Bishops and their dioceses: reform of visitation in the Anglican church c.1680–c.1760

W. J. Sheils


After the upheavals of mid century the restored episcopate was faced with rebuilding the established Church. The visitation process was central to this, but the decline in its correctional powers, and the unwillingness of churchwardens to present neighbours for ecclesiastical offences, demanded a fresh approach. From the 1680s some bishops sought to involve the clergy rather than churchwardens in the process, and to make visitations more of an administrative occasion than a judicial one. New questions were addressed directly to the parochial clergy, seeking details of population, pastoral provision, educational initiatives, charitable provision and, in some cases, the social and political complexion of their parishes. Some bishops entered the information provided from the parish clergy into a survey, or speculum, for their use, and these surveys were enlarged by historical details about the rights and privileges of the parishes culled from the diocesan archives. By the mid-eighteenth century this practice was usual, if not universal, in the established Church, and the surveys were periodically, if not systematically, brought up to date by successive bishops at later visitations. Over time therefore, diocesans acquired detailed information on the parishes which surviving episcopal correspondence suggests they used when dealing with particular problems or introducing policy initiatives. The surveys and returns suggest that the pastoral engagement of the hierarchy was more significant than has previously been thought and, in this, their use of visitation was not very different from that of the bishops in the Gallican church. The records they produced, covering as they did a range of social and political as well as strictly ecclesiastical matters, also represent an example of that information gathering process adopted by other agencies of the British state which was to provide the basis for much political and social reform early in the following century.

Citation Information

To cite this article: W. J. Sheils, ‘Bishops and their dioceses: reform of visitation in the Anglican church c.1680–c.1760’, CCEd Online Journal 1, 2007.


