What is the Clergy of the Church of England Database Project?

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The Clergy of the Church of England Database was established in October 1999 with a grant of £529,000 over five years from the Arts and Humanities Research Board (now the Arts and Humanities Research Council), from whom it received a further tranche of funding in 2005. Its objective is to construct a relational database containing the careers of all clergymen of the Church of England between 1540 and 1835. The Database fills a major gap in our knowledge of one of the most important professions in early modern England and Wales. It exploits web technologies and specially written software to provide an invaluable research tool for national and local, academic and amateur historians, and for genealogists, all of whom often need to discover biographical information about individual clergymen or information relating to a particular locality, as well as for anyone undertaking a more structural investigation of the church and its personnel from the Reformation to the mid-nineteenth century.

The Church of England between 1540 and 1835 and its records

Throughout this period the Church of England was the single most important employer of educated males in England and Wales, and at times possessed an institutional presence which surpassed that of the state. The parish was also the major unit of local government throughout this period. An understanding of the dynamics of the clerical profession, both in terms of individual careers and of fluctuations in the profession’s overall size, distribution and character, is thus central not only to the consideration of the development of society and religion, and especially the history of the professions, but also to studies of particular localities and regions or the biographical investigation of artistic, scientific, administrative, political and economic activity in England and Wales. Until now, the geographical dispersal of relevant manuscripts in diocesan archives located across the country, and their disparate nature, have combined to prevent any systematic investigation of the profession – of the instances of clerical pluralism and non-residence, for example, or of the size of the profession at any particular date. Even the tracing of individual careers can be a time-consuming and frustrating exercise, not least because the few published sources are limited in both geographical and chronological scope. Thanks to the accurate documentary record of ordinations and appointments preserved in record offices, however, the basis for answering such questions as these exists to a greater extent than for other professions. By bringing together these sources, this project has created an invaluable resource not only for historians studying the Church, but also for those whose research touches in any way on the tens of thousands of clergy alive in the three centuries following the Reformation.

The nature and scope of the Database

In October 1999 the project team began work on the design of a relational database covering all clerical careers in the Church of England between 1540 and 1835, to be made available in electronic form for public access over the internet. In December 2008 it contained the key career events for over 105,000 individual clerics or schoolteachers (the number swells almost daily) between 1540 and 1835, derived from nearly 1.5 million evidence records. As the Database will be a major research tool for scholars in many disciplines with a historical dimension, it is designed in such a way as to enable a wide variety of data retrieval and analyses. Historians and others can establish the succession of clergy in particular localities, trace individual career paths as they cross diocesan boundaries, and investigate such issues as patterns of clerical migration and patronage across geographical and chronological blocs of their choice. Thus, rather than containing a series of prose biographies, the database records information about clerical careers in interlinked tables, and consequently is well-suited to facilitate not only biographical research, but also more structural investigations of the Church, its clergy, its livings and patrons. For the first time it will be possible rigorously to investigate the changing size and character of the clerical body over the whole period between 1540 (the creation of the first of six new dioceses by Henry VIII) and 1835 (the publication of the Ecclesiastical Duties and Revenues Commission report, which inaugurated the period in which reliable and regularly updated national lists of clergy and their livings, such as the Clergy List, became available.

The Database brings together evidence about clerical careers from all 27 dioceses of England and Wales (plus the short-lived diocese of Westminster), which are held at 28 diocesan repositories and many other archives and libraries. It draws on a core of four types of record maintained in diocesan collections: registers, subscription books, licensing books and liber cleri or call books. Registers record the ordination of clergymen, the point at which they ‘became’ clergymen, and the appointment of beneficed clergy to their livings. They and licensing books also record the appointment, or licensing, of unbeneficed clergy or curates and preachers, appointments of schoolmasters, resignations, and other similar events. At the time of their ordination and appointment, clergy were also required to subscribe to various oaths, which are recorded in subscription books, and provide another source for many events recorded in registers. They are particularly valuable for their often much more complete records of appointments of curates and preachers. Libri cleri are lists of clergy of a diocese or archdeaconry, drawn up for use at visitations, and sometimes (in exhibit or consignation books) also record details of a clergyman’s ordination, appointments and dispensations, which makes them invaluable for periods when registers and subscription books have not survived. Other types of record have been consulted for dioceses and periods where the core records are fragmentary. These include bishops’ transcripts of parish registers and wills within diocesan collections, and, beyond them, returns to the First Fruits Office at the Exchequer, taxation records and surveys of clergy compiled in Elizabeth I’s reign. However, pressures on time and on the budget have meant that some important information will be missing from the Database. Evidence from parish registers, wills or monumental inscriptions have not been routinely incorporated, so in most cases precise dates of birth and death are not included, though approximate dates can be deduced from the records that are included. Similarly, educational qualifications are recorded where they occur in our selection of sources, but we have not been able to include the university and college registers at Oxford and Cambridge. Thus, much evidence about the date of birth, birthplace and parents of the clergy are also missing\(although where we have such information, we have highlighted that concerning educational attainment and institutions attended, and concerning birth and death). But, if there are limitations in the scope of the Database, then its strength, which in our view more than compensates for this, is its national coverage across nearly three hundred years, so that for the first time we can provide an accurate account of the career of those many clergy who were ordained in one diocese, and subsequently held curacies or livings in two or three others. We also hope that our work will stimulate extraction of related records, which will advance local research, and which in the longer term may be possible to ‘bolt on’ to the Database.

