‘The Northern Way’ is a research project funded by the AHRC and based at the University of York in partnership with The National Archives and with the support of York Minster.
Running from February 2019 to October 2021 the project aims to make the administrative records of the archbishops of York more accessible to both students and the general public, and to provide a history of the role of the Archbishops in governing the region over that period.
The project will complete a searchable online index of all relevant primary sources in the registers of the archbishops held at the Borthwick Institute for Archives, as well as in other northern archives. The Archbishops of York were also national figures, often holding senior royal office and charged with governing the north. Many of the archives documenting those national activities are held by The National Archives, providing an online calendar and guide to those previously undiscovered records will be a particularly important aspect of the project.
The Northern Way project builds upon an earlier project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to make high quality images of all the surviving registers of the archbishops available online.
With very few exceptions the original manuscripts are in Latin. This new project aims to make their essence available to those without Latin or the other skills needed to read the original, as well as providing an index to their contents.
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The 14th century was a formative period in the development of both the North of England, and the Kingdom of England as political-cultural entities. It culminated in the execution of Richard Scrope, the Archbishop of York, for treason following his participation in a northern rebellion against Henry IV in 1405. These events were unprecedented, created an international scandal, and their aftermath would condition northern identity and royal government of the north for centuries to come.
The Northern Way begins from the suggestion that we cannot understand these events without understanding the role of the Archbishops of York as northern leaders in the century before 1405.
As a result of the Scottish Wars of Independence, beginning in 1296, the English state adopted new processes for governing the region to the north of the Trent. The Church provided active leadership in the war through the mobilisation of material supplies, recruitment of soldiers and bureaucrats and even, sometimes, military leadership. Senior churchmen also promoted the cults of northern saints, such as the former Archbishop St William of York, as a means of encouraging support and loyalty among local communities.
Much of this promotion centred on the personalities of the Archbishops of York. In addition to their political leadership, they were instrumental in securing key government jobs for many northerners and they were active in the pastoral reform of both the clergy and the laity. They published new guides for parish priests to instruct the laity, supervised and sought to reform religious communities, built up networks of supporters among local elites and invested in local charities and local infrastructure. Their achievements were memorialised in new chronicles and in a greatly enlarged York Minster whose newly-glazed windows celebrated the history of the northern church and the leadership of its Archbishops.
The project will examine both the political activities of the Archbishops, and their patronage of local communities and families. It will ask how their engagement with northern communities over the longer term might have led to the state crisis in 1405? And how and why did the interest they took in shaping northern history and identify influence the rebellion in 1405?
Our work will be of interest to all those interested in northern identity, society and region, past and present.
Future workshops and public lectures planned for the Spring and Summer 2020 have been postponed due to Covid-19. We will post further details of those, and of our final conference in 2021, as soon as we are able. Meanwhile please contact us if you would like to be included in future events.
The surviving registers of the Archbishops of York, dating from between 1225 and around 1650, are held in the University of York’s Borthwick Institute for Archives. Handwritten in ink, mostly on parchment, they have now been digitised and are freely available to view online.
The resulting high-quality images are contained in a database which allows details to be added to all entries in the registers. Some of these registers exist in roll format, such as that of Walter de Gray, Archbishop from 1215 to 1255. This register is the first in the series (Reg 1), consisting of two parchment rolls, and was printed in The Register, or Rolls, of Walter Gray, Lord Archbishop of York: with Appendices of Illustrative Documents, ed. J. Raine, Surtees Society 56 (1872). But a thoroughly-revised edition is currently being made for future publication, together with further detailed research, by Dr Sethina Watson, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History, University of York, and Dr Maureen Jurkowski.
Other registers exist in book format, like the register of William Melton, Archbishop from 1317 to 1340, now divided between two volumes (Reg 9A and Reg 9B), with several sections already having been examined in the editions published by the Canterbury and York Society, whose work on this register is ongoing (see the Reading List below).
