Church records



The church, by virtue of its position as one of the great medieval institutions, was also a great record-producer, and because the church (as a whole) survived, where individuals and many families did not, its records have been preserved better than many others. This includes records already discussed that are not specifically religious in character - for example the charters transcribed into monastic cartularies and the manorial documents relating to church property. Another example is the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts over wills, which began when they were primarily concerned with pious bequests, but continued until the 19th century. As well as these, there is a host of other records, more or less loosely associated with the church, which can be useful to the genealogist.

First, parish registers - the most familiar modern source for genealogists - should not be forgotten, as in principle they can extend as far back as 1538. In practice, few survive this early, and the information in early registers can be very brief - for example, baptism entries may not name the parents, and marriage entries have even been known to leave the wife anonymous.

The bishops' registers, which extend well back into medieval times, are another useful ecclesiastical source. Apart from (obviously) containing a great deal of information about clerics, they also include material relating to the population at large, such as occasional marriage licences and wills. Among other potentially useful entries are those relating to chantries - endowments provided for masses to be regularly sung for the souls of specified people - which may give genealogical details about the founder's family. A number of bishops' registers have been printed (often in the original Latin), particularly by the Canterbury and York Society. The papal registers also contain useful information along the same lines - 14 volumes of abstracts from them, relating to the British Isles, have been published.

The papal registers contain many entries referring to consanguinity (or cousinhood) between couples. Since third cousins and those more closely related were, in theory, forbidden to marry, dispensations were often necessary to permit marriages or to allow couples to remain married. Normally only the degree of the relationship is specified, rather than the full genealogical details. But these records can still provide very useful clues, particularly if the parties' ancestry is fairly fully known already, leaving only a small number of gaps to be filled.

Bishop's registers also record the appointment (or institutions) of clerics to parishes. These records can also be useful, because the right of presenting the new incumbent, called the advowson, was frequently held by a layman - often the lord of the manor - and his name will normally be given in the record of institution. Advowsons were treated as hereditary possessions - in inquisitions post mortem they are often mentioned along with manors and other landed property. If an advowson had to be divided between coheirs, the presentations would often alternate between them, and records of this sort can be quite informative. Records of many medieval presentations are printed in Newcourt's Repertorium, for the diocese of London - they are also often given in the older county histories.

Monastic records

Religious houses were also a fertile source of medieval documents, many of which fortunately survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. Cartularies have already been discussed. As well as preserving copies of the charters of their benefactors, religious houses often recorded the dates of their deaths. These notes were usually connected with the commemoration of the anniversary of death, so that - irritatingly for the genealogist - the year of death is often omitted. Often, the monks also wrote accounts of their founders' families, which are among the earliest English family histories. Unfortunately, they are also among the worst - J.H.Round describes them as a 'class of narratives notoriously inaccurate and corrupt' - and they should be treated as secondary sources to be confirmed (or otherwise) by the records. A number of them were printed, with many charters and other material, in Dugdale's Monasticon.

As well as being among the first family historians, monks were among the earliest political and military historians. Medieval monastic chronicles developed from brief notes of important events for each year, into detailed narrative accounts of historical events. Of course, the medieval historians can hardly be expected to be accurate about events that were distant from them in either time or space. The chronicles are most valuable when they are contemporary, and particularly when the writer benefits from local knowledge. Though the chroniclers' focus is obviously on events that are 'notable' in some way, their narratives are sufficiently detailed that they mention many of the knightly, or manor-holding, classes. They may also include references to relatively obscure local events, especially if the interests of the monastery were involved. One example that deserves to be singled out, because it contains so much genealogical information about the Norman aristocracy in the otherwise barren period immediately after the conquest, is the Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, an English-born monk of St Evroult in Normandy.


Links and bibliography for church records

For source material on the internet, click one of the following:
parish registers,
church records and religious houses

A useful discussion of several classes of church records, including some medieval ones, is available online:

Contents:

Episcopal records

Bishops' registers are discussed in:

Many bishops' registers and associated records have been printed by the Canterbury and York Society (94 volumes, 1909-2003; in progress). Bishops' charters from the 11th to the 13th centuries, are being printed in the British Academy's English Episcopal Acta series (42 volumes, 1980-2013; in progress).

The following database is based on material in episcopal registers:

Some medieval marriage licences can be found in bishops' registers. Separate series of licences begin in early modern times. A number of collections of early licences have been published - including those issued by the Bishop of London, from 1520; the Faculty Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury at London, from 1543; and the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, from 1558 - and are available on CD-ROM from Archive CD Books.

[Return to list of contents]

Papal records

Published editions:

In addition to these published extracts, there is at the British Library (Additional MSS 15351-15401) a collection of early 19th-century abstracts of papal records relating to Britain.

A useful discussion of the terminology used to describe consanguinity, and the theory and practice of the prohibition of marriages between cousins, is available online:

[Return to list of contents]

Ecclesiastical courts

The following is available online:

[Return to list of contents]

Advowsons

The following outline of the historical development of the law of advowsons is available online:

Many presentations are noted in the following work:

[Return to list of contents]

Commemoration of the dead

The following are available online:

The following are a few of the printed works (there are many more):

[Return to list of contents]

Monastic records

The following Public Record Office information leaflets are available online:

The English Monastic Archives project (University College, London) has compiled partial catalogues of the medieval records of English monasteries - including material such as charters, manorial documents and historical/biographical writings - and provided lists of the estates of each house. The information is presented in the form of three databases, one covering the religious houses, another their properties, and the third their records. These can be searched by locality, time period, and in a number of other ways. Though work has now finished, unfortunately the records appear to be only a selection, and even the coverage of monasteries is incomplete.

The following are also available online:

The classic historical work on English monasteries is:

[Return to list of contents]

Hospitals

Medieval hospitals were religious institutions, having originally the function of providing hospitality to travellers, and later evolving into places of refuge for the poor, sick or elderly. The following online article gives a brief overview, and includes a list of medieval hospitals in Oxfordshire:

[Return to list of contents]

Household chapels

In medieval times household chapels were maintained by many people from the manor-holding classes. A useful resource relating to these chapels is in the course of preparation:

[Return to list of contents]

Chronicles

For a number of chronicles and other monastic writings available on the internet, see the section on medieval texts.

The following is an online project - in progress - to list the manuscripts of all medieval Latin chronicles, together with their locations:

Another published listing of medieval historical sources in progress is the Repertorium Fontium Historiae Medii Aevi (Rome, 1962-2001). Volumes covering authors A-O have been published to date, and an online index to the Repertorium has been provided by the Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medio Evo.

Some of the most important published chronicles are:

[Return to list of contents]