England Ecclesiastical Visitations (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Court Records-Criminal, Civil and Ecclesiastical  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Procedures and Records

Ecclesiastical Visitations

The Church of England developed as an Episcopal one where bishops held the major responsibility for the moral welfare of their lay flock and clergy, as well as for the upkeep of the property and the church’s income. This they did by holding regular visitations either by touring their diocese or by officials coming to diocesan headquarters, usually in groups by rural deanery or archdeaconry. Visitations could also be delegated to episcopal commissioners, typically taking place annually, at which time the transcript of the parish register (bishop’s transcript) would also be given in. This event is often noted in parish registers as in the chart below.

Chart: Parish Register Notations

English Parish Register Notations.jpg


The bishop’s superior, the archbishop, also held visitations for his province commonly every three or four years. The bishop’s assistants, the archdeacons and rural deans, held visitations their respective archdeaconries or deaneries, as frequently as the business of the court required, and perhaps every three or four weeks. The documentation regarding the organization of visitations may be collected in diocesan visitation books (also called libri cleri or call or exhibit books); Owen discusses these records.

Articles of Enquiry

Typically a visitation commenced with a set of written or printed questions (theArticles of Enquiry) to be answered in writing by representatives of the particular flock. Thus a bishop or archdeacon would require replies (detecta) from his parish clergymen, churchwardens, schoolteachers and others, such as the early questmen, whose names all appear in visitation books. Occasionally a note against a name reveals a lot, for example caecus (intellectually or morally blind) or insanus (of unsound mind, mad).

The term detecta is defined by Fitzhugh asthings of which people had been accused, or in the language of the courts, for which they had been presented at an Ecclesiastical Visitation.

The researcher will occasionally find one of the quite lengthyArticles of Enquiry amongst parish chest materials and Chapman has reproduced the entire 1741 edition. The set of questions varied little over several centuries and throughout the country, consisting of groups of questions concerning the provision and quality of items, as well as the character, environment and behaviour of the clergy (see below).


Chart: Summary of Articles of Enquiry

Fabric, furniture and ornaments of church of chapel
  • Bible, Common Prayer Book, Homilies, Canons and Constitutions Ecclesiastical, Table of Degrees wherein marriage is prohibited.
  • Stone font, Communion table and cloths, Communion plate used solely for this purpose.
  • Seat for minister, pulpit, surplice and hood for minister and is it washed and repaired properly.
  • Building in good repair, with specified roofs, windows, floors and seats.
  • Alms chest with three locks and keys.
  • Register book with christenings, marriages and burials entered weekly in presence of the churchwardens, and kept in secure coffer with three locks and keys.
  • Bier with black hearse-cloth for burials.

Churchyard, houses, glebe, tithes and other dues.

  • Churchyard fenced and kept decently. Any encroachments thereon or trees cut down.
  • Minister’s house and outhouses in good repair.
  • Any glebelands or outhouses taken away without authority.
  • Terrier of glebelands and buildings belonging to the parsonage or vicarage and does the bishop have a copy. Record of tithes and other dues.

Ministers, preachers and lecturers

  • Is there a parson, vicar or curate legally settled in your parish? Does he hold his living by institution or induction (or sequestration)? Did he read morning and evening prayers, assenting to them (Act of Uniformity) and publicly read the 39 Articles of Faith within 2 months of his induction?
  • Is he defamed or guilty of simony (purchase of benefice)?
  • Does he hold any other benefice? Does he personally reside there, and if not, does he have a curate that does? What is the curate’s stipend and does he hold another curacy, if so which and how far from your parish?
  • Does your minister or curate read Divine Service distinctly and reverently, on Wednesday, Fridays, Sundays and Holidays, with no additions not in the Book of Common Prayer?
  • Does he duly bid and observe church Festivals and Fasts? Does he publicly read the act against profane swearing and cursing four times a year, and administer sacrament at least three times a year including Easter? Does he follow correct form for administering sacraments, marriages, churching of women, visiting the sick and burial of dead?
  • Does he wear his surplice when administering and praying?
  • Does he preach every Sunday?
  • Does any Lecturer preach there and is he licensed?
  • Does minister use the proper form of prayer and pray for the king and royal family?
  • Is he ready to baptize infants in danger of death? Are there any unbaptized persons in your parish?
  • Does he instruct youth ready for confirmation, and baptize those of riper years as needed?
  • Has he married any person without banns or licence, or underage without consent of parents or guardians, or within the proscribed degrees, or in a private house, or at uncanonical hours without special archbishop’s permission?
  • Does he visit the sick (unless infectious)?
  • Is he sober, peacable, of exemplary lifestyle, grave, modest. Is he friendly with person of ill-fame or excommunicated? Does he haunt taverns or alehouses or lodge therein?

Parishioners

  • Any persons guilty of adultery, fornication or other uncleanness, or drunkards, swearers or blasphemers, or any excommunicates or those who consort with them?
  • Do any profane the Lord’s Day?
  • Do any neglect public worship of God?
  • Are parishioners reverent in church?
  • Any parents who fail to teach their children and servants the catechism and bring them for confirmation?
  • Any over 16 who do not receive communion at least three times a year?
  • Any women who have not been churched?
  • Any deceased’s wills unproven or goods unadministered?
  • Any who refuse to pay church dues?

Churchwardens and sidesmen

  • Are churchwardens chosen properly each year?
  • Have former churchwardens given up their accounts and monies to present ones?
  • Do they allow misbehaviour in church, provide sufficient bread and wine, or dispose of charitable offerings improperly?

Parish clerks, sextons and other officers

  • Do you have a parish clerk, aged at least 20, sober, good repute and qualified? Does he attend church and is he duly paid?
  • Does he, or your sexton if you have one, take good care of your building, including locking doors, dusting cobwebs, tolling the bell?

Ecclesiastical officers

  • Any church officials taking fees, have they been presented, suppressed or unpunished?
  • If a vacancy has occurred has the living been well administered during such time?
  • Has any church officers illegally commuted any penance and how has this money been disposed of?

Hospitals, almshouses, schools and schoolmasters, chirurgeons and midwives.

  • Is there a hospital, almshouse or free school in your parish? Who was founder and who the present patron? What is the endowment and are revenues rightly employed?
  • Anyone keeping a public or private school and not duly authorized by archbishop, his vicar-general or other authority? Do schoolmasters teach catechism, bring pupils to church, and see they behave themselves there?
  • Do you have a parochial library and is it in good order?
  • Do you have a chirurgeon or midwife who are not duly licensed by the Ordinary?


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Court Records-Criminal, Civil and Ecclesiastical offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.