‘The keystone of the arch of ecclesiastical administration however was the visitation; upon which to a considerable degree the good estate of the church depended.’ So wrote Professor Norman Sykes some time ago, and he was able to find support for this view from the pens of many leading churchmen of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. ((Norman Sykes, From Sheldon to Secker. Aspects of English church history 1660-1768 (Cambridge, 1959), p. 15 and his earlier article ‘Episcopal administration in England in the eighteenth century’, English Historical Review, 48 (1932), 414-46, esp. pp. 437-8.)) How far these pious sentiments had practical results was, however, a more difficult question to resolve, and a bishop like William Lloyd of Peterborough, who conducted a personal parochial visitation of his relatively compact diocese in 1680, was an exception. Lloyd saw personal supervision as a valuable means of bringing the inferior clergy and churchwardens to ‘a serious sense of their duty’, but few of his contemporaries were as assiduous as he in this matter. ((Sykes, From Sheldon to Secker, p. 16. Compton of London also conducted a personal visitation of some city parishes in 1685, see Edward Carpenter, The protestant bishop (1956), pp. 216-21. )) More recent work by scholars such as John Spurr and Donald Spaeth ((John Spurr, The Restoration Church of England, 1646-1689 (New Haven and London, 1991), pp. 132-66; Donald Spaeth, The church in an age of danger. Parsons and parishioners, 1660-1740 (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 64-72.)) tends to confirm Sykes’s judgment that, despite the central importance of episcopacy to Restoration churchmen in the maintenance of ecclesiastical authority and the conscientiousness with which most bishops carried out their duties, the administrative difficulties in governing widespread jurisdictions and ‘maintaining such a regular and intimate knowledge of and communication with the inferior clergy as were necessary for the fulfilment of the ideal of the pastoral office within their dioceses’ ensured that, for the lower clergy, ‘their infrequent contact with their bishop made the occasion of visitation rather a social than an ecclesiastical event’. ((Norman Sykes, Church and state in England in the eighteenth century (Cambridge, 1934), pp. 137-8; see also pp. 115-16. )) In terms of discipline this work has indicated that the visitation process was in decline not only in cases dealing with the laity but also in those concerning the clergy, and that, in some cases, parishioners were electing to pursue negligent pastors through the secular courts instead. ((Spaeth, Age of danger, pp. 69-72. ))
Most recently however, work on Canterbury in the eighteenth century by Jeremy Gregory, ((Jeremy Gregory, Restoration, reformation and reform. The archbishops of Canterbury and their diocese 1660-1818 (Oxford, 2000), pp. 274-86; and the essays in The national church in local perspective. The Church of England and the regions 1660-1800, ed. Jeremy Gregory and Jeffrey S. Chamberlain (Woodbridge, 2005).)) has suggested a more optimistic view of episcopal achievement in this area, and the purpose of this paper is to indicate that the successes noted at Canterbury were part of more widespread administrative reforms which were reflected in the emergence of a new class of archive. These records, known as visitation returns, were not only a response to the general disillusionment with visitation discipline which was clear to many contemporaries, but may also have reflected a new understanding about the nature of ecclesiastical authority among some Anglicans, such as the former Presbyterian Edward Reynolds, bishop of Norwich. Reynolds sought a synodical form of diocesan government in which he would consult the parochial clergy ‘in matters of weight and difficulty’. ((Spurr, Restoration Church, quoted at p. 162)) In the years following the Restoration, and in particular after c. 1680, the clergy were increasingly involved in the process of visitation and were often asked to respond to a series of questions about their parochial provision sent by the bishop of the diocese, often in advance of visitation. These replies are well known to historians and have been a valued source for local church history for many years. ((A number of these have been printed. S. L. Ollard and P. C. Walker (eds.), Archbishop Herring’s Visitation Returns, 1743, ed. S. L. Ollard and P. C. Walker (5 vols, Yorkshire Archaeological Society, Record Series, 71, 72, 75, 77, 79, 1928-31); Articles of enquiry addressed to the clergy of the diocese of Oxford at the primary visitation of Dr Thomas Secker, 1738, ed. H. A. Lloyd Jukes (Oxfordshire Record Society, 38, 1957); The diocese of Exeter in 1821. I. Cornwall; II. Devon (Devon and Cornwall Record Society, new series, 3–4, 1958–60), ed. M. Cook; Wiltshire returns to the bishop’s visitation queries, 1783, ed. Mary Ransome (Wiltshire Record Society, 17, 1971); Parson and parish in eighteenth-century Surrey. Replies to bishops’ visitations, ed. W. R. Ward (Surrey Record Society, 35, 1994); Parson and parish in eighteenth-century Hampshire. Replies to bishops’ visitations (Hampshire Record Society, 13, 1995).)) The returns were often abstracted into survey volumes of Specula by the bishop or his officers, and, often, these survey books incorporated other material on the parish resulting from searches made on behalf on the bishop or one of his officials among the records of the diocese. ((Fewer of these are in print but see Speculum Dioeceseos Lincolnensis 1705-1723, ed. R. E. G. Cole (Lincoln Record Society, 4, 1913); W. G. D. Fletcher (ed.), ‘Documents Relating to Leicestershire and preserved in the Episcopal Registry at Lincoln’, ed. W. G. D. Fletcher, Associated Architectural Societies, Reports and Papers, 22.2 (1894), 227-365; The speculum of Archbishop Thomas Secker, ed. Jeremy Gregory (Church of England Record Society, 2, 1995). For a later period see The state of the bishopric of Worcester 1782-1808, ed. Mary Ransome (Worcestershire Historical Society, new series, 6, 1968), which includes illustrations showing the typical layout of these volumes.)) They can hardly have been compiled solely with the interests of a later generation of antiquarians and scholars in mind (though many of the bishops involved were scholarly men with antiquarian interests), ((In this connection see, for example, Miscellany accounts of the diocese of Carlisle with terriers delivered to me at my primary visitation, by William Nicolson, late bishop of Carlisle, ed. R. S. Ferguson (Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 1877) and the volumes of Notitia Cestriensis of Bishop Francis Gastrell, which have been edited for the Chetham Society, 8, 19, 21, 22 (1845-50), and, for the Cumbrian parishes, The Cumbria parishes 1714-15 from Bishop Gastrell’s Notitia, ed. L. A. S. Butler (Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, Record Series, 12, 1998). These were compiled with the help of visitation returns, extracts from which have been printed in C. M. L. Bouch, Prelates and peoples of the Lake Counties (Kendal, 1948), pp. 333-5.)) and consideration of these records might tell us something of contemporary attitudes to visitation and to the problems of the parish clergy and parochial life as perceived by the higher clergy. Before tackling this problem it is as well to remind ourselves of the nature of these returns. In their final form the returns provided a detailed account of the pastoral work and problems of the parish as perceived by the incumbent, but they took some time to evolve. The development can be illustrated by the earliest known examples, those from the diocese of Lincoln beginning with William Wake’s primary visitation of 1706 and following successive visitations through to the primary visitation of his successor, Edmund Gibson, in 1718. In 1706 Wake sent out a brief, almost terse, letter to the parochial clergy of the diocese asking for replies to questions covering the following seven heads: (1) the status, value and extent of the living, (2) the patronage, (3) its population, (4) the denomination and number of protestant dissenters and whether they had any places of worship, (5) whether there were any charitable endowments for schools, hospitals and lectureships and how they were administered, (6) whether there were any resident gentry and finally, recalling the antiquarian spirit of the age, (7) whether there were any notable monuments in the church or antiquities in the parish. At subsequent visitations Wake gradually extended the range of questions asked so that they covered the pastoral work of the clergy and, in 1718, his successor subsumed these under further headings in a questionnaire which, with a few modifications, provided the model for subsequent visitations at Lincoln and elsewhere. ((Speculum, ed. Cole, pp. ii-iv. Wake’s Itinerary and visitation journal have been printed: Norman Sykes, ‘Bishop William Wake’s primary visitation of the diocese of Lincoln, 1706’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 2 (1951), pp. 190-206. )) Gibson had already, when archdeacon of Surrey, written a book on the conduct of archidiaconal visitation and was an authority on the procedural and legal matters involved. ((Edmund Gibson, Of visitations parochial and general. Being the charges deliver’d to the clergy of the archdeaconry of Surrey (1717). )) At Lincoln he was able also to give prominence to the pastoral aspect of visitation and, to Wake’s questions of 1706, were added additional ones covering pastoral provision. They included questions about residence on the cure or, in the case of non-residence, about licences and the provision of curates; about the provision of services in the parish church, requiring explanations for any departure from canonical norms; about the frequency of the administration of the Eucharist and the numbers receiving communion; about the provision and nature of catechizing in the parish; and, finally, about public penances performed by offenders against church law. ((Speculum, ed. Cole, pp. ii–iv. )) By the 1760s most dioceses had experienced questionnaires of this sort at one time or another and these sources have been ably exploited as a valuable record of the pastoral difficulties facing the eighteenth-century church. ((E.g., A. Warne, Church and society in eighteenth-century Devon (Newton Abbot, 1969); J. N. Caplan, ‘Visitation of the Diocese of Chichester in 1724’, Sussex Notes and Queries, 15 (1962), 289-95. The details of the return were entered into a survey book for the bishop, West Sussex Record Office, Ep.1/26/3.)) At this stage I do not want to discuss the contents of these returns and associated documents, but rather to consider some possible reasons for their introduction into the well-established process of episcopal visitation. Three features need to be noted about the questionnaires:
  • they were novel
  • they sought information of a general nature about the parish rather than specific information on particular offences or offenders against church law, and
  • they were directed to the clergy alone, and more specifically to the beneficed clergy. ((The letters were usually addressed to the incumbent in the earlier part of the period, later more generally to the minister. Of the returns from Oxford diocese in 1738, 28 out of 179 were made by curates serving in the place of absentee incumbents. Secker’s Visitation, ed. Lloyd-Jukes, passim. ))

Consideration of each of these features can throw light on the motives and expectations of the bishops who introduced the questionnaires and I will begin with the third: the fact that these questions were directed to the clergy alone. This was clearly a departure from earlier practice where articles were usually sent to both minister and churchwardens, who were required under oath to present any irregularities. ((A number of post-Restoration articles of enquiry have been printed in The second report of the commissioners appointed to inquire into the rubrics, orders and directions for regulating the course and conduct of public worship (1866), Appendix E, pp. 601-85.)) These articles of enquiry had, with few exceptions, fallen into a standard form and it is important to note that the new questionnaire did not replace the articles, but supplemented them. Visitation articles continued to be sent to churchwardens in the traditional judicial form and covering the same ground as before. ((Second report, pp. 601–85. By far the fullest of these are those sent out by Fleetwood for the diocese of St Asaph in 1710 which, though they covered very traditional ground, were made the occasion for lengthy discussion of the pastoral implications of the articles, see pp. 663-77. For Fleetwood, see below paras. 15–16. The standard form of articles was much briefer and is easily seen at pp. 615-19 which provide a basic text used on 27 occasions in several dioceses between 1662 and 1685 with only minor modifications. The importance of public discipline as a matter of pastoral responsibility was a constant theme at visitation sermons. See for example, J. Talbot, The judicial power of the church asserted (1707), esp. p. 33.)) What was the purpose of sending additional questionnaires to the clergy?

