Church Records

  1. Overview
  2. Articles
  3. Records of church administration and finance
  4. Records of plenary or instance jurisdiction
  5. Mere office or summary correction records
  6. Church as registry: documents of record concerning testaments
  7. Church as registry: baptisms, marriages and burials
  8. Church as licensing authority
  9. Church as poor law administrator
  10. Tithe award
  11. Conclusions
  12. References
  13. Further reading


These records document the seven major activities of the church: administration, initiation of business, judiciary, probate register, registry of baptisms, marriages and burials, licensing authority, and poor law administration.

The officials and bodies which compiled the mountain of paper which recorded the major activities of the church were generally speaking located at four levels of a hierarchical structure. At the level of the parish there was the incumbent, helped by churchwardens and overseers of the poor, or other officials such as sidesmen. In Earls Colne the next significant level up was the Archdeacon of Colchester, for the Deanery of Lexden does not seem to have been a record-producing body during this period, or at least no records are known to have survived. The bishopric was in theory above the archdeacon. In practice they had coterminous juristiction, though there were rights of appeal upwards. In our case there was the Bishop of London who exercised his power principally through two courts, the Consistory and his Commissary in Essex and Hertfordshire. At the top level there was the Archbishop of Canterbury. Thus of our seven types of record, the parish produced the registers and the p oor administration documents and had some part in producing accounts of church administration, while the archdeaconry and bishopric produced or stored the other records.

The jurisdictional boundary between the bottom level and the archdeaconry is clear, but it is necessary to say a little more about the relations between Archdeacon, Consistory and Commissary. Richard Burn described the relationship between the archdeacon and bishop as follows:

By the canon law the archdeacon is styled the bishop's eye; and hath power to hold visitations (when the bishop is not there); and hath also power under the bishop of the examination of clerks to be ordained, as also of institution and induction; likewise of excommunication, injunction of penances, suspension, correction, inspecting and reforming irregularities and abuses among the clergy; and a charge of the parochial churches within the diocese: in a word, according to the practice of, a latitude given by the canon law, to supply the bishop's room, and (as the words of that law are) in all things to be the bishop's vicegerent (sic). (Burn 1788A:i,89)

Burn then added that By the statute of the 24 H.8.c.12. an appeal lieth from the archdeacon's to the bishop's court. He also cited a case which suggested that except where the archdeacon has a peculiar or special jurisdiction then the bishop and he have concurrent jurisdiction and the party may commence his suit, either in the archdeacon's court or the bishop's, and he hath election to choose which he pleaseth.(Burn 1788A:i,89-90). We can see from this the overlap between the levels and it is further shown in Burn's definition of the two branches of the bishop's powers, his Consistory and Commissary. Under 'Consistory' Burn wrote:

Consistory is the court christian, or spiritual court, held formerly in the nave of the cathedral church ... in which the bishop presided. ... But this court now is held by the bishop's chancellor or commissary, and by archdeacons or their officials, either in the cathedral church or other convenient place of the diocese, for the hearing and determining of matters and causes of ecclesiastical cognizance, happening within that diocese. (Burn 1788A:ii,11).

Thus we see that the bishop's power was exercised simultaneously in his own Consistory, through his chancellor, and by his Commissary and by the Archdeacons. The relevant Commissary for Earls Colne was the Bishop of London's Commissary in Essex and Hertfordshire who acted for the bishop throughout the county of Essex and in particular in twenty-six parishes (not including Earls Colne) which were exempt from the jurisdiction of the Archdeacons. Burn described the literal meaning of 'Commissary' as follows.

Commissary is a title of jurisdiction, appertaining to him that exerciseth eccesiastical jurisdiction in places of the diocese so far distant from the chief city, that the chancellor cannot call the people to the bishop's principal Consistory Court without great trouble to them. (Burn 1788A:ii,7).

Burn continues by pointing out that the Commissary was particularly important in the parishes exempt from the Archdeacon's jurisdiction. In theory, individuals from Earls Colne could be cited and could start their cases, as well as appeal, to the Commissary.

Two other ecclesiastical courts also had superior jurisdictions over the inhabitants of Earls Colne. One was the Archbishop's Court, known as the Court of Arches. Jay Anglin found that over twenty two cases started in the Archdeacon's court were inhibited because they had been taken to the Court of Arches, and others were undoubtably taken there directly (Anglin 1965:120). Unfortunately, most of the medieval records were destroyed in the Great Fire of London and there are few records for the period before 1660. A search of the surviving earlier records at Lambeth Palace and those for 1660 onwards indexed by Jane Houston did not reveal any Earls Colne cases and only a handful for Essex (Houston 1972). A search of the other archives at Lambeth revealed no court records, and only one or two administrative records, relating to this parish.

The other potential source was the Court of High Commission which was set up as a result of the royal supremacy over the church established at the Reformation and institutionalised in the later seventeenth century. The detailed records which have survived for the northern branch of the Commission at York and the fact that Anglin found that over 34 laymen who had appeared in the Archdeaconry of Essex court had their cases transferred to the High Commission suggests that a number of Essex cases would have been found (Anglin 1965:118). The court had a concurrent jurisdiction with the bishop's courts. But the records for Canterbury were destroyed when the institution was abolished in 1640.

We have seen the physical jurisdiction of the various authorities, but we also have to consider the nature of the matters which were of ecclesiastical concern. The very wide area covered by the ecclesiastical courts is best demonstrated by the specific example of a set of visitation articles. While it is true that they were particularly lengthy and detailed as a result of Archbishop Laud's attempt to reform the church, most of the topics covered are to be found in other episcopal and archidiaconal articles. Since they are so lengthy, we will summarize most of the articles. (Articles 1635).


Articles to be enquired of within the Archdeaconry of Colchester 1635.

