this system of reciprocal financial obligations and entitlements, the declaration of a Puritan Commonwealth after the defeat of the king in the English Civil War required ideologically appropriate adjustment, if this scheme was to continue under the new regime. Consequently during 1653 and 1654, by executive ordinances of government, custody of the registers was taken out of the hands of ministers and placed with a new secular official, the ‘Parish Register’ (sic), elected by all rate-payers in a parish and approved by a magistrate. Justices of the Peace were also now entrusted with the solemnization of marriages, in place of ministers of the Anglican church, and civil marriages were legalized. Placing all registration functions in the hands of civil officials thus raised the problem of how to pay for their labour, now that the Anglican church and its clergy were no longer employed in this work by a confessional state as a free service. Consequently registration now attracted fees, set at 12 pence (equal to one shilling, one twentieth of a pound) per birth and baptism, and 4 pence per death and burial (Tate 1969, 46–47).12 Thus, note also that a shift in terminology, from the ecclesiastical registering of ceremonies of the Anglican church of baptism or christening and of funeral rites to the civil registering of the biological events of birth and death, first occurs (but only temporarily until the Restoration of an Anglican monarch in 1660) in ordinances of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, for the obvious reason that the monopoly of the Anglican church was no longer official policy of the nation’s government.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, given this novel financial disincentive of having to pay fees to register, the parish register records of the Interregnum decade are considered by historians to be the least well-kept or reliable before the late eighteenth century (when rapid urban and dissenter growth disrupted the accuracy of many) (Tate 1969, 47). Although the Interregnum registration ordinances became void with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and Anglican ministers resumed their unpaid roles, three decades later, under William and Mary, an even greater financial disincentive to registration was put on the statute books when for the first time Parliament granted the Crown the right to levy a tax on the registers, ‘for carrying on the war against France’, of two shillings (2/-) per birth, 2/6 per marriage and 4/- per burial (Tate 1969, 48). Given its fiscal aims, for the first time it was therefore necessary also to provide penalties for non-compliance, a colossal £2 fine (40 shillings) for a birth not notified to the vicar within five days. Vicars were now to earn 6 pence from their customers for each registration entered in their books, or also face a £2 penalty as a sanction on them to ensure they policed the unpopular Act (which, however, they often neglected to do). The experiment in using parish registration for fiscal purposes ended after its five-year period of parliamentary (p.77) licence expired in 1699 and was not again repeated for almost 100 years until 1783 (Tate 1969, 49–50). Again this was unpopular, and passed at a time when the Anglican hierarchy was already becoming extremely concerned at the failure of parish clergy to maintain their registers properly in the face of rapid population growth and the proliferation of dissenting congregations, and again the experiment was repealed in 1794 (Basten 2006, 43).

Parish registration among the English in North America in the early modern period, 1583–1800

Some dissenters, most particularly the Quakers (also the Methodists and some Catholic ministers), were keeping their own legally-valid registers from the late seventeenth century onwards in the new ‘tolerant’ English state ushered in by the Act of Toleration of 1689.13 The Quaker registers perfectly exemplify how Cromwell’s innovative institution, designed in part to exclude Catholic recusants from civil and legal privileges, was in fact coming to provide the model for a universal system. The common people in England appreciated the value to themselves of an identity registration system, and, as has been pointed out above, the creation of the Poor Laws added an additional, crucial dimension to the functional importance of registration in people’s lives.14

However, there is also available to us as historians an interesting comparative methodology for evaluating further and refining the interpretation that has been put forward so far. During the century following Elizabeth I’s consolidation of the parish registration system in 1598 and before the Act of Toleration in 1689, groups of Englishmen of various religious persuasions and with diverse motives left the land of their birth, with its Anglican registers, and went to settle in various trading posts and colonies, which subsequently coalesced, through the course of much conflict with the governments of the other European colonizing powers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (principally Holland and France, respectively), into the British empire of the nineteenth century. It is thus possible to review the early histories of settlement in these diverse islands and territories to examine whether and for what reasons identity registration systems were considered at all important by the early modern English when they settled in lands lacking such ecclesiastical (p.78) systems of legal record, providing something of a laboratory for studying the circumstances under which registration systems of varying kinds were created.

The beginnings of the history of the formal British empire are often dated to Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s claiming of Newfoundland for the Crown in 1583. However, throughout most of the early modern period not only was there no official interest in settling Newfoundland, but it was positively discouraged as a wasteful activity, since it was not viewed as a valuable producer of agricultural commodities but only as an abundant fishery. Thus, the first colony permanently settled with official approval and support in North America was Virginia in 1607. As regards our interest in the early history of identity registration, the government of Virginia provides an important first precedent which indicates that parish registration was, indeed, highly valued as a priority among the early modern English.

After its initial settlement from 1607, the Virginia Company’s charter was revoked in 1624 and the colony transferred to royal authority as a Crown colony. Soon after, in 1632, in the context of a growing population, the Grand Assembly of Virginia required ministers from every parish to present themselves annually at court to provide a register of all burials, christenings and marriages (Shapiro 1950, 86). At this time the population of Virginia stood at just over 2,500, though it was to reach over 18,000 by 1650 and almost 60,000 by 1700 (42,170 white and 16,398 black inhabitants). It could be considered rather unsurprising, however, in a Crown colony, which was governed as a province (with its governor and his council appointed by the Crown and having right of veto and dissolution over the Assembly of representatives of the province’s freeholders), that the Anglican parish registration system would be rapidly established. It might be argued that this does not necessarily provide evidence of the attitudes towards such systems of identity registration of the settlers themselves but rather of their governors – ultimately the Crown. This is why the comparative evidence provided by the early history of Massachusetts, the other most important and equally fast-growing early English settlement in North America, can be of considerable interest.15

(p.79) New England was mainly populated by dissenters from the English established church and was settled independently of the English Crown. The New Plymouth colony of course was the first such to be settled in New England, with the arrival in 1620 of the 102 Separatist Dissenters, or ‘Pilgrims’, aboard the Mayflower. The subsequent Massachusetts Bay colony settlement dated from 1630 but was larger and was the first to be constituted by a self-governing charter. From 1691 it formally absorbed the Plymouth settlement and it also included from 1660 the counties of Maine (which only subsequently became a separate state in 1820).

