Researching the history of churches
The great majority of churches serve a local population - the parish. The parish church is of the Established Church, so see the general section on ecclesiastical sources, which includes sources for the clergy. Also see Maps and Images.
Parish and manor
the early days a parish church was often built by the manorial
lord, generally close to his house. (This
could happen from c. 900, though there is unlikely to be anything
surviving from the earliest church, which would probably be timber.)
In that case he and
his successors were the patrons of the church, the possessors of the
advowson, that is the right to present (i.e. nominate) the rector. An
advowson could be
bought and sold like any other property and thus appears in deeds,
charters or legal wrangles over its ownership, which may be the first
record of the church.
The manorial lord might subsequently rebuild, enlarge or embellish the
church. From the 12th century, when heraldry developed, this work
could be marked with
his coat of arms, which may be an aid in dating portions of the
fabric. Manorial records can be traced through the NRA. See country
houses and The
College of Arms for family
history and heraldry. The
of the Church of England Database 1540-1835 includes information
as well as clergy in England and Wales. In the video, Mick Aston of
Time Team gives a quick guide to understanding your parish church.
Rectors and tithes
Parishioners gave a tenth of their yearly produce (tithes, or in Scotland teinds) to their church, a system which generated a range of records over the centuries, from national surveys of clerical wealth to parochial glebe terriers and tithe maps.
Many pious medieval patrons chose to grant their church to a monastic house, particularly in the 12th century, when there was a surge of disapproval of churches in private hands.The monastery thereby became the official rector, appointing a vicar (clerical deputy) to carry out parochial duties. A monastery as rector would generally collect the 'greater tithes' (those of grain) for its own use, while the vicar had the 'lesser tithes' of other produce. After the Dissolution, the rectories and advowsons formerly held by monastic houses were sold, so that there were many lay rectors thereafter. A rectory could include land originally granted to the church (glebe land), as well as tithes.
In Scotland teinds were abolished at the Reformation; in Ireland tithes were abolished in 1869; in England and Wales the process was more drawn out.The Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 substituted a rent for the payment of tithes in kind; it spawned the tithe maps and awards in the late 1830s. The rent charges were abolished in 1936 and replaced by an annuity payable to the State until 1996.
Repairs and alterations
The rector or patron was expected to repair the chancel, while parishioners repaired the nave.
England and Wales
For centuries bishops made formal visitations to parishes in their diocese, ensuring, among other things, that those responsible actually did maintain the churches. Now archdeacons have that responsibility and also make sure that alterations are not made without diocesan permission (called a 'Faculty'). Diocesan records therefore include comments on church fabric in visitation books and Faculties for repair and alteration.
Until 1868, churchwardens could levy a rate from parishioners for church maintenance.Churchwarden's accounts record payments for work on the fabric and fittings, while vestry minutes record decisions to undertake works. These parochial records are now mainly deposited in county record offices. They are seldom very ancient. Some of the earliest are calendared in print, for example Accounts of the churchwardens of St. Mary at Hill, London.
The liability of spiritual rectors was largely transferred to parochial church councils by the Ecclesiastical Dilapidations Measure of 1923.The liability of lay rectors (i.e. those in possession of glebe land) continues. Legal proceedings to enforce liability for repairs could be brought in ecclesiastical courts, until the Chancel Repairs Act 1932 transferred jurisdiction to county courts. See National Archives leaflet: Chancel Repairs.
Minutes of many Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions have been deposited in the NAS.
Just like a rural church, an urban church could have its origins in a domestic chapel fora lord and his tenants. Barons were granted blocks of urban land in the towns developed by King Alfred and his successors. Since each lord tended to build his own chapel, such towns could end up with a large number of small parishes within their walled centre. Many smallermedieval boroughs were created by a baron or manorial lord, in which case he would probably provide a single church.
However urban congregations of wealthy traders soon came to have more influence than the aristocracy on urban churches. A local corporation or guild could patronise a particular church, or a chapel or aisle within it, using it for official services and taking on responsibility for its maintenance. See the Survey of guilds and fraternities.
While many a quiet country church retains much of its medieval fabric today, the churches of wealthy urban parishes could have been rebuilt entirely.The fine church of St Cuthbert's in Edinburgh, "the kirk below the castle", is the result of a rebuilding in the Georgian period followed by another in the Victorian.
The huge rise in population in 19th-century England generated an explosion of church-building. By 1858 over 3,000 new churches had been built. Several hundred were funded by the public purse. Anxious to counter the rise of Dissent the government in 1818 allocated £1,000,000 towards church building. The reports of the Church Building Commissioners (1821-1856) are in Lambeth Palace Library, as are the records of the Incorporated Church Building Society, founded in 1818 to provide funds for the building and enlargement of Anglican churches throughout England and Wales. The Society's church plans are now online at Church Plans Online. Also see Port in gazetteers below.
Meanwhile the Act of Toleration in 1829 made possible a wave of Roman Catholic church-building. Catholic churches were built across Ireland to a standard T-plan, with the altar placed against a flat wall with an elaborate reredos. The style of choice was Gothic Revival.
Other sources for 19th-century churches are Colvin, The Builder (1834-; early volumes can be read online; published illustrations index), The Ecclesiologist (1841-68), the published catalogue of the drawings from the British Architectural Library and Imaging the Bible in Wales (database of stained glass and other artworks from places of worship in Wales 1825-1975). For recent periods parish and diocesan magazines and handbooks are useful. See also Post-Reformation Sources.