Even in this highly abridged form, it can be seen how minute was the enquiry into a parish's spiritual and moral life. In this particular case there are several further articles, mainly concerning the prosecution of Roman Catholics, based upon the directions of the Privy Council. The burden on the churchwardens and 'sworn-men' was clearly very considerable. They were therefore required to take the following oath, appended to the articles.

you shall swear, that all affection, hatred, hope of reward, or gaine, or fear of displeasure or malice set aside, you shall upon due consideration of the articles given you in charge, present to the arch-deacon of Colchester, or his official, all and every such person within your parish as hath committed any offence, or fault, or made any default mentioned in any of these articles, or which are vehemently suspected, or otherwise defamed of any such offence, fault, or default, wherein you shall deal uprightly, and according to equity, neither of malice presenting any contrary to truth, nor of corrupt affection sparing to present any, and to conceal the truth, having in this action God before your eyes, with an earnest zeal to maintain truth, and to supress vice: so help you God, and his faithful promises in Christ Jesus. God Save the King.

Records of church administration and finance

The vast and complex ecclesiastical organization of the church, one of the major landowners and employers in the country, required a great deal of administration. The records which this generated are voluminous and in relation to Earls Colne we will both simplify and omit a great deal in this description. We will concentrate on four functions which have left records for this parish; the ordination of the clergy, the inspection of clergy and other church officials, the inspection of church moveable property and buildings, and the surveying of other immoveable property in the shape of lands and rents.

The parish church of St. Andrews in Earls Colne was originally a Rectory and there remained a rector throughout. But in 1355 the prior of Colne made an agreement whereby a vicar was established. The Priory continued as patron of the living until the suppression in 1534 when the patronage passed into the hands of the Earls of Oxford. There was later a dispute over the right of presentation, but it then passed into the hands of the Harlakenden family and their heirs. The presentations to livings and ordination registers of the Bishops of London have been searched by Newcourt and his list of vicars is as follows. Latin phrases have been omitted, and certain details added from other sources.

Vicars of Earls Colne

(Newcourt 1710:ii,185-6).

The names of later vicars, churchwardens and sidesmen also appear in various 'visitation' records. When a new Bishop of London was installed he would either in person or by a deputy make a visitation of the whole bishopric. Thereafter, there were visitations every three years. Vicars and other ecclesiastical officials had to appear personally and be examined.

The records of the Bishop of London's Commissary are again divided. At the Guildhall there are churchwardens' presentments (Ms 9583), visitation books (Ms 9537) and visitation processes (Ms 9583A). A search of all these records between 1554 and 1750 led to the discovery of some Earls Colne presentments. At the Essex Record Office there are three volumes of visitations to 1725 (D/ABV), but they do not include any Earls Colne presentments. Also at the Essex Record Office are two volumes of visitations between 1625 and 1639 at the Bishop of London's Consistory (D/ALV) neither of which contain any Earls Colne cases. Finally, the Archdeacon of Colchester also made visitations and there are eighteen volumes between 1586 and 1750 (D/ACV), all of which have been searched and which include a number of Earls Colne presentments.

These visitations had a second function, which was to check the general state of repair of the moveable property and buildings of the church. Thus in some of the more detailed visitations, and in the presentments which often arose out of them, we find concern over church fabric, furniture, ornaments, bells, plate, the upkeep of churchyards and fences, the provision and condition of bibles, books of common prayer and parish registers. Most of these matters are touched on in the Earls Colne visitation and .bold ex officio records.

The financing of the church was a major preoccupation of the officials. In Earls Colne we are able to investigate the sources of such financing in unusual detail through the diary and accounts of one of the vicars, Ralph Josselin. In 1650 some parliamentary surveyors put the value of the living at 24 pounds, plus 4 pounds a year from glebe land. In fact, from private contributions and elsewhere, Josselin at this time believed he was obtaining about 60 pounds per year. This was supplemented by about 20 pounds per annum when in 1659 informally, and from 1673 by formal deed, the great tithes were given to the vicars by the rector, Richard Harlakenden. The actual physical property was described in a terrier of 1610 as `A mansion or vicarage-house, with stable and out-houses, and a dove-house, much decayed, with gardens and yards adjoining, containing one acre; also, one acre and one rood more of glebe' (Newcourt 1710:ii,185).

Records of plenary or instance jurisdiction

The records produced by this procedure are both briefer and less informative for Earls Colne than those produced by the summary procedure. This is the result of the loss of records. We have seen that the act books record most of the major stages and much of the information in summary cases: only the detailed citations, schedules of penance and decrees of commutation of penance are usually missing. With plenary records, in Essex at least, the position is otherwise. What survives is the act book or journal of what happened. But as already pointed out, this is 'little more than a record of 'assignations' of the date and place of the next term, of the proctors acting in the suits, and of the fees due to the registrar' (Owen 1970:40). Often, it fails to give the parish or any details about the accused; is written in very abbreviated latin, and is clearly just a set of very brief abstracts from the process. What really went on is excellently summarized by Dorothy Owen and we cannot do better than repeat her summary of the procedure.

The general process follows the practice of common law. To paraphrase Owen's description (Owen 1970:40-1), the process begins with a written statement of the case - by the judge in promoted office cases, by the plaintiff in instance cases. In the 'contestation of suits', the accused either pleads guilty and is sentenced, or answers the accusation and the case proceeds. A 'term probatory' is assigned in which the prosecution should produce witnesses to prove the allegation, and a 'term to propound acts' is assigned for the prosecution to prove the validity of written statements made by its witnesses. Similar terms are assigned by the defendant to produce and verify counter claims. A 'term to conclude' is assigned. This is what is summarized in the assignation book. But behind it lies an even more complex reality. Dorothy Owen's full description of the system (Owen 1970:40-1), although by her own admission 'much simplified', shows the complexities clearly enough. As she says, it was certainly a system that would produce very large quantities of records. Often the different kinds of papers were filed separately in bundles or registers; each diocese and archdeaconry filed its material in different ways. Many of the documents were wholly in Latin until 1733, although the depositions and some of the schedules of evidence and penance contained some vernacular.

