Durham Cathedral Muniments

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The exceptionally well preserved muniments of Durham Cathedral Priory, and its dependent bodies, and of the priory's successor, the Dean and Chapter of Durham, together with significant extraneous material.

The muniments have always played a vital role in administration at Durham. It was the responsibility of the monastery's office-holders to maintain a complete record of property held, payments due and special privileges accorded to them, and this is reflected in the care with which the documents were organised and preserved. A smooth transition from monastery to cathedral allowed the documents to remain undisturbed, and their continued use as a record of the institution's endowment helped to ensure the survival of a remarkably extensive archive.

The great bulk of the collection falls into two broad sections, dividing at 31 December 1539 on the dissolution of the Benedictine priory. Extraneous material forms a small third section. Each of these three sections is briefly described below.

A. The medieval muniments of Durham Priory (124 metres, plus medieval muniment boxes) One of the most extensive medieval archives in Britain. As well as documents of importance for national history and for the history of the Western Church, the estate records, in the broadest sense, are of major significance for the social and economic history of north-east England. The collection is notable for the large number of original documents to which seals are still attached. Maps of local areas include four dating from the fifteenth century. The collection also includes a small group of fragments of medieval manuscript books (liturgy, canon law, etc.) used in archival and other bindings.

[There are also some medieval documents in all the Extraneous classes now part of the collection except Hunstanworth deeds (copies excepted), Durham & Yorks deeds, and Chapter office-holders' papers.]The principal elements in the medieval muniments are:

  • Deeds and other documents, such as records arising from litigation, that gave the monks title to their possessions and privileges, a high proportion of which survive as originals as well as in cartulary copies.
  • Records generated by the administration and exploitation of these possessions and privileges, ranging from accounts, rentals, court-rolls and court-books, to registered copies of documents sent out in the name of chapter or the prior, documents arising from the exercise of such functions as electing bishops of Durham and confirming episcopal grants, and inventories or repertories of various groups of deeds.
  • Materials reflecting the fact that the monks formed one of the most important Benedictine communities in medieval England, strategically placed in relation to the Border with Scotland, with a number of widely dispersed dependent cells, including a college in Oxford, which entailed involvement in a wide range of business, formal and informal, in England, Scotland and at the papal curia. A range of this material is printed in the long appendix to Historiae Dunelmensis scriptores tres: Gaufridus de Coldingham, Robertus de Graystanes, et Willielmus de Chambre, ed. J. Raine, (Surtees Soc. 9, 1839).

The medieval arrangement of the material, still substantially in use, broadly follows these three divisions. For the first two of these divisions, however, this is considerably complicated by the existence of the separate departments or obediences typical of a large Benedictine house, and of the dependent cells, each supported by their own endowments and separately administered from the main estate. So, for instance, there are the deeds from which the almoner drew his income, a repertory of these deeds and two cartularies, the older of which also functioned to a limited extent as the almoner's register, rentals of his estate, and account-rolls recording his income and expenditure. The same pattern of material is found to a greater or lesser extent for the main monastic estate, administered by the terrar and bursar, on whom the cellarer and granator largely depended; the departments controlled by the almoner, the chamberlain, the communar, the feretrar, the hostiller, the infirmarer, and the sacrist; and the cells at Coldingham, Farne, Finchale, Holy Island, Jarrow, Lytham, Stamford, and Wearmouth, and Durham College in Oxford.

B. The post-dissolution muniments of the Dean and Chapter of Durham (ca 225 metres) Like the medieval material, the post-dissolution muniments constitute a significant source not just for the history of one of England's major cathedrals, but for the social and economic history of the north east of England, and for church history in the north and nationally. They include important holdings of maps and architectural drawings. The bishop of Durham and the Dean and Chapter were the largest landowners in the north-east of England, and the chapter's estate records provide information on fluctuations in agricultural prosperity, the progress of inclosure, and the development of coal-mining in the north-east (which helped to swell the chapter's revenues through the exploitation of mineral rights on their lands).

C. Extraneous material (6 metres) The priory was recognised as a safe place for depositing valuables. In some cases, deeds and valuables appear to have been left there by local families and not retrieved. These, along with stray registers (one fragmentary) of bishops Richard de Bury, Thomas Hatfield and Thomas Langley, and some documents of local administration, make up this third section of the Dean and Chapter Muniments, although they do not form part of the Cathedral chapter's direct administrative history.

Administrative / Biographical History

In 1083 the bishop of Durham, William of St Calais, founded a Benedictine monastery at Durham, on the site where, in 995, the community of St Cuthbert had established itself, after a period of moving around northern England with Cuthbert's body after the community's departure from the monastery at Lindisfarne in 875. The shrine of St Cuthbert became the focus of the present cathedral, begun in 1093, and much of the status and power which the Durham priory acquired was founded on the saint's reputation. Extensive gifts of land in the region formed a major endowment for the monastery, and it is the maintenance and augmentation of this estate, the position held by the senior monks in the region, and the obligations this placed upon them, that are reflected in the muniments. The care with which these have been preserved reflects the value accorded to them as records not just of the land holdings of the institution, but of the rights and privileges which, once acquired, it guarded jealously.

