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Episcopal Rolls and Registers

Lincolnshire Archives has a designated collection, recognised for its international status. Find out more about these magnificent records.

The episcopal rolls and registers, c1214-1943, are the core records of the diocese of Lincoln. They contain details relating to diocesan property, ordinations (up to 1820), inductions of clergy to benefices, changes to parishes, appointments of diocesan officials, memoranda, royal writs etc. Registers up to the sixteenth century also include some copies of wills and other probate material. Remarkably, the chronological sequence is almost unbroken.

Because of their national and international significance, the Episcopal Rolls and Registers were awarded the prestigious Designated Collection status by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council in October 2005.

The diocese of Lincoln now covers only the historic county of Lincolnshire, but was once the largest in England. In the medieval period the diocese stretched from the Humber to the Thames and comprised the following eight archdeaconries:

  • Archdeaconry of Oxford (Oxfordshire) until 1542.
  • Archdeaconry of Bedford (Bedfordshire) until 1837.
  • Archdeaconry of Buckingham (Buckinghamshire) until 1837.
  • Archdeaconry of Huntingdon (Huntingdonshire and north Hertfordshire) until 1837 and 1845.
  • Archdeaconry of Leicester (Leicestershire) until 1837.
  • Archdeaconry of Lincoln (Lincolnshire).
  • Archdeaconry of Northampton (Northamptonshire and Rutland) until 1541.
  • Archdeaconry of Stow (Lincolnshire).

In addition, the Archdeaconry of Nottingham (Nottinghamshire), formed part of the diocese for the period 1837-1884.

Since 1884 the boundaries of the Diocese have been the same as those of historic Lincolnshire. The remaining Archdeaconries were rearranged in the twentieth century.

The significance of the collection particularly stems from the episcopal rolls of Bishop Hugh of Wells which are the earliest surviving examples of their kind. “To Lincoln belongs the distinction of having the earliest extant episcopal registers, and in all probability the rolls of Hugh of Wells (1209-35), beginning about 1214-15, may indeed represent the first attempts at diocesan registration in England.” [Smith, David M. - Guide to Bishops’ Registers of England and Wales, p105]. The surviving registers for the diocese of York commence in 1225, but those for other dioceses do not begin until the 1250s or later. Both Bishop Hugh of Wells of Lincoln, and Archbishop Walter de Gray of York, had held high office in the chancery of King John and had witnessed the innovations in record keeping under the chancellor Archbishop Hubert Walter, which may have been a significant factor in this advance in record keeping in their dioceses.

The adoption of volume format rather than rolls was late in Lincoln Diocese, formally commencing in 1290 although the roll format was not completely abandoned until 1299. An exception is the “Liber Antiquus” of Hugh of Wells which is in volume format [Reference: DIOC/ADD REG/6].

A total of 37 Episcopal Rolls survive for the period c1214-1299 [Reference: DIOC/ROLLS]:

  • Bishop Hugh of Wells 13 rolls
  • Bishop Robert Grosseteste 8 rolls.
  • Bishop Henry Lexington 1 roll.
  • Bishop Richard Gravesend 9 rolls.
  • Bishop Oliver Sutton 6 rolls.

51 Episcopal Registers, covering the years from 1290 to 1943 have been deposited at Lincolnshire Archives by the Diocese of Lincoln [Reference: DIOC/REG].

There are also a further nine “Additional Registers” which have been deposited. These are Additional Registers, Indexes, and Volumes of Extracts, including the “Liber Antiquus” of Bishop Hugh of Wells (1209-1235) [Reference: DIOC/ADD REG/6], and Bishops’ Registers 1580-1607 [Reference: DIOC/ADD REG/1] and 1611-1641 [Reference: DIOC/ADD REG/3].

The Rolls and Registers form a continuous series until 1547 and give us a unique picture of one of the largest medieval dioceses in Western Christendom. They hold up a mirror to events happening on a national and international scene. The number of clerical deaths noted in 1349, for instance, indicates the effect of the Black Death. Social details can also be found in the registers. Bishop Sutton’s register notes the excuses for why people could not attend the parish church - one of which being because the person concerned was ‘too ill’ and his wife was ‘too fat’! Given the international nature of the medieval church, the pre-Reformation registers contain references to persons, religious orders and places, both elsewhere in England and abroad, such as the Hospital of S Spirito in Saxia (Italy) [References: DIOC/REG/3 folios 284v, 315 etc] and the order of St Mary of Bethlehem [Reference: DIOC/REG/3 folio 48].

With the exception of some gaps during the Reformation of the mid Sixteenth century, a break during the abolition of the Episcopacy [1646-1660], and some sede vacante periods when there was no bishop, the deposited Registers continue in an unbroken run up to the mid-twentieth century.

Other than details of inductions to benefices prior to 1663 there are no comprehensive indexes to the registers. Some of the later registers contain contemporary indexes of benefices, subjects and names of persons ordained.

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Last updated: 9 March 2011

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