Massachusetts was from the outset in 1630 a relatively independent political corporation, created by letters patent from the Crown, which gave the colonists control over the land and their own powers of legislative government (only in 1692 did Massachusetts reluctantly became a Provincial Colony by royal charter). The settlers formed a General Court immediately in 1630, as their legislative body, whose representatives were elected by all freemen of the colony, provided they were Christian. It is interesting for our purposes, therefore, that within just a further few years this more autonomous new colony had also passed its first registration laws, in 1639. It is furthermore extremely clear that the recording of property ownership for legal purposes was the main motive for the registration laws in the eyes of the twenty or so independent communities of colonists which by then comprised Massachusetts. Thus, the Massachusetts Bay colony’s law convened by the General Court in Boston in 1639 stated: ‘That there be records kept of all wills, administration, and inventories, as also of the days of every marriage, birth and death of every person within this jurisdiction’ (Gutman 1958, 60).

At that time the population was mostly settled in twenty-two officially recognized, fairly widely-dispersed townships. According to Gutman,

The records were to be kept by the recorder of each town, an appointed official whose job also included making records of the place of each man’s house and lands, the judgements in every Court and a record of all purchases by the Indians and from the Indians.

(Gutman 1958, 60)

It was also required that these records were certified once each year by the General Court itself, stipulating that without this certification they would have no legal status. Robert Gutman also notes, however, that ‘The law did not specify who was to inform the recorder of these events, but whoever the person was, he was ordered to pay the recorder one penny for each event registered’ (Gutman 1958, 60–61). Finally, any town failing to send its records annually for certification would be fined £2.

Gutman reports that two more laws were required in 1642 and 1644 to perfect this system (and then a third in 1657 because of rapid immigration and a further doubling in the number of townships and expansion in the area of the colony). The net effect of these additional laws was to place responsibility for collecting the (p.80) information of births, deaths and marriages on each town’s clerk of the writs, a legal officer of the colony’s county courts, while the magistrates’ court of each town was to replace the General Court as the authority granting legal certification to the record. From 1644 ‘all parents, masters of servants, executors and administrators’ were charged to bring information of vital events to the clerk, with fines for neglect of this duty (Gutman 1958, 63). By 1645 the Plymouth Bay colony had also endowed itself with a General Court (it had initially been owned by an oligarchy), and the following year it passed its own registration law, which was very similar to the 1644 version of the Massachusetts law.

According to Gutman there was one further, final legislative change to the Massachusetts registration system in the pre-revolutionary period. This occurred after the English Crown revoked the truculently independent and self-governing colony’s charter in 1684, replacing it, after protracted negotiations, with a new royal charter as the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1692. However, this certainly did not result in the imposition of a parish registration system on the Anglican model in this religiously independent colony. Registration was now more entirely placed in the hands of the town clerks, to such an extent that they were no longer required to send copies of their records to the central certifying and archiving office of the General Court. Gutman argues that there was a logic to this because the town clerks were now appointed subject to the approval of the General Court and therefore they were in effect officials of the Court, such that their records acquired the same status as legal evidence as those of the Court itself. Gutman further explains that, given the widely dispersed nature of settlement in over eighty towns across the enlarged province of Massachusetts and the poor state of communications, this form of delegation, and local archiving of these legal documents, made good practical and administrative sense, ‘Since the majority use of vital records during this period was as evidence in disputes in local courts’, and hence there was also a new provision allowing the clerks themselves, rather than the central government, to issue certified copies of their records for use in courts of law (Gutman 1958, 71).

With no centralized administrative mechanism to check on the clerks’ diligence, there was no system of penalties on the clerks for defective or missing entries. However, the question of how to ensure a full and accurate set of legal records, which as we have seen had always been a practical consideration of all English registration measures since Cromwell’s original injunction of 1538, was not neglected. Instead it was to be achieved in a different way with a range of other incentives and controls. First, it was clearly stated in 1692 that the clerk ‘is empowered and required to take an account of all persons that shall be born or die’ (Gutman 1958, 70); second, the clerk was for the first time required to record the name and surname of parents of both the newborn and the deceased and to give the time of the event. To comply with this instruction would clearly require a relatively full and informed, firsthand interview with the relevant informant, and the stipulation to record all the collateral family detail was a well-judged device (p.81) to guard against future falsification or attempts to tamper with the record, as was the insistence that the register book be made from high quality parchment. Third, the clerk was given a handsome incentive to ensure full compliance in his local population. It was the duty of any person ‘related to or concerned for’ a person born or dying to inform the clerk within thirty days (Gutman 1958, 70). The clerk was empowered to bring before the Justice of the Peace anybody in the county neglecting this duty, from whom the clerk would personally receive 5/- as forfeit if convicted. The clerk was also personally incentivized for routine registrations, for which he received a fee of 3 pence for each one; and also a fee of 6 pence for each subsequent copy supplied as a certificate for legal purposes (Gutman 1958, 70).

