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History BC — Before Crockford

06 August 2008

A comprehensive database of the clergy of the Church of England from 1540 to 1835 can now be accessed online. The project directors Arthur Burns, Kenneth Fincham, and Stephen Taylor describe its uses for historians and genealogists

The Clergy of the C of E Database project directors: left to right: Dr Stephen Taylor, Dr Kenneth Fincham, and Dr Arthur Burns

The Clergy of the C of E Database project directors: left to right: Dr Stephen Taylor, Dr Kenneth Fincham, and Dr Arthur Burns

“HOW MANY clergy were there in 1715?” “A vicar of my parish resigned in 1630. How do I find out where he went?” “My ancestor was a clergy­man. How do I discover who or­dained him, and when?”

These are the kind of questions frequently asked by those interested in the clergy database of the Church of England. They are also questions to which historians of English reli­gion often need answers on a bigger scale.

The database was set up in October 1999 to record biographical details of all C of E clergy from 1540 to 1835. But for the era before the first regular publication of Crock­ford’s Clerical Directory, first pub­lished in 1858, and its precursors from 1840, answers are elusive.

Before 1840, records of the ap­point­ment and departure of clerics omitted origins and destinations; so individual clergymen “vanish” as they move between livings. Calculat­ing the size of the clerical profession poses even more of a challenge: contemporary estimates varied en­orm­ously, from 10,000 to 25,000 in the early 18th century.

The accuracy of the database matters not only to genealogists and family historians. It is also of acute interest to professional historians — and not only those with an interest in the Church of England.

The Church was by far the largest employer of educated men between the 16th and early 19th centuries. Its influence, therefore, was enormous. The Church had, in principle, a resid­ent cleric in all 10,000-or-so English and Welsh parishes, where, every Sunday, the whole population was expected to attend to hear him preach.

Universities were primarily cler­ical seminaries, and most school­masters were clergymen. A high proportion of the books and pam­phlets published, even in the early 19th century, were written by clergy­men, who were as active in fields such as science, literature, philos­ophy, and political and economic theory as they were in theology and morality. Knowledge of the size and composition of the clerical profes­sion, therefore, helps us to under­stand both early-modern English society and the part played by the Church within it.

ALTHOUGH the kind of questions posed at the beginning of this article are difficult to answer, this is not because relevant sources do not exist. The early-modern Church kept remarkably good records, and they have survived well. Episcopal registers give details of ordinations and cler­ical appointments; separate licensing books record employment of curates and schoolmasters; visita­tion books list clergymen sum­moned for inspection by higher authorities. The problem is that each of the 27 dioceses kept its own records, and they are now scat­tered in archives across England and Wales.

The Clergy of the Church of England Database 1540-1835 seeks to bring together these records online. Generous funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Coun­cil and, latterly, the British Acad­emy has supported the collab­oration over the past nine years between King’s College, London, the University of Kent at Canterbury, and the University of Reading, to establish the database.

The database is continually evolv­ing, and, as a web resource, can always be updated to take account of new information. In this sense it will never be “finished”. Additions are received almost every day, as well as corrections, sometimes, from users. We also hope to be able to add material from sources such as wills and monumental inscriptions, which were initially excluded, in an effort to achieve breadth of cover-age.

An enormous amount has already been achieved. Some 1.5 million records of events in clergymen’s careers have already been collected and uploaded. And, once linked to identifiable people and places, they are made available on the website.

At the time of writing, the “person records” of more than 90,000 indi­viduals are publicly accessible. An upgrade, planned for the au­tumn, will feature a new interface, presen­ting the often complex data relating to each individual in a form resemb­ling a modern CV.

THE TASK of establishing the data­base has been far more complex than was ever imagined. The need to fill in gaps in the archives, and to track down records for non-parochial clerics — vicars choral, royal chap­lains, military and naval chaplains, and many others — has led to visits to more than 50 record offices, and the extraction of data from thou­sands of documents.

Identifying places named in records has been complicated by the absence of a definitive list of English and Welsh parishes and chapelries and their unions and separations; so we have had to construct our own.

There have been joys and thrills as well as tribulations. The enthusiasm and expertise of the research assist­ants on the project has been a revela­tion: nearly 100 volunteers collected data across the country, testifying to lively public interest in church history, and to unexplored potential for further collaborations between university historians and those beyond the academy.

For the three of us, the moment is approaching when we can begin to contemplate writing a book on the development of the clerical profes­sion between the Reformation and the Age of Reform.

This is an exciting prospect. No one before has attempted to write a research-based study of any single profession across three centuries, let alone one as large as the clergy. In addition, working together has forced us to recognise that the as­sumptions made by each of us about the Church in our own particular period of history do not necessarily translate to other periods.


Dr Kenneth Fincham is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Kent; Dr Arthur Burns is Senior Lecturer in Modern British History and Head of History at King’s College, London; Dr Stephen Taylor is Professor of 18th-century British History at the University of Reading.

