1. Why use this guide?
Use this guide if you are researching religious houses such as:
- hospitals or colleges
For Cardinal Wolsey's dissolution of the monasteries 1524-1528 please read our dissolution of the monasteries guide.
For monastic seals read our seals research guide.
2. Essential information
The National Archives' records on religious orders are predominantly financial or legal.
It is best to start with the published sources noted in section 3 before searching for original documents. These often provide document references or suggest places to start your search.
3. Printed works
The histories of many religious houses are well covered in printed works. Investigate these before starting on original documents as they can help you identify relevant documents. Consult:
- Medieval Religious Houses, England and Wales by D Knowles and RN Hadcock, (Longman 2nd ed 1971). This lists all monasteries, friaries, nunneries, hospitals and colleges with their dates, an outline of their history and further bibliographical information
- The Heads of Religious Houses, England and Wales, 940-1216 by D Knowles, CNL Brooke and VC London (Cambridge University Press, 1972) provides information about abbots and priors
- The Victoria County History (subscription required) covers most English counties and has more detailed histories of religious houses. Its footnotes can often provide useful document references
- Monasticon Anglicanum by Sir William Dugdale, 6 vols (Record Commission, 1817-1830) prints a selection of charters and includes engravings of monastic buildings
See also the further reading section.
4. Searching using Discovery, our catalogue
You can do keyword searches on Discovery, our catalogue to find many records. You will need to use a range of keywords as religious houses have often been described in multiple ways. You can do this by using phrases such as AND, OR, NOT with your keywords.
Search for the name of the house AND a few types of religious house. For example Quarr AND convent OR abbey.
You can also use advanced search to help structure your search. You can restrict your search by using the 'search within' option and entering some of the suggested series mentioned in the sections below. For further search tips see our Discovery help pages.
However, the catalogue will not find everything. The types of records you should expect to look at are described below along with the calendars and indexes you can use to search them. Most of these finding aids are available in the reading rooms at The National Archives in Kew.
5. Founders and foundation charters
Charters confirm the grants of, for example, lands or privileges. For a time these would have been, in effect, a monastery's title deeds.
Kings, as well as founding monasteries themselves, often confirmed the foundation charters of other religious houses.
Original foundation charters for monasteries rarely survive; most of the texts have been incorporated into later copies.
To identify relevant charters see:
- for the Anglo-Saxons: Anglo-Saxon Charters, an Annotated List and Bibliography by PH Sawyer (Royal Historical Society, Guides and Handbooks No 8, 1968)
- for the Normans: Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum, vol I, 1066-1154, (Clarendon Press) (ed) R Davis and J Whitwell (1913); vol II, 1100-1135, ( ed) C Johnson and H Cronne, (1956); vol III, 1135-1154, (ed) HA Cronne and R Davis (1968)
- for Henry II (1154-1189), L Delisle and E Berger, Recueil des Actes de Henri II, 3 vols (Paris, Imprimerie Nationale, 1920)
- for Richard I, L Landon, The Itinerary of Richard I (Pipe Roll Society. New Series Vol 13, 1935). JC Holt and R Mortimer, Acta of Henry II and Richard I (List and Index Society, Special Series, XXI, 1986) which gives a list of royal charters in British repositories
5.1 1199 onwards - the Chancery rolls
From King John's reign, royal charters of foundation and confirmation are enrolled in the various Chancery rolls. The Crown also issued many inspeximusa charter which provides confirmation of an earlier charteres validating much earlier grants, some of which are the sole source for the original texts.
Deciding which type of Chancery roll to look at depends on the date and whether it was granted as a letter patent (see Patent rolls) or as a sealed confidential letter (see the Close rolls).