In the first place a number of bishops expressed dissatisfaction with the way in which churchwardens had been replying to visitation articles and had, like Francis Turner in his visitation charge for Ely in 1685, urged the clergy to share the burden of visitation presentment with the churchwardens so that a helpful and full return be made to the articles of enquiry. ((Francis Turner, A letter to the clergy of the diocese of Ely … preparatory to his visitation (Cambridge, 1686), p. 3. )) I shall return to this point later, in the present context it is sufficient to say that the evidence from visitation charges of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries indicates that the bishops were coming to see that the cooperation of the parish clergy was essential if the traditional pattern of visitation was to be usefully maintained. ((Turner, Letter to the clergy, p. 4, ‘But further let me prevail with you, that publikly by your Preaching at this Time, and professedly, with regard to the approaching visitation, you would shew the people, they are obliged in conscience now to make their just open complaints, instead of odious reflections behind our backs, and that you would make your parish understand, what our Blessed Saviour intended, when He expressly commanded, “Tell it to the Church”.’ For Gibson, see Speculum, ed. Cole, p. iii. For lack of confidence in churchwardens presentments see the letter of Lloyd quoted at para. 10 below. )) In addition to, and perhaps more important than this rather negative stimulus at this stage, was the positive encouragement which bishops gave to the parish clergy to participate in visitations. Both Gibson, and others such as Secker who followed his example, saw the questionnaires as an opportunity to involve the parish clergy more directly in the visitation process and as a vehicle for discussion of church affairs at all levels from the parochial to the national. In his letter to the clergy of 1718 Gibson made it clear that he not only wished to have replies from them but he also intended ‘to make my own Enquiries and Observations, and to attend to such Questions and Representations as the clergy may have occasion to offer’. ((Speculum, ed. Cole, p. iv; Secker’s visitation, ed. Lloyd-Jukes, pp. 4-5. ))

However admirable such close interest in the affairs of the parish might appear to the student of the eighteenth-century church, contemporaries did not always see it in this light and, though no evidence has come to light implying large-scale resistance on the part of the parish clergy, ((Among the printed editions there is little evidence to suggest that failure to reply and delay were anything other than accidental. Secker, at Oxford in 1738, was punctilious and sent out a reminder to those clergy failing to reply within six weeks. Ten parishes were affected and all, except two within the peculiar jurisdiction of Banbury, replied promptly. In one case, at Ibeston, Secker accepted a verbatim report from the incumbent but in another, Stoke Lyne, he requested a fuller answer than the brief one first offered. He did not, however, challenge the equally brief return from Broughton Poggs, where the rector was also lord of the manor, Secker’s Visitation, ed. Lloyd-Jukes, pp. 8-9, 14, 20-1, 28-31, 42-3, 49-51, 70-1, 73-4, 83-5, 150-1. For some resentment at the alleged intrusive nature of Secker’s Oxford visitation see W. M. Marshall, ‘Episcopal Activity in the Hereford and Oxford Dioceses 1660-1760’, Midland History, 8 (1983), 117)) bishops were careful when introducing the questionnaires to stress that the information between the bishop and his parochial clergy passed as between fellow pastors in the church. It was a pastoral not a judicial device, and no oath was required from those making the returns. This pastoral emphasis is made clear in returns studied so far for several dioceses where they were introduced between 1706 and 1743. The bishops were at pains to stress that the replies from the parochial clergy were to be made to him or his secretary and that, in the early days at least, they did not form part of the normal administrative business passing through the diocesan registry.((See, for example, the prefatory letters of Herring and Claget for York and Exeter in 1743 and 1742; Borthwick Institute, Bp.V.1743/Ret.; Devon Record Office, Chanter 225a.)) The subsequent history of some of these returns confirms this view; the Lincoln returns for 1718 were taken from there to London by Edmund Gibson on his translation in 1723 and have only recently been united with the diocesan records; ((Speculum, ed. Cole, p. iv, n. i; National Register of Archives, Accessions to repositories 1982, (1983), p. 28.)) the York returns for 1743 and 1764 remained part of the personal archiepiscopal archive at Bishopthorpe Palace and were not filed with the visitation court books at the diocesan registry. ((B.I., Bp.V.1743/Ret.; V.1764/Ret.; the court books for these visitations were in the main series of visitation records, V.1743/CB; V.1764/CB. Other personal notes and details for the archbishops, including a volume entitled ‘Extracts and Observations from the abp’s visitations’ written in Herring’s hand, were also kept at Bishopthorpe. Bp.V/Misc. and Bp.C & P. IV. ))

This stress on the private nature of the information not only helped to establish a direct line of communication between the diocesan and his parochial clergy, it was also designed to encourage the clergy to be as frank as possible in their replies. Archbishop Herring, in 1743, encouraged the clergy to inform him of any particular difficulties which they had encountered in their work and to put forward any proposals of a general nature by which they might think ‘the Glory of God, and the Honour and Interest of our Established Church may be promoted, or the Government of this Diocese be better ordered’. ((Herring’s visitation, ed. Ollard and Walker, I, 3.)) Most of the clergy contented themselves with straightforward replies to the questions and some pious reflections on the state of the church. A few, however, took the archbishop at his word, and some must have made him regret making the suggestion. The incumbent of Kirby Irelyth eschewed the printed form and, in the process of answering the questions, covered four pages of closely written, if not closely argued, comment in describing the difficulties of his extensive parish and inveighing against ‘the sad Ignorance of too many, who have of late Years been adopted into the Clergy’. At Kildwick, perhaps more familiarly, the report on the parish was followed by a long letter from the hard-pressed curate assuring the bishop that ‘A competency in Life is all I desire’. ((Herring’s visitation, ed. Ollard and Walker, II, 98-102, 108-11.)) These are of course extreme examples, other clergy replied suggesting the use of particular works of pastoral divinity and the like, and Herring’s notes and correspondence following the visitation suggests that, in some circumstances at least, the needs and the suggestions of the parochial clergy were noted. ((B.I., Bp. C & P. IV.)) In such cases the clergy had good reason to feel that they had been provided with a source of direct access to the bishop.

