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'Introduction', Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Dean & Chapter of Wells: volume 1 (1907), pp. V-XIV. URL: Date accessed: 21 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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This Report has been prepared and edited on behalf of the Historical Manuscripts Commissioners by Mr. W. H. B. BIRD, M.A.

The chapter library at Wells has been described by Canon C. M. Church, the subdean and sublibrarian, in Archaeologia lvii, (1901, part 2, pp. 201–228). It consists of a long gallery above the eastern cloister, built during the fifteenth century, largely from a bequest made by bishop Bubwith. From the south transept of the cathedral a spiral staircase leads to the vestibule, which contains an overflow of books, several show cases, and other exhibits. Next is the library proper, with books in presses, upon most of which may be seen sockets intended to receive the iron rods to which each volume was once chained. At the further end is a square chamber with a fireplace, lighted by windows east and south overlooking the Camery. In this room are now kept the manuscripts and muniments of the dean and chapter; for a list of which I am mainly indebted to Canon Church.

Series i.—Original deeds, 835 in number, ranging in date from 958 to 1680 A.D. These were arranged chronologically in 36 boxes, and catalogued, by Mr. W. de Gray Birch, then of the British Museum, in 1881. A few selected specimens have been removed from the boxes and displayed in show cases.
Series ii.—Original papers, 86 in number, dated 1680–1812, similarly arranged in three boxes.
Series iii.—Other papers, 251 in number, dated 1510–1779, in four boxes.
Series iv.— Miscellaneous papers, in five boxes, of various dates to the present time, collected by the present librarian.
Register Books: Liber Albus i and ii, and Liber Ruber, of which a full description is given below.

Chapter Acts.—The series begins with the second section of the Liber Ruber, which covers the period 1487–1513. It is continued from 1571 to 1644, and again from 1664 to 1743, in ten volumes of Act Books. Others of later date than 1743 are in the keeping of the chapter clerk.
Ledger Books. These volumes, 15 in number, extend from 1535 to 1813. They contain principally a register of lcases granted by the chapter, with some other entries.
Ministers' Accounts—
The Communar: in 35 rolls, 1327–1652, continued in books to the present time.
The Escheator: in 36 rolls, 1372–1560.
The Master of the Fabric: in rolls, 1390–1589, continued in books to the present time.
Court Rolls. Halmote Books.
The manors of the dean and chapter: various dates, 1690–1713. (1 vol.) See also 'Intraciones et Concessiones' in the Stewards' or Entry Books.
The manors of the vicars choral: 41 Elizabeth to 12 James I.
A book containing—
Note of registers [registrars] sworn before Henry Bonner, J.P.
A Register of Marriage, 1653–1656, before Henry Bonner at Waston.
Matter of a different character at the other end.
Miscellaneous paper documents; including office copies, bundles of vouchers, etc.
Also the following manuscript books:—
Dean Cosyn's MS. Collections, 1506.
Bishop Creyghton's MS., 'Statuta Ecclesioe Cathedralis Wellensis,' seventeenth century, annotated by Canon Robert Wilson in the eighteenth century. A copy of this, made for Archbishop Laud in 1634, (Lambeth MS. 725,) was printed by Reynolds in his Wells Cathedral.
Nathaniel Chyle's MS. 'History of Wells,' circa 1680. (Reynolds, Wells Cathedral, i—cxcvi.)
A book containing copies of the charter of Queen Elizabeth, Bishop Bekinton's rules for the choristers, and new statutes of Henry VIII, signed by Thomas Cromwell as vicar general.

Archdeacon Archer's MSS., eighteeth century.
Chronicon Wellense,sive Annales.
Note Book.
The Long Book.
Rev. Richard Healey's MSS.,seventeeth and eighteenth centuries.
The Jenkyns MSS., in 3 volumes, eighteeth century;compiled by Canons John and Richard Jenkyns.
Canon Payne's Note Book, eighteenth century.

The library contains also some theological MSS., such as a copy of the Vulgate in a very minute hand (wanting Genesis, i—xxv);two large books dated 1514 and 1517, with illuminated first pages and initials, the work of Peter Einauge (Petrus Magius Unoculus),Presented to Hayles Abbey by Sir Christopher Urswyke, high almoner to King Henry VII., in memory of Sir John Huddleston whose executor he was, the first a Psalter, the other a Latin version of the Homilies of St.Chrysostom on St. Matthew's Gospel: Isidori Junioris Etymologiarum Liber, an early copy, it is said, of an Exeter MS.: and legal books, such as Clarke'sPraxis, 1596 (two copies), one entitled Brevia,with forms of writs, others containing legal forms, procedure, etc.The title 'A President Book' on the back of one volume does not correspond with its contents.

