There are 132 ancient parishes in Hertfordshire and the surviving original registers are held at HALS and all, but the most recent, are on microfilm. Sixteen registers start in or shortly after 1538, while for most of them there are gaps at the time of the Commonwealth which can mean that there is a continuous record only back to about 1660. In some cases registers have been lost (for instance by fire) and in some cases they were not as well kept as one would like. It should be noted that non-conformist baptisms would not normally be included in the parish registers and that only a few of the earlier non-conformist registers survive. However non-conformist burials often took place in the parish churchyard, and are mentioned in the parish registers, where there was no suitable non-conformist burial ground.
Non-current parish registers are, with very few exceptions, now held at an approved centre - which in Hertfordshire is at HALS in Hertford. Most other old parish records are held there - so there is little point in contacting the church. A list of the Hertfordshire registers at Hertford is given on the HALS web site, while those available worldwide on microfilm are listed on the familysearch web site.
Many (but not all) pre-20th century parish baptism and marriage registers are indexed on the IGI (familysearch) or on the British Isles VRI.
During 2012 FindMyPast are to digitise the Hertfordshire Parish Registers and Bishops Transcripts held at HALS up to 1910 for baptisms, 1928 for marriages and 1990 for burials.
Some general points about early parish registers.
Some Hertfordshire Registers are indexed on FreeREG
Note: The Society of Friends (Quakers) kept their own registers from the mid 17th century and should be considered a special case. See My Ancestors were Quakers.
Bishops' Transcripts (BT)
From 1598 incumbents were required to make an annual return to the bishop, usually at Easter, which contained a list of all the baptisms, marriages and christenings in the parish. These are now at HALS and some may be available on microfilm, and may be indexed on familysearch or on the British Isles VRI.
If the parish registers survive and are in good order there may be nothing to be gained from the bishops' transcripts, but they can be invaluable if, for example, the register is incomplete or has other deficiencies. The following points should be born in mind:
Drawing up the list was an annual chore. If the register is well lept it is unlikely to contain more information than the register - and may well contain less detail. There is also the possibility of transcription errors and accidental omissions.
Each annual return was on a separate piece (or pieces) of paper for each parish. Some returns may never have been made, and some may have got lost over the years, so there may well be gaps in the sequence.
During the Commonwealth period few returns were made - which is unfortunate as this was a time where the registers may be deficient or even missing.
The registers would be kept in the Parish Chest, which was locked, and may have required two or more key holders to be present to open it. Probably for this reason some incumbents failed to make entries in the register at the time, preferring to make notes on pieces of paper or a private notebook and copying the information into the register at a later date. The registers, and the bishop's transcripts would be copied from these rough notes at a later date. Where this has happened differences may occur between the registers and the bishop's transcripts. (Some short gaps in the registers may have occurred because the incumbent died before he got round to copying his notes into the register - and the transcripts may partially fill the gap.)
Particularly for earlier periods spelling was often erratic, so the names may be spelt differently, and may sometimes be in different handwriting. For these and other reasons it may be easier to identify a name on one document rather than the other.
The book Tracing Your Family History in Hertfordshire contains a table showing the coverage of both the registers and the bishops transcripts for each Hertfordshire parish.
Spring Clean June 2006