As we have seen, both Civil Registration and Census Returns run out when you get back to c.1840, and rarely provide information relevant before 1800. At this stage you need to turn to Parish Records - these date back to 1538 when Cromwell, at the Court of Henry VIII, ordered that every wedding, baptism and burial should be recorded.
Early records were made on paper but from 1558 parchment was used, and the older records were supposed to have been copied, although some never were and have been lost. From 1597 a second copy had to be made and sent to the Bishop - these transcripts are often in better condition and written more legibly.
There may be gaps in Parish Registers between 1553 and 1558 and the Catholic Mary Tudor was on the throne, and between 1642 and 1660 during the English Civil War and Commonwealth.
It is worthwhile investing in Parish maps for your relevant counties - these not only mark the boundaries of each parish and show adjacent parishes (very useful for tracking mobile ancestors!) but can also give dates that registration began in each parish formed before civil registration. One such atlas can be found at GenealogySupplies.com, called the Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers, which gives over 1800 maps and details of how to locate both original parish records and copies of them.
In 1783 a stamp duty of 3 pence was imposed on every entry, although paupers were exempt. Tax evasion naturally occured, with a decline in working and middle class entries, but a marked increased in pauper's entries. The Act was repealed in 1794, and declared unsuccessful.
By an act of 1812 baptisms, marriages and burials were entered in seperate, specially printed books, eight entries per page and including more information.
Baptisms included Father's occupation and Mother's maiden name. Marriages included parish of origin of both paries, names, status (e.g. bachelor, widow, etc), ages, signatures/marks, and those of two witnesses. Burials included age, occupation and abode. Between 1678 and 1814 an affidavit was required to be sworn that the deceased was buried in wool or a fine of £5 was given.
Marriages are either by banns or by licence. Banns are found in the parish register, the couple's intention to marry being read on three occasions in the parish churches of both the bride and groom. If you know where the groom lived just before the marriage, this record will tell you of the parish of the intended bride, which is normally where the wedding took place a few weeks later. Licences were sometimes handed to the couple marrying, and have not always survived, though a search can be made for its bond or allegation, which will give information of value, names of those who stood surety, as well as the names of bride and groom and place of marriage, and sometimes occupations of the sureties and groom.
Researchers of the 18th Century will probably come across the confusion caused by the change of dating system. In 1751 England and Wales were still using the old style, Julian calendar, which began each year on March 25th. Most of Europe has changed to the new style, Gregorian calendar, and so England also decided to change. This meant that 1751 commenced on March 25th and ended on December 31st, and was only nine months long. Many register entried before and during this period made between January 1st and March 24th have a double entry (e.g. Jan 1st 1750 may be shown as Jan 1st 1750/51.)