Other entries show the ways in which church and state interacted, particularly in taxation of the clergy, which was carried out separately from taxation of lay people until the mid-seventeenth century. For instance, one entry concerns collection of the tax of two tenths on clerical property granted to Richard II by the clergy of York Province in 1378 (Reg 12, f. 25v).Whatever the format, all the registers record the various types of business performed by the Archbishop or his officials in the province and diocese of York and the areas covered by these ecclesiastical administrative units will be described in the next blog post. Many entries found in the registers consist of copies of documents issued in the name of the Archbishop or received by him, including those, for instance, which highlight relations with the monarchy. Among these documents are significations of excommunication, that is, requests for assistance from the king in some cases where individuals had fallen foul of ecclesiastical law. The originals, consisting of the Archbishop’s ‘out letters’, may often be found among documents held in The National Archives (TNA), Kew, and series of records such as these will also be discussed in a forthcoming blog post. Other types of document concerning the monarchy might simply comprise prayers for the success of the king’s actions, particularly in wartime. One such entry is found in the register of Alexander Neville, Archbishop, 1374 to 1388, containing prayers for Edward III in 1377 during the Hundred Years War with France (Reg 12, f. 24r).
Details of corresponding documents surviving in the archive of the royal Exchequer are available on TNA’s website in the E 179 Database; in this case, only one associated document exists, a schedule of defaulters (E 179/63/8). Depending on date, the registers also reflect interaction with the papacy, for instance in records of the various types of papal dispensation, such as those permitting couples to marry or remain married even though related in certain prohibited degrees. One such example from 1404 is a dispensation for John Plompton and his wife Alice Gyllyng, for having married when they had a great-grandfather in common (Reg 16, f. 127).
The registers also record the business of the Archbishop in the various areas under his jurisdiction. They included the five archdeaconries of Cleveland, the East Riding, Nottingham, Richmond and York, as well as peculiars, including Hexham in Northumberland and diocese of Durham, and Churchdown in Gloucester in the medieval diocese of Worcester; so called because of the Archbishop’s personal jurisdiction over them even though located in other dioceses.
Such business would often include visitations or periodical inspections of the clergy, lay people or religious houses, following which correction of behaviour would be ordered. A very large proportion of entries in the registers relate to the clergy, and include records of their ordinations, for instance, into the priesthood; their institutions to benefices and inductions, that is, being given responsibility for both the care of the spiritual lives of their parishioners and of their church lands and possessions; also commissions to perform offices on behalf of the Archbishop. The registers also record many wills, their probate and details relating to the administration of estates of those dying without having made a will, both of clergy and lay people.
Whatever the contents of the registers, in the past various factors may have led their contents to have been considered only approachable by specialists in ecclesiastical history, perhaps because they are not easy to read without some experience. Similar to most medieval ecclesiastical documents, the register entries are mainly written in Latin, with many words abbreviated, although some entries are in French or English. Many technical terms are used, requiring knowledge, for example, of such procedures as acts for the confirmation of the election of a bishop or the head of a religious house. However, because many entries are formulaic, they may become more easily understood with help from items in the Reading List below, including the chapter in the volume in honour of Emeritus Professor Mark Ormrod, who founded the original project to work on the registers, from which this blog is drawn.
Other aspects of the registers may also be problematic, such as the way in which they were put together. Although many registers are divided into sections for different types of business, some are not, and one in particular has been described by David Smith in his Guide to Bishops’ Registers as a confused mass (p. 243). This is the register of Archbishop John Kempe, covering the period 1426-1452 (Reg 19), and although the Guide gives details of the contents, it would need thorough examination to make complete sense of them. This is exactly what ‘The Northern Way’ Project hopes to achieve in its work on the registers for the fourteenth century, so watch this space!
The administration of the medieval church in England and Wales existed alongside royal government administration. To help set in context the principal records of church administration in the north of England - the registers of the medieval Archbishops of York - this essay will present an overview of the administrative units of the church, their personnel, and the responsibilities of the Archbishops, the church’s chief officers.