To this general account of process we may add a few further points. Firstly, as regards witnesses in plenary proceedings, although 'the concurrent testimony of two witnesses was sufficient in theory to settle most types of case in the ecclesiastical courts. In practice it was usually necessary to produce more than two witnesses ...' (Houlbrooke 1979:40-1). As regards sanctions to enforce obedience, excommunication was not the only weapon. A person might be either suspended or excommunicated. 'The suspended man was forbidden to enter a church; the excommunicate was in addition barred from the company of all Christians' (Houlbrooke 1979:48). In theory, if a person remained excommunicated for over forty days, the bishop could apply for the royal writ 'de excommunicato capiendo' which ordered the sheriff to imprison him. Houlbrooke's evidence from sixteenth century Norwich and Winchester suggests that this happened only infrequently (Houlbrooke 1979:50).

More generally, it is interesting to compare the procedure in the church courts with other courts in the land. An overview is presented by Geoffrey Elton who writes:

Once a case had commenced, procedure was ... very like that used in the King's equity courts, which, in fact, had borrowed their methods from the Church courts. The parties exchanged written statements; proof was obtained by examining witnesses; and the stages of the process, as well as the final decision, were registered in act books. By contrast with the equity courts, those of the Church at all stages used oaths to bind the parties to future truthfulness and involved the judges far more as active pursuers of the facts ... (Elton 1969:103)

We may now look at the quantity and nature of surviving records of plenary jurisdiction for courts which covered Earls Colne. The records relating to plenary jurisdiction are again spread in three depositories. The Archdeaconry of Colchester records at the Essex Record Office consist of five volumes and two files of depositions, that is the examinations and replies of witnesses in plenary cases (D/ACD) at various periods between 1587-1641, as well as a mixed volume (D/AXD). The answers, usually to interrogatories which are not included, are fairly legible and in English after the first two volumes. The highly abbreviated recording of the process of cases is given in the 'Cause' books (D/ACC) which cover some of the years between 1588 and 1640. These are in Latin and give very little detail, often not even mentioning the parish or subject of the action. Only a summary of the cases which have been found relating to Earls Colne have been given: other cases could no doubt be found after further very time consuming searches.

The plenary records of the Consistory Court are voluminous and are deposited at County Hall. A search of two or three volumes from each of the major classes did not locate any Earls Colne cases. Though there are possibly cases, the fact that the parish is not given and the highly abbreviated form of any information that does emerge precluded a further search. The classes in which samples were taken were the personal responses to libels (DL/C/192-202), allegations (DL/C/142-71), examinations and replies (DL/C/205-273,628-634), assignation books (DL/C/87- 108) and instance act books (DL/C/1-83,607-13). No doubt a patient search of the more than two hundred volumes, each a large leather bound book of up to seven hundred pages, would reveal a few cases and certainly for the social and ecclesiastical historian in general they are full of information.

The Commissary records are again split. There are eight volumes of 'Causes', that is abbreviated summaries of procedure, at the Essex Record Office (D/ABC) and eight volumes of 'depositions and cognate documents', that is mainly the examinations of witnesses (D/ABD). A search of all these revealed only two sets of depositions which involve Earls Colne inhabitants. There are many volumes of depositions, assignation books and miscellaneous cause papers of the Commissary Court at the Guildhall Library. A detailed search of these might reveal one or two Earls Colne cases, but sampling of a few volumes (e.g. Ms 9585) suggests that the return on the amount of labour required would be very small.

Mere office or summary correction records

Over three-quarters of the material for Earls Colne in the ecclesiastical courts falls within this category. The proceedings were concerned with causes of correction instituted on the basis of the mere office of the judge (ex officio mero), and consequently the start of each presentment contains the phrase 'the office of the judge against ...' (officium domini contra). The cases arose from an information, presentment, denunciation, accusation or inquisition. The largest single category were the presentments of churchwardens. These presentments were founded upon lists of articles of the kind already quoted above which were delivered to churchwardens who were sworn to make returns concerning the questions asked. These returns by churchwardens were often called the 'bill of detection'. We are told that the 'presentments could be made upon proved or provable fact, upon a "fame" or rumour, or merely upon "vehement suspicion". From the presentments were prepared citations for persons accused to appear on a given court day at a given time' (Brinkworth 1942:xi). All this was written down in the main act book under the general heading which names the judge and his authority, the place, and date of the session, and usually the parish. Often the presentments were written in advance before the court met, usually four or five to a page, leaving some room for further process.

Almost always the citations are now lost. These named the judge, day and place of the court, the man cited and the offence with which he was charged. This was addressed to the officiating minister of the parish and had to be returned by him to the court with a certificate stating when it had been served. The citations were served on the minister by officials called 'apparitors'. If these officials could not find the person named, the apparitor had to certify on his oath that he had carefully searched for the party and explain why he had failed to find him. The judge would then order a citation 'by ways and means' (viis et modis) which the apparitor had to serve personally if he could, otherwise by any means available, for example by affixing it to the door of the person's dwelling or the parish church. Again, the apparitor had to certify as to what he had done.

When the accused appeared he took the oath 'ex officio' the oath which ecclesiastical authorities by virtue of their office might administer to accused persons' (Brinkworth 1942:xi-xii). He was then examined in open court in a trial before the judge; witnesses might be called in. In complicated cases a series of articles might be objected against the accused. Answers by the accused, like the rest of this part of the trial, would be entered in the act book. If there were sufficient grounds, the defendant might be represented in the court by another. If the accused person did not appear he was guilty of 'contumacy'. Having been called three times by the court crier, he was pronounced contumacious and either declared excommunicate or suspended immediately, or the penalty was reserved until a specified later date. If he appeared on the same day in person or by proxy he was absolved from excommunication without any costs for contumacy, but had to pay a fee to the apparitor. At the e nd of the court there would be a list of excommunicated persons. A letter of excommunication was then sent to the acting clergyman in the person's parish to be published during divine service. The clergyman had to certify of having done this on the letter of excommunication, which was returned to the registry.