Like most lines of communication, however, these also went in the opposite direction, and there must have been some apprehension among the parish clergy at such close scrutiny of matters not normally part of the visitation process. Certainly, in any diocese governed by Thomas Secker the clergy could anticipate close examination of their lives and opinions, not only on matters of church law but also on politics. Following his primary visitation of Bristol in 1735 Secker compiled a survey of the parishes in the diocese drawn from the information given in the parochial returns and from direct contact made in the course of visitation. Secker commented freely on the political allegiances of the parish clergy as well as on their pastoral work and personal life, amending his first impressions of the incumbent of Loders in Somerset as a ‘good’ man with the cautiously judicious note ‘I hear wrong tho’ not immoral things of him.’ ((Bristol Record Office, EP/A/2/2, pp. 110-11. The Dorset entries are discussed by J. H. Bettey, ‘Bishop Secker’s diocesan survey’, Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Proceedings, 95 (1973-4), 74-5. The survey was compiled largely from returns to a printed visitation questionnaire, of which only one example survives, Bristol R.O., EP/V/3 (Hampeston, 1735). See also Speculum, ed. Gregory, pp. xiv-xviii. )) In matters of pastoral work Secker paid particular attention to catechizing, a concern shared by archbishop Herring from the evidence of his handwritten notes on his York visitation. ((Bettey, ‘Secker’s diocesan survey’; Herring’s visitation, ed. Ollard and Walker, I, xvi; B.I., Bp.V/Misc. ))

With this degree of scrutiny taking place the private nature of the information received was stressed by all bishops, but Nicholas Claget of Exeter went one step further when he introduced the questionnaire into the diocese of Exeter in 1742. In a prefatory letter to the clergy, he wrote as follows:-

Good Brother

In order to obtain a proper knowledge of the present state of my Diocese which, I am sensible, I cannot have without the Assistance of my Reverend Brethren… You will oblige me by sending as full and particular answers as you can… And because it is possible that some man’s answer in this matter may be construed as an Accusation of himself, I promise that no such answer shall be used as evidence against any Person subscribing’. ((Devon R.O., Chanter 225a. It is perhaps worth noting here that Claget, like others such as Lloyd, Fleetwood and Herring, who were responsible for introducing these questionnaires into their English sees, had previously served in Welsh dioceses where they had used such questionnaires. Indeed Herring, and his successor Hutton, brought copies of the Bangor documents to York to use as precedents. B.I., Bp.V/Misc. It may have been the particular difficulties of administering a Welsh diocese, especially in the Welsh speaking areas of Bangor and St Asaph, which proved a stimulus to the use of this device. ))

With this major qualification of what had been for centuries one of the mainstays of the disciplinary as well as the administrative procedures of the established Church we can pass on to the second of our observations: that the answers required related to general areas of pastoral concern rather than to specific instances of breaches of church law. This marked a specific change in practice. It has been clearly demonstrated by the late G. V. Bennett and others that, in spite of archbishop’s Sancroft’s success in reviving ecclesiastical discipline after the Civil Wars and Interregnum, the system of church courts had suffered considerable damage. ((G. V. Bennett, The tory crisis in church and state 1688-1730. The career of Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester (Oxford, 1975), pp. 6-10; idem, ‘Conflict in the church’, in Britain after the Glorious Revolution, ed. Geoffrey Holmes (1969), pp. 156-9. The following paragraph relies heavily on Dr Bennett’s work, but see also V. D. Sutch, Gilbert Sheldon, architect of Anglican survival 1640-1675 (The Hague, 1973), pp. 155-60 and Sykes, From Sheldon to Secker, pp. 20-2. )) Bishop Lloyd of Peterborough undertook his personal parochial visitation in 1680 with few illusions about the efficiency of the traditional visitatorial procedure, in a letter to Sancroft he wrote ‘the defects can never be known by the presentments of the churchwardens… They will forswear themselves over and over rather than bring expense on themselves and on their neighbours’. ((Quoted in Bennett, Tory crisis, p. 7. )) Such doubts were not new and had been expressed by ecclesiastical administrators in the years before the Civil War as well as after 1660 and the complaint represents a recurring theme in the history of the post-Reformation church. ((Examples of such complaints are legion. Statistical analysis of visitation effectiveness is provided in R. A. Marchant, The church under the law. Justice, administration and discipline in the diocese of York 1560-1640 (Cambridge, 1969), pp. 204-35.)) In 1687, however, the situation worsened considerably when the Declaration of Indulgence of James II struck at the roots of traditional church law and, by its suspension of ‘all manner of penal laws’ for all forms of nonconformity, turned decline into disaster for the correctional work of the church courts. ((Bennett, Tory crisis, pp. 9-12. The blow was struck chiefly at the correctional work of the courts; instance business was less severely affected. See B. D. Till, ‘The ecclesiastical courts of York 1660-1883: a study in decline’, typescript at B.I., figures at pp. 61, 62, 67, and for a small peculiar see M. G. Smith, Pastoral discipline and the church courts. The Hexham court 1680-1730 (Borthwick Papers 62, 1982). )) Almost immediately it became impossible to regulate attendance at church, and increasingly difficult to exercise traditional moral discipline over the laity. Despite the Act of Toleration of 1689 which sought to impose stringent conditions on church attendance from all who did not attend a meeting-house, the ground could not be regained. ((Bennett, Tory crisis, pp. 11-12. )) In the diocese of London, for example, almost all churchwardens’ presentments for the period between 1690 and 1740 returned an uninformative ‘omnia bene’. ((Tina Isaacs, ‘The Anglican hierarchy and the reformation of manners 1688-1738’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 33 (1982), 395. )) The bishops, in their articles and visitation charges, were insistent that the Act of Toleration gave a limited freedom and, among others, Charles Trimnell of Norwich reminded his churchwardens of that fact. He wrote to them before his visitation of 1709 telling them that the statute did not exempt dissenters ‘from being proceeded against for any other crimes of ecclesiastical cognizance; Nor does it protect any from the penalties of not coming to Church; but such as prove themselves to be of some separate Congregation; and consequently it is not, as it never was intended to be, any shelter to the careless and Profane’, but the evidence of his visitation court book suggests that the churchwardens retained a more lenient interpretation of the law. ((Charles Trimnell, A charge deliver’d to the clergy of the diocese of Norwich … at visitation … 1709 (1709), p. 28; Norfolk and Norwich R.O., VIS ct. bk. 1709. )) This had already been recognised by one of Trimnell’s archdeacons, Humphrey Prideaux, when he wrote ‘say what the judges can at the assizes, or the justices of peace at their sessions, or we at our visitations, no churchwarden or constable will present any for not going to church’. ((Quoted in Bennett, Tory crisis, p. 12. )) The involvement of statute law in this area was seen by some churchmen as an infringement of the proper authority of the church, but others were quick to encourage fresh initiatives, such as the ‘Societies for the Reformation of Manners’, involving secular authorities as a means to restoring discipline in a traditional area of concern. ((Isaacs, ‘Anglican hierarchy’, pp. 393-401. Sacheverell led the campaign among the tory clergy against the societies. It is worth noting, however, that Prideaux gave a role to assizes and quarter sessions. ))

