Using the Clergy Database and the Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae, 1541–1857: problems of ‘career modelling’ and some potential solutions

William H. Campbell

University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg
150 Finoli Drive
Pennsylvania 15601


This paper examines the difficulties inherent in tracing a clergyman in the records of the established church in early modern England. It describes the problems faced by the compilers of the Fasti series and the Clergy Database in determining whether multiple records refer to a single individual or two or more contemporaries sharing the same names, and describes, for the first time, the methodologies followed by Fasti editors. For times when these secondary sources cannot resolve the issue, the researcher is directed to certain classes of primary sources that may do so.

Citation Information

To cite this article:

William H. Campbell, ‘Using the Clergy Database and the Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae, 1541–1857’, CCEd Online Journal 4 (2013).


‘One Mr John Le Neve hath published in Folio a Book called Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae, containing a List of the Bps, Deans, &c. ’Tis of no great note.’

So wrote Thomas Hearne, peerless antiquarian and former Bodleian Librarian, in his journal on 2 October 1716.1 In a later entry, he made it clear that it was the quality of Le Neve’s scholarship, not the idea of his enterprise, that he found objectionable; and while it is true that other works to be published in the next few decades (such as Browne Willis’s Survey of cathedrals) were both intellectually superior and wider in scope, Le Neve seems to have been the first to publish systematic lists of higher clergy other than bishops.2 The difficulties Le Neve faced related as much to his personal circumstances as to his task, but any of the editors who have worked on the most recent edition of the Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae, based at the Institute of Historical Research since 1955, can attest to the inherent difficulties of the work, which themselves pale in comparison to those faced by the directors of the Clergy Database in terms of scale.

When I had the good fortune to become Fasti Research Editor in 2005, with responsibility for the period 1541–1857, a colleague asked why the project should be continued at all since the CCEd would be covering the same ground. In part, this article is an answer to that question, not as an apologia but to acquaint users of the CCEd with a complementary resource with which some may not be familiar. I also aim to explore where they share problems and how the different methodologies of the projects enable them to augment one another. Because of the problems of research, the different media used and the different aims in mind, neither the Fasti nor the CCEd can quite be ‘all things to all men’; but they can be more than the sum of their parts and, as we shall see, users are able to make positive and permanent contributions to each.

The Fasti volumes are both more and less thorough than the CCEd, covering fewer individuals and fewer benefices but in certain ways in greater depth. The focus is on the higher clergy – essentially meaning bishops; the dignitaries, canons and prebendaries of secular cathedrals; the priors of monastic cathedrals before the Reformation; and the archdeacons of the dioceses, who sometimes were accounted as cathedral dignitaries and sometimes were not, according to the ad hoc statutes that varied by cathedral. The endowments and values of the benefices are generally given, though not in the same form, in the 1066–1300 and 1541–1857 parts of the series (1300–1541, being the first undertaken, was less thorough). There is some discussion of the primary sources, the cathedral statutes and the personnel of the chapter, ranging from career patterns to unique institutions, such as the Praelector or Lecturer of Hereford Cathedral. As a general rule, the more recent the volume, the more thorough it has been in this respect.

Methodologically, the greatest difference between the CCEd and the Fasti is that the CCEd’s vast scope makes it possible to use records in their totality, such as every institution in a bishop’s register, with ‘linkage’ – connecting each record to an individual and a place – being done after the data are extracted. By contrast, since the Fasti project is interested only in certain office-holders, records are first skimmed to find all records of institutions and the like to those certain positions. Once fairly complete lists are drawn up, individuals are researched in more detail. This takes the Fasti researcher into records not often used by the Database, particularly parish registers. Many cathedral clergy, especially at the large secular cathedrals with dozens of non-resident prebends of minimal value, lived primarily on their rectories and vicarages elsewhere, where they often died and were buried. Parish registers usually record only the burial date for a layman, but for the parish priest the precise date of death is sometimes given as well, together with notes of other benefices or offices that the individual had held.