Thus, in the colony of Massachusetts, communities of independent Englishmen during the early seventeenth century, despite wishing to have nothing to do with the Crown and the established church, were nevertheless keen to endow themselves with a locally-devolved civil registration system which recorded their vital events and gave their record permanent legal validity, following practice in the mother country, primarily because they recognized the economic importance to themselves and their posterity of recording births, deaths and marriages, as of equivalent value to legal records of their property holdings and land purchases. It can also be seen that information on best practices regarding registration flowed in both directions across the Atlantic. This dissenting colony had devised solutions in the 1640s to a number of the practical problems which were to be faced and solved in similar ways in the following decade in the mother country during the Interregnum, when the Puritan regimes wished to redesign a registration system which dispensed with the services of the Anglican parish ministers. Fees had to be charged to pay for the work, and in the absence of diocesan discipline over parish ministers, the secular recording agent now had to be monitored and incentivized. In 1650s old England, as in 1640s New England, the mechanism of a fine was introduced to ensure regular transmission of copies of his register to the secular monitoring authority, for certification of legal validity and secure deposit (Tate 1969, 47).

To summarize, the colony of Massachusetts, despite its dissenting, independent and self-governing complexion, had also set up, in the course of the seventeenth century, a widely devolved, carefully incentivized and secure system of legal-civil registration inspired by, but quite distinct from, the Anglican registers of the mother country, aspects of which in turn appear to have been copied in England during its own temporary Puritan ascendancy.

The English overseas in the Caribbean in the seventeenth century

In the remainder of this chapter I will review the history of the forms of registration that were adopted by Englishmen forming settlements overseas elsewhere (p.82) in the seventeenth century. Given space constraints, I will look only at the range of Caribbean settlements, which in fact constitute most of the cases of early English settlement and formation of self-governing communities before 1700.16 My principal guide and source of information is volume III of the great work of reference created by the demographer Robert René Kuczynski (1876–1947), his uncompleted four-volume Demographic Survey of the British Colonial Empire (Kuczynski 1953).17 As will be seen, a variety of practices were adopted in these varying circumstances but it was also almost always the case that the establishment of a legal identity registration system was viewed as a relatively high priority.

In the Caribbean, Barbados in 1661 appears to be the first colony to have legislated for the registration by the church of christenings, marriages and burials on the island, with the relevant clause of the Act proclaiming that this was explicitly modelled on the practices in the mother country for the advantage of ‘Posterity’, a reference to the legal inheritance functions of such records:

Clause IV. And whereas it hath been and still is a laudable Constitution and Custom of our native County [sic], to have in every Parish a true and perfect Register kept of all Christenings, Marriages, and Burials … which hath been found, and is found to be of much advantage to Posterity: Be it therefore enacted … by the President, Council and Assembly … as a Duty incumbent on every Minister in his respective Parish within this Island, do keep a true and perfect Register of all and singular the Christenings, Marriages and Burials within the respective Parishes (the Churchwardens of every Parish to provide a large Book fit for the keeping the said Register) … [and to provide] a Certificate of the same into the Secretary’s Office, in the month of March yearly, there to remain on Record [with penalty of 1,000 lbs ‘Muscovadoe Sugar’ for failing to make the annual return].

(Kuczynski 1953, 82–84)

Barbados was settled very early, from 1627, and then grew fast (2,000 settlers by the end of 1628 had grown to a population of 20,000 whites by 1680), but in fact the first successful and lasting British colony in the Caribbean was established three years earlier in 1624 on St Christopher, often known as St Kitts and paired (p.83) with its sister island Nevis, which was also settled by the English from 1628.18 From the 1640s St Kitts and Nevis developed to become a leading producer of sugar cane in the Caribbean, using imported African slave labour working for estate landowners.

The first known documentation relating to registration on either island is somewhat later than that on Barbados. On Nevis in 1681 there was passed ‘An Act for Ministers’ Dues, etc’ which stipulated ‘That the inhabitants of each Parish in this island shall pay … 2000 lbs of sugar [per year] to each Clerk who is to keep a Register of all Christenings and Burials in each Parish’ (with any neglect by the clerk to be fined by ‘the General and Council’) (Kuczynski 1953, 305). This Act was upgraded in 1705 and 1724 with provisions ‘That in every Parish Church there shall be kept three large Paper Books for the publick Service of the said Parish’, one for Parish Accounts, one for the Vestry Acts, ‘a third as a Register for Christenings, Marriages, and Funerals, the last of which to be kept by the Minister only’ (Kuczynski 1953, 305). On St Kitts the first documentation of registration appears in 1711 when ‘an Act for regulating the Vestries’ stipulated ‘That in every Parish Church shall be kept two large Paper Books for the publick service of the said Parish’, one for the Parish Accounts to be kept by the churchwardens, and one ‘as a Register for Christenings, Marriages, and Funerals, to be kept by the Minister only’ (Kuczynski 1953, 305). An Act for Regulating Vestries in 1727 made more elaborate provisions: every minister was required to keep records in a bound book provided to them, with a fee of 1/6 for each christening, marriage and funeral; and a £5 fine for neglecting an entry was to be deducted from the salary of the minister by churchwardens and ‘applied to the Use of the Poor of the same Parish’ (Kuczynski 1953, 305).

