Researching the history of churches

The great majority of churches serve a local population - the parish. The parish church is of the Established Church, so see the general section on ecclesiastical sources, which includes sources for the clergy. Also see Maps and Images.

Parish and manor

Llanmyrewig Church, watercolour by Rev. John Parker 1838 (National Library of Wales)In the early days a parish church was often built by the manorial lord, generally close to his house. (This could happen from c. 900, though there is unlikely to be anything surviving from the earliest church, which would probably be timber.) In that case he and his successors were the patrons of the church, the possessors of the advowson, that is the right to present (i.e. nominate) the rector. An advowson could be bought and sold like any other property and thus appears in deeds, charters or†legal wrangles over its ownership, which may be the first record of the church. The manorial lord might subsequently rebuild, enlarge or embellish the church.†From the 12th century, when heraldry developed, this work could be marked with his coat of arms, which may be an aid in dating portions of the fabric. Manorial records can be traced through the NRA. See country houses and The College of Arms for family history and heraldry. The Clergy of the Church of England Database 1540-1835 includes information on patrons as well as clergy in England and Wales. In the video, Mick Aston of Time Team gives a quick guide to understanding your parish church.

Rectors and tithes

Parishioners gave a tenth of their yearly produce (tithes, or in Scotland teinds) to their church, a system which generated a range of records over the centuries, from national surveys of clerical wealth to parochial glebe terriers and tithe maps.

Many pious medieval patrons chose to grant their church to a monastic house, particularly in the 12th century, when there was a surge of disapproval of churches in private hands. The monastery thereby became the official rector, appointing a vicar (clerical deputy) to carry out parochial duties. A monastery as rector would generally collect the 'greater tithes' (those of grain) for its own use, while the vicar had the 'lesser tithes' of other produce. After the Dissolution, the rectories and advowsons formerly held by monastic houses were sold, so that there were many lay rectors thereafter. A rectory could include land originally granted to the church (glebe land), as well as tithes.

In Scotland teinds were abolished at the Reformation; in Ireland tithes were abolished in 1869; in England and Wales the process was more drawn out. The Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 substituted a rent for the payment of tithes in kind; it spawned the tithe maps and awards in the late 1830s. The rent charges were abolished in 1936 and replaced by an annuity payable to the State until 1996.

Repairs and alterations

The rector or patron was expected to repair the chancel, while parishioners repaired the nave.

England and Wales

For centuries bishops made formal visitations to parishes in their diocese, ensuring, among other things, that those responsible actually did maintain the churches. Now archdeacons have that responsibility and also make sure that alterations are not made without diocesan permission (called a 'Faculty'). Diocesan records therefore include comments on church fabric in visitation books and Faculties for repair and alteration.

Until 1868, churchwardens could levy a rate from parishioners for church maintenance.Churchwarden's accounts record payments for work on the fabric and fittings, while vestry minutes record decisions to undertake works. These parochial records are now mainly deposited in county record offices. They are seldom very ancient. Some of the earliest are calendared in print, for example Accounts of the churchwardens of St. Mary at Hill, London.

The liability of spiritual rectors was largely transferred to parochial church councils by the Ecclesiastical Dilapidations Measure of 1923. The liability of lay rectors (i.e. those in possession of glebe land) continues. Legal proceedings to enforce liability for repairs could be brought in ecclesiastical courts, until the Chancel Repairs Act 1932 transferred jurisdiction to county courts. See National Archives leaflet: Chancel Repairs.


Minutes of many Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions have been deposited in the NAS.

Urban churches

St Cuthbert's Church, Edinburgh (rebuilt 1892-94) Just like a rural church, an urban church could have its origins in a domestic chapel for a lord and his tenants. Barons were granted blocks of urban land in the towns developed by King Alfred and his successors. Since each lord tended to build his own chapel, such towns could end up with a large number of small parishes within their walled centre. Many smaller medieval boroughs were created by a baron or manorial lord, in which case he would probably provide a single church.

However urban congregations of wealthy traders soon came to have more influence than the aristocracy on urban churches. A local corporation or guild could patronise a particular church, or a chapel or aisle within it, using it for official services and taking on responsibility for its maintenance. See the Survey of guilds and fraternities.

While many a quiet country church retains much of its medieval fabric today, the churches of wealthy urban parishes could have been rebuilt entirely. The fine church of St Cuthbert's in Edinburgh, "the kirk below the castle", is the result of a rebuilding in the Georgian period followed by another in the Victorian.

19th-century churches

Design by William R. Lethaby for the north transept window, All Saints Church, Brockhampton, Herefordshire, 1902 (British Architectural Library)The huge rise in population in 19th-century England generated an explosion of church-building. By 1858 over 3,000 new churches had been built. Several hundred were funded by the public purse. Anxious to counter the rise of Dissent the government in 1818 allocated £1,000,000 towards church building. The reports of the Church Building Commissioners (1821-1856) are in Lambeth Palace Library, as are the records of the Incorporated Church Building Society, founded in 1818 to provide funds for the building and enlargement of Anglican churches throughout England and Wales. The Society's church plans are now online at Church Plans Online. Also see Port in gazetteers below.

Meanwhile the Act of Toleration in 1829 made possible a wave of Roman Catholic church-building. Catholic churches were built across Ireland to a standard T-plan, with the altar placed against a flat wall with an elaborate reredos. The style of choice was Gothic Revival.

Other sources for 19th-century churches are Colvin, The Builder (1834-; early volumes can be read online; published illustrations index), The Ecclesiologist (1841-68), the published catalogue of the drawings from the British Architectural Library and Imaging the Bible in Wales (database of stained glass and other artworks from places of worship in Wales 1825-1975). For recent periods parish and diocesan magazines and handbooks are useful. See also Post-Reformation Sources.

Decline and reuse

The latter decades of the 20th century saw a massive decline in church attendance among the British. Meanwhile an evangelical Christianity and other faiths such as Islam arrived in force with Commonwealth immigrants. The result has been the closure of an increasing number of parish churches or their conversion to other uses. Some redundant urban churches have been converted into mosques or transferred from the Church of England to evangelical use. A variety of non-religious uses have also been found for disused urban and rural parish churches.

Studies and research guides

Guides to Records


Many churches now have their own web-sites, which generally contain photographs and a brief history, but only rarely with sources. There are also numerous online gazetteers of churches, which can easily be found via Google, some with superb photography: only those which cite sources will be included in the list above.