The CCEd’s ‘career modelling’ procedure, which enables the reconstruction of an individual’s career from the galaxy of individual acts recorded, is discussed elsewhere on the Database website, and on this I will let the directors speak for themselves. The experience of the Fasti editors over the past fifty and more years suggests that this can be a tricky process, even when undertaken with a careful eye on one individual at a time. For instance, it was possible to determine of the two contemporary archdeacons at Exeter Cathedral, c. 1558, both named John Pollard, which one was also prebendary of Salisbury and which one was prebendary and canon resident of Exeter, but only by repeated reference to the primary sources and my predecessors’ careful notes from researching the Salisbury volume in the series. No doubt they were related, probably as father and son, but this was not possible to determine. The strongest evidence that there were two men at all is the simultaneous holding of incompatible benefices, namely two archdeaconries in the same diocese. Likewise, at Hereford cathedral, John Davis or Davies, prebendary of Bullingham 1711–32, cannot have been John Davies, prebendary of Ewithington 1711–42.3 To be frank, however, such certainty whether contemporary individuals of the same names were the same person or not is often unattainable. Even the incompatibility rule has its weaknesses. For instance, one would not expect a cathedral prebendary to hold a vicarage choral at the same cathedral at the same time. Taking further examples from Hereford cathedral, Thomas Gwillim resigned his vicarage choral when he accepted the prebend of Piona Parva in 1706; at that time either the positions were considered canonically incompatible or retaining a vicarage choral was thought beneath a prebendary’s dignity.4 When John Woodcock was collated prebendary of Piona Parva in 1767, the chapter demanded that he explain why he would not resign his vicarage choral; his explanation is not preserved, but he did not resign it until 1769, by which time he was also a canon resident.5 In 1776, John Stone, custos (head) of the college of vicars choral, was installed prebendary of Eigne without any (recorded) dissent; he remained both custos and prebendary until his death in 1783.6 In these instances it was possible to determine that the vicars choral were also prebendaries (and not, equally possible, a succession of prebendaries’ sons bearing the same names as their fathers), but only by detecting the pattern through debates in the chapter act books. And even then uncertainties remain. I have not been able to determine whether Francis Woodcock, prebendary successively of Bullinghope and Moreton Magna at Hereford from the 1780s, was the contemporary vicar choral of those names.7

Occasionally, a record makes it clear that one named person held several named offices, but the existence of these is patchy. For the higher clergy covered by the Fasti, cathedral records such as chapter act books can give answers, but they do not always give them up easily: these were living men known to the chapter clerk, who kept records with the chapter, not later historians, in mind. Unless context made confusion likely, there was no reason for him to differentiate in the text, unless it was to give proper titles to Dr. — and Mr. — or Canon — and Prebendary —. Reconstructing the context to differentiate between the men now might mean reading two hundred folii for clues that might not exist in any case. In the course of Fasti research, problems of identification are most difficult in determining dates of death: was the rector or prebendary in question really the same man as the vicar in a neighbouring diocese who disappears from the records around the same time? Was Henry Welshe, canon resident of Hereford, who died some time before 28 June 1559, really the same Henry Welshe as the prebendary of York Minster who died by 10 April of that year?8

Within a diocese, it is often easy to make an identification: if a non-resident prebendary disappears from the record at the same time as a vicar of a local parish in the cathedral’s patronage, common sense suggests that they are the same man, especially if the name is uncommon or the diocese is a small one. At the other extreme is Wales, where fossilized patronymics led to a very small selection of surnames and a correspondingly large number of contemporaries of the same name in the same area, a problem that could even bedevil their own diocesan leadership. When crossing diocesan boundaries, as a general rule, successive Fasti editors have turned to antiquarians: associations can be found in Browne Willis’s Survey of Cathedrals, White Kennett’s manuscripts in the Lansdowne papers at the British Library, and especially the biographical registers of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge by Foster and the Venns, respectively. For Fasti editors to search university records for possible evidence that a certain graduate really did hold particular benefices has been out of the question for reasons of time. The methodologies of career modelling employed by Foster and the Venns remain (to my knowledge) opaque, though it is likely that much of it was inspired guesswork. But no matter how carefully records are checked, many facts were simply never written down. We may never know, for instance, whether I found very few Exeter cathedral clergy buried outside their diocese because the bishops preferred to collate local men to prebends, or because Foster’s career modeling for clergy in Devon and Cornwall was not as thorough as elsewhere, or perhaps even because of some quirk in the records at Exeter College, Oxford, where (predictably) many had studied.9

Occasionally in the Fasti, as in the case of our John Pollards, a footnote clarifies who was and was not who. A second resource is the index, which in some volumes is the only way to tell what entries the compiler of that volume combined as one man or separated as several. Multiple individuals of the same name are given separate lines in each volume index, and unless they are identified in the original records as junior and senior, they are typically distinguished by the years of their deaths. Currently, there is no certain means for the user to make the same distinction across volumes in the series, but a comprehensive index nominum has been kept as each volume has appeared. It is projected that it will be released, perhaps in electronic form, once the final two volumes of the series have been published.