- for the Close Rolls in C 54, see Rotuli Litterarum Clausarum in Turri Londiniensis Asservati, 1200-1227, 2 vols (ed) TD Hardy (Record Commission, 1833-1834) continued in Calendars of Close Rolls, 1227-1509, 62 vols (HMSO, 1902-1963)
- for the Patent Rolls in C 66, see Rotuli Litterarum Patentium in Turri Londiniensis Asservati,1201-1216 (ed) TD Hardy (Record Commission, 1835) continued in Calendars of Patent Rolls, 1216-1509, 55 vols (HMSO, 1901-1916)
- for the Charter Rolls in C 53, see Rotuli Chartarum in Turri Londiniensis Asservati, 1199-1216 (ed) TD Hardy, (Record Commission, 1837), continued in Calendars of Charter Rolls, 1226-1517, 6 vols (HMSO, 1903-1927)
- for grants from 1509 to 1538 see Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, 22 vols in 37 parts (HMSO, 1864-1932)
- from 1483, monastic houses are common on the confirmation rolls in C 56. An index is available in the reading rooms, Kew
The Cartae Antiquae rolls in C 52 are medieval transcripts of earlier charters (some spurious) and include many foundation and confirmation charters.
- C 52/1-10 are printed in Cartae Antiquae, Vol 1 -Rolls 1-10 (ed) L Landon, Pipe Roll Society New Series Vol 17, 1938
- C52/11-20 are printed in Vol 2 -Rolls11-20 (ed) J Conway Davies, Pipe Roll Society New Series Vol 33, 1960
5.2 1279 onwards
From 1279 land could only be transferred to the Church after a licence of mortmainLands or tenements granted to a religious house or other corporation and held inalienably [note: this means that property does not revert to the Crown or other feudal lord, thereby depriving them of 'incidents' (privileges) on, say, the death of a tenant] had been issued.
Before such a grant was made the Crown issued an inquisitiona local enquiry into the lands held by people of some status, in order to discover whatever income and rights were due to the crown 'ad quod damnum' to ensure that its interests would not be prejudiced. These are in C 143 which you can search by keyword.
Inquisitions 'ad quod damnumA writ directing Crown officials to inquire whether a grant or licence would be prejudicial to the interests of the Crown or others' from 1485 are filed with Inquisitions 'post mortem'. These are in C 142 - a separate list of the inquisitions ad quod damnum is available.
Mortmain licences are enrolled on the patent rolls in C 66. To search these use the calendars listed above.
Some payments made for the licences appear on the fine Rolls in C 53. Consult:
- Rotuli de Oblatis et Finibus in Turri Londiniensis Asservati tempore regis Johannis (ed) TD Hardy (Rec Comm, 1835)
- Excerpta e Rotulis Finium in Turri Londiniensis Asservati, 1216-1272 (ed) C Roberts, (2 vols, Rec Comm, 1835-1836)
- Calendars of Fine Rolls, 1272-1509, 22 vols (HMSO, 1911-1963)
Once the licence was finished with it was returned into Chancery and cancelled. Many licences are now among cancelled letters patent in C 266 which you can search by regnal year.
5.3 Papal bulls
Papal bulla papal or episcopal edict or mandate conveyed by a sealed letter from the papal chancerys confirming monastic foundations can also be useful. From 1198 onwards see Calendar of Entries in the Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland: Papal Letter, 1198-1492, 14 vols (HMSO, 1894-1961). (See also the Miscellaneous section below.)
6. Estates of the religious orders
Many of the sources described under Foundations also give useful information about endowments.
Cartularies (registers of charters and deeds) are invaluable. Compiled by the monasteries themselves they frequently contain material which is very different from the government charters.
There is a fairly comprehensive list in Medieval Cartularies in Great Britain by RC Davis (Longmans, 1958). The National Archives has a substantial holding but there are many scattered in other public and private collections - search our catalogue and refine your results using the filters.
The Record Commission Transcripts, series II, includes a transcript of the 'Cartulaire de la Basse Normandie' (PRO 31/8/140B), a collection of charters granted by English benefactors to the religious houses in Normandy.
6.2 Ancient deeds
These are miscellaneous collections of deeds which contain material created by or relating to religious houses. They are arranged in chronological order and, depending on their age, size and whether they have seals, are organised into various letter codes across several different record series. Typing the keyword term 'ancient deeds' into Discovery will bring up all of the relevant series. Alternatively, please consult the table below:
A = E 40 AA = E 41 AS = E 42 B = E 326 BB = E 328 BS = E 329 BX = E 327 C = C 146 CC = C 147 CS = C 148 D = E 210 DD = E 211 DS = E 212 E = LR 14 EE = LR 15 F = WALE 29 FF = WALE 30 G = DURH 21 H = PL 29 L = DL 25 LL = DL 26 LS = DL 27 P = E 354 PP = E 355 RS = E 213 WAS = E 43
Those series which begin with the letter code 'B' contain the largest collection of original deeds and other documents belonging to religious houses, which were inherited by the Crown following the dissolution. The other series, however, should also be consulted.