Regardless of the effect upon discipline, the breakdown of the system of churchwardens’ presentments also meant that the bishops were devoid of information on the parishes within their dioceses. However tenuous the link had been between visitation presentments and the true state of affairs within the parishes before 1687, after that date it had surely been severed. Occasionally, as at Exeter in 1712, individual bishops included queries of a general nature in their articles to churchwardens, particularly about nonconformity, ((Devon R.O., Chanter 1503, a collection of printed visitation articles for the period 1677-1753. The innovation of 1712 was not repeated. Earlier Bishop Fell of Oxford had also directed particular questions about dissenters in 1682, but in his case they had been directed to the clergy, and details had been entered up in a diocese book and cases followed up after visitation through the archdeacons. Bishop Fell and nonconformity. Visitation documents from the Oxford diocese 1682-3, ed. Mary Clapinson (Oxfordshire Record Society, 52, 1980). )) but the replies from that quarter remained formal and uninformative. In such circumstances it became imperative that the bishops, if they were truly to be informed of the state of affairs in their dioceses, devise an alternative strategy. In so doing, they looked to the parish clergy to provide them with the information they required. That information was given in survey form rather than in terms of the naming of names and, as such, can be construed as forming part of the pastoral and administrative reform of the church in the face of a decline of its disciplinary jurisdiction. In this context the new procedures can be seen, in part at least, as a response by the established church to a change in external circumstances, particularly in the matter of church-state relationships. There was also, however, a growing awareness of problems affecting the internal administration of the church prior to the events of 1687 and 1689, and the need to reform and revivify visitation was but one of these strands. ((R. A. Beddard, ‘Sheldon and the Anglican recovery’, Historical Journal, 19 (1976), pp. 1013-16. )) In assessing the importance of this demand for reform we can usefully examine the question of the novelty of the procedures introduced by Wake in 1706.

The care which the bishops took to reassure the parish clergy about their intentions suggests that they were conscious of having introduced a new element into the process of visitation. Gibson was quite explicit on the point when he wrote to the clergy of Lincoln in 1718, ‘The Practice of Transmitting queries to the clergy which was begun by my pious and learned predecessor, is of such great and apparant use, that I should think myself much wanting, not only to myself but to my successors, if I did not continue it.’ ((Speculum, ed. Cole, p. ii. )) The practical value of having this information at his disposal was uppermost in Gibson’s mind and he clearly envisaged that it would form part of a regular system to be passed on from bishop to bishop. ((Though Gibson respected the privacy of the returns from Lincoln clergy by taking them off with him to London in 1723, he left his survey for his successor and thus started off a series of such volumes at Lincoln, the next one being compiled from Bishop Thomas’ visitation of 1743, Lincolnshire Record Office, SPE. 1,3. )) The hierarchy had previously sought information of a statistical nature about the state of the church in the parishes, but never in quite this systematic way. From the Reformation to the Civil Wars there had been periodic surveys of the state of the church but, on the whole, these surveys had been made separate from visitation. ((Such surveys were usually sent up to a central agency and not kept among the diocesan records, examples are found at Lambeth Palace Library, Miscellanae XII/37, 47, 56 and British Library, Harl. MS 594, 595. )) Occasionally a bishop such as Hooper of Gloucester in 1551 or Grindal of York in 1575 would seek information on the pastoral and personal qualities of the parish clergy during the course of visitation ((J. Gairdner, ‘Bishop Hooper’s Visitation of Gloucester, 1551’, English Historical Review, 19 (1904), 98-121; J. S. Purvis, Tudor parish documents (Cambridge, 1948), pp. 109-25. )) but, more generally, when bishops considered visitation they thought of its pastoral contribution as being subsumed within its disciplinary function. Before the Civil Wars most of the attempts at securing information on the state of the church in the parishes arose in the context of disputes between the defenders of the Established Church and their puritan opponents. In these disputes the condition of the Church in the parishes had always had a central place in the argument, and the need to provide information on those conditions was clearly the stimulus for the surveys of 1576, 1584, and 1603. ((For surveys in a particular diocese see W. J. Sheils, The puritans in the diocese of Peterborough 1558-1610 (Northamptonshire Record Society, 30, 1979), pp. 32-5, 75-6, 91-6. For 1603 see The diocesan population returns for 1563 and 1603, ed. Alan Dyer and D. M. Palliser (British Academy Records of Social and Economic History, n.s. 31, Oxford, 2004). )) These surveys were conducted at national, or provincial, level and were collated centrally, usually by the archbishop, so that their continued use as a source of information to a diocesan bishop was very limited. Although there was some similarity between the information required by such surveys and that asked for in visitation returns, the former were more limited in content and in purpose; ((These earlier surveys usually concentrated on the academic qualifications of the clergy, or on their preaching ability. Questions relating to the frequency of services were usually included in articles to churchwardens, see Visitation articles and injunctions 1536-1603, ed. W. H. Frere and W. M. Kennedy (Alcuin Club, 14–16, 1910) and Visitation articles and injunctions of the early Stuart church, ed. Kenneth Fincham (2 vols, Church of England Record Society, 1, 5, 1994, 1998). )) it would be wrong to see these efforts as the direct antecedents of the returns.