Jamaica was another early prize possession of the English in the Caribbean, producing sugar cane and coffee with slave labour. Seized for England in 1655 during Cromwell’s Protectorate, it had a population of 4,000–5,000 whites and 1,500 blacks in 1660 (which subsequently grew rapidly, reaching 15,000 whites, 40,0000 of mixed race, 5,000 free blacks, and 311,000 slaves at the date of emancipation, 1 August 1834). At a general session of the governor, council and assembly of Jamaica in 1664, an Act was passed that ‘all marriages, births, and burials be recorded by the minister and sent to the secretary’s office [of the Council]’ (Kuczynski 1953, 240). This may have been stimulated to some extent by the arrival in 1662 of Lord Windsor, who brought with him a Royal Proclamation declaring that all children born of English subjects in Jamaica should be regarded as free citizens of England. However it was soon found that merely legislating for (p.84) such an institution without giving attention to administrative practicalities was insufficient. In 1670 the governor responded to a request from HM Commissioners about numbers of deaths of both blacks and whites over the previous seven years, that ‘neither can any account be given of the dead, the settlements being so far asunder, and few brought to the parish-church to be buried, and many a parish having yet no church, nor wardens, nor other officers, so that no account could be kept thereof’ (though it is known that in 1673 when Sir Henry Morgan became Lieutenant-Governor there were already 17,272 persons in Jamaica) (Kuczynski 1953, 240).

Consequently in 1683 compulsory registration of ‘Births, Christenings, Marriages and Burials’ was introduced for the rapidly growing colony of Jamaica by ‘An Act for the Maintenance of Ministers, and the Poor, and Erecting and Repairing Churches’. This stated that, by the authority of the ‘Governour, Councel and Assembly’, ‘the Church-Wardens of each respective Parish’ were to buy ‘one Fair, well-bound Book, wherein the Minister, and in case there be no Minister … the Respective Church Wardens, upon notices thereof given by the Masters of the several Families … under the Penalty of five Pounds, shall Register … by the Clerk of the Vestry of that Parish’ all persons’ births, christenings, marriages or burials ‘within the said Parish, under the penalty of five Pounds for every such Default’, and the clerk receive ‘a fee for each Entry Fifteen Pence and no more’. Asystem of fines for attempts at falsification by any official or person, ‘as the Laws of England provide against such as Steal, Raze or Imbezil, Records’, was also instituted with one half (Moiety) of such ‘Forefeitures or Penalties’ going to ‘the Poor of the Parish where the fault is committed, the other Moiety or half part to the Informer, to be recovered by Bill, Plaint or Information in any of his Majesties Courts of Record in this Island’. Finally, as to the essentially legal purpose of all this, it was stated that ‘all such Entries duly made and kept as aforesaid at all times hereafter be Deemed, Judged and taken as an Authentique Record of all such Births, Christenings, Marriages, and Burials, and in all and every the Courts of Records in this Island’ (Kuczynski 1953, 240).19

The Jamaican registration system of 1683 was, therefore, fairly closely modelled on the parish-based Anglican system, as re-established in Restoration England. Indeed the parish registration system is envisaged as an integral component in the more general aims of the Act, which are to establish practical and financial means for setting up and maintaining a system of parishes and their churches and ministers (p.85) in Jamaica. As can be seen in the title of the Act, this is envisaged as requiring not only the means of ‘Maintenance of Ministers’ but also of maintaining ‘the Poor’ of the parish. Hence, it can be seen in this Jamaican legislation of the 1680s how it had become an ingrained model for Englishmen that to found a regime of sound self-government in a new territory, creation of a system of legal identity registration was almost as foundational as setting up the parish itself and devising some agreed means of maintaining the poor. Reflected in this legislation, these institutions are seen as the three essential building blocks which make a basic unit of English civic society, a functioning community, reflecting the design and influence of the Elizabethan system of 1598–1601, tying together the three institutions of parish, Poor Law and a legal membership registration list.

The integrated nature of the links between these three institutions is made even clearer in the legislation passed the following decade in Antigua in 1692, very similar in its provisions to the 1683 Jamaica Act. Antigua had been first settled in 1632 but it was only in 1692, by which time the island’s population had grown to an estimated 5,000 (Edwards 1819, 475), that a law was passed requiring compulsory registration of christenings, burials and marriages, in ‘An Act for dividing this island into Parishes and Maintenance of Ministers, the Poor and erecting and repairing churches’ (Kuczynski 1953, 286). The Act’s title thus makes it clear that it was only when it became necessary to divide the island’s growing and prospering population into separate parishes (five were created in 1692) that it was deemed essential to require a record of who was obligated to contribute to the separate costs of supporting the three essential institutions of the minister, the church building and ‘the Poor’ in each parish. By this time the principle of having a ‘settlement’ in the parish of one’s birth, conferring entitlements to relief and obligations to contribute to the Poor fund, had become thoroughly institutionalized in England and Wales (with the formalization of the rules in the ‘Settlement Acts’ of 1662) (Charlesworth 2010). Here we helpfully see spelled out more clearly in the legislation for Antigua what had been implied also in the Jamaican legislation of 1683. Once a newly-settled territory had grown to the point where it was agreed that it was necessary to divide itself up into multiple parishes, parish-based registration of births and marriages became important for fair allocation of entitlements and obligations among the parishes, particularly with respect to their assumed function of maintaining the poor. Serving its other primary purpose of property title registration, the 1692 Antigua law was also careful to specify that these new records, kept by the churchwardens on the authority of the island’s Chief Governor, were to be deemed of legal status as ‘authentick Record … in all and every the Courts of Record in this island’, with punishment according to the law of England for any falsification’ (Kuczynski 1953, 286–287).

One further crucial difference between these two colonial parish registration systems in Jamaica and Antigua and that prevailing in England and Wales at the time was the provision to charge for the recording of all events, with a hefty (p.86) 15 pence fee for each entry, to be paid direct to the clerk of the vestry, and half of the enormous £5 fines for defaulters to be devoted to maintaining the poor. These arrangements reflect attempts in the colonies to overcome the practical difficulties of modelling their parish functions and registration systems on the established Anglican practices in England, while lacking in these newly-settled territories either endowed, salaried curates or a rate-funded Poor Law, which respectively provided the resources for the parish model of governance to work effectively in England. The colonies needed to attempt to pay for these two functions and raise funds accordingly in different ways.

