Using historical documents

There are dangers in using historical records and it is important to be aware of their nature and quality. It is also essential to be aware of how and why the records were made. Most of the surviving records for Earls Colne were created by three institutions, the State, the Church and the Estate. When you come to use the documents themselves, you will need to know about some of the conventions and abbreviations that are used in the transcripts. You may also need a to refer to the glossary of obscure terms that occur in them.

Most of the records for this parish are ones which must once have existed for almost all the villages in England. But they have survived particularly well through the antiquarian interests of the Harlakenden descendants. The Carwardine and Probert families in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries helped to save the very rich manorial records from destruction. Earlier the documents had survived through the energy of Roger Harlakenden the first purchaser of the lordships from the Earls of Oxford who, involved in lawsuits with the former owners, had many of the fifteenth century rolls and other documents transcribed - manuscripts which have since disapeared. Another unusual source is also a bi-product of Harlakenden's activities, for in 1598 he commissioned a detailed survey or 'terrier' of his manors of Earls Colne and Colne Priory which covered the whole parish and a map of the same. Both have survived and enable us to place almost every field, house and barn in that year. Only a few dozen such maps and surveys exist for anywhere in England before 1600. His son Richard Harlakenden kept detailed accounts relating to the estate, which were continued by his son Richard. Such manorial estate books are also rare.

Even less common are diaries kept by village inhabitants. Between 1641 and 1683 the vicar of Earls Colne, Ralph Josselin, kept a diary which comprises 645 pages in print, thus filling in many of those details which are missing from other local records. Thus while it is probably fair to say that if the records had been created or survived we might expect to find a broadly similar picture of life in many English villages over this period, in practice in only a very few are we able to make such a study.