If a person appeared and accepted the charge, the next stage would be the penalty. If, however, he denied the fact and/or the 'fame', the accused might, before 1660 use 'purgation', that is the oaths of various neighbours, to prove his innocence. If he chose to do this, the judge would order him to purge himself with a specified number of honest neighbours, termed compurgators, on a set day. 'A proclamation giving notice that the purgation was to be made on such a day had to be given out in the parish church at least six days before. It called for all who had grounds for opposing the purgation and/or the compurgators to appear on a specified court day and bring forward their objections. If these objections were proved, the accused was pronounced guilty and penance was enjoined.' (Brinkworth 1942:xiv). When the accused appeared at the court for purgation, he took an oath declaring his innocence. Then the compurgators also took an oath and declared that they believed that the accused was speaking the truth. The accused person was then declared innocent, restored to his good name and dismissed, often with a warning to avoid grounds for suspicion in the future. If the required number of compurgators did not appear or they refused to take the oath, he was declared to have failed and penance was ordered.

A person who had been excommunicated at an earlier stage for contumacy could be absolved by the judge after making a petition. He had to take an oath to obey the judge and was then restored to the sacraments. If the accused confessed his fault or failed purgation, penance was enjoined. The general form of the penance was the reading of a confession in a public or semi-public place. If it was completely public, it might be in the church before the whole congregation in time of service or in the market place. Sometimes the confession had to be read on successive occasions and in several places. A less public confession could be decreed before the minister, churchwardens and sometimes some extra parishioners. 'The details of penances varied considerably, but they included as a rule a recitation of the details of the fault, an appeal for the forgiveness of God and the offender's neighbours, and the joint recitation by the penitent and congregation of the Lord's prayer' (Brinkworth 1942:xiii). The details of the penance, including often the fact that it was to be performed in penitential clothing, for example in a white sheet, holding a white wand, were sent as 'schedules of penance or confession' addressed to the minister. They were returned with a certificate of performance to the court. If the penance was performed other than in church, it was usually conducted by an apparitor who in turn had to certify as to its performance.

In certain 'causes', upon the petition of the sentenced person, the judge would allow the penance to be commuted into a money payment. The sum and destination of the money, usually some charitable cause, were fixed by the judge. These 'decrees of commutation of penance' by the judge were filed in court and a copy given to the petitioner. Throughout the process fees were extracted for the work of the various officials and these, like much of the proceedings, were noted in the act books. Sometimes a person was excommunicated not because of the original offence, but because he failed to pay the fees. This process may seem complex, requiring in a full case with compurgators and a penance several court sessions and numerous letters, certificates, schedules etc. Yet it was simplicity itself when compared to the plenary procedure, hence its name 'summary' procedure. Dorothy Owen states that 'Summary procedure could easily be upset by an ingenious lawyer and if the prosecuting judge had any doubts about the outcome of a case he was likly to submit it to the plenary procedure, which, though lengthier, offered fewer opportunities for pleas of non-suit' (Owen 1970:39). Thus a number of 'mere office' cases joined the 'promoted office' and instance cases which went through this other procedure.


The summary cases concerning Earls Colne have been abstracted from the records of three jurisdictions. The archdeaconry records are deposited at the Essex Record Office. They consist of fifty five 'Act' or correction and detection books (D/ACA) for periods between 1540-1666: these are large bound volumes, with an average of four hundred pages per volume. There are transcripts of some of the manuscripts by R.H. Browne and Dr. A. Clark (D/AZ/1,2). Many of the original documents are in an extremely fragile condition. The documents were mostly written by the clerk of the court both as a guide for action and as a record of the proceedings. They are written in a mixture of English and Latin with frequent abbreviations. As much of the detail was written in court, it is often crowded and sometimes illegible.

There are similar difficulties with the summary records of the bishop's two jurisdictions. The Consistory Court records are at the Greater London Record Office at County Hall. There are forty three volumes of corrections and detections (DL/C/300- 29;614-26) which run from 1554-1671. The volumes are again very large, leather bound volumes, of a similar form and content.

The surviving records for the bishop's Commissary are in two places. There are twelve volumes of acts (D/ABA) between 1616- 1670 deposited at the Essex Record Office but only three cases from Earls Colne were found in these. At the Guildhall Library there are other volumes of Commissary 'ex officio' acts (e.g. Ms 9064 vols. 12-18 1582-1629), but a search of a sample of these suggest that almost all the cases came from in or near London and only one or two Earls Colne cases might be found from a complete and laborious search.

Church as registry: documents of record concerning testaments

A number of cases concerning testamentary business were heard under the headings of summary or plenary proceedings, for they involved disputes between persons. Furthermore, the record of wills which were not witnessed, and 'nuncupative' wills, that is wills which consisted of the wish of a dying testator on his death bed, were also usually recorded in the ordinary court records. If a will was not disputed the executors would exhibit the will, make oath as to its validity, and obtain probate. This process was recorded in the ordinary office act books, and later in special probate act books. What happened then and the various types of documents which might appear is well summarized by Dorothy Owen.

The original will, with the sealed act of probate was attached or endorsed, was filed in court ... If an executor named in a will is unable or unwilling to undertake the labour he must formally renounce it by a renunciation, attested by a notary and filed in the court. When a person dies intestate, without having made a will, the ordinary deputes some person ... to administer his effects: such grants of administration were recorded in a separate journal register, or, at an earlier period, in the official's register of licences. Executors and administrators alike were required to execute bonds, the condition of which was faithful acounting and exhibition of an inventory of the goods of the deceased. If the ordinary required it, actual accounts of administrations were to be brought into court. (Owen 1970:44- 5).

Tuition bonds, for minors who were heirs of estates, were also to be filed in court, but none of these survive for this period for the Archdeaconry of Colchester. The inventories which seem to have been kept separately have disappeared for most of Essex, but they were clearly exhibited and the totals of inventories are given in the act books for the periods 1575-1640 and 1663-1719.