Many of these series are keyword searchable so try searching for terms relevant to your research combined with the phrase 'ancient deeds'. For example abbot AND ancient deeds. Restrict your search also by date.
However not all the series are searchable in this way. Therefore if your search is unsuccessful also consult the Descriptive Catalogue of Ancient Deeds, 6 vols (HMSO, 1890-1915). There is also a catalogue of Christ Church, Canterbury deeds and charters in E 36/138. Other deeds have been recorded in book form in Augmentation Office Miscellaneous books (E 315/29-54).
6.3 Other records
Conventual leases are leases of lands, offices and other profits made by individual religious houses. Both originals and copies, are in:
- E 118 - search by keyword
- E 303 - search by county
- E 311 - browse by regnal year
- LR 1 - read the series description of LR 1 for an explanation on how it is arranged. This will help you search the series
- WARD 2. For the earlier period refer to The 6th Deputy Keepers report; for the later period search WARD 2 by keyword
- the Chancery Masters' Exhibits (C 103-116). These include the Duchess of Norfolk deeds in C 115 and the Court Rolls in C 116.
Manorial accounts and related documents of lands owned by religious houses are in SC 6 and listed in Public Record Office Lists and Indexes, V, VIII, XXXIV, all available in the reading rooms, Kew. The supplementary List and Index of the lands of dissolved religious houses provide a comprehensive list of manors held by each monastery before the Reformation.
7. Royal benefactions to religious houses
Royal charters and monastic cartulariesEntry books into which a religious house's records are entered provide information about royal grants of lands, rights, pensions and so on.
Royal pensions to the religious orders paid out by the sheriffs are noted by county in the 'elemosina constituta' section of the Pipe Rolls in E 372. For further information see our Pipe rolls research guide.
Early Liberate rolls in C 62 contain numerous orders for royal gifts. See Rotuli de Liberate ac de Misis et Praestitis, regnante Johanne (ed) T.D. Hardy (Record Commission, 1844); and Calendars of Liberate Rolls, 1226-1272, 6 vols (1917-64). Grants of wine are in the butlerage accounts in E 101.
Most religious houses were liable for taxation and some of the larger ones made sizeable contributions to the Exchequer.
From c1070 many larger houses which held their estates by feudal tenure were subject to feudal levies, particularly military service or scutage. A useful list of quotas in 1166 is in the 'cartae baronum' in the Red Book of the Exchequer (E 164/2 with a few original returns in E 198). This is printed in The Red Book of the Exchequer, Vol. I (ed) H Hall, (Rolls Series, HMSO 1897).
Material about their later contributions is in:
- the Subsidy Rolls in E179. Search these on the E179 taxation database. Refer also to Feudal Aids, 1284-1481, 6 vols, HMSO (1899-1921) for further help
- the Testa de Nevill in E 164/5-6. A printed version is The Book of Fees, 3 vols, HMSO (1921-1931)
In 1253 the clergy, including the religious orders, first paid a subsidy to the Crown on the annual values of their beneficeChurch appointment providing property and incomes: this was repeated in 1288-1291. A record has been preserved in the 'taxation of Pope Nicholas' - E 164/13-14. Another copy is in C 270/16 with subsidiary documents in E 179. Use the E179 taxation database to search E 179 by criteria such as place name and type of taxation.
From 1294 clerical subsidies became a regular levy. Records of payments - which were normally tenths - are in the clerical series of E 179. Search for these by diocese on the database. Enrolled accounts of subsidies are in E 359.
8.1 Accounts and returns
Accounts of the temporalitiessecular possessions of the church or clergy of vacant or forfeited abbeys and monastic bishoprics taken by the Crown until c1368 are recorded on the Pipe Rolls in E 372. Subsequently they are in E 364. The Pipe Rolls to the 1220s have been published by the Pipe Roll Society, and there is a useful list of the accounts of temporalities in Public Record Office Lists and Indexes XI, pp 131-40, available in the reading rooms, Kew.
