A guide for family historians using church registers before 1733 when Latin is the official language, identifying key words and phrases to help you make sense of the records.
Although not the common spoken language in England, the official written language was Latin until 1733. Many priests did start using English before 1733, and it is very common to find entries during the Civil War (1643-1653) and Commonwealth (1653-1660) periods too. If you studied Latin at school, this will help, but beware Medieval Latin can be archaic and is quite different from Classical Latin.
A few words of warning before you begin
- Abbreviations: Latin words and names are heavily abbreviated. Although the abbreviations are not always consistent, they are often found as a ’ at the end of the word or a line across the top near where the missing letters should be: e.g. Johes [Johannes – John] or Rici’ [Ricardi – Richard]
- Inflections: Latin is an inflected language, meaning that many words, such as personal names, have different endings according to their meaning. For example, Hannah filia Caroli Lomas et Hanne uxoris bapt. Meaning: Hannah daughter of Charles Lomas and Hannah his wife was baptised.
- Spelling: There is no standard spelling of surnames and many place names; this doesn’t mean a name has been spelt incorrectly as all forms are correct. It is also very unusual to find a capital ‘F’,; instead ‘ff’ is used, but it should be translated as ‘F’. Letters ‘i’ and ‘j’, and ‘u’ and ‘v’ are used interchangeably; and sometimes a ‘c’ will appear where you might expect a ‘t’.
Form of Register Entries
Baptisms: can be identified by the use of words such as baptizat; baptizatus; baptisata; bapt.; baptizarus erat.
The typical entry reads: ‘NAME son/daughter of FATHER’S NAME and MOTHER’S NAME his wife’, e.g. Johannes filius Ricardi Milnes et Helena uxoris baptizat – John son of Richard Milnes and Helen his wife.
- filius – son of
- filia – daughter of
- uxoris – wife of
Marriages: often abbrievated to ‘nupt’, but may also appear as uxorati sunt; conjuncti fuere
Burials: identified by the use of the word ‘sepulta’, often abbreviated to ‘sepult’ or ‘sep’
Other words commonly found include:
- vidua (abbreviation: vid.) – widow
- spurious/nothus/vliciatus – referring to an illegitimate child
- Months: Januarius, Februarius, Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Julius, Augustus, September, October, November, December
- Roman Numerals are often used for the date which is squeezed on to the end of a line. Read the dates above and below the entry you are interested in to make sure you have recorded the correct information.
Did you know? Before 1751, the year began on 25 March not 1 January. Entries between 1 January and 24 March are usually entered using the “Old Style” or civil year; but we should understand the date under the “New Style” or the historical year. An entry dated 14 February 1726 actually took place on 14 February 1727 from our point of view. This explains how a child baptised on 8 June 1687 could be buried on 19 March 1687 – as 1688 didn’t actually start for another 6 days.
Some names are generally quite obvious, e.g. Henricus (Henry), Edwardus (Edward), Robertus (Robert), Elizabetha (Elizabeth), Dorothea (Dorothy). But, there are some names that are a little more difficult, and others that are not as obvious as they may seem. Here are some common examples:
- Antonius – Anthony
- Carolus – Charles
- Galfridus – Geoffrey
- Gratia – Grace
- Gulielmus – William
- Helena – Helen
- Hugo – Hugh
- Jacobus – James
- Johannes – John (beware Johanna for Joanne/Joanna)
- Margareta – Margaret
- Maria – Mary (sometimes Maria)
- Petrus – Peter
Some examples from Derbyshire Parish Registers
- Johes filius Rici’ Milnes baptizat – John son of Richard Milnes was baptised
- Elizabetha uxor Thome Cartledge sepultus – Elizabeth wife of Thomas Cartledge was buried
- Thomas Hand et Ellena Turner nupt. – Thomas Hand and Ellen Turner were married
- ffranciscus Alwood de Newbold sepult. – Francis Alwood of Newbold was buried (note that ‘ff’ at the beginning of a word is the traditional form of the upper case ‘F’)
- […] uxor Ed: Hurst sepult. – [Name unknown] wife of Edward Hurst was buried
There are practical online guides with activities available from The National Archives and University of Nottingham: Manuscripts and Special Collections, as well as a large number of published guides on Latin and other tips for using parish registers in our Local Studies Library.