Apart from a few loose wills in personal papers, the surviving wills from Earls Colne are to be found in three repositories. The wills of those who owned property in two counties or two dioceses were proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. There are 52 surviving wills for Earls Colne from this court. In certain cases, particularly where property was owned in two or more archdeaconries, the will would be proved and survive at the level of the bishopric. Voluminous probate materials survive for the Commissary in Essex and Hertfordshire which are deposited at the Guildhall. There are registers of wills, original wills, bonds, probate act books and inventories. But a search of the indexes and samples of the various classes revealed no Earls Colne probate material. It is quite possible that a thorough search might reveal one or two documents. There are also extensive probate materials, both loose wills and registers, for the Consistory of the Bishop of London, and seven Earls Colne wills have been found among them. This series runs from 1507 onwards (DL/C/418ff, DL/C/354ff County Hall). The vast majority of the wills for Earls Colne were proved at the court of the Archdeacon of Colchester and are hence found in either the sets of loose original wills or registered copies at the Essex Record Office. There are some 325 wills either for inhabitants of Earls Colne, or people who left bequests which mention Earls Colne (D/ACW, D/ACR).

ERO D/ACW 12/68

It is possible to gain some impression of the survival of those wills which were actually proved in the ecclesiastical court in two further ways. Firstly, during the period 1567 to 1640 the probate acts for some of the Essex wills are recorded in the general act books and later, from 1663 onwards, in special probate act books (D/ACAc). These volumes mention 184 wills as having been brought to court and proved; of them, 171 have survived. Most of those which are missing appear to have been pauper wills. A second check is provided by the manor court rolls. According to customary law, the property of the deceased held of the manor went to his heir unless he left it by will to someone else. In order to do this he had to surrender the property in the manor court 'to the use of his will'. Thus part of certain wills refering to copyhold lands were sometimes copied into the court rolls at subsequent transfers. Over the period 1490 to 1750, of all the wills mentioned, there are some 71 wills which we have been unable to locate.

The wills themselves, as we have seen, were only a small part of the process of probate. Even though the inventories and accounts are missing, the probate acts and occasional testamentary disputes in the ecclesiastical courts give us further indication concerning what went on. For Earls Colne the two main classes are among the Archdeaconry of Colchester materials at the Essex Record Office. The probate and administrative acts whereby a will was formally proved survive from 1663 continuously through to 1750 (D/ACAc) and have all been searched: there are 107 for Earls Colne. The bonds to execute and administer wills have survived from 1678 onwards (D/ACWb) and there are 23 for Earls Colne up to 1750.

Church as registry: baptisms, marriages and burials

There are several theories as to why in 1538 Thomas Cromwell issued injunctions to every parish in England that a register of baptisms, marriages and burials be kept henceforth. J.C. Cox speculated that the original reason for such a move may have been financial, but that a proposed tax was dropped as a result of popular pressure (Cox 1910:1-2). Elton writes that 'the purpose, almost certainly, was to provide a statistical basis for government action, a record of the people of England ...' (Elton 1969:111). The wording of the injunction merely states the method to be used:

That you and every parson vicar or curate within this diocese shall for every church keep one book or register wherein you shall write the day and year of every wedding, christening and burying made within your parish for your time, and so every man succeeding you likewise. And shall there insert every person's name that shall be so wedded christened or buried ... Which book you shall every Sunday take forth and in the presence of the wardens or one of them write and record in the same all weddings, christenings and buryings made the whole week before ... And for every time that the same shall be omitted the party that shall be in the fault thereof shall forfeit to the church iiis iiid to be employed on the reparation of the same church ... (Cox 1910:2-3).

These injunctions were re-issued several times, but the main change occured when in 1597 a constitution of the clergy approved by the Queen declared that registers were henceforth to be kept on parchment, and parchment copies were to be made of those old registers which were on paper, many of which were decaying rapidly. It was further enacted, to prevent negligence or deceit, that 'the whole of the entries of the previous week were to be read openly and distinctly by the minister on Sunday, at the conclusion of either mattins or evensong' (Cox 1910:6). It was also ordered that the wardens should send a copy of the register each year to the diocesan register where they were to be kept among the episcopal archives. These 'Bishops Transcripts' seldom survive for an early period, though many registers for English parishes have survived from the middle of the sixteenth century or earlier. The only other major change occured in the middle of the seventeenth century. After a number of years of destruction caused by the troubles of the English Civil War and ejection of many ministers, it was enacted in 1653 that ministers be required to give up their parish register bo oks to laymen who were to act for them. These new officials were to enter all publications of banns, marriages, births and burials. At the restoration in 1660 the registers reverted to the clergy.

The form and contents of parish registers in general is fairly well known and straightforward. Many have been published by local record and genealogical societies and good guides to their contents and whereabouts have been provided. Their immense value for demographic studies has meant that they have been more carefully described and analysed than any other historical source. Yet, even with their apparent simplicity they 'pose some hidden problems. They were kept very differently in different places - with different degrees of precision and even on different principles of selection' (Elton 1969:112). Distinctions between birth and baptism dates, gaps in the registers, under-recording of certain events at certain times, non-recording of religious nonconformists all need to be borne in mind.

The early Earls Colne parish registers are deposited at the Essex Record Office (D/P209/1/1-4) and consist of four parchment books running, with certain gaps, between 1558 and 1755. There is a transcript of them by R.H. Browne. They follow the normal form of English parish registers in usually giving details concerning the names, dates and in certain cases parentage, of those baptised, married and buried.

ERO D/P209

As well as the registers kept by the Anglican clergy, from the later seventeenth century onwards various non-conformist groups obtained the right to keep registers of births, marriages and burials. In Earls Colne the main documents of this kind are the registers of Quakers. These registers can be found at the Public Record Office (RG6) and the Library of the Society of Friends in London. Quaker registration of all kinds required considerable duplication involving two bodies: the Quarterly Meeting (which in the case of Earls Colne covered Essex), and the Monthly Meeting (which covered the Coggeshall area). The Quarterly Meeting register starts at 1668 and continues throughout the rest of our period although it becomes thin after the first quarter of the eighteenth century. The Monthly Meeting starts earlier in 1652. It should be noted that the years given in the data start in January, not in March as in the originals.