This review of the history of registration in St Kitts and Nevis, Barbados, Jamaica and Antigua exhausts the set of earliest Caribbean English settlements which also passed their first registration laws during the seventeenth century, within 100 years of Elizabeth’s formalization of the English system, c. 1598–1601. Most other subsequent English possessions in the region were late eighteenth-century or early nineteenth-century acquisitions of conquest from the French, such as St Vincent, Grenada and Dominica,20 or from the Dutch, as with British Guiana.21

The history of registration in St Vincent, for instance, one of these latecomers to English rule, illustrates how registration legislation in British colonies in the Caribbean in the mid- and late eighteenth century was still strongly modelled on the Jamaica Act of 1683. In St Vincent in 1767 Clause XII of an ‘Act for regulating the Vestries in this Island, empowering them to raise Taxes within their respective Parishes, and directing the application of the same’ stipulated that churchwardens for each parish were to buy a ‘fair and well-bound Book’, wherein the minister, or in his absence churchwardens, would ensure that the Clerk of the Vestry of the Parish registered ‘the Times of Christenings, Marriages and Burials’ of all in the parish, with fines of 60 shillings for ‘the Masters of the several Families’, should they fail to inform, and fines of £20 for default of his duty by the clerk. The clerk was also positively incentivized by receipt of a fee of 3 shillings for every register entry, and receipt of the same fee for making a copy out of the Register Book to (p.87) be attested by the minister or churchwardens (Kuczynski 1953, 437). In 1810 a further ‘Act to provide for the care of the Public Register of Marriages, Baptisms, and Burials and to make the same a Public Record’ was passed, which attended to the concern to ensure permanence to these valuable legal records generated over the previous four decades. The Act stipulated that for the islands of St Vincent, Bequia and the Grenadines the records in these registers ‘be deemed and considered to every intent and purpose a Public Record’, and therefore all historic records that could be recovered were to be copied ‘at the Public Expense’ into two well-bound books of strong paper under the inspection of a Committee of the Legislature, with one of these books delivered to the Rector and the other retained in the Register’s Office with all future records of marriages, christenings and burials entered into them (Kuczynski 1953, 437).

What happened when a colony did not establish a registration system during either the seventeenth or even the eighteenth century was spelled out at length as late as 1820 in the preamble to the relevant legislation in Tobago, when it finally passed ‘An Act to supply the Defect of a Church Register, and to compel the due and orderly Keeping thereof in future’ (Kuczynski 1953, 348).22 The legislators explained that this Act was made,

Whereas through the Want of a Church Register kept of the Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, performed according to the Rites of the Established Church, by means whereof the Legal Proof of such Baptisms, Marriages and Burials becomes often extremely difficult, and the same may in the course of a few Years become impracticable, unless some Provision be made for preserving the Evidence of such Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, without which great Injustice and Prejudice may accrue to Persons whose Right may hereafter depend on the Production of such Evidence.

(Kuczynski 1953, 348)

Thus, this brief review indicates that the principal motives for the creation of a registration system – namely, the wish for a robust legal record of personal identities and kinship relations for property transmission purposes – which we have seen clearly expressed in the seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century legislation relating to English settlement in North America and the Caribbean, also remained a continuous dominant motive of English settlers overseas right through to the end of the eighteenth and into the early nineteenth century. There are no signs yet of the concern to use the registration information for matters of public health, or criminal surveillance, or as economic indices, which became much more frequent aims in the course of the nineteenth century in the British empire and elsewhere.

(p.88) Concluding discussion

In conclusion, I would offer a few reflections on the foregoing comparative account of the history of identity registration measures among the English and the English overseas in the early modern period: first, summary observations on the comparative account presented; second, a comment on the important issue, which has not been explicitly discussed so far, of practical efficacy of the various laws and ordinances in the American and Caribbean colonies; and finally, a brief suggestion of the wider historiographical significance of this story of the widespread proliferation of laws attempting to institute systems of universal identity registration for the free subjects of the English Crown in the early modern period from the sixteenth until the early nineteenth century.

First, the comparative evidence assembled on the English settlements and colonies seems to indicate that while Englishmen in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not arrive in new territories with the immediate and pre-established intention of setting up legal-civic registration systems, in almost all cases, whether at the behest of Crown-appointed governors or of the independent settlers themselves, it always emerged as a priority, and quite often early in the settlement’s history, within just two or three decades of its foundation and the growth in the settler population. When a settlement reached approximately 4,000 free inhabitants this seems to have often been a demographic point at which the formulation of registration laws and administrative systems seems to have come to be perceived as a priority, if it had not already been promulgated. Often this was in association with the settlement patterns having become sufficiently geographically dispersed that at this point it was recognized by the inhabitants that a single place of collective worship was no longer practical and that there needed to be multiple parishes formed, with separate incumbents. Recognizing the need for multiple parishes brought up the question of a register of membership, because of the financial obligations which were acknowledged to follow, relating to support for a minister, the church building and the poor of the parish, following the firmly-entrenched model of English parish local government established by the Elizabethan Poor Laws.

The legislation promulgated in all settlements also repeatedly reiterated the value of vital registration for the free settlers’ posterity, meaning the importance of establishing a secure legal record of identity relations as a key to property ownership and capacity to transmit that ownership intergenerationally with safety. Here we see a fundamental institution for the global spread of commercial and capitalist relations being legislated into existence as a contemporaneously appreciated priority by the English as they diffused and settled.

