The Clergy of the Church of England Database was established in October 1999 with a grant of £529,000 over five years from the Arts and Humanities Research Board. Its objective is to construct a relational database containing the careers of all clergymen of the Church of England between 1540 and 1835. The Database fills a major gap in our knowledge of one of the most important professions in early modern England and Wales, and takes advantage of new technology to provide an invaluable research tool for both national and local historians who often need to discover biographical information about individual clergymen.

The Church of England between 1540 and 1835 and its records

Throughout this period the Church of England was the single most important employer of educated males in England and Wales, and at times possessed an institutional presence which surpassed that of the state. The parish was also the major unit of local government throughout this period. An understanding of the dynamics of the clerical profession, both in terms of individual careers and of fluctuations in the profession’s overall size, distribution and character, is thus central not only to the consideration of the development of society and religion, and especially the history of the professions, but also to studies of particular localities and regions or the biographical investigation of artistic, scientific, administrative, political and economic activity in England and Wales. Until now, the geographical dispersal of relevant manuscripts in diocesan archives located across the country, and their disparate nature, have combined to prevent any systematic investigation of the profession – of the instances of clerical pluralism and non-residence, for example, or of the size of the profession at any particular date. Even the tracing of individual careers can be a time-consuming and frustrating exercise, not least because the few published sources are limited in both geographical and chronological scope. Thanks to the accurate documentary record of ordinations and appointments preserved in record offices, however, the basis for answering such questions as these exists to a greater extent than for other professions. By bringing together these sources, this project has created an invaluable resource not only for historians studying the Church, but also for those whose research touches in any way on the tens of thousands of clergy alive in the three centuries following the Reformation.

The nature and scope of the Database

In October 1999 the project team began work on the design of a relational database covering all clerical careers in the Church of England between 1540 and 1835, to be made available in electronic form for public access over the internet. As the Database will be a major research tool for scholars in many disciplines with a historical dimension, it is designed in such a way as to enable a wide variety of data retrieval and analyses. Historians and others can establish the succession of clergy in particular localities, trace individual career paths as they cross diocesan boundaries, and investigate such issues as patterns of clerical migration and patronage across geographical and chronological blocs of their choice. Thus, rather than containing a series of prose biographies, the database records information about clerical careers in interlinked tables, and consequently is well-suited to facilitate not only biographical research, but also more structural investigations of the Church, its clergy, its livings and patrons. For the first time it will be possible rigorously to investigate the changing size and character of the clerical body over the whole period between 1540 (the creation of the first of six new dioceses by Henry VIII) and 1835 (the publication of the Ecclesiastical Duties and Revenues Commission report, which inaugurated the period in which reliable and regularly updated national lists of clergy and their livings, such as the Clergy List, became available.

The Database brings together evidence about clerical careers from all 27 dioceses of England and Wales (plus the short-lived diocese of Westminster), which are held at 28 diocesan repositories and 23 other archives and libraries. It draws on a core of four types of record maintained in diocesan collections: registers, subscription books, licensing books and liber cleri or call books. Registers record the ordination of clergymen, the point at which they ‘became’ clergymen, and the appointment of beneficed clergy to their livings. They and licensing books also record the appointment, or licensing, of unbeneficed clergy or curates and preachers, appointments of schoolmasters, resignations, and other similar events. At the time of their ordination and appointment, clergy were also required to subscribe to various oaths, which are recorded in subscription books, and provide another source for many events recorded in registers. They are particularly valuable for their often much more complete records of appointments of curates and preachers. Libri cleri are lists of clergy of a diocese or archdeaconry, drawn up for use at visitations, and sometimes (in exhibit or consignation books) also record details of a clergyman’s ordination, appointments and dispensations, which makes them invaluable for periods when registers and subscription books have not survived. Other types of record have been consulted for dioceses and periods where the core records are fragmentary. These include bishops’ transcripts of parish registers and wills within diocesan collections, and, beyond them, returns to the First Fruits Office at the Exchequer, taxation records and surveys of clergy compiled in Elizabeth I’s reign. However, pressures on time and on the budget have meant that some important information will be missing from the Database. Evidence from parish registers, wills or monumental inscriptions have not been routinely incorporated, so in most cases precise dates of birth and death are not included, though approximate dates can be deduced from the records that are included. Similarly, educational qualifications are recorded where they occur in our selection of sources, but we have not been able to include the university and college registers at Oxford and Cambridge. Thus, much evidence about the date of birth, birthplace and parents of the clergy are also missing. But, if there are limitations in the scope of the Database, then its strength, which in our view more than compensates for this, is its national coverage across nearly three hundred years, so that for the first time we can provide an accurate account of the career of those many clergy who were ordained in one diocese, and subsequently held curacies or livings in two or three others. We also hope that our work will stimulate extraction of related records, which will advance local research, and which in the longer term may be possible to ‘bolt on’ to the Database.