The system of registration of births was to present duplicates to the registrar at the appropriate Monthly Meeting. There they would be scrutinized and signed; one copy would be given to the parents, the other, after being entered in the register, would be forwarded to the Quarterly Meeting where it would be registered again. The burials required duplicates to be registered at the Monthly Meeting where the burial ground was situated. If the deceased was not a member of that meeting, one copy would be sent for registration to the meeting to which he or she belonged, before being forwarded to the Quarterly Meeting for re-registration. Marriage, as in the Anglican register, was the most complicated. The parties concerned had first to appear before a Monthly Meeting and declare their intentions of marriage: this was similar to the Anglican publication of banns. Then they would be asked to prove that they were free of all others and had their parents' consent to marry. The parents t hemselves might be present, or they could send a letter showing that they gave their consent. The meeting would then appoint men to enquire fully into the man's 'clearness and sobriety of conversation', and women to look into the woman's 'clearness and orderliness'. These men and women would then have to report back to the next meeting. A certificate based on their findings would have to be produced at the second declaration - which was not necessarily at the same meeting house. Each time the parties signed the declaration. On the day of the marriage, duplicates were signed by the parties concerned and sent, if the marriage was held elsewhere, to the Monthly Meeting to which the woman belonged. There both copies would be scrutin ized: one copy would be filed for preservation by the Monthly Meeting, the other copy forwarded to the Quarterly Meeting where it would also be filed. If the man belonged to a different meeting a notification in prescribed form would be sent to his Monthly Meeting for recording in the minutes.

Church as licencing authority

Throughout our period the church exercised authority in the general areas of marriage, medicine and education. Among other things, this meant that all those who wished either to dispense with the normal forms of canon law marriage or to practice in the field of medicine or education, needed to receive a licence to do so. All these licences were primarily issued by the bishop, or on his behalf by his chancellor or official, often in the Consistory Court. Undoubtably one would find some such licences for persons practising in Earls Colne in the voluminous and un- indexed records of the bishop's Consistory and Commissary. But the labour of searching for these at the present outweighs the likely returns. It appears that similar registers might also be kept by the bishop's Commissaries in the Archdeaconries of a large diocese such as London (Owen 1970:20). For Earls Colne, apart from a few presentments for unlicenced schoolmasters, midwives and surgeons in the normal ecclesiastical court records, the only aspect of this licencing activity which has left any major trace is that in relation to marriage licencing.

A canon law marriage by the sixteenth century had to have certain features. It must take place in the day time, in seasons which were not prohibited, in the parish of the bride, between two adults, and after the public announcement on three Sundays of the public 'banns' which would give neighbours and others a chance to put forward any objection to the marriage. If it was desired that any of these conditions be broken, then it was necessary to obtain a licence. The most frequently stated reason for obtaining a licence seems to have been to avoid the open and demeaning publicity of having one's name read out in church. By the later seventeenth century in Earls Colne about half of the marriages were by licence rather than banns. Although almost all of these were also recorded in the parish register, the licences often include extra details of occupation, residence and age which are of value to the historian. It is clear that the licencing power of the bishops goes back a long way , to at least the fourteenth century, and that many such licences existed for earlier periods. For Essex and Earls Colne, however, apart from a few scattered licences from earlier periods, the bulk of licences have only survived from 1665 for the Bishop of London's Consistory (D/ALL), from 1681 for the bishop's Commissary in Essex and Hertfordshire (D/ABL) and from 1681 for the Archdeacon of Colchester (D/ACL). A search of a sample of such documents for the archdeaconry of Middlesex (D/AEL) which covers part of Essex revealed no Earls Colne licences. At present it is not clear why some people should have preferred one jurisdiction to another, nor is it obvious that those who married by licence rather than banns were different from the rest of the population even though the Canons of 1603 had stated that 'no licence shall be granted, but unto such persons only, as be of good state and quality' (Burn 1788A:ii,426).

We have been speaking generally of 'licences', but in fact most of the surviving Essex documents were not strictly speaking licences at all. The codification arising from the Canons of 1603 led to the production of three types of document. There were the licences themselves, of which only 92 have survived for Essex (Emmison 1969:72). Then there were also 'allegations' and 'bonds' Since only the variable parts from these standardized forms have been extracted for inclusion in the data, we may give one example of each of them. An allegation made on the 25th August 1742 read as follows:

Appeared personally Joseph Harden of the parish of Earls Colne in the County of Essex aged thirty five years and a bachelor, and alledged he intends to marry with Elizabeth Savell of the parish aforesaid aged thirty years and a singlewoman and that he knows or believes of no lawful let or impediment by reason of any precontract, consanguinity, affinity or otherwise whereby to hinder the said intended marriage. Of the truth of which he made oath and prayed licence for them to be married in the parish church of Earls Colne, or St Mary's Colchester. Sworn before me Philip Morant, Surrogate.

This is accompanied by a bond as follows:

Know all men by these presents, that we Joseph Harden of the parish of Earls Colne in the County of Essex, singleman and Haywood Rush of the parish of St Peter's schoolmaster are held and firmly bound unto the Right Reverend Father in God Edmund Lord Bishop of London in two hundred pounds of good and lawful money of Great Britain; to be paid unto the said Bishop or to his certain attorney, his executors, administrators or assigns: to which payment, well and truly to be made, we oblige ourselves; and each of us by himself for the whole our and every one of our heirs, executors, and administrators, firmly by these presents, sealed with our seals. Dated the 25th day of August in the sixteenth year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord George II by the Grace of God... 1742.

