Prior to 1837, when civil registration started, parish records are the main source of genealogical information for births, marriages and deaths.
There are in general three levels of record:
Bishops Transcripts are available from the various records centres, those for the Diocese of Carlisle are held at Carlisle and details can be viewed in CASCAT at Bishops Transcripts for Cumberland Those for Westmorland are at Bishops Transcripts Westmorland
Those for the Furness Area are held at Barrow Bishops Transcripts Lancs (Furness)
Those for Alston are held at Durham and for Sedbergh at Leeds. Some other records offices may hold copies of this information, but you should check directly with them to find out what they hold, you can get contact information from the Cumbria Archive Website
These links take you to parts of CASCAT that list Bishops Transcripts, however they may not show all records available and you may have to search the catalogue using more details of the location you want to find.
CASCAT also has a list of parishes and what records are available for each parish, this includes registers and other parish documents, at Parish Records
The full listing of what records are available, including Bishops Transcripts and the years available and where the record is kept, is located at Parish Registers List. These details are also available in the parish register pages on this website.
The practice of keeping registers started in the Church of England in 1538, though few registers from this date survive today. In Cumbria there are only four Parishes with records dating back to the start of record keeping, these are Kirkby Lonsdale, Lazonby, Morland and St. Bees.
A few other parishes have records dating from around 1558 and later, but the large majority of the parish records still available today start in the 1600's.
Non-Conformists. If you can not find your ancestors in Parish Records it is worth considering that they could have been non-conformists. Prior to Henry VIII establishing the Protestant Church in 1534 the Catholic Church was the established church in England and Wales. After 1534 non-conformists were those Christians who did not follow the Church of England, which includes such groups as Catholics, Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, Hugenots and Mormons. Jews are sometimes considered in the same group, though in fact they are not Christans and after thier expulsion from England in around 1290 there were very few until they started to return in the late 1600's. Non-conformism was much more prevelant in Cumbria than in southern counties.
FamilySearch has a good summary of non-conformist references.
Some points to be careful of:
These may not take place in the year of birth and can be several years later. You may from time to time find baptisms of more than one child in a family at the same time. This does not mean they were born at the same time, as sometimes families would wait to baptise several children together.
In the Carlisle Diocese from 1786 until 1812 the baptism record would normally also include the mothers maiden name.
From 1742, non-conformists were able to register baptisms in the General Register of Births of Children of Protestant Dissenters at Dr Williams's library in London. It has about 50,000 births.
Methodists kept records from 1779.
From 1754 (sometimes earlier) the parish of residence was recorded, note that this is the parish of residence at the time of the marriage and it is not necessarily the birth parish.
Banns were recorded whether a marriage took place or not, these may be recorded in the same register as the marriages or in some cases a separate register. From 1823 banns should be in separate registers. The existence of banns does not necessarily mean a marriage took place.
The 1753 Marriage Act gave Quakers and Jews the right to hold thier own ceremonies. Prior to that 'clandestine' marriages were tolerated but perhaps not recorded.
From 1853 many churches, particularly urban ones, stopped churchyard graves and burials transferred to the local authority cemeteries. At this time church burial registers stopped. The local authority cemeteries in Cumbria are at Alston, Appleby, Barrow-in-Furness, Beckermet, Bewcastle, Bowness, Brampton, Carlisle, Cockermouth, Crosscanonby, Dalton-in-Furness, Garrigill, Grange, Grasmere, Holme Eden, Ireleth, Kendal, Maryport, Millom, Nenthead, Nether Wasdale, Penrith, Sedbergh, Silloth, Ulverston, Whitehaven, Wigton, Windermere, Workington.
Because of persecution Catholic Records from around 1559 to 1778 are incomplete.
There are some transcribed Parish Record on Freereg