Bishops, Prebends & Peculiars - An Introduction to Diocesan Records
Of our many thousands of archive collections, one of the largest is that of the Diocese of Salisbury. It spans the 13th to the 21st centuries and is still growing as we continue to receive modern additions. Such is its scope that it includes material relating to parishes across much of the county and beyond and contains a wealth of information useful to local and family historians. This blogpost aims to give you a brief overview of this rich and varied collection, as well as highlighting some of the useful interpretative resources available. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s take a deep breath and dive in.
What is a Diocese?
A diocese is the geographic area under the jurisdiction of a given Church of England bishop. These ecclesiastical boundaries date from before the Reformation and do not match county boundaries. Nor have diocesan boundaries always remained the same. In 1542 much of Dorset previously part of the Salisbury Diocese was transferred to the Diocese of Bristol. Then in 1836 they moved back to Salisbury again. Also in 1836 Berkshire parishes moved to the Diocese of Oxford. Our collection therefore includes records relating to Dorset and Berkshire parishes but only during the time they were part of the Salisbury Diocese. In 1836 many north Wiltshire parishes (such as those around Chippenham, Swindon, Cricklade and Malmesbury) moved to the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Bristol. Their records can be found at Bristol Records Office.
How is the collection arranged?
The collection brings together the archives of various officials and jurisdictions, starting with the highest-ranking – the sequential Bishops of Salisbury, whose records are denoted on our catalogue by the prefix D1. This extensive collection paints a comprehensive picture of successive bishops’ work. For example, the series of Bishops’ Registers (reference D1/2) record the inspection of parishes, ordination of clergy, issues of taxation, and the bishops’ interactions with religious houses. In addition, a specific series (D1/30) records the bishops’ relations with the City of Salisbury.
The diocese was also served by two archdeaconries, whose responsibilities included overseeing the upkeep of church buildings and the wellbeing of clergy. The jurisdiction of the Archdeaconry of Salisbury (series reference D2) includes much of the southern half of the diocese, while the Archdeaconry of Wiltshire (D3) encompassed much of the northern part. There are two exceptions to this rule, both in the City of Salisbury. Records in the D4 series pertain to the Sub-Dean of Salisbury who exercised jurisdiction over the three city parishes of St. Thomas, St. Edmund and St. Martin, plus the neighbouring parish of Stratford-sub-Castle. The other exception is for the Dean of Salisbury Cathedral (D5). The Dean’s jurisdiction includes seemingly random parishes from Ramsbury in the north east to Mere in the south west. It is also worth noting that the records of Salisbury Cathedral itself remain at the cathedral and can be accessed there, post lockdown.
Subsequent series relate to the various Prebends and Peculiars across the diocese. Each Prebend (series D6 to D20) gave its income not to a parish rectory but directly to the bishop for the upkeep of the cathedral or collegiate church. Examples include the Prebends of Bishopstone (North Wilts), Durnford and Netheravon (respectively D6, D9 and D12). Meanwhile the Peculiars (D21 to D27) are those areas classed as outside the jurisdiction of the bishop and archdeacon of the diocese in which they are situated. Examples include the Peculiar of the Lord Warden of Savernake Forest (D21), and the Peculiar of Trowbridge (D22). To assist you, we maintain a list of parishes and their relevant jurisdictions. The final series in the collection relates to jurisdictions outside Wiltshire. D28 concerns the papers of the Archdeaconry of Dorset formerly belonging to the Bishop of Bristol, while D29 and D30 pertain to the Archdeacons of Dorset and Sherborne respectively.
What do the documents tell us?
It’s not possible to discuss all the intricate and informative parts of the diocesan collection, but a few important sets of documents stand out as most pertinent to the local and family historian.