This valuable and interesting collection of manuscripts has long engaged the attention of the Commissioners. Many years ago, the late Mr. Henry Thomas Riley was deputed to visit Wells on their behalf, and he printed (First Report,1870, Appendix, pp. 93, 94)a brief description of the Registers and a few other MS. books. After a subsequent visit, he added (Third Report 1872, Appendix, pp. 350, 351) a catalogue of some of the original deeds, which had been, he reported, 'brought to light since his previous visit.' Mr. Riley also examined and briefly reported on the archives of the bishop's registry, the corporation of Wells, and the college of vicars choral. A few years later, the dean and chapter employed Mr. W. de Gray Birch, then of the British Museum, to arrange and catalogue their deeds and other original papers.

In 1885 the Commission issued a further and more detailed Report on the MSS. of Wells Cathedral, in a separate volume of 373 pages with an index. This report, the work of the late Rev. James Arthur Bennett, rector of South Cadbury, contained calendars of, or extracts from, the following documents:—

  • Liber Albus i, p. 1.
  • Liber Ruber, p. 130.
  • Liber Albus ii, p. 151.
  • Ledger Book D, p. 222.
  • Ledger Book E, p. 232.
  • Act Book H. (1571–1599), p. 241.
  • Act Book (1591–1607), p. 248.
  • Act Book (1607–1621), p. 250.
  • Act Book (1621–1635), p. 252.
  • Ledger Book G., p. 257.
  • Act Book (1635–1644), p. 259.
  • Act Book (1664–1703), p. 263.
  • Bishop Godwin's Register,* p. 265.
  • Several papers, p. 271.
  • Ministers' Accounts—
  • Communar (1327–1561), p. 272.
  • Escheator (1327–1560), p. 280.
  • Master of the Fabric (1390–1565), p. 285.
  • Original Deeds (based upon Mr. Birch's Catalogue), p. 292.
  • An Account of the gestum or Christmas feast at North Curry (extracted from a roll of the custumal of that manor), p. 312.

In order to compress so much within the limits of a single volume, Mr. Bennett necessarily treated his materials in a very summary manner. Whole classes of documents were thus represented by a few brief extracts; and even in those which he was able to calendar many details of general interest had to be omitted, while of some instruments a mere heading was all he could give. Now, therefore, that his Report is out of print, the Commission has decided not to reissue it, but to publish instead fuller abstracts of a part at all events of the collection. Accordingly the following pages contain a calendar of the register books, properly so called. The original intention was to include with them a catalogue of the original deeds now in possession of the dean and chapter; but owing to considerations of space it has been found advisable to hold these over for the time being.

The register books of the dean and chapter are three in number, commonly known, from the colour of their covers, two of them as Liber Albus, the third as Liber Ruber. For the sake of brevity, however, Mr. Bennett and others have been in the habit of referring to them by numbers, in the order of their date, namely as R. I (Liber Albus i), R. II (Liber Ruber), and R. III (Liber Albus ii); and these short titles are here retained for the purpose of reference, although, in the arrangement of my text, Liber Albus ii (R. III) has been placed immediately after Liber Albus i (R. I), both as next in bulk and importance, and as being more akin to the first in subject matter, while Liber Ruber (R. II), or rather the first section of it, is relegated to the end of this calendar.

The following is a detailed description of the three books.


A parchment book of 292 leaves, bound in oak boards, and named from its white cover. The size over all is 13½ inches by 9 ¼, the leaves measuring 12 ¾ inches by 8½, but ff. 215–254 are smaller than the rest. The folios are numbered 2 to 299, wanting ff. 1, 5, 32, 42, 114, 221, 222 and 297. The contents range in date from the reign of Edward the Confessor to 1393. At the beginning is inserted an index by Mr. Healey, on several leaves of paper.

This book was evidently begun as a chartulary, and the earliest entries are the charters with rubricated numbers and titles, copied in a fair engrossing hand of the thirteenth century, a table of which is to be found on ff. 6, 7. The first of these charters are on f. 9, the last on f. 64; but the latest numbers (ccxli—ccxlvi, ff. 61–64) are in black ink, as are numbers cc, cci (f. 51), repeated later in red (f. 54). The scribe did not, however, cover all his parchment, but (besides the fly leaves, ff. 1–4 and 8) left sometimes part of a page, sometimes the back of a leaf, sometimes several leaves in succession; and these blank spaces have most of them been since filled, partly with copies of other documents, some in similar writing, others in a later hand, partly also with contemporary memoranda in a small current hand. Seeing that none of the rubricated charters seem to be later than 1240, while those with interpolated numbers in black (f. 51) bear date 1242, and the earliest dated memorandum is of 1246, we may with confidence infer that the book itself dates from 1240 or very shortly after. The remaining part of this register was gradually filled from time to time with matter of a more miscellaneous description, including many acts of the dean and chapter, and at one place a number of public charters and statutes. The book was kept, it appears, during the fourteenth century at all events, by the chancellor, who acted as registrar (pp. 171, 292, 532).