As well as its extensive lands, the priory acquired the advowsons of numerous churches scattered over an area from the Scottish borders down into Lincolnshire. Through the entitlement to tithes, these spiritualities provided a substantial income. To the income from its lands and its church livings, the priory could also add the profits of the prior's secular and spiritual courts, some pensions, and some income from the sale of surplus produce, livestock, timber and coal. By the early sixteenth century Durham was among the three richest cathedral priories in England. After the loss of Coldingham priory, north of Berwick, in 1462, it had eight dependent cells: the priory of Holy Island and small cell of Farne off the Northumberland coast, the small houses of Jarrow and Monkwearmouth in the north-east of Co. Durham, Finchale priory near Durham, Lytham priory on the Lancashire coast, and Saint Leonard's priory near Stamford in southern Lincolnshire. To these it added its own college - Durham College - at Oxford.

The institution remained a Benedictine priory until 31 December 1539, when it surrendered to Henry VIII, who re-established it as a cathedral administered by a chapter, comprising a dean and twelve canons, which came into formal existence on 12 May 1541; the great majority of the estates belonging to the former monastery were granted to the new body. During the Commonwealth the cathedral chapter was abolished, much of the land was sold off, and the cathedral building was used for a time to hold Scottish prisoners of war; virtually no records survive from this period. After the Restoration in 1660 the cathedral chapter was reinstated, and the estates were reacquired. This situation was maintained until the nineteenth century, by which time Durham's wealth had become proverbial, and a prime target for the advocates of church reform. Some of the chapter's resources were used to found the University of Durham in 1832, but it was the Ecclesiastical Commissioners who effected the most profound changes.

First, in 1840, statutory provision was made to reduce the number of canons, and the estates with which the deanery and canonries were individually endowed were transferred to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. This left untouched the estates with which the chapter was corporately endowed, but in 1868 the bulk of the chapter's land holdings were taken over by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, who removed many estate records to London. As these cease to be relevant to current administration they are returned to Durham, and the returned material now forms the separate Church Commission Dean and Chapter deposit.


[ Note: The numbering of sections and classes below is used for convenience, to give a concise explanation of the overall arrangement, and has no other significance. For the forms of reference currently in use for citing classes and documents see the detailed online guide to the Durham Dean and Chapter Muniments ( http://endure.dur.ac.uk:8080/fedora/objects/UkDhU:EADCatalogue.0068/datastreams/XTF/content)]

A. Medieval muniments The arrangement of the material remains to a considerable extent as it was in 1539, although subject to major alteration in the nineteenth century in the case of the group of subject sub-classes known as Locelli. In the nineteenth century a new class, Miscellaneous Charters, was created and this includes some post-dissolution material, almost all of it sixteenth- or seventeenth-century. This is the only class of medieval material to which additions have routinely been made during modern work on arranging the muniments; in the course of such work, a substantial number of items have also been removed from the Miscellaneous Charters class to recreate the medieval classes formed by the deeds of the almoner, the sacrist and Finchale priory.

The classes of the Medieval Muniments:

  • A1-11. Original deeds, etc.
  • A12-16. Inventories or repertories
  • A17-27. Cartularies
  • A28. Locelli [chiefly documents of legal and administrative business, arranged to bring together in a single group or locellus materials concerning a particular subject]
  • A29. Miscellaneous charters [this class includes a substantial amount of post-dissolution material
  • A30-79. Accounts: Durham office-holders or obedientaries (A30-43), manors (A44-59), livestock (A60-63), coal-mining (A64-65) , proctors of churches (A66-69), cells (A70-79).
  • A80-102 Rentals
  • A103-111. Court rolls and books
  • A112-119. Registers
  • A120. Formularies, etc.
  • A121. Fragments of manuscript books
There are also some medieval documents in the Extraneous classes

B. Post-medieval Muniments [Note that the Miscellaneous Charters class in the medieval section also includes a substantial amount of earlier post-dissolution material]

