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.