A larger book with similar cover, written on vellum, its measurements over all being 15 ½ inches by 10 ¼, and the size of the leaf 14 ¾ inches by 9 ¾. On a fly leaf are certificates shewing that the register was produced in court on several occasions. Next comes a list of the contents, covering 10 folios, after which has been inserted an index by Mr. Healey. The register proper consists of 451 leaves, numbered from 1 to 457, wanting ff. 105–108 and 254, while f. 457 is but a strip; but ff. 313–328 are of different material to the rest, some of them cut, pieced and restored, and the last quire (f. 449 to the end), being again of different material and in a different hand, would seem to be an addition. The entries appear to have been written consecutively for the most part, not by a single hand, but in a fairly uniform script of about 1500. Handwriting of a different type however will be found on f. 448, and again from f. 449 to the end. The contents rangein date from the eighth century to the end of the fifteenth, the supplement dated 1529 on f. 164 being apparently an interpolation.

As a chartulary, this volume covers a good deal of the same ground as R. I, but contains much new matter besides. Wanting the chapter acts and proceedings of the former register, we have here many additional charters, some of very early date, a number of papal documents, all defaced at the time of the Reformation, but fortunately still legible, perambulations of the Somerset forests,and custumals of several manors belonging to the dean and chapter, another copy of which Mr. Riley seems to have found in a book kept at the bishop's registry. In this register again may be observed a more or less systematic attempt at classification or grouping of subject matter. Thus deeds relating to Pucklechurch, Winscombe, Warminster, Shipham (with which some Chippenham deeds are mingled in manifest confusion), Stogursey, Whitchurch Canonicorum and other properties will be found together. One section contains a number of pardons and other patents, another consists of the custumals already mentioned, another of institutions of vicarages, another again of daily masses founded in the cathedral, while a number of apparently miscellaneous deeds occurring together towards the middle of the book have this in common that under each of them some rent or pension is payable to the church of Wells.


A volume named again from its cover, which is now of dark red morocco of no great age. The oak boards measure 12 ¾ inches by 8 ½. Next to them the binders have placed eight leaves and four strips of parchment (four leaves and two strips at each end), covered with writing in a book hand probably of the thriteenth century, with capitals in four colours. The last four leaves are cut along the upper edge. Examination shews that they once formed part of a collectarium; and mention may be made of two English saints, St. Aidan and St. Ceolfrid, whose names are found on the sixth leaf in the collect immediately preceding that for St. Denis(October 9).

This volume consists of two separate books bound together. Section i, dating from the fourteenth century, is a parchment book, or rather a collection of 77 parchment leaves of different sizes and two strips of parchment sewn together, an index on paper by Mr. Healey being first inserted. In it is found a list of the rubricated charters in R.I, and a number of deeds and statutes, together with a collection of cases, visitation rolls, and other materials bearing especially upon certain vexed questions of jurisdiction. These belong, most of them, to the first half of the fourteenth century; but a later entry will be noticed on f. 30 (p. 532). The order to compile a new chartulary, which is found among the statutes of 1331 (f. 25, see p. 532),was perhaps never carried out; at all events no such chartualary is known to exist, or to have ever existed.

Section ii, not dealt with in this calendar, is not a register but a book of acts of the chapter. It contains 209 leaves of paper, numbered 6–213, wanting ff. 1–5, with a leaf not numbered after f. 48, and another after f. 125. The acts extend from the year 1487 to 1513.

In this calendar instruments known to be already accessible in print are in most cases noticed somewhat briefly, references being added to shew where a fuller text may be found. For example, there are a number of charters earlier than the Norman conquest, but all of them have been published by collectors of Saxon documents; and the brief chronicle of the bishopric which has been called 'the Canon of Wells' (R.III. ff. 296–302, p. 454) appears in Wharton's Anglia Sacra. It happens again not infrequently that the same instrument is repeated, sometimes in all three register books, most often in R. I and R. III, occasionally more than once in the same register. In such instances the plan here followed has been to print an abstract at the first place where the entry occurs, collating the text of other copies, nothing their variations, if any, and appending exact references to them, and to omit all notice of it on the later occasions. Exception has been made in the case of one or two mutilated copies which are found later in more perfect condition, and in that of a few charters in R. III, grouped with others bearing upon the same subject, where for completeness' sake a short notice is given with a reference back to the fuller abstract. As might be anticipated, the earlier text is on the whole the more trustworthy; but there are cases where R. I is corrected by R. III, and the latter is often the more complete, adding especially the names of many witnesses omitted by the earlier copyist.

