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Archives and Special Collections: Churches and Religion: Bishops of Durham

The Bishops of Durham

The Bishop of Durham had multiple roles across either the whole or part of the North East.

  • As spiritual head of the Church of England Diocese of Durham, which until 1882 covered most of the current counties of Northumberland, Tyne and Wear and County Durham (from the rivers Tweed to the Tees)
  • As 'Prince Bishop', with secular powers across the area of the Palatinate of Durham (County Durham and parts of South East and North Northumberland)
  • As a landowner and manorial lord, with estates and manors in many parts of County Durham and further afield (chiefly Bedlington in Northumberland)

Many bishops also held extensive property of their own or exerted considerable influence in political, academic or religious circles.  Records relating to this influence are not generally included within the collections described on this page, but within collections of personal papers where these exist.  Many such collections can be found by searching within The National Archives Discovery system (incorporating catalogues from archives around the country as well as their own holdings).  Other collections of personal papers for Bishops of Durham can be found within our guide to the Durham Cathedral Collections.

The Collections

The Durham Diocesan Records relate to the central administration of the Diocese of Durham. Until 1882, the diocese covered the region from the Tweed to the Tees (Northumberland and County Durham), plus Alston in Cumberland. Before 1837, Crayke in Yorkshire was a detached part of the diocese of Durham, and Hexhamshire in Northumberland was a detached part of the diocese of York (further detail is given in our Administrative Histories guide).

Records relating to the theology of the diocese can be found chiefly among the 20th century records of Diocesan Conference and Synod, and the various publications issued by the Diocese of Durham. The pastoral life of the parishes can be most clearly traced through the Bishops' correspondence with parishes, the visitation and oversight records, faculty papers, collections of church service papers and legal records relating to pastoral reorganisations. Individual clergy can be researched through the papers relating to their ordinations and appointments, as summarised on our family history page.

Administrative records relate to church buildings and services, parsonage houses (vicarages), churchyards, clergy and layworkers.  Until the 19th century, the bishop's jurisdiction as head of his diocese extended to a number of areas which we would now consider secular rather than religious.  Examples include:

  • Payments of 'tithes' (on agricultural produce, due originally to rectors and vicars, but chiefly to lay owners of tithes after the Reformation), until 1936
  • Ecclesiastical court cases relating to marriage law, probate (wills) and defamation, until 1858
  • Licensing of schoolmasters, midwives, surgeons
  • Registration of non-conformist meeting places
  • Oversight of the parishes (through 'Visitation' questionnaires from 18th-20th centuries) included social, demographic and employment issues alongside religious concerns.

The bishop of Durham has some additional duties which are reflected within the records:

Note that this collection includes only records relating to the central officers and organisation of the diocese. Records from individual parish churches (including registers of baptisms, marriages and burials) are held by local county record offices (Durham and Northumberland).

The secular powers of the Bishops of Durham were exercised through his courts, which were largely modelled on the royal courts at Westminster.  These included courts of common law (Court of Common Pleas and Assizes) and a Chancery (equity) court.  Their jurisdiction covered the area of County Durham plus some areas outside the county (Crayke in Yorkshire, Bedlington, Norham and Islandshire in Northumberland). The Palatinate courts were abolished in 1836.

Most records of the Palatinate are held within The National Archives, under collection reference DURH.  Some of these records are available at Palace Green Library on microfilm, under shelfmark XM/film Palatinate (the catalogue entries show the DURH class numbers, matching references from the The National Archives catalogue).

Records relating to Enclosure and some (chiefly later 19th century) court records remained in Durham, and form the Palatinate of Durham records (collection reference PAL).  Allied collections include:

undefinedThe Bishopric estates

The land and property belonging to the bishops of Durham was extensive and spread throughout County Durham (and beyond), though particularly extensive within certain parts of the county (notably Weardale, Darlington, Stockton, Bishop Auckland, Lanchester, Chester-le-Street, Houghton-le-Spring, Bishopwearmouth (Sunderland), Gateshead and Whickham).

The records of this property relate chiefly to its tenure rather than any buildings or industrial activities carried out on it. They are split across different collections and take different forms, depending on the nature of the tenures used:

  • Land held by manorial custom was administered by the bishop's Halmote Court. This property tenure was known as copyhold, and was mostly converted into freehold during the late 1920s.  Further information on these copyhold records is included within our family history guide.
  • Other property was leased, either for a fixed number of years or for the life of (usually) three named persons. Leases were often repeatedly renewed part way through their term, either by adding an additional 'life' or adding additional years, and the rents on leasehold properties were sometimes fixed by the late 17th century.

Estate records available at Palace Green Library

The key collections for research into the bishop's estates reflect this division between copyhold and leasehold tenure. The starting point is therefore usually two series of 19th century Ordnance Survey maps (at 6" and 25" to the mile), which have been marked up to show the properties that formed part of the Bishopric estates, and colour coded to show whether these were held by copyhold or leasehold.

  • Copyhold records are among the Durham Halmote Court collection (the Halmote Court was the name given to the central administration of the bishop's manors, from the Halmote Court office within Durham city). After noting down details from the Ordnance Survey maps, research into these properties generally involves consultation of a series of Call Books (which bring together separate transactions for the same property), followed by the Court Books containing the property transactions, all of which are listed within the same Halmote Court catalogue. See also online article illustrating some of these records, and our detailed guide. This collection also includes most of the Enclosure records relating to the Bishopric estates.
  • Leasehold records are chiefly found within the Church Commission deposit of Durham Palatinate and Bishopric records. As well as records relating to leases and their renewals, this collection includes extensive financial accounts for the palatinate and bishopric (in two sections, pre-Commonwealth and post-Restoration), and an extensive series of maps and plans.
  • Records relating to Auckland Castle and its surrounding Park, along with further accounting material, maps and architectural plans can be found within the estate records received from the bishop's office, part of the Durham Diocesan Records.

For guidance on records relating to the separate estates belonging to Durham Cathedral, see the Durham Cathedral Archive and our separate guide to tracing cathedral property. Cathedral estates are not shown on the above Ordnance Survey maps, but are extensive in other parts of County Durham, notably Gateshead, Heworth, Jarrow, Westoe, South Shields, Monkwearmouth (Sunderland), the Raintons, Pittington, Hartlepool, Billingham, Wolviston, Aycliffe, Edmundbyers, Shincliffe and Durham city.

Availability online (digital images)

Parts only of these collections have been digitised, with any digital images available being linked from the online catalogues.  The collections and series where digitisation has been most extensive include:

If you would like to purchase digital copies of other items from any of our collections, please use our online enquiry form.

If you are a member of teaching staff at Durham University and would like to use material from Archives and Special Collections within your lectures or seminars, we may be able to scan or photograph items for this purpose.  Please contact us as early as possible with any teaching digitisation requests.

See also our guide to Digitised Collections Online for further information on our digital resources.

Access to original sources

The collections mentioned above are located at Palace Green Library.  Our current opening hours are as follows, but see also below.

  • Monday to Friday: 10am to 4:30pm
  • Saturday: closed
  • Sunday: closed

For further information on visiting to use the collections, please use our enquiry form.

See separate Libraries and Site Information guide for further information on Palace Green Library.

Appointments are strongly recommended for all visits, please use the enquiry form to book.  Please give three working days notice when possible and include a full list of document references or shelfmarks so that we can best enable your research access.