The CCEd directors have acknowledged the inherent difficulties of career modelling and asked for users’ help in determining individuals’ identities. Except for the most recent volume (Exeter, 1541–1857), the entire Fasti series is freely available on British History Online.10 This initiative of the Institute of Historical Research offers an optional free registration which will allow users to provide additional information, and further relevant data, qualifications and clarifications are welcomed, particularly those based directly on primary sources. At least some of the corrigenda discovered by Fasti editors over the course of the publication project are to be submitted, though at present there is no timeframe for this part of the project. In sum, however, both the CCEd and Fasti projects have attempted to identify where records refer to one person and where to several, but given the nature of the material, there can be no foolproof system. Users of each would do well to consult both when possible because each bears classes of evidence not used by the other. Clergy call books for archdeacons’ visitations, for instance, have not been consulted by Fasti editors because cathedrals were not under archdeacons’ jurisdictions; but the appearance of a vicar for some years after a prebendary of the same name is known to have died would enable one to distinguish among the clergy involved.

There are original records that are likely to help the perplexed scholar determine an individual’s identity – what positions he did or did not hold. Although there will be a great many records that could potentially resolve difficulties, most are likely to be chance mentions in out-of-the-way places such as diocesan court proceedings. Some classes of records are easier to identify and search, if not on a nationwide basis, then at least for selected individuals, such as the successive incumbents of a particular parish.

The first is wills, for here a clergyman often identified his benefices. If the benefices were in multiple dioceses, and under certain other conditions, the will would have been proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) and is now accessible at The National Archives and through their website. If the clergyman were beneficed only in one diocese, however, the will would generally be proved in the archdeaconry or diocesan court, and (so far as I can tell) probate in an archidiaconal or diocesan court demonstrates that the cleric was not beneficed outside of that archdeaconry or diocese, respectively. Similarly, some cathedrals had peculiar jurisdictions over which the dean, the chapter collectively or even a single prebendary had archidiaconal jurisdiction and could prove wills; in these cases any surviving probate records may be in the cathedral archives. An important caveat is that a benefice formerly held, but since resigned or ceded, would cease to affect where a will was proved, while the clergyman writing his will years before his decease might mention the benefices he held at the time of writing, not all of which he necessarily held to his death. And further, a cleric might list only his most prestigious benefice, as did Robert Benett, prebendary of Durham, in 1558.11

A second source is parish registers. Churchwardens evidently took a certain degree of pride in well-connected clergy; if their rector or vicar were also an archdeacon, prebendary or some other dignitary, they were likely to mention it in the parish register when recording his death and burial. This may also be the case for rank-and-file clergy holding multiple non-cathedral benefices, though in the course of Fasti research I have had no cause to investigate this. Normally, one must successfully find the register of the parish where the cleric was buried to find such an entry, though in some cases a churchwarden considered the death and burial of his vicar or rector elsewhere a fact worth noting in his own parish’s register.

A third and more limited source for the researcher is monumental inscriptions, which likewise tend to trumpet the deceased’s earthly honours. Local histories are invaluable for giving these for clergymen and the local gentry, not only because the researcher need not travel to the church but also because many older memorial monuments have deteriorated, disappeared or been demolished in church rebuilding schemes. (Since clergy were often buried or at least memorialized within the church fabric, their memorials are sometimes paradoxically less likely to survive than others left exposed to the elements.) The Victoria history of the counties of England (VCH) series does not include monumental inscriptions, but many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century county and local histories do; and county historical and genealogical societies often have files of extant memorial inscriptions, searchable for a fee.

A fourth type of source, accessible to the academic historian but less so to the general public, is certain kinds of clergy lists. Those in diocesan archives deposited at county archive offices are easy enough to visit, but documents at the supra-diocesan level, recording clergy beneficed in multiple dioceses, are often kept in more restricted conditions. British Library, Harley MSS 594 and 595 contain returns made by bishops in 1563 and again in the early seventeenth century (some care must be taken to determine which is which, as they are intermingled); in some dioceses the names of incumbents are given, including such details as what other benefices were held by pluralists and on which benefices they actually resided. Better known are the returns made by bishops to Archbishop Matthew Parker c. 1561, now at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MSS 97 and 122. The returns themselves make some reference to pluralists’ other benefices, and it is to be hoped that the edition, study and database now beginning for the Church of England Record Society will enable further cross-identification from careful study of the internal evidence. (One John Smith, an unlettered and married priest, clearly is not the same as a John Smith reported elsewhere as a university graduate and celibate priest.)

A fifth source, and one that the Fasti and Clergy Database have used, is the state paper and home office warrant books at The National Archives. These include royal warrants for dispensations for individual clergy to hold multiple benefices with cure of souls. In some (but not all) cases they will be specific dispensations, permitting the holding of certain named benefices, such as the dispensation to Arthur D’Anvers to hold the vicarage of Totnes together with the rectory of St Martins, both in Exeter diocese. We can thus be confident that the vicar and the rector who appear in diocesan records were indeed the same man. These ecclesiastical warrants, which include many forms other than dispensation, were also extracted by the editors of the Calendar of state papers (domestic series), exhaustively so far as I can tell. The Calendar begins in the reign of Edward VI and runs through 1706, while the PRO SP 44 and HO 115 sources extracted by the CCEd begin in 1661 and run through 1835, the end of the database’s remit.