  • B1. Chapter Act Books and Minute Books
  • B2. Congés d'elire
  • B3. Chapter confirmations of episcopal acts
  • B4. Dean and Chapter Registers
  • B5. Installation Books, Minor Canons; and Lay Clerks' undertakings
  • B6. Registers of cathedral baptisms, marriages and burials
  • B7. Registers of services
  • B8. Inventories of plate
  • B9. Offertory accounts
  • B10. Records of Chapter spiritual jurisdiction
  • B11. Records of leases sealed
  • B12. Deeds
  • B13. Material formerly in St Helen's Chapel (largely deeds)
  • B14. Valuations, surveys, terriers and rentals
  • B15. Original inclosure awards
  • B16. Maps and plans
  • B17. Contracts Books
  • B18. Manorial records
  • B19. Tithe material
  • B20. Receiver's Books and Receiver's Rolls
  • B21. Registrars' and agents' letter-books
  • B22. Payments to Ecclesiastical Commissioners and records of 1870 Commutation
  • B23. Arrears Books
  • B24. Day-books of Receiver's receipts
  • B25. Farm Committee records
  • B26. Wood Fund records
  • B27. Grain accounts
  • B28, Records of Receiver's payments
  • B29. Treasurer's Rolls and Treasurer's Books
  • B30. Audit records: Audit Books and Audit Material
  • B31. Records of Treasurer's payments
  • B32. Loose Papers
  • B33. Office files (nineteenth and twentieth century)
  • B34. Records of building work
  • B35. Architectural drawings: Miscellaneous (including Anthony Salvin, Charles Hodgson Fowler), and drawings from firms of architects to the cathedral (Hayton, Lee & Braddock; George Pace; Donald W. Insall; Ian Curry)
  • B36. Architect's files (Hayton, Lee and Braddock; Curry)
  • B37. Deanery and Prebendal Rentals and Accounts
  • B38. Minute Books and financial records of Durham School
  • B39. Chorister School financial records
  • B40. Records of Chapter benefactions and administration of trusts and charities

C. Extraneous material

  • C1. Register of Bishops Bury (fragmentary) and Hatfield
  • C2. Register of Bishop Langley
  • C3. Register of recognizances
  • C4. Haswell Deeds (Claxton family; other Claxton property records now in Miscellaneous Charters)
  • C5. Sherburn Hospital Deeds
  • C6. Silksworth Deeds
  • C7. Hunstanworth deeds
  • C8. Durham and York Deeds
  • C9. Business papers of Chapter office-holders

Conditions Governing Access

Includes some manorial records

Open for consultation. Advance booking essential.

Restricted access to records less than 100 years old, and no access to records less than 30 years old.

Acquisition Information

Placed in the care of the University's Department of Palaeography and Diplomatic (from 1990 part of the University Library's department of Archives & Special Collections) in 1948, with subsequent further accessions of twentieth century material. From 1951-1993 the muniments were located in the Prior's Kitchen, Durham Cathedral. Before 1948 the muniments were commonly referred to as being in the Durham Treasury.

Other Finding Aids

Almost a millennium of sorting, organising and listing these muniments has produced many different catalogues. Some of this work is still incomplete, only recording the existence of a document without further description: some categories and classes have very full catalogues, while others have only been listed in part. An online Guide to the Durham Cathedral Muniments, with links to catalogues for each class as they become available can be found at http://endure.dur.ac.uk:8080/fedora/objects/UkDhU:EADCatalogue.0068/datastreams/XTF/content

Separated Material

This information is given under each relevant class in the online guide to the archive to which a link is provided under catalogues above.

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to make any published use of material from the collection must be sought in advance from the Sub-Librarian, Special Collections (e-mail PG.Library@durham.ac.uk) and, where appropriate, from the copyright owner. The Library will assist where possible with identifying copyright owners, but responsibility for ensuring copyright clearance rests with the user of the material.


Further accruals of modern material are anticipated

Related Material

Church Commission Durham Dean and Chapter Estates Deposit


[For a more extensive bibliography see the online Guide to the Durham Cathedral Muniments, described under catalogues above]

Davies, J. Conway, The muniments of the Dean and Chapter of Durham, Durham University Journal, 44 (1951-52), 77-87  Powicke, F.M., and Pantin, W.A., The muniments of the Dean and Chapter of Durham (printed for the Pilgrim Trustees, 1939). [The only published general account; printed for private circulation and not widely available. Its focus is on the history of the archive and its arrangement; it is not so easily used as a means of identifying the types of material the archive contains, and it barely mentions the post-dissolution material.]
Dobson, R.B., Durham Priory 1400-1450 (Cambridge, 1973), especially the Bibliography  Piper, A. J., Dr Thomas Swalwell: monk of Durham, archivist and bibliophile (d. 1539), in Books and Collectors 1200-1700: Essays presented to Andrew Watson, ed. J. P. Carley & C. G. C. Tite, (London, 1997), 71-100  Marcombe, D., The Dean and Chapter of Durham 1558-1603, University of Durham Ph.D. thesis, 1973  Mussett, P. and Woodward, P.G., Estates and money at Durham Cathedral 1660-1985, Durham Cathedral lecture 1988 (Durham, 1988)

A substantial number of the publications of the Surtees Society contain texts of original documents found among the Dean & Chapter Muniments