The Collection and Processing of Data

The project directors have visited each archive in turn to select the documents to be extracted, and to recruit freelance researchers to assist with data collection. These research assistants often possess a formidable grasp of the history and records of their locality, from which the Project has benefited enormously; a small number of them have continued to work for the project after data collection for their own local record office has been completed, and have extracted records from other dioceses using microfilm or xerox copies. Research assistants have used laptop computers containing a palette of five screens for data collection, each providing fields appropriate for the information that we wish to extract from that particular source and designed in classic ‘index-card’ format. On completion collection databases – generally one for each source – have been returned to the project office for checking and then uploaded into the Master Database, held at King’s College London. By the time the AHRB funded stage of this project is completed, we calculate that the Database will contain somewhere around 1.5 million individual evidence records. After uploading, the records began to be linked. Record linkage is a multi-faceted process in that records are linked by person, by place, and by ordinary (or bishop). The most challenging and time-consuming of these is linking of people, and at present it is feasible only to link clergy and not the patrons recorded in association with many events. Linking records to individual clergy involves a process called ‘personification’ in which ‘people’ are created, each being given an individual identifier, to which the individual evidence records are then linked. Variations in spelling mean that this process is becoming more difficult as we move from diocese to diocese and the number of ‘people’ in the Master Database increases. Given this, and the provisional nature of some linkage, it is important to note that users of the Database can access the original records, captured in ‘screen’ format, so that they can see on what basis judgments have been made about linking records, and we welcome comments and suggestions where we may have erroneously linked records relating to different clergymen.

Linking records to places may at first sight seem a much simpler process, and in many ways it is, but it should nevertheless be recognised that the parish structure of the Church of England has not been preserved in aspic since the Reformation. Indeed, one of the difficulties which has confronted the project team has been constructing a robust list of parishes and chapels within (and without) them, as well as the numerous other posts and locations with which clergymen have been associated over the period of the project, for example as chaplains of institutions such as gaols or as personal chaplains to individuals. No single source has been found from which to draw a definitive list even of the parishes of the Church and the changes they have undergone, and the records themselves sometimes suggest that contemporaries were confused in the past. We believe in consequence that the record of the locations created by the Database will in itself represent a significant new resource for the study of the structure of the Church of England, and particularly of its parishes. (We strongly recommend all new users to read our account of the location structure of the Database before proceeding.) As with person linkage, we would welcome comment and advice on our efforts.

Future Development

To realise the full potential of the Database requires more time and technical development. In the second phase of the project, from March 2005 onwards, we shall undertake a second stage of record linkage, which will extend the linkage of persons (to include patrons, for example) and create from a mass of records relating to each clergyman a systematic account of his career, which will facilitate the kind of structural analysis of the profession that is a key objective of the Database.

The Project Team

The project team consists of three directors: Dr Arthur Burns (King’s College London), Dr Kenneth Fincham (University of Kent) and Dr Stephen Taylor (University of Reading), who have complementary research interests in the history of the Church of England from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. They are assisted by Senior Research Officers: originally Dr Peter Yorke (1999–2003) and since 2003 by Mary Clayton and Tim Wales, who run the project office, check in-coming datasets and contribute to uploading and record linkage. Across the country, data is collected by more than sixty Research Assistants, whose names are listed on the project website.

The technical research is being supervised by Harold Short, Director of the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at King’s College London. The construction of the relational database and software has been carried out by John Bradley (Technical Consultant) and Hafed Walda (Technical Project Officer). The electronic publishing framework, based on TEI XML, has been developed by Paul Spence (Technical Consultant), Paul Vetch (Technical Project Officer), Arianna Ciula (Technical Project Officer), Dr Juan Garcés (Technical Project Officer) and Zaneta Au (Technical Project Officer).

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Laureata in Storia presso l’Università Ca’ Foscari di Venezia con uno studio sulla società longobarda dell'Italia meridionale nell'Alto Medioevo, ha conseguito la Laurea specialistica in Archivistica e biblioteconomia presso lo stesso Ateneo con una tesi sulle biblioteche digitali per gli studi medievistici. Autore di Storia Digitale | Contenuti online per la Storia: blog-repertorio che dal 2007 si propone di monitorare e selezionare iniziative e progetti presenti nel web utili agli studi storici.

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