After 1660 new initiatives were introduced at both national and diocesan level, and the spirit behind these initiatives was more closely related to the returns. The most celebrated of these initiatives was, of course, the Compton census of 1676, a nationally organised survey designed to assess the strength of nonconformity and recusancy in the parishes. ((Carpenter, The protestant bishop, pp. 31-3; Anne Whiteman (ed.), The Compton census of 1676. A critical edition, ed. Anne Whiteman (British Academy, Records of Social and Economic History, 1986). )) The census harked back to earlier concerns both in its content and the manner of its compilation, but others broke new ground. Archbishop Sheldon urged the importance of frequent and regular visitation on his bishops and, in 1674, asked them to report back to him on their work in this area, at the same time writing to Seth Ward of Salisbury about the aims which a bishop should keep in mind when administering his diocese. He wrote ‘That the clergy [be] kept up to an unblamable conversation and regular conformity to the doctrine and discipline of the Church; that divine services and public prayer be performed with that duty and exactness which the Rubrick requires; and lastly that the duty of catechising be reinforced as the most effectual means to prevent the further increase of… sects and disorders amongst us’. ((Sutch, Sheldon, p. 159; Beddard, ‘Sheldon’, pp. 1013-16. )) Sheldon saw the disciplinary work of the church as essential to this, but also recognised the need for information. In 1665 he urged a general enquiry in his province about the extent of pluralism, and at Exeter this was accompanied by reports on parochial schools and lectures prompted by Bishop Ward. ((Devon R.O., Moger PR 362-4/33, and see Bishop Fell and Nonconformity, ed. Clapinson, pp. xiv, 40-7 for Oxford. )) Ward shared Sheldon’s antipathy towards nonconformists and, on his translation to Salisbury, was active in enforcing the law against them, going so far as to issue writs of significavit against dissenters in Salisbury in 1672. ((Sutch, Sheldon, pp. 171-2; W. H. Jones, Diocesan histories. Salisbury (1880), pp. 240-5; HMC, Various collections. Vol. IV (1907), p. 10. )) In order to inform himself better about his diocese Ward began to compile a commonplace volume which involved extensive researches among the records. The volume, which is entirely in the bishop’s own hand, touches on a wide variety of topics, including lists of gentry, JPs and MPs for counties and boroughs within the diocese. For our purposes two parts of the volume are of particular interest. The first comprises a history of the see and of the cathedral church and prebends, with a list of benefices in the diocese with names of the incumbents and a valuation of their income; this is followed by a survey of episcopal revenues and patronage. The second section includes a section of some forty folios giving details of the benefices in the diocese, their patronage, the incumbents serving them, and their value, to which was added information gained at visitation. ((HMC, Various collections. Vol. IV (1907), pp. 9–10. )) The nature of that information can be gauged from the comment of Ward’s biographer, who describes the large volume with ‘the names of all the incumbents, with their several qualifications as to conformity or non-conformity, learning or ignorance, peaceable or contentious conversation, orthodox or heretical opinion, good or scandalous lives, for all of which he had formed peculiar marks’. ((S. H. Cassan, Lives and memoirs of the bishops of Sherborne and Salisbury (3 vols, London, 1824), III, 31, quoting the biography of Walter Pope, who had resided in Ward’s household. )) In addition Ward had volumes prepared in advance of his visitations of 1680 and 1683 in which the parishes were listed and space left for details of the clergy and their quality, and which included columns headed ‘Churches’, ‘Terriers’, and ‘Registers’. On occasion other details were added, chiefly on the state of church fabric. Ward’s successor, Gilbert Burnet, used the same device but less thoroughly, and the series really got going in the 1720s under Bishop Hoadly, who had previously introduced questionnaires into the diocese of Hereford. Though Ward’s motives in compiling the volume differed from those of later bishops, these Specula of the diocese, combining as they did the results of archival research with the findings of contemporary investigation, mark an important and more generalized development in episcopal administration. ((P. Steward, Guide to the record offices. IV: Diocesan records (Wiltshire County Council, 1973), pp. 39-40; Marshall, ‘Episcopal activity’, p. 116. ))

The adjective episcopal must be used advisedly here, for it needs to be stressed that these compilations owed their existence to individual initiatives by some bishops and their officers, and the timing of their appearance varied from place to place. ((I have been unable to trace any general recommendation of the use of these questionnaires from any central authority. It will be clear from what follows that personal contacts were important. )) As in the case of Ward’s volume they were usually written by the bishop himself, who sometimes employed antiquarians or, like archbishop Sharp at York, borrowed wholesale the work of antiquarian scholars, re-ordering the material to suit his own purpose. ((B.I., Bp. Dio.1-3; A. Tindal Hart, The life and times of John Sharp, archbishop of York (1949), pp. 325-31. )) And what was that purpose? The antiquarian nature of the endeavour ought not to obscure its practical utility. The records of the Established Church had suffered a good deal of disruption and some loss during the Civil Wars and Interregnum, with a resulting uncertainty about the rights and privileges attached to some ecclesiastical livings. ((For the loss of records at Ely see D. M. Owen, A catalogue of the records of the bishop and archdeacon of Ely (1971), p. viii, and for the chapter, idem, ‘Bringing home the records: the recovery of the Ely chapter muniments at the Restoration’, Archives, 8 (1968), 123-9. )) There was, therefore, in some dioceses, a practical need to make the records available in accessible form if the information necessary for the formulation of policy was to be forthcoming. In one particular area, that involving the need to augment poor livings, such information was essential and much of the detail gathered in these earlier surveys was financial in nature. ((Surveys giving details of values of livings often predate those which incorporate visitation material, e.g. Cambridge University Library, Ely Diocesan Records, A/6/3; B/8/1, and see Turner, A letter to the clergy, p. 18, where he requests them to bring in a new terrier of their glebe as many of the old ones had been lost in the Civil War. At Oxford Fell incorporated visitation data straight away in 1682. Bishop Fell, ed. Clapinson, pp. xxxiii-xxxiv. )) In this way bishops were able to establish where pastoral responsibilities exceeded financial provision and, in particular parishes, to take some remedial action. This sort of improvement remained piece-meal and haphazard until a national policy was formulated with the foundation of Queen Anne’s Bounty in 1704 and, even then, progress remained slow for some time. ((G. F. A. Best, Temporal pillars (Cambridge, 1964), pp. 13-21; J. H. Pruett, The parish clergy under the later Stuarts (Urbana, Ill., 1978), pp. 95-100 discusses the inequality of clerical incomes; I. M. Green, ‘The first years of Queen Anne’s Bounty’, in Princes and Paupers in the English Church, 1500-1800, ed. R. O’Day and F. Heal (Leicester, 1981), pp. 231-49. )) With this qualification in mind individual instances of improvement can be pointed to. Sharp’s survey of the diocese of York compiled c.1694 was one of the sources which revealed that the extensive parish of Helmsley was under-endowed and poorly provided. In 1698 the archbishop secured an augmentation to the living and, at the same time, promptly despatched a letter to the vicar asking for details of the resulting pastoral improvements in terms of the frequency of services and the provision of catechising. Happily the incumbent was able to give a satisfactory reply. ((Gloucestershire County Record Office, D3549/78/4/J/13–14. ))

The majority of these surveys did not progress further than concerning themselves with the information which could be obtained from archival sources and with details of financial arrangements in the parishes. It was Wake’s initiative of 1706 at Lincoln which, it has been assumed, extended the scope of the enquiry into areas of more immediately pastoral concern and which led to visitation being used as the principal source of information. ((Speculum, ed. Cole, p. ii. )) There had, however, been some precedents for extending the scope of visitation. Ward, clearly, must have gleaned some of the information on his Salisbury clergy through informal contacts either with the incumbents themselves of through archdeacons and other officials. ((H.M.C., Various Collections IV, p. 10, and see Bishop Fell, ed. Clapinson, for Oxford in 1682. )) This may have happened elsewhere also and is, perhaps, unremarkable. What is more remarkable is the decision of William Lloyd to conduct a personal parochial visitation of Peterborough diocese in 1680, and that of his namesake on the episcopal bench to send out instructions to the clergy of the diocese of St Asaph to report on their parishes, also in 1680. Lloyd’s letter went out as ‘Directions to a Notitia of his Diocese’ among which information was required under each parish as to the names of householders and the numbers in each family; the names of all recusants and excommunicates, and the sums of money left for charitable uses ‘with all the heads of those things which you think fit to impart for my information, or wherein you desire my advice and assistance in matters belonging to the church.’ The information thus received was written up by him into a volume, but the value of Lloyd’s initiative in diocesan administration was diminished by the stormy and negligent epsicopate of his successor, Edward Jones. The initiative was, however, followed up on the arrival of William Fleetwood at St Asaph, whose primary visitation charge of 1710 asked the clergy to report on non-residence and on preaching and to supply him with a brief description of their parish and church, its dedication, its monuments, any superstitious images, and details of tithing customs and tithe holders. The information in Lloyd’s original volume was thenceforward updated and continued by his and Fleetwood’s successors and was eventually summarised by another scholarly bishop, Thomas Tanner, in 1745. ((See above, paras 0, 00. D. R. Thomas, Diocesan Histories, St Asaph (1888), pp. 89–90, 92-5, and note Fleetwood’s articles at n. 13 above. Tanner had himself done considerable work on the indexing of the Norwich diocesan records whilst chancellor of the diocese and episcopal chaplain, Norfolk and Norwich Record Office, Reg. 30/1; 31/2. ))