Secondly, there is the practical question of the effectiveness, persistence and efficiency of all these different colonial registration systems that were created by the English during the early modern period. So far the impression has been given (p.89) of much positive legislative activity and energy devoted to this prosaic business of government and the law. However, did these laws all work in the manner envisaged, and if not, why not? In England itself historical demographers have confirmed that in the many parishes with surviving registers we can have substantial confidence that the majority of the eligible populace’s births and deaths, at least, were reliably captured in the parish registers until the closing decades of the eighteenth century (the uniformity of coverage of marriages through the Anglican registers is believed to have been rather more variable, at least until the intervention of Lord Hardwicke’s Act in 1753 which mandated that henceforth all legally valid marriages had to be performed in facie ecclesiae) (Brown 1981, 135).

It seems that in most cases outside England and Wales, including even in Massachusetts, the colonial registration systems, whose originating acts of government have been discussed here, did not achieve in practice anything approaching universality of coverage, efficiency and persistence over the long run of the ensuing eighteenth century. Of course even the system in England became mired in inefficiency during the closing decades of the eighteenth century and opening decades of the nineteenth century, when its methods of operation were increasingly subject to urgent ecclesiastical and then government review, eventually leading to the complete overhaul of the system and the establishment of a civil registration system, administered and funded by the central state, by the two Marriage and Registration Acts of 1836. But it seems, from the poor and patchy survival of records consulted by demographic historians, that there were more fundamental practical problems which became more quickly manifest in many of the British settlements overseas, such that they may never have functioned as universal registration systems genuinely available and effective for the whole of the free population of the territory, as they apparently did in England and Wales.23

The irony here is that it was the monarchical, ecclesiastically-organized early modern system of the Old World which came closest to providing the national population of England and Wales with all the advantages of a modern civil registration system, rather than the more secular systems operated elsewhere in the English-speaking world, such as in Massachusetts. One reason for the greater longevity and effectiveness of the English system was undoubtedly the advantage of having a cost-less set of reasonably well-disciplined and disciplinable curates to keep and preserve the registers. As was shown during the Interregnum, when the English had to pay for their registrations the populace and the registering agents then became less compliant. But probably an equally important factor which (p.90) explains the success and persistence of the system in England must lie in the way in which it was functionally so closely integrated into the highly unusual and relatively well-resourced universalist Poor Law, through the laws of settlement entitlements. This accounts for compliance even among the great mass of the poor, who could not aspire to transmit real property to their heirs. The Poor Law’s settlement rules gave the masses a different form of property or entitlement and with it a very tangible reason to want to have their infants start life with a clear birthright to their right of settlement publicly asserted and permanently recorded in the parish register. This would guarantee for the child an entitlement for the rest of their life to a sufficient share of their parish’s collective wealth to be safe from destitution. In the American colonies, where many of the poor were immigrants not born in the territory and where there was an open frontier, such comprehensive Poor Law settlement rules and practices were apparently not adopted (Szreter 2013). It is also the case that any putative universality of such integrated systems of registration and social security provision was complicated in the North American and Caribbean contexts by the practice of perpetual bondage slavery, which developed widely during the latter half of the seventeenth century, creating an entirely different set of race-based relationships between the property-owning and the labouring classes in these societies. As Engerman shows, in Chapter 12 in this volume, paradoxically in the Caribbean colonies universal identity registration for black slaves only became an object of government at the point in the early nineteenth century when the authorities in London decided this would be an effective method for hastening the abolition of the institution.

Finally, let us consider the historiographical significance of this history of repeated early modern efforts by the English to create legal, civic registration systems for themselves in so many different circumstances. The account offered here may provide the basis for an interpretation with some significance, if it is the case that Englishmen, regardless of their religious denomination, came to use and consciously to value and actively defend or promote identity registration as a system of practical legal and civil rights during the course of the three early modern centuries, the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth. If that can be shown to have been the case it would demonstrate how an officially-sanctioned national system, originally instituted by Thomas Cromwell to register the ceremonies of the established church marking individuals’ reproductive rites of passage to fulfil a political aim to exclude from their property holdings those who would seek to defy the monarch by practising a distinct religious faith, was turned, over ensuing decades, into a virtually universal civil system of legal registration of identities and kinship relationships, in order to sustain around the globe the needs of a system of private capital accumulation and intergenerational transmission of wealth in a non-confessional commercial society. However, although this seems to reflect the primary intention of many of the legislative acts examined here, this comparative review would also seem to indicate that such a system only became fully effective (p.91) and persisted in practice where it was integrated with a universalist social security system, as in the parishes of England and Wales. The substantial and continuous history there of these twinned institutions from 1598 would imply that the moral, literary and political theory of abstract human rights, invented in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Hunt 2007), was in a sense a rationalization of a set of legal and administrative rules and practices with which Englishmen had become thoroughly familiar and which they had sought to promulgate in many different environments over the course of the previous two centuries. That in turn would suggest a re-evaluation of our understanding of the causal interplay and narrative between the history of ideas, government, laws, social practices and economic needs, in understanding the long-term history of the emergence of that which we have come to term ‘human rights’.


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(1) The following details are drawn from Tate (1969, 44).

