The Protestation Returns are the closest record we have to a census from 1642. If you can trace your ancestors back to 1642, and you know which county and parish they lived in, it may be worth looking to see if their names are in the Protestation Returns.
By order of the House of Commons, all adult men were asked to swear an oath of allegiance to the Protestant religion in 1642. Their names were duly inscribed in a list in each parish, and the list sent back to Parliament. In a few areas such as Cornwall, people wrote their own names, but usually a local official wrote out all the names. The Protestation Returns survive for about a third of English counties.
Tracing Protestation Returns in the Parliamentary Archives
We have recently conducted a digitisation project which consisted of digitising our entire Protestation Returns series and uploading the images to our online catalogue, Portcullis. We have also made it easier to search for Protestation Returns via our online map search, which allows you to search for returns based on location. Protestation Returns are arranged by county, with the parishes or hundreds listed within. Once you have located the return you are interested in, the map will provide a link to the catalogue reference which includes a URL link to our digital archive. With our online viewer you can zoom into the Protestation Returns, enabling a closer look at the signatures listed.
If the Parliamentary Archives does not hold any protestation returns for your county, you could try your local county record office in case any were kept locally. Also it may be worth you contacting your local history society, as some have transcribed and published their own Protestation Returns. The following very useful publication describes all surviving Protestation Returns and their location: 'The Protestation Returns, 1641-1642, and Other Contemporary Listings', compiled by Jeremy Gibson and Alan Dell (Federation of Family History Societies, 1995).