The Archbishops, of whom there are two in England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Archbishop of York, each preside over a province, the highest ecclesiastical administrative unit, with Canterbury taking precedence over York (although in the middle ages this was often disputed). Since they are also bishops of their dioceses, Canterbury and York respectively, they each have many responsibilities as bishop, with added powers as Archbishop or chief bishop of their province. The medieval Archbishops received authority directly from the Pope, in the form of the pallium, a Y-shaped ecclesiastical vestment worn over the shoulders. The Archbishop’s authority was not confirmed until he had received this from the Pope and professed obedience to him.
The medieval Province of Canterbury included the south of England and Wales, comprising 14 dioceses. The Province of York included three dioceses: York, in which the Archbishop acted as bishop; Durham and Carlisle, each with their own bishop, subordinate to the Archbishop of York. The province of York covered all northern England, including parts of Lancashire and the old counties of Westmorland and Cumberland, as well as Nottinghamshire in the Midlands. The Archbishop also had personal jurisdiction over other areas, such as Hexham in Northumberland in the diocese of Durham, and Churchdown in Gloucestershire in the medieval diocese of Worcester, technically described as ‘peculiars’ because of that special jurisdiction.
Within the provinces, there might be various places of worship, staffed by different bodies or individuals. In the northern province, the three main churches were: York Minster, a secular cathedral, served by clergymen, the dean and chapter under the bishop; and Durham and Carlisle, regular or monastic cathedrals, home to a community of monks and served by the prior and chapter, under the bishop acting as abbot, both with various other officials. Other major churches in the province were the collegiate churches, a college being a body of priests living together. In Yorkshire, these were Beverley and Ripon, and in Nottinghamshire, Southwell, staffed by secular canons, and at Beverley, with a provost in charge of the church lands.
The northern province was home to many religious houses such as Rievaulx Abbey. These houses often had very large abbey or priory churches in which the monks or nuns worshipped, under the head of the religious house, the abbot or prior, together with other male officers; similar female roles existed in houses of nuns. Unless exempt from the Archbishop's jurisdiction, these houses were subject to him, particularly regarding: his visitations or periodical inspections; elections of heads of the houses; control of who entered the houses, and discipline of errant monks and nuns, such as Joan of Leeds, who shot to fame at the launch of The Northern Way project, also becoming the star of a play in London in 2019.
Each diocese was and still is divided into smaller units, archdeaconries, each presided over by an archdeacon under the bishop. In the diocese of York, there are five archdeaconries: York, Cleveland and the East Riding, covering most of Yorkshire; Richmond, covering parts of Yorkshire, also Lancashire, Westmorland and Cumberland; and Nottingham, covering the county of Nottinghamshire. Each archdeaconry is divided into several smaller units, (rural) deaneries, staffed by a (rural) dean, under the archdeacon, and each deanery is made up of a group of parishes. The parish is generally the smallest ecclesiastical administrative unit, presided over by a rector or vicar under the dean, but many also contained chapelries, which cover even smaller areas within them. Other smaller units might comprise chantries in a cathedral or church, in which chaplains would say prayers for the dead, and chapels and oratories in private houses or churches.
The bishop. as spiritual head of the diocese, had responsibility for the religious life of everyone there, but was solely responsible for confirmation of children, ordination of priests and dedication of churches. If he could not perform such duties, then another bishop, a suffragan, could be commissioned to do so. The bishop would also preside over diocesan synods, meetings of the clergy of the whole diocese at which they would be consulted and instructed, and carry out the Bishop’s Visitation, one of his most important duties, making periodical inspections of all affairs within the diocese, and determining reforms.
The bishop also had judicial responsibilities focussed on the administration within the diocese of Canon Law, a legal system based on the canons, or rules, of the church. This law was administered in several different types of court, of which the bishop’s courts were the highest within the diocese, and the Archbishop’s, the highest in the province; in York, this was the Chancery Court, and in Canterbury, the Court of Arches. These courts dealt mainly with offences concerning morals; for records of causes (cases) in the Northern Province, see the York Cause Papers Project website .
