Subject guide: religious history on British History Online

by Katherine Harvey, Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London

British History Online (BHO) contains an extensive range of sources for religious history from the early middle ages to the nineteenth century. The records available include a myriad of documents relating to ecclesiastical administration at national, diocesan, institutional and parish level. The site also contains numerous nineteenth and twentieth finding aids and historical surveys which provide valuable material for the student of British religious history.

Britain and the papacy

England’s relationship with the papacy is well-represented on BHO. The Calendar of Papal Registers for Britain and Ireland summarises material relevant to the British Isles contained in the Vatican Archives. The years 1198 to 1492 are covered by fourteen volumes, consisting primarily of papal replies to correspondence with British individuals and institutions, and providing a plethora of material relating to topics including individual churchmen, ecclesiastical institutions, papal justice and personal piety. These volumes are supplemented by Petitions to the Pope, 1342-1419. The post-Reformation dialogue between Britain and Rome is less fully documented on BHO, but is represented by the Calendar of State Papers (Vatican). This pair of volumes contains a wealth of materials relating to Anglo-papal diplomacy in the early years of the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-78).

Cathedrals and the higher clergy

Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae is the standard authority for identifying the higher clergy of the English Church – bishops, archdeacons, dignitaries and prebendaries – between 1066 and 1857. It provides brief biographical details for all named individuals, and is divided into three sub-series: 1066-1300, 1300-1541 and 1541-1857. For the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this information can be supplemented by consulting Alumni Oxonienses, matriculation records of the University of Oxford with biographical details, including those of clergymen. There are also a series of records relating to individual cathedrals and dioceses. The Registrum Statutorum et Consuetudinum Ecclesiae Cathedralis Sancti Pauli Londoniensis collects statutes, charters and other documents for St Paul’s Cathedral, and the Manuscripts of the Dean and Chapter of Wells includes cathedral act books, registers and charters; both volumes range from the later middle ages to the eighteenth century. The Cardiff Records series includes documents relevant to the post-Reformation history of Llandaff, among them the chapter act books for 1573-1816. The post-Reformation Church of Scotland is represented by a pair of volumes containing the acts of its assemblies for the years 1560-1842.

The local church

The Victoria County History (VCH) contains numerous parish entries, including architectural descriptions of parish churches and accounts of the life of the parish church and of nonconformist communities. The VCH coverage is confined to England, and for some counties (especially in the east of the country) is incomplete. Certain counties are not covered at all. The Survey of London provides detailed coverage of the architecture of many of the capital’s religious buildings. Indeed, London’s religious communities are well represented on BHO. The London Record Society series includes volumes on medieval parish fraternities, early modern consistory court depositions and eighteenth-century non-conformist chapels. A particular strength of the BHO collection is the early modern London parish, with a range of sources covering the Reformation years and the religious upheavals of the seventeenth century. Relevant sources include sixteenth-century churchwarden’s accounts for St Martin-in-the-Fields and St Mary at Hill, seventeenth-century vestry minutes for St Mary Colechurch, and tithe assessments for four seventeenth-century parishes in the City of London.

Monastic houses

London is also prominent in BHO’s collection of sources relating to medieval monasteries. A small clutch of volumes covers the history of the London house of the Grey Friars. The first, C. L. Kingsford’s The Grey Friars of London, provides a history of the convent, along with its medieval register (primarily a list of burials in the convent) and documents relating to its dissolution. This is supplemented by a second volume containing further documents (including numerous wills) relating to the Grey Friars. Finally, the Chronicle of the Grey Friars provides the friars’ own record of national and local events between the late twelfth and mid-sixteenth centuries. London monasticism is also represented by E. A. Webb’s two-part history (with supplementary documents) of St Bartholomew’s Priory, Smithfield: the first volume covers the pre-Reformation years, and the second post-Reformation developments. BHO also contains records (primarily medieval cartularies and registers) relating to non-London institutions including Holm Cultram, Vale Royal and four Staffordshire houses, while the Victoria County History provides detailed accounts of monastic houses across England.

Other sources

The broad coverage of British History Online means that there are many other sources which provide information about religious institutions and personnel. In particular, some of the governmental and parliamentary records are worth browsing and/or searching, including the Calendars of Close Rolls and the medieval Rolls of Parliament (N.B. these series are both premium content). These sources include an abundance of material relating to religious personnel and institutions, as well as shedding a great deal of light on the history of Church-State relations in Britain.

Strengths and weaknesses

The BHO collection has particular strengths in medieval religious history, in parish history and in the history of the church in London. At present, most of the material available on BHO relates to England’s religious history, with Scotland, Wales and Ireland featuring less frequently. In addition, the collection focuses on the established church: the non-conformist and non-Christian traditions are only sparsely represented here.

Search strategies

The range and quantity of material on British History Online means that searches are sometimes best undertaken within particular publications or publication series, especially if common terms/names are used. Generally, phrase searches will help to cut down the number of results. Some publications include digitised indexes, which can be helpful when looking for individuals but should be treated with caution as few tend to treat subjects as thoroughly as names or places.

Further reading

Olwen Hufton, ‘What is Religious History Now?’ in D. Cannadine (ed.), What is History Now? (London, 2002), pp. 57-79

George Bernard, The Late Medieval Church: Vitality and Vulnerability Before the Break with Rome (Yale, 2012)

Felicity Heal, Reformation in Britain and Ireland (Oxford, 2003)

John Spurr, The Post-Reformation: Religion, Politics and Society, 1603-1714 (London, 2006)

Related websites

Ecclesiastical History Society

Lambeth Palace Library

Church of England Record Society

My Parish

Catholic Record Society

Canterbury and York Society