At this point a word of grateful acknowledgement is due to others who in past times have displayed much zeal and industry in annotating and digesting these registers, especially the Ven. Edmund Archer, Archdeacon of Taunton 1712–1726 and of Wells 1726–1736, and to the Rev. Richard Healey, a former librarian and clerk to the chapter, afterwards prebendary of Dinder, who died in 1736. At first sight, it must be owned, the notes they scattered freely in the margin are apt to rouse a certain resentment, particulary those in Archdeacon Archer's untidy hand, which are in places a sad disfigurement. Yet their careful and accurate system of cross references must have cost a vast amount of labour, and has proved to be of very material assistance in preparing this calendar.

The three books are, on the whole, in good condition, and most of the text is not difficult to decipher. Exception must however be made in regard to portions of R. I, where the writing is small and the ink faint. One entry on f. 97 is completely gone, and so is another on f. 99. Just a leaf or two has been torn. Passages will be noticed which proved illegible, wholly or in part, others in which a word or words are lost. There are a few also in which the text is manifestly corrupt. The later copyist is caught tripping in regard to proper names, as when he misread Maurice de Creon and gave Oreover instead, and also in regard to capital letters, writing Oxford for Exeter, spelling Lodhuish with a D, and chief justice Belknap with the same initial, or calling the same person Bele on one page and Gele on another. There are one or two more names about which he was apparently unable to make up his mind.

Other difficulties of interpretation may perhaps occasionally be due to some error of the kind. A conjectural translation has been hazarded for the meaningless word caweti (p. 269), where the w probably represents lk sloped backwards. Following the alba virga of p. 5, it was tempting to conjecture ad canistr' emendand' for ad capistr' emend'. There are a few other phrases, such as blestiatus et katia, baticium ad campipartem, which the editor has not ventured to render; nor has he succeeded in finding an English equivalent for berebrettus, a manorial officer several times mentioned, or even for gestum, the Christmas feast and drinking, unless this should be wassail. For aquebajulus ewer has been suggested, but that word seems to stand rather for aquarius, nor is it known to the New English Dictionary exactly in the sense required. Meribon may probably be nothing but the vernacular marrow bone in a strange dress; but averoc looks as little like English as Latin, though the context makes its meaning fairly clear, and the alternative form averet might well be French.

The contents of these registers are of very varied interest. On the one hand they furnish a history of the cathedral body in its internal and external relations; on the other they are a mine of information upon local history, while at the same time they afford constant illustrations of medieval life in its different aspects, social and ecclesiastical. Much may be learned here about the rich pasture lands of the Somerset levels, their drainage, water rights and enclosure, with occasional estimates of the value of labour and of live stock. We read of vain attempts to establish a market town on the edge of the marshes at North Curry, and a port upon the Axe. We have also many notices of monastic institutions, and still more of the parish churches of the diocese, as well as of a few outside. Nor are materials for manorial history lacking. Of Combe St. Nicholas there is a conveyance from the Edwardian tenant named in Domesday. Those whose concern is with local families will find much to their purpose, as for example a correction of the Stourton pedigree on p. 395, a clue to the true origin of the Rodneys on p. 160, and on p. 144 a very remarkable hint as to the early history and connections of the powerful house of the Marshals.

But the main interest centres in the church of Wells. Here may be traced its growth from the comparatively small and obscure community of bishop Giso into a rich and important body, after the new constitution of bishop Robert, and the benefactions lavished upon it especially in bishop Joscelin's time.The neighbouring churches of Bath and Glastonbury, with their wealth and prestige, were formidable rivals. No doubt as a counterpoise to the latter, efforts were made to set up a local shrine, and secure a saint of their own, by the canonisation of one of their bishops. Unfortunately, while a general statement of his claims to the honour was copied in the register, the schedule of miracles performed at his tomb was not. Questions arose from time to time with rival churches, with the bishop, the crown, and with Rome: domestic differences, questions of jurisdiction, pecuniary troubles,difficulties of discipline. Like other churches, Wells suffered under the increasing burden of the papal provisions. Separate communities, such as that of the vicars choral, grew up in time under the shelter of the cathedral. Of all this, and much besides, details will be found in the following pages.

In conclusion, thanks are due to the dean and chapter of Wells for placing their registers at the disposal of the Commission, and allowing them to remain at the Public Record Office during the preparation of this calendar; and especially to Canon Church, who has himself done so much towards elucidating the early history of this cathedral and chapter. His book upon the subject has been constantly at my elbow during the progress of this work; and I am grateful to him for much personal encouragement and help as well.

I am also greatly indebted for advice and assistance to Sir H. C. Maxwell Lyte, K.C.B., the Acting Commissioner, who has exceptional knowledge of the history and topography of Somerset, and to several of his colleagues at the Public Record Office, especially Mr. C. Johnson, whose knowledge of ecclesiastical antiquities has been freely placed at my service. I am under a similar obligation to Mr. G. J. Turner, of Lincoln's Inn, for assistance on many points of detail, particularly those concerned with the technicalities of early law.

W. H. B. BIRD.