Visitation records provide evidence of the regular inspection of the incumbent clergy and their parish. The churchwarden’s presentment is a report made by the churchwarden on parish affairs and submitted to the bishop. These inspections took place every three years from 1662 onwards. The presentments (D1/54) usually include notes on the conditions of church buildings and their contents, as well as reports on the progress and conduct of the local clergy. Additionally, they also contain a wealth of material on the moral behaviour of the parishioners, such as non-attendance at church, bastardy issues, and details of non-conformists. Members of the wonderful Wiltshire Family History Society have transcribed the 1662 Churchwardens’ Presentments, which is a handy resource for interpreting this series. Many issues raised in the presentments led to appearances in the Church Courts. These records cover disputes over probate terms and tithe payments, plus non-attendance at church. Act Books are a brief record, but the Deposition Books are more informative and tell us much of everyday parish life. Another informative set of records are the visitation queries (D1/56, 1783 onwards). These were a printed set of questions to which the clergy added their responses. Our friends at the Wiltshire Record Society (WRS) have published the Wiltshire Returns to the Bishops’ Visitation Queries, 1783, (WRS vol 27). These and other volumes are held at the History Centre and are also available online at the WRS website.
Diocesan records also include several series pertaining to nonconformists. Bishops’ registers sometimes include details of certificates issued to dissenters’ meeting houses (typically between 1757 and 1807). Sometimes these were registered by the civil authority (see our quarter session records) but others were registered by the church. The WRS volume Wiltshire Dissenters’ Meeting House Certificates and Registrations, 1689–1852 may provide you with a useful starting point for these records. Additionally, series D1/9 contains papers relating to Catholics and Protestant Nonconformists, which include lists of dissenters and their meeting houses. Most date from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.
The diocesan collection also sheds light on parochial clergy, not just the procedures of the church but also the names of those ordained. Ordination papers often include testimonials from colleges and clergymen and occasionally copies of baptism certificates. Various pre-1836 records such as the bishop’s registers and subscription books have been used to create the Clergy of the Church of England Database searchable by parish, diocese and clergy. For later clergy try Crockfords Clerical Directory.
The collection also includes matrimonial records of couples who wished to acquire a marriage licence from the clergy. Licences were sought for various reasons. Often a couple did not wish to wait for the reading of the banns in their parish church. Also, as licences required the payment of a fee it was considered a sign of wealth and status. Additionally, before 1837 all couples (excepting those of the Jewish and Quaker faiths) had to be married by the Church of England, so many non-conformists would apply for a licence. The licencing process generated two types of documents. The first are marriage allegation books. The allegation was a formal statement by the applicant about the ages, marital status and places of residence of the parties to be married, and usually includes a statement of the groom's occupation. Secondly, marriage licence bonds, which are sworn testaments usually by the groom and either his father or a friend. This acted as a pledge to forfeit a sum of money if the information supplied in the allegation proves to be false. All marriage licence records have been indexed by the Family History Society and are available on Findmypast (paywall).
Faculties (D1/61) should prove useful to anyone interested in church renovation. A file was created for each proposed repair or addition to a church or churchyard. Each file outlines the requirements, costs, etc and includes plans. This would be submitted to the bishop who, if he approved, would grant a licence for the alterations. The series begins in the eighteenth century and is still regularly added to with 21st century modifications. Furthermore a series of mortgages for vicarages and rectories (D/11) also includes plans and specifications.
Glebe terriers (D1/24 and D5/10) list the land belonging to the parish church and the resulting payment of tithes due for the upkeep of the church. See also the WRS volume on Wiltshire Glebe Terriers (vol 56). Similarly the collection of tithe maps (D1/25) which date from the mid nineteenth century, are a useful and evocative plan of the parish. The accompanying schedule lists the owners and occupiers of each parcel of land, plus land use and field names. These series form an important source for topographical researchers, and local and family historians alike. These can also be accessed on Know Your Place website.
This is just a quick taster of a handful of significant series. There is much more to explore and enjoy in this immense collection. Details of this and all our collections can be found on Calmview, our online catalogue. Also visit the Archives pages on this wesbite for more research tools.
David Plant, Archivist