(2) By 1557 Pole had become Archbishop of Canterbury, in succession to Thomas Cranmer, who was burnt at the stake by Mary for heresy. Pole’s effort would appear to reflect a direct influence of Catholic practices established in parts of Spain, following Mary’s marriage to Philip II in 1554. Granville Edge reports that Cardinal Ximenes, as Archbishop of Toledo, had attempted to introduce written parish registers in 1497, and Edge speculated that Thomas Cromwell might have conceived the idea of such written parish registers for England in emulation (Edge 1928, 354–355). My colleague at St John’s, Dr Peter Linehan, scholar of the Spanish late medieval church, traces Cardinal Ximenes’s initiative to an original innovation of written registers made in Spain half a century earlier by Bishop Alfonso of Burgos in the record of his Diocesan Synod (gathering of the clergy) of 17 May 1443. It is recorded that he there gave as an Instruction, ‘That priests write the names of godfathers and godmothers of the baptised infant and keep it safe in a book in the cupboard in the sacristy, with a penalty of one week’s wages for non-compliance’, also stipulating that at the baptism there should not be more than one ‘padrino’ or ‘madrino’ (male and female sponsors). This account is from the record of Burgos Synodal Compilation of 1503–1511, item 262, in García y García (1997, 195). This focus on the recording of godparents, as in Cardinal Pole’s efforts to modify the English registers, relates to a long-standing preoccupation of the Catholic church with policing rules and customs about who and how many persons could be appointed as a child’s godparents. This related also to its laws of incest and the seven degrees of affinity (which were reduced to four degrees at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 – on which, see also below, note 8), since appointed godparents, like those persons within the degrees of affinity, were also barred from marrying their ward. For theological explication, see Bossy (1985, 14–16).

(3) Lacking the English design as a system to facilitate inheritance, there was no equivalent strong motive for recording burials accurately and hence it has been a curse for French historical demographers that most of their parish registers fail to record deaths efficiently before the late seventeenth century (Wrigley and Schofield 1981, 2). In France the recording of baptisms was said to be in order to determine correct age of candidates to serve in ecclesiastical office. The innovation of parish registration was also an integral part of an expansive reforming package introduced by the French head of state to bolster the powers of the Crown at the expense of the church. Through articles 110 and 111 of the 192-article major reform legislation of Francis I, the French state attempted to prescribe uniform use of French in all judicial acts, notarized contracts and official legislation. In attempting to wean the clergy off Latin, burials and baptisms entered in French were now to be signed off by notaries. On fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spain, see above, note 2. The Council of Trent in 1563 ruled that all Catholic parish priests should keep records of baptisms and marriages but was silent on burials.

(4) Cromwell issued his circular to Justices with this explanation in order to scotch rumours circulating that the parish registers would be used for tax-raising purposes (a use to which they were never put by either the Tudors or the Stuarts) (Elton 1985, 259–260).

(5) Probably the most influential general study of these matters, reproducing such a chronology, has been Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1991). See also Bayly (2004). Though never producing a study as carefully documented and chronologically precise as these three historians’ works, the influence of Michel Foucault’s thesis of the rise of a state focus on ‘biopower’ has also been conducive to viewing the century of the Enlightenment as a crucial watershed in government practices, as also further elaborated by the historian of statistics, Ian Hacking (Foucault 2007, 311–358; Hacking 1991, 181–195).

(6) This also perhaps partly explains why no effort was made under the Tudors or Stuarts to extend the combined institutions of registration and Poor Law to Ireland or Scotland – because they were not Anglican. Whereas the established church in Wales was the Church of England, since the successful constitutional absorption of Wales into the kingdom of England by Henry VIII through the Laws in Wales Acts of 1536 and 1543, by contrast in Ireland, though Henry VIII was declared head of the church in Ireland, the majority of the population and their priests remained staunchly Catholic and the importation of Protestant settler landlords only further ingrained popular Catholicism. Scotland, meanwhile, though also becoming officially Protestant, adopted a distinctively Calvinist variant of Presbyterianism, with the formation of the Scottish Kirk in 1560. It also, of course, remained a separate sovereign state throughout the period until its accession into the United Kingdom in 1707, and therefore the issue of whether or not to extend the English registration and Poor Law systems to Scotland did not arise in either the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. With thanks to Paul Slack for Poor Law advice.

(7) There is an intriguing long-term historical analogy here with William the Conqueror’s strategy in creating the Domesday Book, using the power of written record in documents designed to register a legal decision in enduring form to both create and then maintain in perpetuity the desired form of polity, with some individuals and their issue economically included and others excluded (see Hyams 1987, 127–141; Baxter 2012). I am grateful to Urvesh Shelat for drawing my attention to this and to Dr Stephen Baxter for these references.

(8) The policy of ‘registering’ in some way the baptized and communicant members of the church, through an annual review at Easter confession and for receiving communion, was originally conceived as long ago as the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. In a predominantly oral culture and with a largely illiterate clergy the Lateran Council of 1215 envisaged ‘registration’ to take a spoken form of affirmation, through personal presentation before a clerical ‘witness’. Clause 21 prescribed that, ‘on reaching the age of discernment’, the faithful should present themselves individually to their own parish priest for confession and absolution at least once a year at Easter, or else be debarred from entering their church and be denied a Christian burial (Tanner 1990, 245). I am grateful to Dr Peter Linehan, for this reference.

(9) In 1540 male literacy has been estimated at 20 per cent, female literacy at 10 per cent (Cressy 1980, 177).

(10) On the laws of settlement in their administrative practice, see Taylor (1989, passim); and on pre-1662 practice, see Hindle (2004, 306–325, 403–405, 431–432).

(11) The Poor Law of 1598 included a specific provision that vagabonds (those of no fixed abode) could be sent back to their place of birth, which presupposes of course the availability of the information on place of baptism contained in the parish registers for the use of Poor Law officials (Slack 1990, 61). While historians have not systematically studied the use of parish registers in relation to the Poor Law,see Snell’s comments cited in Szreter (2007, n.17). Lorie Charlesworth’s view, from her expert knowledge of the historical records of case law is: ‘For settlement so far as I can tell, it is straightforward; the registers are accepted as proof of baptism, and therefore ok for settlement by birth proof …. I can find them mentioned in lots of cases … without any challenge’ (personal communication).