The mention of Fleetwood leads naturally from St Asaph to Ely, the see to which he was translated in 1714. ((See entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and B. Harrison (Oxford, 2004). )) It is at Ely that we get the clearest evidence to show that visitation was used to acquire detailed information on the parishes before the Glorious Revolution, and that this concern for knowledge reflected a strong pastoral commitment as well as an awareness of the need for discipline. The evidence rests in the letter written by the Tory bishop Francis Turner to the clergy of the diocese before his primary visitation of 1685 in which he asked them to compile a ‘Notitia of your parish… an account of every family expressing the Christian and surname of the housekeeper, the number and names of all persons above sixteen years old, noting those who had been confirmed… For this being easily revised and produced at Confirmation, will also serve to prevent the common irregular practices of men, women and children coming over and over again to be confirmed; and will presently show the Minister whom he ought to instruct and prepare for Confirmation. This list will also be very serviceable and being filled up or alter’d (as your parish changes) from time to time, will always lay before you the state of that Cure of Souls which, in the Name of God, was at your institution committed to your charge’. ((Turner, A Letter to the Clergy, p. 9. )) How far Turner used this information himself is a matter for conjecture; the implication of the letter is that the notitia was to be retained by the parochial clergy as an aid to their pastoral work. However, some of the information must have been gathered in and tabulated, for when Fleetwood came to compile a survey of the diocese in 1714 he incorporated some of the earlier information. ((C.U.L., EDR A/6/3, gives details drawn from Turner’s visitation and from the Compton Census; annotations continued to be made up to 1722 (see f. 12v, entry for Chesterton). It was clearly a working document. )) Fleetwood’s survey was compiled largely from the diocesan records, but was annotated and kept up to date by him in noting matters such as changes of incumbent. Details from Fleetwood’s volume were, in turn, copied out for his successor at Ely, Thomas Greene, who later added, in his own hand, details on each parish; its size, the strength of nonconformity, the provision of schools and charities, the frequency of services and sacraments, and the arrangements for catechizing as provided at his second visitation of 1728. ((C.U.L, EDR B/8/1, the entries begin ‘Return’d at my 2d visit. 1728’. )) Thus over a period of 40 years the Ely material illustrates the development of these survey volumes or specula to the stage where they provided a store of information on parochial and pastoral conditions regularly brought up to date, which could be of great value in improving the administration and spiritual welfare of the diocese. With varying degrees of completeness such surveys are found in most diocese by 1760 and, in their compilation, the clergy returns at visitation proved to be the keystone.

Wake’s initiative was, therefore, not only a response to the change in church-state relations, particularly in the area of law, brought on by the events of 1687 and 1689, but owed a lot to an earlier generation of bishops concerned to rebuild the Church after 1660. The embattled determination of Sheldon and Ward to enforce church discipline was modified in a pastoral direction by Tory bishops such as Turner and Compton after about 1680 and, though they still saw discipline as an essential tool in the preservation of the Church, this group around Sancroft had already sought to make visitation a more useful source of information on diocesan affairs and a greater opportunity to meet and know the parish clergy. Indeed it was essential if church discipline was to remain free of interference from secular authorities. ((R. A. Beddard, ‘The Commission for Ecclesiastical Promotions, 1681-4: An Instrument of Tory Reaction’, Historical Journal, 19 (1976), 20-30 discusses episcopal appointments; Bennett, ‘Conflict in the Church’, pp. 156-8. )) Having given due acknowledgment to the aspirations of these precursors of Wake and to the bishops who later followed his initiative, the question remains as to how effective and useful was this initiative in improving episcopal supervision of the diocese.