The condition of the abovewritten obligation is such, that if there shall not hereafter appear any lawful let or impediment, by reason of any precontract, consanguinity, affinity, or any other just cause whatsoever; but that the abovebounden Joseph Harden of Earls Colne aforesaid singleman, and Elizabeth Savell of the parish aforesaid singlewoman may lawfully marry together: And that there is not any suit depending before any judge Ecclesiastical or Civil, for, or concerning any such precontract: And that the consent of parents, or others the governors of the said parties, be thereunto first had and obtained, and that they cause their marriage to be openly solemnized in the face of the parish church of Earls Colne, or St Mary's Colchester, between the hours of eight and twelve of the clock in the forenoon. And do and shall save harmless and keep indemnified the abovenamed Bishop of London or surrogates and all others his Officers, and sucessors in office, for, and concerning th e premises: then the said obligation to be void, or else to be and remain in full force and virtue. Sealed and delivered (being first duly stamped) in the presence of Philip Morant signatures of Joseph Harden, Harwood Rush.

It is especially worth noting the very large penal bond of two hundred pounds, a standard sum in bonds of this time.

It is possible to check the survival of such documents in unusual detail since they overlap with the parish registers. References to marriage by licence start to be recorded in the Earls Colne parish register in 1683. Seven of the forty seven marriages between 1680 and 1699 are recorded as being by licence, but none of these licences or the bonds and allegations that went with them have been found. On the other hand, six bonds or allegations referring to the attempts of Earls Colne inhabitants to marry in other parishes have been found. During the period 1700 to 1714 only three out of fifty one recorded marriages in the parish register mention a licence: none of these three have been found elsewhere. The habit of marrying by licence clearly became more popular from 1715, for between then and 1750, of 223 recorded marriages, 80 were stated to be by licence. All but three of these have left traces in bonds or allegations. Simultaneously, 82 bonds or allegations for Earls Colne inhabitants marrying elsewhere have been found. One curious feature is the presence of a large number of couples, some 48 in all, where neither partner is known to be associated with Earls Colne. This may be connected to the fact the vicar of Earls Colne from 1711 was Thomas Bernard, who was a surrogate and empowered by th e bishop to issue b onds, licences etc.

Church as poor law administrator

The gradual evolution of the Old Poor Law is summarized by Burn.

Anciently, the maintenance of the poor was chiefly an ecclesiastical concern. A fourth part of the tithes in every parish was set apart for that purpose. The minister, under the bishop, had the principal direction in the disposal thereof, assisted by the churchwardens and other principal inhabitants. Hence naturally became established the parochial settlements. (Burn 1788B:iii,5)

Later the monasteries shared in the relief of the poor, but with the abolition of the monasteries and confiscation of their lands, the State gradually became more involved in poor law administration. Various enactments of Henry VIII and Elizabeth which regularized the collection of a poor rate and instituted collectors and assessors of the poor rate to assist the churchwardens were summarized in the statute of 43 Eliz.c.2(1597) whereby it was enacted:

The churchwardens of every parish, and four, three, or two substantial householders there, as shall be thought meet, having respect to the greatness of the parish, to be nominated yearly in Easter week, or within one month after Easter, under the hand and seal of two or more justices of the peace in the same county, ... shall be called overseers of the poor of the same parish. .nl (Burn 1788B:iii,307).

The prime duty of these officers was to collect a rate and then to disburse it to the poor. The method of raising this rate was stated in the same statute.

1. The churchwardens and overseers of the poor of every parish, or the greater part of them, shall raise weekly or otherwise (by taxation of every inhabitant, parson, vicar, and other, and of every occupier of lands, houses, ...) a convenient stock of flax, hemp, wool, thread, iron, and other ware and stuff, to set the poor on work - and also competent sums for the necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old, blind, and such other amount of them being poor as are not able to work, and also for the putting out poor children apprentices. (Burn 1788B:iii,609).

Thus the major set of records produced are the accounts of the churchwardens and overseers of the poor which provide details of the amounts of poor rate collected and how it was expended. For some Essex villages these exist for periods in the sixteenth century and for many English parishes there are such records from the early seventeenth century. In Earls Colne, however, the records only survive from 1722. This book, with its varied contents, gives some idea of what has been lost (D/P209/8). It contains both the rates levied for the poor and some details of disbursements to the poor. This is supplemented from 1741 by the survival of the detailed accounts of the overseers (D/P209/12). There are no surviving churchwardens accounts before 1750.

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Two overseers of the poor were chosen each year to collect the rate: one for each of the half yearly rates at Easter and Michaelmas. These rates give the amount, the occupier (who may be owner or tenant), and sometimes the place rated. Every rate had to be passed by two justices of the peace, who signed at the bottom of each rate listing. The earlier part of this book, before the start of the accounts in 1741, gives more detail on the disbursement of the rates, and also lists those in receipt of the standing collection. The accounts exist only for a very short time but contain important details about the lives of the poor in the workhouse, and as out pensioners. As well as collecting the rates and submitting them to the justices and vestry, the overseers had to make a detailed account of their disbursements. Each account differs in the amount of detail the overseer thought necessary. Some, for instance, list exactly what each payment was, others just put 'to a bill' or 'to Joseph Pond' or whoever was owed the monies, and the amount paid.

One of the uses of the money collected by the overseers was to apprentice pauper children. The apprenticeship indentures created by this process sometimes survive and a collection for Earls Colne from 1681 exists (D/P209/14). There are 52 in all and they give the following details: the name of the child and sometimes his age, the parish officers and the name of the parish, the names of the consenting justices, the name and occupation of the master or mistress, the date and the signatures of the parties concerned.

Apart from binding paupers' children, the overseers were responsible under the justices for dealing with the maintenance of illegitimate children where there was some doubt as to whether their putative father would support them. Hence there was created a class of bonds in which the putative father, or another acting on his behalf, would bind themselves under a large sum, to be responsible for the education and rearing of the illegitimately conceived infant. For Earls Colne there are some 10 such bonds, starting in 1723 and ending in 1750 (D/P209/15/1). These bonds include: the names of the mother, the child (if known), the putative father, other bondsmen, the parish officers, the parish concerned, the presiding justices, and also the penal value of the bond, the date and the signatures of the parties concerned.

