Durham Cathedral Archive

Scope and Content

The exceptionally well preserved archive 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 archive has 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 isreflected 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 toensure 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 describedbelow.

A. The medieval archive of Durham Priory (124 metres, plus medieval archive boxes) One of the most extensive medieval archives in Britain. As well as documents of importance for national history and for the history ofthe 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 stillattached. 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. The principal elementsin the medieval archive 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 incartulary 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 HistoriaeDunelmensis 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 orobediences 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, arepertory 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 agreater 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. During the nineteenth century, the arrangement of the loose medieval non-chartermaterial called Locelli was considerably altered, and the Miscellaneous Charters series was created. The latter includes some post-dissolution material (almost all pre-1649), and is the only class of medieval material to which additions haveroutinely been made during modern work on arranging the archive.

B. The post-dissolution archive of the Dean and Chapter of Durham (ca 225 metres) Like the medieval material, the post-dissolution archive constitutes a significant source not just for the history of one of England'smajor 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 andChapter 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 (whichhelped 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, alongwith stray episcopal registers and some documents of local administration, make up this third section of the Dean and Chapter's archive, 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 bodyafter 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 thesaint'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 placedupon them, that are reflected in the archive. The care with which this has been preserved reflects the value accorded to it as records not just of the land holdings of the institution, but of the rights and privileges which, once acquired, itguarded 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 earlysixteenth 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 theNorthumberland 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 itadded 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 12May 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 timeto 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, bywhich 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 effectedthe 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 withwhich 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 administrationthey are returned to Durham, and the returned material now forms the separate Church Commission Dean and Chapter deposit.

Access Information

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.

Includes some manorial records

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 centurymaterial. From 1951-1993 the collection was located in the Prior's Kitchen, Durham Cathedral. Before 1948 the collection was commonly referred to as being in the Durham Treasury.


  • muniments

Other Finding Aids

Almost a millennium of sorting, organising and listing this collection has produced many different catalogues. Some of this work is still incomplete, only recording the existence of a document without further description: some categories andclasses have very full catalogues, while others have only been listed in part.

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to make any published use of material from the collection must be sought in advance from the Reprographics Officer at Durham Cathedral Library (library@durhamcathedral.co.uk). The Library will assist where possible with identifyingcopyright owners, but responsibility for ensuring copyright clearance rests with the user of the material.


Further accruals of modern material are anticipated


M.M. Camsell, The development of a northern town in the later Middle Ages: the city of Durham, c.1250-1540, 3 vols, (D.Phil thesis, York,, 1985) J. Conway Davies, The muniments of the Dean and Chapter of Durham, Durham University Journal ns 13 (1952), 77-87 R.B. Dobson, Durham Priory 1400-1450, (Cambridge, 1973)  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 W. Greenwell & C.H. Hunter Blair, Catalogue of the Seals in the Treasury of the Dean and Chapter of Durham, (Newcastle, 1921); first published in parts in ArchaeologiaAeliana, 3rd series vols 7-17 (1911-20) D. Marcombe, The Dean and Chapter of Durham 1558-1603, Durham University Ph.D. thesis, 1973 P. Mussett, Lists of Deans and Major Canons of Durham, 1541-1900, Durham 1974. P. Mussett and P.G. Woodward, Estates and Money at Durham Cathedral 1660-1985, Durham Cathedral Lecture 1988 R.A.B. Mynors, Durham Cathedral Manuscripts to the end of the twelfth century, (Oxford, 1939) W.A. Pantin, Report on the Muniments of the Dean and Chapter of Durham, (1939).  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). [Printed for private circulation and not widely available. Its focus is on the historyof 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.]The Baptismal, Marriage, and Burial Registers of the Cathedral Church of Christ and Blessed Mary the Virgin at Durham, 1609-1896, ed. George J. Armytage, (Harleian Society Registers Vol. 23, 1897)Durham cathedral priory rentals I: bursar's rentals, ed. R.A. Lomas & A.J. Piper, (Surtees Soc. 198, 1989)Some Durham College rolls, ed. H.E.D. Blakiston, in M. Burrows ed., Collectanea. Third Series, (Oxford Historical Soc. 32, 1896)Letters from Durham registers, c. 1360-1390, ed. W.A. Pantin, in Formularies which bear on the History of Oxford, ed. H.E. Salter, W.A. Pantin and H.G. Richardson (OxfordHistorical Soc. ns 4, 1942)Richard d'Aungerville of Bury: fragments of his register and other documents, ed. G.W. Kitchin, (Surtees Soc. 119, 1910)Depositions and other Ecclesiastical Proceedings from the Courts of Durham, ed. J. Raine, (Surtees Soc. 21, 1845)Feodarium Prioratus Dunelmensis, ed. W. Greenwell, (Surtees Soc. 58, 1872)Extracts from the account rolls of the abbey of Durham, ed. J.T. Fowler, (Surtees Soc. 99, 100, 103; 1898-1901)Historiae Dunelmensis scriptores tres: Gaufridus de Coldingham, Robertus de Graystanes, et Willielmus de Chambre, ed. J. Raine, (Surtees Soc. 9, 1839)The Register of Thomas Langley, Bishop of Durham, 1406-1437, ed. R.L. Storey, (Surtees Soc. 164, 166, 169, 170, 177 and 182, 1956-70) Muriel E. Sobo, Parliamentary Survey of Muggleswick - 1649, Durham County Local History Society Documentary Series 8, 1995Durham Annals and Documents of the Thirteenth Century, ed. F. Barlow, (Surtees Soc. 155, 1945)Durham Episcopal Charters 1071-1152, ed. H.S. Offler, (Surtees Soc. 178, 1968)Durham household book; or, the accounts of the bursar of the monastery of Durham from Pentecost 1530 to Pentecost 1534, ed. J.Raine, (Surtees Soc. 18, 1844)The Statutes of the Cathedral Church of Durham, ed. A. Hamilton Thompson, (Surtees Soc. vol.143, 1929)Priory of Finchale. The charters of endowment, inventories, and account rolls, ed. J. Raine, (Surtees Soc. 6, 1837)Halmota Prioratus Dunelmensis containing extracts from the halmote court or manor rolls of the prior and convent of Durham. A.D. 1296 - A.D. 1384, ed. W.H. Longstaffe & J. Booth, (Surtees Soc. 82,1889)Inventories and account rolls of the Benedictine houses or cells of Jarrow and Monk-Wearmouth, ed. J. Raine, (Surtees Soc. 29, 1854)Priory of Coldingham. The correspondence, inventories, account rolls, and law proceedings, ed. J. Raine, (Surtees Soc. 12, 1841)Records of the Borough of Crossgate, Durham 1312-1531, ed. R.H. Britnell, (Surtees Soc. 212, 2008)Durham Priory Manorial Accounts 1277-1310, ed R.H. Britnell, (Surtees Soc. 218, 2014)