Trace a Reverend relative

THE DATABASE is a resource for all interested in the history of the Church and its clergy. The fact that it is available on the web makes research less demanding, both in terms of travel, and in the time taken to search through often barely legible records, which are frequently written in Latin.

THE DATABASE is a resource for all interested in the history of the Church and its clergy. The fact that it is available on the web makes research less demanding, both in terms of travel, and in the time taken to search through often barely legible records, which are frequently written in Latin.

The incorporation of large numbers of schoolmasters and curates sheds light on the early careers of even already famous clerics, and also provides informa­tion about the history of parishes which was often ignored by the compilers of the boards of incum­bents displayed on the walls of many churches.

The website receives hits from across the globe: the international genealogical community, for ex­ample, clearly appreciates its worth, and uses its data to reconstruct life histories that are often of far more than personal interest.

In the autumn, readers will have the chance to share in one that is close to home; for the database helped Patsy Kensit to reconstruct her family history for the BBC’s genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are?

Another life history is recounted in the online-journal section of the website, where the Texan genealogist Sarah Reveley recounts the fascinating life of the Cumbrian cleric Samuel Reveley (1757-1809), Vicar of Crosby Ravensworth.

Reveley was unusual among the many non-graduate Cumbrians serving north-western parishes, because he had emigrated to the United States in his childhood. Returning to England for schooling, however, Samuel was marooned in exile by the outbreak of the American Revolution, in which his brother fought for the rebels.

Reveley never left Cumbria again, but remained closely involved in the affairs of his transatlantic family, reminding us that “mountain clergy” might not be the backwoodsmen they at first appear.

Tales of the unexpected

There has been a whole host of un­expected and curious findings from this project; what follows is just a small sample.

Beginning with ordinations, it is clear that if a candidate was turned away by one bishop as unsuitable, he often went elsewhere to find a more sympathetic bishop to confer orders.

In the late 18th century, the Isle of Man attracted candidates, often from the West Indies and Ireland, who reckoned that admission was easier there than elsewhere. But Clifton Evangelicals went there, too, for ordination, since their religious views were unacceptable to their bishop in Bristol.

Episcopal ordination was banned from 1646 to 1660, as “godly” Puritans overthrew the Established Church and abolished both bishops and the Prayer Book. In fact, a handful of bishops kept on ordaining, quite illegally, a considerable number of candidates: by 1660, more than 2500 clergymen.

What is really surprising is that the most active ordainers were the Scottish and Irish bishops Tilson of Elphin, Maxwell of Kilmore, and Fulwar of Ard­fert, whose names are scarcely remembered even by 17th-century ecclesiastical historians.

The education of the clergy is another interesting topic. More and more graduates were taking Holy Orders after the Reformation. Some colleges, such as Emmanuel, Cambridge, were founded for this very purpose.

But, after 1700, this trend changed, and a significant number of literates, or non-graduates, became clergymen. Moreover, they were not always stuck as curates at the bottom of the clerical ladder: those with connec­tions, membership of a cler­ical dynasty (and there were plenty of those), or a supportive patron could land a comfortable benefice, or even become chaplain to the Prince of Wales. These patrons were often the Crown, Oxford and Cambridge colleges, or local members of the gentry.

A significant number of patrons were women, sometimes acting in their own right (as did the Countess of Huntingdon), but often in combination with other, male patrons.

Women also occasionally feature among the school­teachers licensed by the Church. The exact number will be revealed when all the licensing and visitation books have been processed.

We are also appreciating just how mobile the clerical profes­sion was. For some periods, there are dioceses where clergy return to their localities to be ordained and take up livings. Carlisle, between 1540 and 1660, is a good illustration of this. But this seems to be the exception, not the rule, and it is not true of Carlisle itself by the end of the 18th century.

The career of the poet George Crabbe (1754-1832) is a good example. He was ordained in Norwich diocese, and after a curacy in Suffolk was beneficed first in Leicestershire and Linc­olnshire before becoming incumbent of Trowbridge, Wiltshire.

There were also waves of migrant clerical workers. Large numbers of Welsh ordinands ended up in Elizabethan London; while in Rochester diocese, at the beginning of the 19th century, many Llandaff ordinands were serving as curates in rich livings.

To a question such as “How many clergy were there in 1715?” it is still too early to give a defin­itive answer. But the early indica­tions are that there are fewer clergymen than we had foreseen throughout the period. In 1715, the total was certainly much closer to 10,000 than 25,000.

There are many more surpris­ing finds that could be mentioned: for the early 19th century, for ex­ample, there was an influx of ex-servicemen into the clerical profes­sion, and a rising number of clerical suicides: perhaps there was a connection between the two.

For the Church Times's recent historical account of Crockford, see here and here

For the Church Times's recent historical account of Crockford, see here and here

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