As an administrator, the (arch)bishop was ultimately responsible for the management of the bishopric’s lands, known as the temporalities, as opposed to the spiritualities or spiritual responsibilities of the see. In the province of York, the Archbishop was lord of several manors and lordships and had more than twenty places of residence, such as his palace at Bishopthorpe near York, and Cawood castle. All these would be managed for their income, but would incur expenses of the household, maintenance and payment of officers, such as the steward of the lands of the bishopric, and other officers.
There were many areas where the duties of the Archbishops were added to those of their role as bishop; these included taking charge in dioceses where there was no bishop for whatever reason, described as a vacancy of the see. The Archbishop would also oversee all stages in the appointment of bishops, receiving their oath of obedience, and would carry out visitations, as mentioned above. He would also preside over his provincial council, which became known as Convocation, a meeting of all the higher clergy and heads of religious houses in the province to discuss ecclesiastical matters and especially taxation of the clergy. His extra legal responsibilities would be to exercise superior jurisdiction over bishops’ ecclesiastical courts, particularly in appeals, but also to hear cases in his own court. Lastly, he would prove testaments (wills) of those of his province with ‘notable goods’ (goods over a certain value) in more than one diocese of the province.
Besides the officers already mentioned, the bishop or Archbishop was assisted by others, such as the sequestrator, who had responsibilities for taking property into his custody in the name of the bishop if a church were vacant or in dispute, and household clerks, University educated advisors, agents and administrators. In spiritual matters, he might be assisted by chaplains, who staffed his chapel, often performing secretarial duties.
This description of the responsibilities of the bishop and the Archbishop, and and of the types of activities taking place in the areas under their control, give us an overview of the types of business that might have been recorded in the Archbishops’ Registers which are now being examined and made available online through ‘The Northern Way’ project for the 14th century.
The registers of the archbishops of York form a treasure trove of information about the activities of the medieval archbishops and the administration of their church, from the institution of parish clergy to pronouncements of faith, and from day-to-day licences to letters sent to monarchs and popes. But archbishops and bishops did not act in isolation, and a major part of The Northern Way project is to examine the administrative and archival interaction between the archbishops of York, their staff, the other institutions of the northern church, and the royal government, to highlight some of the main areas where these overlap, and to identify other collections of documents, particularly those held at The National Archives, which can be used to enhance and build upon the contents of the registers.
The church was not just a spiritual body, concerned with the lives and souls of its followers, but was also an administrative institution, an employer, a major land-holder and a judicial body, all of which led to a huge amount of contact with the wider population and with the royal and local administrative, legislative and legal machineries. Each of these facets produced masses of written records, and the registers themselves generally contain just one part of this relationship. Some documents received from other bodies can be found recorded in their pages, such as letters from the papacy or instructions from the king or his ministers, but on the whole the registers record only the archbishops’ side of this correspondence. Other entries only touch upon subjects, giving the final word or just one stage of a much longer story. As a result, we often have to look elsewhere for other details, and it is therefore vital to find and use these other sources of information in order to place the archbishops’ registers into the broader context.
The archive of the medieval English royal government contains countless thousands of documents relating to the church and the clergy in some way, directly or indirectly. Many are tangential, and on matters which rarely, if ever, make their way into the archbishops’ registers. Many northern clerics had prominent roles in the royal and national administration, details of which can only be discovered through the royal archives, while legal records contain literally thousands of references to clerics or religious bodies. Clerks themselves may have been largely exempt from the full force of the criminal law, and could claim ‘benefit of clergy’ to be tried and punished for any such crimes in the church’s own courts, but they were still regularly indicted in the royal courts, could appear as plaintiffs or incidental witnesses, and used the civil law in much the same way as the rest of the general population, to recover debts or property, or bringing trespass cases against rivals and neighbours. The royal archive also contains many copies of documents issued by the archbishops, in a variety of contexts, some of which were also recorded in the registers but many of which were not. For instance, requests from bishops and archbishops for assistance in areas such as arresting unrepentant excommunicates, in removing trespassers on church property, or in enforcing decisions made in the church courts, survive in large numbers in The National Archives, but only a small number were ever included in the registers. Letters from the archbishops to the crown often survive, scattered across various modern series depending on their content or context or simply on archival whim, again, many of which were not recorded in the archbishop’s own register. And a variety of other documents found their way into crown hands, often by historical accidents such as the minority of the heir of a later owner or the upheavals of the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. For instance, when Archbishop John Thoresby confirmed the establishment of a new chantry in the collegiate church at Lowthorpe in 1364, his confirmation was copied into his register, but one of the original documents issued to the parties can also now be found within The National Archives’ collection. It may have been sent to the royal chancery at the time for safe keeping, but it is perhaps more likely that it arrived by a much more circuitous route many years later.
