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"Our little life is rounded with a sleep" Prospero, The Tempest

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's collection of parish church registers helps us to know about the birth, life, and death of William Shakespeare, as well as aiding us in finding the genealogical records of local families.

Victoria Joynes

The Reading Room team brings you this series of blogs to shed light on documents relating to Shakespeare held at the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, how they relate to our wider collections, and how these types of documents can be useful to those investigating their own family history.

How better to begin this series, on the week of William Shakespeare’s Birthday, than to look at the Holy Trinity Parish Register 1558 – 1652. On this very day in 1564, Shakespeare was baptised.

Holy Trinity Church , where William Shakespeare was baptised and buried.
Holy Trinity Church , where William Shakespeare was baptised and buried.

The Parish Register is of enormous significance as it contains the baptism and burial of William Shakespeare, as well as records for his children. Bound in brown leather with a brass Tudor Rose on each corner, the front of the register presents the date, 1600. This date refers to when the register itself was physically created; however, many of the entries pre-date it. It was decided that parish registers should be kept in 1538. From this date they were kept on paper. In 1598 there was a decree that paper registers should be copied out onto parchment since it was more durable; subsequently, all entries since the beginning of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign in 1558 were copied and the original paper registers were discarded. Because of this, early pages in each section of the register are very neat and in the handwriting of the copyist, whereas after 15th September 1600 the copying ended and entries were made by the parish official at the time. All of the entries relating to Shakespeare in the parish register are marked with “X”--there are 3 next to his baptism! At some point, possibly when the register was on display in the church, someone marked all of these entries. It is obviously not something we would do now, but it does make the relevant entries easier to find!

Parish Register, 1558-1653, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon
Parish Register, 1558-1653, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

William’s baptism is written in Latin: “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere” (William son of John Shakespeare). Registers of the 16th and 17th centuries were often written in Latin. They could be written in either Latin or English at this time  (Shakespeare’s burial is recorded in English, “Will Shakespeare. Gent”).  After 1733 the use of Latin in registers was forbidden. The exact day of Shakespeare’s birth has always been a matter of speculation, but it is celebrated on the 23rd April each year, which is based on the entry of his baptism in the Parish Register on 26th April 1564. Children would usually need to be baptised before the following Sunday. The 26th was on a Wednesday, so his birth could not have been earlier than Sunday 23rd. If you look at the year of Shakespeare’s birth in the burial register, it becomes clear how lucky it was that Shakespeare survived. Written in the summer of 1564 are the words “hic incepit pestis” (here began the plague). The number of burials chillingly accelerated at this time--this phrase was added later to explain the growth in burials. More than 200 people died in the town at the time, which was roughly 1/6th of the population. Shakespeare’s burial entry is the original record and is not in the hand of the copyist. It is most likely that the man who wrote the entry knew Shakespeare himself. The fact that he is recorded with the word “gent” next to his name signifies his social standing. The register also includes the baptism of Shakespeare’s children, Susanna (26 May 1583) and the twins, Hamnet and Judith (2nd February 1585), as well as Hamnet’s burial (11th August 1596). The register came to be looked after by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1966, kept in an environmentally controlled strong room on behalf of the church.

Parish Register, 1558-1653, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon
Parish Register, 1558-1653, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

How can parish registers help with family history research?

Parish registers can be an invaluable source for people who are searching for their own family history. Church of England parish registers were the prime source of information for genealogists particularly between 1538 and 1837 but they also remained useful sources after this date as, although this is the point that civil registration was introduced, many births were omitted from the system until 1875. From 1598 copies of entries from many parish registers were prepared by parish priests and sent to bishops or archdeacons. These copies are known as Bishops’ Transcripts. Catholic priests also kept registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, and from the 17th century Protestant groups such as the Baptists also developed independently of the Church of England and kept their own registers. There can be so many parishes in a small area that it can be difficult for family historians to know which parish records they need when tracing ancestors. Parish registers are often easier to get hold of than civil registration certificates. Despite the order that parish records should be kept in 1538 many parishes did not start keeping registers until some years later. Many early registers did not survive, and there are some gaps in many registers, particularly around the period of the Civil War. Parish registers contain the names of people, the dates when they were either baptised, married or buried, and the names of some of their relatives. A register may also record whether spouses were widows or widowers, as well as the occupation and place of residence of those people marrying, being buried or having their children baptised. After 1754 marriage registers should have included the signatures or marks of the spouses or witnesses (who were often the spouses’ parents or other relatives). You may find your ancestor in registers acting as a witness to someone’s wedding.

A baptism entry in early registers usually only recorded the date and the names of the child and the father. In the 18th century the mother’s Christian name started appearing on entries. In 1812 baptisms, marriages and burials were required to be printed in separate books, for burials entries only recorded the name of the deceased and the date of the burial. Later registers recorded the deceased’s age, occupation, abode or even the cause of death (particularly from 1812). If the age of the deceased is recorded in their burial record then this can help in the location of their baptism record. A date of burial may help with the location of the gravestone or the location of a will in probate court records.

Parish Register, 1558-1653, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon
Parish Register, 1558-1653, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

Which parish registers can be accessed in the Reading Room?

In the Reading Room here at the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, it is possible to look at Parish registers for the Church of England: Holy Trinity Church, St. James the Great, St. Andrew’s Shottery, St. Peter’s Bishopton (old chapel and rebuilt on new site in 1836) and All Saints Chapel Luddington; for the Congregational Church: Rother Street Independent Chapel; for the Methodist Church: Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Birmingham Road; for the Roman Catholic Church: St. Gregory’s, Warwick Road; and for the Baptist Church: Payton Street Chapel. The churches tend to keep the more recent registers; the latest we have is 1988 but the dates vary for those that we hold. It is worth checking with us to see if we have the register you are looking for. We also hold registers and Bishops’ Transcripts for many other local parishes; some can be viewed on microfilm, microfiche, hand copied manuscripts or printed copies published by the Parish Register Society.

For more information on Shakespeare’s entries in the parish register, and the use of parish registers in general, the following books are useful and also available in the Reading Room:

Bearman, Robert, (1994), Shakespeare in the Stratford Records, Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd.

Schoenbaum, S., (1975), William Shakespeare A Documentary Life, Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Savage, Richard (transcriber), (1897), The Registers of Stratford-on-Avon In the County of Warwick, London: Parish Register Society.

Herber, Mark D., (2000), Ancestral Trails. London: Sutton Publishing Limited.

Adolph, Anthony, (2008), Tracing Your Family History, London: Collins.

For Shakespeare biography:

Wells, Stanley, (2002), Shakespeare For All Time, London:  Macmillan.

Greenblatt, Stephen (2004), Will in the World:  How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, London:  Jonathan Cape.

Honan, Park (1998), Shakespeare:  A Life, Oxford:  Oxford University Press.