Archiepiscopal Visitation

Scope and Content

Visitations of a diocese by a bishop for the purposes of correction, monitoring and inspection became a standard practice from the thirteenth century onwards, and at York the formal documents of visitation (citations, inhibitions etc) are recorded in the archbishops’ registers. Clearly, separate visitation records were kept in the middle ages (eg the 1311 Durham sede vacante visitation and the Southwell visitation roll) but mostly these have been lost but A separate series of archiepiscopal records of visitation survives from the sixteenth century onwards, at which time visitation became a useful tool for enforcing religious conformity and discipline. Visitation courts, sitting in a number of churches consecutively across the diocese (or province for provincial visitations), summoned people to attend in person and cases dealt with included adultery and fornication, tithe and pew disputes (the latter can include brawling in church), decay and disrepair of churches, abuse of churchyards, recusancy and nonconformity, non-payment of church dues, unlicensed preaching, non-attendance at church, dicing and gaming during service times. Correction would be by excommunication, penance or fine.
The process of visitation began with a suspension or ‘inhibition’ of inferior courts, such as those of archdeacons or peculiars. The inhibition would be lifted by a ‘relaxation’ when visitation was complete. Articles of enquiry (requiring answers) were issued by the archbishop, and churchwardens had to submit a ‘presentment’ of things needing to be dealt with. A general ‘monition’ was despatched to rural deans summoning clergy and all others required to attend at the visitation – these included preachers, schoolmasters, midwives, impropriators of tithes, and executors of wills requiring probate during the time the visitation court was in session. ‘Calls’ were prepared with lists of the clergy and churchwardens summoned to the visitation. During the visitation clergy and officials would be required to show their certificates and licences, and an ‘exhibit’ book would record the orders, licences and certificates exhibited at the visitation. Drawing on the information received in the presentment a ‘citation’ would be issued calling alleged wrongdoers to the visitation court.
Much of the information about visitations from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries is contained in the visitation court books. In the Diocese of York the visitation proceeded by rural deaneries, and the court books reflect this procedure; calls were included in most of the volumes from the late seventeenth century as were correspondence and related visitation papers – mainly excommunications and penances. There were also many accompanying visitation papers.
From the late seventeenth century onwards (notably after the 1688 Act of Toleration) the emphasis and purpose of visitation changed, and the process began to assume less of a judicial and more of an administrative function, with the Archbishop enquiring into, and gaining information about, the parishes in his diocese. Visitations from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries produced extensive files of papers.
The Archbishop would make a ‘primary’ visitation of the Province of York during the first year after his enthronement and thereafter he would make ‘ordinary’ visitations of the diocese at intervals of three to four years. Records of Provincial visitations survive for each archbishop from the time of Archbishop Grindal (1577) to Archbishop Sharp (1693-4) - Sharp also conducted a sede vacante visitation of Chester in 1707 - but the practice was abandoned by Archbishop Dawes in 1714. Provincial visitations never extended to Durham (there were deep seated and long-running jurisdictional disputes with Durham) or to Sodor and Man.
Records are from 72 visitations (1567-1981). Records include court books, files of visitation papers including premonitions, articles of enquiry, examinations of clergy, calls, commissions, inhibitions, relaxations, presentments, correction citations, excommunications, penances, surrogations, and letters of proxy, as well as correspondence related to the visitation. There are detailed returns for the 1743 and 1764 visitations, and the practice of making detailed returns was usual from 1865.


This is part of the new arrangement of the York Diocesan Archive which is currently being prepared.
The new arrangement draws on the earlier arrangements of 1973 and 2003-2005 but will also incorporate some reorganisation, based on a comprehensive survey and inventory of the archive, and much new cataloguing.

Other Finding Aids

Until the new arrangement of the York Diocesan Archive is complete, the online finding aids to series level on the Archives Hub, should be consulted. These reflect the 1973 arrangement as modified in 2003-2005.

Archivist's Note

Created by K. Webb April 2016

Related Material

Visitation is also a function of the archdeacon, and records for archdeacons’ visitations can be found under Archdeaconries YDA/8.


The 1743, 1764 and 1865 visitations have all been published:

Archbishop Herring's visitation returns, 1743, ed. by S. L. Ollard and P. C. Walker (Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series, vols 71, 72, 75, 77, 79, 1928-1931)

Archbishop Drummond’s Visitation Returns 1764, edited by by Cressida Annesley & Philippa Hoskin, volume I Yorkshire Parishes A-G, volume II Yorkshire Parishes H-R, volume III Yorkshire Parishes S-Y (University of York, Borthwick Texts and Studies, vols 21, 23 and 26, 1997, 1998 and 2001)

Archbishop Thomson’s Visitation Returns for the diocese of York, 1865, edited by Edward Royle and Ruth M. Larson, (University of York, Borthwick Texts and Studies, vol 34, 2006)

Additional Information