TNA E 328/387
Other documents were compiled and retained as a result of standard practices of the time, and their appearance within the royal archives can be explained much more easily. Very few records relating to the medieval archiepiscopal estates survive within the archbishops’ own archive, but during vacancies those estates were taken into royal hands, and a number of detailed accounts and other related documents compiled during those periods survive, giving insights into archiepiscopal revenue and administration not available from the archdiocese’s own records.
TNA SC 6/1144/5
But the royal archive really comes into its own when its records can be used in close conjunction with the registers, offering an alternative point of view to an event or providing further details. For instance, large sections of each register relate to the institution of clergy or the confirmation of elections and appointments of abbots, priors and other higher clergy. Many of these involved the crown, as the patron of benefices or in assenting to elections, and the numerous pieces of parchment which made their way backwards and forwards between Westminster, York and other relevant bodies for each appointment can often be traced across the various archives. Licences to elect were sought and issued, details were sent to both king and archbishop, assent was requested and given (or not), and orders directed to officials to enact decisions, and to safeguard, administer and return lands and income. The process was complex, but did produce plenty of paperwork for modern historians to use.
Of course, archbishops also regularly sent their own personal correspondence to the crown, giving information or requesting assistance or favours. These could also set in motion a whole chain of administrative processes, many of which were documented in writs or warrants and often culminated in orders enrolled in the chancery rolls, which essentially recorded, usually in abbreviated form, letters which were issued from the king’s main writing office, the chancery. These are some of the most useful documents for historians of all kinds, and some of the most accessible, since many are available through printed calendars. Taxation of the clergy produced huge amounts of paperwork, from the negotiations for their agreement through to their collection and accounting. Some parts of this process can be found in the registers, such as correspondence with the other northern bishops and the appointment of local collectors, but the royal records contain far more, from the initial correspondence between the crown and the clergy through to the financial and administrative records of each tax, and even the receipt of the cash in the Exchequer.
And of course, the royal archive contains many other gems which have survived often by complete chance. To cite just one relatively well-known example, in 1388 a petition from ‘friends’ of Archbishop Alexander Neville complained how ‘libellous bills’ had been pinned up around the capital during a session of parliament. They included copies of these bills with their complaint, and one of these is probably a document which survives elsewhere in The National Archives, written in English in a northern dialect and forming a devastating attack on Neville’s character, describing him as a tyrant, a thief and a traitor who had brought extortion and destruction to the land.
TNA C 49/9/22
These strong connections between the royal and archiepiscopal administrations, and the records they produced, provide a hugely important source for historians looking to trace the business of the northern church and its interactions with the royal government. This is something that this project is examining in detail, and we intend to highlight examples of these over the coming months. But this interaction, and the benefits of the records, was something of which contemporaries were also only too aware. In 1355, when the king needed details of the precise date of Archbishop Melton’s death, he asked both the royal and archiepiscopal authorities for information. On that occasion the king had to rely on his own Exchequer, as, rather surprisingly, Archbishop Thoresby’s clerks replied that that information could not be found in their own records. However, in 1370, when Thoresby was again asked to check his registers, this time for institutions to the vicarage of Ecclesfield near Sheffield, he was able to reply with full details going back almost 60 years. That must have been a significant undertaking for the archbishop’s staff, but luckily the work of this project will make any future requests a lot easier!
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