Extents and inquisitiona local enquiry into the lands held by people of some status, in order to discover whatever income and rights were due to the crowns are in several series:
- up to 1377 they are in E 143. Read the E 143 series description to find out what they can contain
- after 1377 they are in E 153 and are also in Exchequer Inquisitions post mortem in E 149. These are calendared in the Calendars of Inquisitions Post Mortem, available in the reading rooms, Kew
The accounts of the keepers of the lands are in SC 6. For these refer to List and Index 34 List of Original Ministers Accounts preserved in the Public Record Office.
Chancery certiorari files (C 269/16/1-12) include returns to an enquiry made in 1371 to establish the number of parishes in the kingdom. There is related material in Ancient Correspondence in SC 1. This is indexed in Public Record Office Lists and Index, Supplement, XI.
For other records about ecclesiastical taxation:
Many monastic houses had to provide pensions (corrodies) to royal staff and servants. Some are in the patent rolls in C 66, others in Chancery files (C 202, corrodies). They are calendared in Rotuli Litterarum Patentium in Turri Londiniensis Asservati, 1201-1216 (Record Commission, 1835) and continued in Calendars of Patent Rolls, 1216-1509, 55 vols (HMSO, 1901-1916).
Within Exchequer Ecclesiastical Documents in E 135 and Chancery Ecclesiastical Miscellanea in C 270 you can find a range of material. Many items are connected directly with royal interests - legal, financial and administrative. Others are purely internal to the monasteries. Matters include:
- corrodiesprovisions or allowances for maintenance provided by a religious house
- foundation licences for chantries
- indulgenciesremission (after absolution) of punishment due to sin (source: Giuseppi, Guide to the Contents of the Public Record Office Volume 1 Legal Records, Etc. (1963)
You can search E135 by monastic house. For C270 you can only search by date and by letter range. The letter range refers to the first letter of the name of the monastic house.
For writs to ecclesiastical dignitaries inquiring about livings, tithes, litigation and so on as well as the replies to them, browse C 269 by regnal year.
Significations of excommunication record people who were reported to the king because they remained disobedient after being excommunicated. Use advanced search to search C 85 by date and province or name of religious house. They contain little personal information about the individuals.
There are a number of papal bulla papal or episcopal edict or mandate conveyed by a sealed letter from the papal chancerys issued to religious houses in England in SC 7. Search these using keywords.
10. Alien priories
In 13th century England there were about 70 priories and numerous cells dependent on abbeys in France and Flanders. Their lands were seized by the Crown during wars with France. In 1404 the Crown permanently seized their revenues, and in 1414 the priories were formally taken into royal hands. However, the majority of their lands were used to endow new monasteries and colleges both royal and private.
Start by searching our catalogue for keywords such as 'alien priories OR monastries' or 'alien clergy'. More specifically though:
- E 106 contains much material including extents and inquisitiona local enquiry into the lands held by people of some status, in order to discover whatever income and rights were due to the crowns of their lands, and documents about their administration on the Crown's behalf.
- accounts are in SC 6 and are listed in Public Record Office Lists and Indexes, V
- the accounts of the sheriffs for the lands are on the Pipe Rolls in E 372; see list in Public Record Office Lists and Indexes, XI.
- see also C 47/38/5, E 135/22/3 and C 47/30/6
- for alien clergy also see C 269/15 and C 270/17
11. The Knights Templar
The military order of the Knights Templar came to own considerable possessions in England. A survey of its lands in 1185 is in E 164/16 and is also printed in Records of the Templars in England by B A Lees, British Academy, (1935).
When its lands were seized by the Crown in 1307 extents were taken. You can search these by keyword in E 142. The revenues went to the Exchequer: there are accounts in E 358/18-20, with a contemporary index in IND 1/7029.
Some of the lands were subsequently given to royal favourites, but the bulk was transferred to the Knights Hospitaller in 1313. The Patent and Close Rolls are valuable sources for these land grants (see the Foundations section).
12. Further reading
To set the religious houses in their context, D Knowles, the Monastic Order in England, 940-1216 (Cambridge University Press, 2nd edn. 1963) and The Religious Orders in England 3 vols (Cambridge University Press, 1948-59) are invaluable.
Monographs, articles and archaeological reports have also been produced on many monasteries; find these in large local reference libraries.