The Collection and Processing of Data

The project directors have visited each archive in turn to select the documents to be extracted, and to recruit freelance researchers to assist with data collection. These research assistants often possess a formidable grasp of the history and records of their locality, from which the Project has benefited enormously; a small number of them have continued to work for the project after data collection for their own local record office has been completed, and have extracted records from other dioceses using microfilm or xerox copies. Research assistants have used laptop computers containing a palette of five screens for data collection, each providing fields appropriate for the information that we wish to extract from that particular source and designed in classic ‘index-card’ format. On completion collection databases – generally one for each source – have been returned to the project office for checking and then uploaded into the Master Database, held at King’s College London. By the time the AHRB/C funded stage of this project was completed, we calculate that the Database contained somewhere around 1.5 million individual evidence records. After uploading, the records began to be linked. Record linkage is a multi-faceted process in that records are linked by person, by place, and by ordinary (or bishop). The most challenging and time-consuming of these is linking of people, and at present it is feasible only to link clergy and not the patrons recorded in association with many events. Linking records to individual clergy involves a process called ‘personification’ in which ‘people’ are created, each being given an individual identifier, to which the individual evidence records are then linked. Variations in spelling mean that this process became more difficult as we moved from diocese to diocese and the number of ‘people’ in the Master Database increased. Given this, and the provisional nature of some linkage, it is important to note that users of the Database can access the original records, captured in ‘screen’ format, so that they can see on what basis judgments have been made about linking records, and we welcome comments and suggestions where we may have erroneously linked records relating to different clergymen.

Linking records to places may at first sight seem a much simpler process, and in many ways it is, but it should nevertheless be recognised that the parish structure of the Church of England has not been preserved in aspic since the Reformation. Indeed, one of the difficulties which has confronted the project team has been constructing a robust list of parishes and chapels within (and without) them, as well as the numerous other posts and locations with which clergymen have been associated over the period of the project, for example as chaplains of institutions such as gaols or as personal chaplains to individuals. No single source has been found from which to draw a definitive list even of the parishes of the Church and the changes they have undergone, and the records themselves sometimes suggest that contemporaries were confused in the past. We believe in consequence that the record of the locations created by the Database will in itself represent a significant new resource for the study of the structure of the Church of England, and particularly of its parishes. (We strongly recommend all new users to read our account of the location structure of the Database before proceeding.) As with person linkage, we would welcome comment and advice on our efforts.

Thanks to such linkage, the Database can be searched by place, date and clerical person. However, the inevitable overlapping of our sources, lacunae, and the complexity of the interrelationship of evidence relating to a single appointment (which might generate at least a subscription, a presentation and an institution, for example, on different dates in different sources), meant that, while browsing and searching was possible on the linked data, it was often difficult to interpret results, and structural interpretation was particularly time consuming. In the second phase of the project, therefore, the main effort was devoted to devising a software package which could process the linked record to provide a new result both more receptive to structural inquiry and more readily interpretable by the casual user. The result, (described in Interpreting Career Narratives) has been a process we call Career Modelling, by which our linked records are semi-automatically processed to identify the best available start and end date for each tenure in a cleric’s career, the best evidence for ordination, and where available information relating to birth, death, and education. The ‘Career Narratives’ produced are now the point of entry to the user pursuing information about individuals. As more information comes to light, these narratives will undergo regular review, both automated and manual. The design of the career modeling software was accompanied by the development of new and powerful search engines to take full account of its potential. These make possible elaborate structural enquiries, and also searches using wildcards for names and placenames. For the first time it is possible to interrogate information in the Database regarding patrons, and to save, combine and modify searches with ease.

In implementing these new features, which required considerable research and analysis of data, we also found our interactions with our users remarkably helpful. As a result, we also decided to integrate the website where we had begun to develop an increasingly elaborate array of help pages and through which that communication occurred more fully with the Database. Among the features added was an Online Journal, with both a peer-reviewed section for articles and a Notes and Queries section, where we hope all users will find material not only of intrinsic interest to them but also of great value in understanding how to make sense of the data contained in the Database.

Future Development

The CCEd is a living resource: continually being revised as new data is uploaded, linked and career modeled. Monthly upgrades often add some 2,000 new career narratives to the site. The project team is committed to continuing to improve and maintain the Database in dialogue with its user community, and over the next few years will begin to publish the first fruits of their own engagement with its findings as historians of the Church of England. The team is always happy to discuss possible collaborations with both professional and amateur historians on projects of related interest.

The Project Team

The project team consists of three directors: Professor Arthur Burns (King’s College London), Professorr Kenneth Fincham (University of Kent) and Professor Stephen Taylor (University of Reading), who have complementary research interests in the history of the Church of England from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. They are assisted by Senior Research Officers: originally Dr Peter Yorke (1999–2003), then Mary Clayton (2003–9) and Tim Wales 2003–8). Mary Clayton continues to run the project officeon a part-time basis thanks to funding from the British Academy. Across the country, data was collected by more than sixty Research Assistants, whose names are listed on the project website, and several of whom assist in record linkage.

The technical research was supervised by Harold Short, Director of the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at King’s College London. The construction of the relational database and software, and career modeling and search engines was\carried out by John Bradley (Technical Consultant), Hafed Walda (Technical Project Officer), Mark Stewart (Technical Project Officer), Payman Labbaf (Technical Project Officer), and Elliott Hall. The electronic publishing framework, based on TEI XML, has been developed by Paul Spence (Technical Consultant), Paul Vetch (Technical Project Officer), Arianna Ciula (Technical Project Officer), Eleonora Litta Modignani Picozzi (Technical Project Officer), Dr Juan Garcés (Technical Project Officer), and Zaneta Au (Technical Project Officer).

Contact details.