Decline and reuse
The latter decades of the 20th century saw a massive decline in church attendance among the British. Meanwhile an evangelical Christianity andother faiths such as Islam arrived in force with Commonwealth immigrants. The result has been the closure of an increasing number of parish churches or their conversion to other uses. Some redundant urban churches have been converted into mosques or transferred from the Church of England to evangelical use. A variety of non-religious uses have also been found for disused urban and rural parish churches.
Studies and research guides
- Bettey, J.A., Church and Parish: a guide for local historians (1987).
- The Churches Conservation Trust, Discover wallpaintings: an online guide to the history, development and meaning of wallpaintings, and conservation techniques, illustrated with photographs of wallpaintings from 80 churches within its collection, which spans the 12th to the 19th centuries.
- Cocke, T. et al., Recording a Church: An illustrated glossary (3rd edn CBA 1996).
- Cooper, T. and Brown, S. (eds.), Pews, Benches and Chairs: church seating in English parish churches from the fourteenth century to the present (The Ecclesiological Society 2011).
- Cunningham, C., Stones of Witness: Church architecture and function (1999).
- Cunnington, P., How Old is That Church? revd. edn. (1993).
- Friar, S., A Companion to the English Parish Church (1996). In fact covers England and Wales.
- Jones, A., A Thousand Years of the English Parish (2000).
- Leask, H.G., Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings I: The first phases and the Romanesque (1955). Available from the Internet Archive to download or read online.
- Ó Carragáin, T., Churches in Early Medieval Ireland: Architecture, Ritual and Memory (Yale University Press 2010). Includes a survey of the surviving examples. A product of the University College Cork research project Making Christian Landscapes: Settlement, Society and Regionality in Early Medieval Ireland.
- O'Reilly, S., Irish Churches and Monasteries: An historical and architectural guide (1997).
- Rodwell, W., The Archaeology of Churches (2005).
- Smith, E. et al., English Parish Churches (1976).
- Taylor, R., How to Read a Church: A guide to images, symbols and meanings in churches and cathedrals (2003; illustrated edition 2004).
- The English Parish Church through the Centuries: daily life and spirituality, art and architecture, literature and music (Interactive DVD, University of York 2010).
Guides to Records
- Corish, P. and Sheehy, D., Records of the Catholic Church in Ireland (2000).
- Refausse, R., Church of Ireland Records (2005).
- Ryan, J.G. (ed.), Irish Church Records: Their history, availability and use in family and local history, 2nd edn. (2001).
- Stephens, W.B., Sources for English Local History, 2nd edn. (1981) includes church records.
- Binnie, G.A.C., The Churches and Graveyards of Berwickshire (c.1997).
- Bradley, S., London: City Churches (Pevsner Buildings of England Series 2002).
- Carr, J.L., Churches in Retirement: a gazetteer (1990). Redundant churches.
- Churches of South-East Wiltshire (RCHME 1987).
- Clwyd-Powys Historic Churches Survey: recording of all the pre-19th-century parish churches: photograph, description and references.
- Day, M., Dorset Churches provides a photograph and description of each, with sources.
- Dunning, R., Fifty Somerset Churches (1996).
- FitzPatrick, E. and O'Brien, C., The Medieval Churches of County Offaly (1998).
- Goode, W.J., Round Tower Churches of South East England (Round Tower Churches Society 1994).
- Jenkins, S., England's Thousand Best Churches (1999, 2000). Descriptions organised by county, with location maps and photographs from the Country Life archive.
- Jeffrey, P., The City Churches of Sir Christopher Wren (1996).
- Martin, C., A Glimpse of Heaven: Catholic Churches of England and Wales (2006) covers 100 churches.
- National Museums of Scotland, 1000 Churches to Visit in Scotland (2005).
- Port, M.H., Six Hundred New Churches: a study of the Church Building Commission, 1818-56, and its church building activities (1961; rev. edn 2006). Includes gazetteer.
- Rosewell, R., Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches (2008). Includes gazetteer of survivals.
- Southwell and Nottingham Church History Project: information on churches in the Diocese, which covers Nottinghamshire and parts of South Yorkshire, from the University of Nottingham and the Diocese. Includes images, references; architectural details and stained glass.
- Taylor, H.M. and Taylor, J., Anglo-Saxon Architecture, 2 vols (1965). Gazetteer of Anglo-Saxon churches.
- Gazetteers of historic buildings by area include churches.
Many churches now have their own web-sites, which generally contain photographs and a brief history, but only rarely with sources. There are also numerous online gazetteers of churches, which can easily be found via Google, some with superb photography: only those which cite sources will be included in the list above.
- Church Monuments Society encourages study and conservation, and publishes an annual journal - Church Monuments and a twice-yearly newsletter.
- The Churches Conservation Trust cares for redundant churches of historic and archaeological interest, which have been transferred to its ownership by the Church of England.
- The Ecclesiological Society encourages research into ecclesiastical architecture, holds an annual conference and publishes a newsletter - Ecclesiology Today - and occasional publications.
- English Heritage: Inspired! offers grants to preserve England's historic places of worship.
- Friends of the City Churches aims to preserve and publicise the churches of the City of London.
- National Churches Trust is a grant-giving body for England and Wales. It lists, and provides links to, county trusts.
- Round Tower Churches Society promotes research into and preservation of the 180 or so surviving churches with round towers, most of which are in Norfolk.
- Scottish Churches Architectural Heritage Trust is a grant-giving body for Scotland.
- The Scottish Redundant Churches Trust acquires and conserves historic churches threatened with closure.
- Society for Church Archaeology promotes the study of places of worship and presents the results in a newsletter, and an annual conference and journal.