It is clear that the basic premise of the system was that a parish was responsible for its poor. But who were its poor? With the huge geographical mobility of the whole period it was extremely difficult to decide where a person had legal 'settlement', in other words, where he should be sent to if he became destitute. This raised enormous complications and there is a vast legal and other literature on the subject. As Burn points out, the major settlement act of 1662 was one upon which 'there have been more cases adjudged, than upon any other act in the statute book' (Burn 1788B:iii,333). Burn summarizes the legal history of settlement as follows:

By a statute made in the 12 R.2.c.7 (1388). The poor were to repair, in order to be maintained, to the places where they were born. By the 11 H.7.c.2 (1494) they were to repair to the place where they last dwelled, or were best known, or were born. By the 19 H.7.c.12 (1503) to where they were born or made their last abode by the space of three years. By the 1 Ed.6.c.3 (1547) this was explained to be, where they had been most conversant by the space of three years. By the 1 J.c.7 (1604) they were to be sent to the place of their dwelling, if they had any; if not, to the place where they last dwelt by the space of one year; if that could not be known, then to the place of their birth. So that there were two kinds of settlement all along: by birth, and by inhabitancy, first for any indeterminate time, next for three years, then for one year. And this last continued to the time of the statute of the 13 & 14 C.2.c.12 (1662) which reduced the residence from the term of one year, to the space of forty days. (Burn 1788B:iii,333).

This statute remained in force until after 1750. For Earls Colne, apart from references to settlement and removals in the parish overseers' book, there are examinations (from 1726), and settlement certificates. After 1697, these certificates permitted men and women to move around by providing a guarantee that their own parish would receive them back if they fell into poverty. For Earls Colne there are 140 sets of such certificates of outsiders who arrived in Earls Colne from 1677 to 1750. There are also 71 removal orders from 1678 and disputes over removal, whereby the overseers of Earls Colne or other parishes tried to rid themselves of needy persons.

Tithe award

A tenth part of the produce of land was paid in kind annually to the rector of a parish. The rector could be a churchman, an institution such as a monastery, or a layman. This was a burden that many found irksome. The Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 was an attempt to sort out the complications by commuting the payment of one-tenth of produce to an annual rent-charge. The tithe commissioners had to oversee the mapping of all tithable areas. Each field on the map was numbered and then linked to a list of both owners and tenants, with the name, size and useage of the holding, and the name of the receiver of the tithe. This document, known as an apportionment roll, gives the agreed conversion to money from kind that the owner was liable to pay. Copies of these agreements for commutation and a map were returned to the House of Commons. A second copy was lodged with the bishop and a third copy remained in the parish.


The tithe map for Earls Colne, and the relevant fields from those for White Colne and Colne Engaine, have been superimposed on a manorial map of 1598 in this database. The reason we have done so is to make it possible to link references to land over time with an approximate physical area. We have used the tithe award field numbers as our key to land, extending them by the use of letters to indicate changing field shapes between the maps (eg. plot 422 and plot 422a together show the shape of that field in 1836 whereas in 1598 this field was split into two).


We may wonder how much has been lost that was once recorded. Further, we may speculate on how much still lies waiting to be used. Naturally it is only possible to give very rough answers to these questions. In general it should be stressed that record loss is almost complete for the period up to 1540. We know that the courts existed and the records were once there, but almost all have desappeared. This gives a sense of a radical break, of the sudden emergence of processes and ideas which in fact often date back to at least the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. Even if we confine our speculation to the period after 1540, we can only recover some of the fragments of the past. If we look in semi-tabulated form at the seven major roles of the church, our impression is as follows.

  1. Church as an administrative machine. Probably ninety per cent or more is lost, for the churchwardens' accounts and papers alone for the whole of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would have been very lengthy and a great deal else is lost.
  2. Church as initiator of business; 'ex officio, business. Although the survival is very good, at least half of the material, mainly that sent to the vicars and accused in the form of citations, schedules of penance etc., is lost.
  3. Church as a court for others. Here the loss of most of the cause papers in instance cases at the Archdeaconry Court means that we only have a tiny proportion of what was written down, well under a quarter, in all probability.
  4. Church as probate register. Although it is possible to check wills against other documents to show that most wills have survived, the loss of all the inventories, tuition and other bonds, and accounts, means that we still have less than half the material written at the time.
  5. Church as register of baptisms, marriages and burials. Allowing for gaps in the registers and under-registration and nonconformity, we might estimate that roughly three-quarters of the births, marriages and burials that actually took place in the period between 1560 and 1750 were recorded. .sect11
  6. Church as licencing authority. Well under half of the licences for the period after 1540 have survived. .sect11
  7. Church as poor law administrator. The records here only survive for the last hundred years of our time span: the extensive records of poor administration for the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have gone, leaving less than a quarter of what was created.

Thus what we see in the data is a fragment of what was once written about the inhabitants of one English parish by the clerks of one of the major authorities.


(Place of publication London, unless otherwise specified).

'The Court of the Archdeacon of Essex, 1571-1609'. University of California Ph. D.
Aricles to be enquired within the Arch-deaconry of Colchester. Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
BRINKWORTH, E.R. (ed.) 1942.
The Archdeacon's Court: Liber Actorum 1584. Oxfordshire Record Society. Volume one.
Ecclesiastical Law. Fifth edition, four volumes.
The Justice of the Peace, and Parish Officer. Sixteenth edition, four volumes.
COX, J. CHARLES. 1910.
The Parish Registers of England.
ELTON, G.R. 1969.
England 1200-1640.
EMMISON, F.G. 1969.
Guide to the Essex Record Office. Chelmsford.
Church Courts and the People During the English Reformation 1520-1570. Oxford.
HOUSTON, JANE (ed.) 1972
Index of Cases in the Records of the Court of Arches at Lambeth Palace Library 1660-1913. British Record Society.
The Family Life of Ralph Josselin. Cambridge.
MACFARLANE, ALAN (ed.) 1976.
The Diary of Ralph Josselin 1616-1683. British Academy, Oxford.
Repertorium Ecclesiasticum Parochiale Londinense. Two volumes.
The Records of the Established Church in England. British Records Association.

Further reading [to 1980]

(Place of publication London, unless otherwise specified).