(12) Tate does not mention a fee for marriages.

(13) The Quakers were the first to start keeping their own registers – practically from their origins in the late 1640s onwards, exhorted to do so by their founder, George Fox (Vann and Eversley 1992, 15). The Act of Toleration of 1689 established that although the Anglican church continued to be the nation’s established church, there was to be freedom of worship for dissenting Protestants such as Quakers, Congregationalists and Baptists (though not as yet for Catholics), subject to individuals giving an oath of allegiance to the Crown and their exclusion from holding public offices.

(14) Quaker registration was also linked to their own system of welfare funds. See Szreter (2007, 78).

(15) By 1650 the two principal New England settlements of Massachusetts Bay (including the counties of Maine) and Plymouth Bay between them had a population of just under 17,000. This almost equalled Virginia’s total at that time of nearly 19,000 and between the two they constituted most of the 50,000 settlers in North America at that date (New York, Connecticut and Maryland comprised more or less all of the rest, each with just over 4,000 settlers). By the 1730s these two major settlements each contained about 120,000 inhabitants and were still at that date clearly the two most populous colonies in North America (though being fast caught up by Pennsylvania). On the eve of the American Revolution in 1770, of the 2.165 million people in the North American colonies, Virginia’s population was greatest with 447,000 (about 40 per cent of whom were slaves). Massachusetts (still including Maine) had 267,000 and Pennsylvania followed with 240,000. Next most populous was Maryland with 203,000, then North Carolina with 197,000, Connecticut with 184,000, New York with 163,000, South Carolina with 124,000, and New Jersey with 117,000. All other states still had no more than half New Jersey’s population in 1770. Source: Historical Statistics of the United States Millennial Edition Online, Eg1–59. With thanks to Dennis Hodgson for advice on these early American colonies’ population totals.

(16) The early British presence in India in the seventeenth century took the form more of stations trading with the indigenous populations and their governments, rather than attempts at extensive settlement, ownership and occupation of land, as in the Caribbean, where the indigenous Arawak and other populations were typically pushed out or exterminated by the European incomers, who then created their own new forms of government.

(17) Page references are to the Harvester Press edition of 1977. Three of the projected four volumes were published between 1948 and 1953, covering the Americas and Africa. In a note on p. x of the posthumously published second volume, published in 1949, it is stated that the manuscripts of both Volume III, dealing with ‘America, the Atlantic and Oceania’, and Volume IV, dealing with Europe and Asia, were ‘almost completed’ before Kuczynski died, and that in 1948–1949 they were ‘now being prepared for publication by Dr Brigitte Long’ (his daughter and research assistant). However, only Volume III appeared (in 1953), lacking the projected ‘Oceania’ section. I have not so far been able to track down the possible whereabouts of Kuczynski’s unpublished manuscripts.

(18) The indigenous inhabitants of St Kitts were massacred in the Kalinago genocide of 1626 and the island was then formally partitioned between the English and French, with the English gaining complete control from 1713 onwards after several decades of uneasy peace interspersed with conflict whenever the two powers were at war with each other, which was often.

(19) The 1683 Act was not thereafter superseded until the Acts of 1844, 1845, 1855 and 1858, which were all found to be ineffective because they replaced the elements of compulsion in the 1683 legislation with a merely voluntary principle, and so had to be replaced by two further Acts of 1877 and 1881, which re-established, under the office of Registrar-General for the island, compulsory registration of births and deaths and the keeping of ‘Civil Status Registers and documents relating thereto’ (i.e. ‘all registers containing records or transcripts relating to births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials’) (Kuczynski 1953, 241–242).

(20) On St Vincent fierce Carib resistance prevented European settlement until the eighteenth century. French settlers began plantations with African slaves from 1719 but it was ceded to British rule in 1763 (though it was briefly back in French hands from 1779 to 1783). Grenada, which became a British possession in 1783 after the treaty of Versailles (part of the Peace of Paris), had not been successfully settled by the French before 1705. Dominica had been settled mainly by French missionaries since 1635 and was not permanently under British rule until after the 1783 Peace of Paris. Its subsequent constitutional history was unusual, in that for nearly three decades from 1838 until 1865 it became the only British Caribbean colony with a black-controlled legislature of smallholders, whose interests were opposed to those of the wealthy English planter elite.

(21) British Guiana was settled by the Dutch from 1616 onwards, with the British assuming control in the late eighteenth century and the Dutch formally ceding their three possessions (Essequibo, Berbice and Demerara) to the British in 1814. The many islands of the Bahamas, another subsequent British possession, had been principally a convenient location for pirate bands to base themselves, until declared a Crown colony in 1717 followed by a sustained campaign to expel the pirates.

(22) Tobago was fought over as a colonial possession between the Dutch, Spanish, French, British and even US powers throughout the entire seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with consequently little continuity of government or sustained agricultural development, until finally ceded permanently to Britain in 1815. Trinidad had been continuously under Spanish rule until ceded to Britain in 1802. The two islands were made a single colony in 1889.

(23) This is the view expressed by Kuczynski regarding most of the Caribbean territories he surveyed. In relation to North America, the English-speaking colonies have left a patchwork of surviving records of varying quality which are reviewed in the various chapters of Vinovskis (1980); this is in contrast to the excellent and abundant registers maintained and preserved by the French colonists in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Canada (Charbonneau et al. 2000, 102).