The answer, of course, varied from individual to individual and diocese to diocese, but a few general remarks can be made. Firstly it is clear that the bishops were not simply going through the motions, many of them annotated the returns and tabulated the findings, and specific examples of direct action can be cited. ((E.g. Herring’s response to the return from Brandsby in 1743. The original return was made by the curate and had attached, in the same hand, a request from the churchwardens that the curate be given a greater allowance by the non-resident rector, who also held the neighbouring living of Terrington. The archbishop wrote to the rector in October 1743, receiving a prompt reply. The archbishop’s concern may have been aroused by the large number of papists in the parish. Herring’s Visitation, ed. Ollard and Walker, II, 82-5. Herring may have learnt of the value of these questionnaires from Fleetwood, whose protégé he had been. )) It is also true that these compilations were consulted by later bishops and brought up to date by them in many dioceses. Thus, at best, the visitation returns could, as at Ely, become part of the equipment essential to the running of a diocese. Other sees were not so fortunate, however and, as at St Asaph, any advantage could be easily frittered away by a negligent successor. The care with which John Sharp compiled his volumes of specula for York in the 1690s was not reflected in the career of Lancelot Blackburne who, following his primary visitation in 1726 and 1727, failed to conduct any further visitation of the diocese and allowed that responsibility along with other episcopal functions such as the consecration of churches, to devolve on others such as Martin Benson, bishop of Gloucester. ((Blackburne’s contemporary career was subject to scandalous speculation. See N. Sykes, ‘The Buccaneer Bishop, Lancelot Blackburne’, Church Quarterly Review, VOL NO? (1940), 81-100. Herring’s Visitation, ed. Ollard and Walker, I, p. xxii. See Glos. R.O., G.D.R. 393A for Benson’s work in other dioceses. During the 1730s Benson, who was Secker’s brother-in-law, began the series of specula for his own diocese having one copied out for his own use (G.D.R. 381A) and passing it on to his successors who used it as a source until at least 1769 when it was indexed by Bishop Warburton. )) Sharp’s survey, however, continued to be used and annotated by his successors and their officers, and the information was abstracted to form the basis of later specula. In 1713 Thomas Lamplugh, a grandson of Sharp’s predecessor as archbishop and himself a canon of the Minster as prebend of Knaresborough, ((J. Foster, Alumni Oxoniensis 1500-1714 (repr. 1968), III, 873; Le Neve: Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1541-1857. IV: York, ed. J. Horn and D. M. Smith (1975), p. 45. )) compiled a survey of the diocese giving details of parish, income, clergy and patrons. ((B.I., Bp.Dio.5. )) This survey was updated during the pontificates of Sharp’s two successors and another survey, paying particular attention to the poorer livings in the diocese, was compiled by one of Blackburne’s officials. ((B.I., Bp.Dio.6. This was at least consulted by Blackburne, who noted after an account of the prebends of Southwell: ‘This Acct was the best that Mr Berdmore could give me, but not without some mistakes L. E.’ )) The precedent set by Sharp at diocesan level was followed at the archidiaconal level in 1738 by Thomas Hayter, archdeacon of York and chaplain and secretary to Blackburne, who ordered a transcript of Sharp’s original manuscript to be made in so far as it concerned his archdeaconry and had entries completed up to the time of compilation. ((B.I., Bp.Dio.10. This volume fits in with other volumes surveying the archiepiscopal estates and compiled from Sharp’s surveys, also in 1738, CC.Ab.2/4, 5; 3/6-10. The latest entry in the updating refers to an institution in 1738. For Hayter see Oxford DNB. )) Hayter was promoted to the bishopric of Norwich in 1749 and it may be no accident that the earliest surviving survey books for that diocese incorporate material gathered during his visitation in 1753. ((N.N.R.O., Diocesan Records VSM/9. This volume includes detailed notes, drawn from visitation, for five deaneries in the archdeaconry of Norwich. It was probably at this date also that detailed notes of licences issued to surgeons, schoolmasters, curates, and midwives were also entered into volumes in parish order, VSM/1. )) Hayter, having introduced the printed questionnaire to his new diocese, later recalled his survey in York and handed over the volume to archbishop Drummond on the latter’s translation in 1761. ((B.I., Bp. Dio.10, note in Drummond’s hand: ‘I rec’d this book from Bp. Hayter, Nov. 9, 1761’. ))

It was to be over two years before Drummond undertook his primary visitation at York but, as part of his preparation, he sent out to the parish clergy a fresh set of questions in 1764, based closely on those issued by Herring twenty-one years before. ((B.I., Bp. Dio.10; Bp.V.1743/Ret. Herring’s successor, Matthew Hutton, had also been at Bangor and issued questionnaires to his clergy while there. On arriving at York, however, he did not continue the practice, noting on the fly-leaf of Herring’s returns, ‘I have not found any material variation from the answers in these four volumes, either upon my own enquiry, or by the Returns of the Archdeacons after the visitations. Complaints of the increase of Methodism have been the chief. M.Eb. 1756’. Hutton’s comment not only shows the complacent face of the Hanoverian episcopate, but serves to remind us that not all bishops were convinced as to the utility of the device. He claimed, however, to have examined the volumes at least and Drummond’s returns of 1764 were only to confirm the accuracy of his assessment of methodism. V.1764/Ret.)) By the 1760s similar questionnaires had been issued in most dioceses and their appearance at visitation, if not a regular or essential part of the process, had become a normal part of church life. The replies which they elicited have proved a rich source for the historians of the eighteenth-century church, ((National Church in Local Perspective, ed. Gregory and Chamberlain, passim, esp. the chapter by Marshall on Oxford and Hereford. )) but the extent to which they were used by the bishops and, later, by diocesan officials as a readily available corpus of information on the church in their care had not always been given full due. The survival and continuing annotations of the survey books indicates their practical utility. The formulation of the questions reveals a church anxious to fulfil its pastoral obligations and concerned to keep itself properly informed about its deficiencies. Their existence has wider implications and suggests an Established Church determined to play a key role in the ‘improvement’ of society within a confessional state, broadly defined, with more than a passing similarity to the model outlined by Jonathan Clark. ((J. C. D. Clark, English society, 1688-1832 (Cambridge, 1885), esp. pp. 216-35; and note the judgment of Gregory, Restoration, reform and reformation, p.286. )) The events of the Glorious Revolution were an important feature of the story, but these initiatives were not introduced solely in a defensive mode. There is enough evidence to show that, in some quarters at least, the leaders of the late-seventeenth-century church were working towards some sort of reforms along these lines in response to their own high-minded view of the Church’s social and political role as well as its ecclesiastical responsibilities, and were not solely responding to long term pressure in the parishes from dissent and disaffection. Ambition outran achievement, but the English bishops were not alone in their concerns and their initiatives in this respect reflected more general developments within the post-Tridentine churches on the continent. The Borromean model of episcopal government was embraced by the French episcopate and, among other initiatives, resulted in similar questionnaires being directed by the bishops to their parochial clergy as part of their administrative reforms. The impact of these changes has resulted in the eighteenth century being characterised as ‘a great epoch for visitations’ within the Gallican Church. ((I am grateful to Prof. Mark Venard of the University of Rouen for discussion of this point. For more recent discussion see J. L. McManners, Church and society in eighteenth-century France (2 vols, Oxford, 1998), I, 262-79, esp. pp. 270-1, and A. Forrestal, Fathers, pastors and kings. Visions of episcopacy in seventeenth-century France (Manchester, 2004), pp. 190-2. )) It is easy to underestimate the achievement of the Anglican episcopate but, in most dioceses, the eighteenth-century church was visited regularly by its bishops, many of whom had adopted a procedure which drew the parochial clergy more closely into the work of visitation and, in most cases, made the event more than simply an occasion for social contact between the bishop and his parochial ministers. Though no longer an essentially disciplinary procedure, visitation became the process through which detailed information on the character and problems of the local churches could be identified and addressed and the vehicle by which these concerns could be fed into policy making at both diocesan and national level.

W. J. Sheils

W. J. (Bill) Sheils is professor emeritus in History at the University of York. In 2012 a festschrift, edited by Adam Morton and Nadine Lewyck, Getting Along? Religious Identities and Confessional Relations in Early Modern England – Essays in Honour of Professor W. J. Sheils was published in the St. Andrews Studies in Reformation History series.


The research for this article was supported by a grant from the British Academy, for which I am grateful. An earlier version was read at the Strasbourg meeting of the Commission International d’Histoire Ecclésiastique Comparée in September 1983 and was improved by comments made on that occasion.