Sixth, though not least, diocesan and archidiaconal records such as the Lincoln libri cleri and visitation returns published by Canon Foster were part of the apparatus by which contemporary bishops, archdeacons and their administrations kept track of individuals. Since cathedral clergy were only under archdeacons’ jurisdiction insofar as they held parochial livings, I have had little cause to consult archidiaconal records such as visitation records in my Fasti research and can speak less authoritatively on them than on some other classes of record.

I have devoted most of my attention here to linkage and career modeling because it remains, and seems set to remain, one of the most vexing challenges for both the Fasti and the Database. In retrospect, it is one of the weaknesses of the Fasti in its current version that the question of how the editors confirmed or rejected the identification of one John Smith with another is very seldom addressed in print; I have made a small start on this in my own volumes, but the limitations of time and page space have restricted this to the trickiest cases. In fact, even the massive card file compiled by successive Fasti 1541–1857 editors does not always give the source or reason for a positive correlation made by past editors, though often it can be traced to one of the printed sources that I have described. Even in this exceedingly technical historiography, linkage has proved itself to be less a science than an art, though I hope that in this article I have at least rendered it less of a black art. Users of the CCEd and Fasti who are able to replace ambiguities with positive associations or distinctions, especially when primary sources hold the key, are warmly welcomed to report this further information to both ventures via the channels mentioned above.

William H. Campbell

William H. Campbell is an instructor in History and Religious Studies at the University of Pittsburgh in Greensburg. From 2005 to 2007 he was Research Editor on the Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae project at the Institute of Historical Research, London.

  1. Remarks and collections of Thomas Hearne, ed. C. E. Doble et al. (11 vols, Oxford, 1885–1918), V, 318 

  2. Remarks and collections, ed. Doble, VI, 64. On Le Neve, Willis and related works, see J.M. Horn, comp., John Le Neve: Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1300–1541, Vol. XII: introduction, errata and index (London, 1967), pp. 1–7. 

  3. Hereford Record Office, Hereford diocesan records, MSS AL 19/20, f. 185r, and AL 19/21, f. 12r, respectively. 

  4. Hereford Cathedral Archives, MS 7031/3, p. 566 

  5. Hereford Cathedral Archives, MSS 7031/4 (unpag.), 7031/5, p. 22. 

  6. Hereford RO, MS AL 19/23, f. 12v; Hereford Cathedral Archives, MS 7031/5, p. 144, f. 224v. 

  7. Hereford Cathedral Archives, MS 7031/5, p. 179, ff. 221v, 275v. 

  8. Calendar of patent rolls preserved in the Public Record Office (29 vols, London, 1924–2004), 1558–60, p. 123; Calendar of institutions by the chapter of Canterbury sede vacante, ed. C. E. Woodruff (Kent Records, 8, 1923), p. 58; York, Borthwick Institute, archbishops’ institution act book AB 1, f. 40v. 

  9. W. H. Campbell, comp., John Le Neve: Fasti ecclesiae anglicanae 1541―1857, Vol. XII: Exeter diocese (London, 2007). 

  10. [accessed 13 July 2009]. 

  11. Wills and inventories … of the northern counties of England, part I, ed. J. Raine (Surtees Society, 2, 1835), p. 172. An editorial footnote adds that he was also vicar of Gainford, though of course the editor’s source and reasoning are not elucidated. Given that the editor is doubtless correct in identifying this Robert Benett with the monk and bursar of Durham of the same name at the time of the dissolution of the cathedral priory, this probably is not Robert Benett (CCEd person ID 39736) ordained subdeacon, deacon and priest in Dec. 1541 on the title of a parish benefice in Peterborough Diocese. According to J. M. Horn et al., comp., Fasti… XI: Carlisle, Chester, Durham, Manchester, Ripon, and Sodor and Man dioceses (2004), p. 108, our will-writing Robert Benett was appointed to the 11th prebend of Durham in the royal foundation charter of May 1541. An obedientiary in a Benedictine cathedral priory was unlikely to be in minor orders; a prebendary was unlikely to be permitted to hold his benefice for six months in minor orders that, in the new dispensation, were no longer recognized as orders at all; and since a cathedral canon was expected to be in major orders, one wonders why the more prestigious prebend was not used as title for orders. By such means may we distinguish one Robert Benett from another. I use this as an example of the challenges facing anyone attempting such distinctions on a small scale, much less a massive one.