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Lincoln's Rolls and Registers

Episcopal collection spans 700 years of church records.

A modern redbrick building tucked just off Lincoln’s main shopping district seems like an unlikely repository for one of the most important holdings of diocesan records in Britain. One might expect to find them at the nearby cathedral or perhaps at the castle alongside Magna Carta. But it’s the unassuming Lincolnshire Archives and Heritage Service (LAH) that houses the Episcopal Rolls and Registers. This remarkable collection of Lincoln’s core church records provides a largely unbroken chronological picture from the early 1200s to 1943 of what was once one of the largest dioceses in England. The episcopal rolls and registers are a Designated Collection; Arts Council England only awards this prestigious recognition to outstanding cultural holdings.

The records are also a veritable Who’s Who of English church history, beginning with the records of Hugh of Wells, Bishop of Lincoln in the turbulent years of the early 13th century. These scrolls are the earliest surviving examples of their kind. That they exist at all may be due to Bishop Hugh’s experience working in the chancery of King John who, shortcomings aside, did preside over an efficient administrative system. Other marquee names in the collection are Thomas Wolsey (Bishop of Lincoln before he was Archbishop of York and Henry VIII’s chancellor) and the royalist Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud (he visited Lincoln in 1634 during his drive to stamp out puritanical practices in the Anglican church).

The records range from parchment scrolls to bound books. There are 37 rolls and 60 registers in varying conditions. All are in need of conservation assessment – which is where NCS comes in. Like other NCS clients and members, LAH’s own staff does not include archive conservators; it relies on NCS for expert advice on caring for its archival collections. Conservators Mary Garner and Charlotte Marriott recently went to Lincoln to examine the items as part of an exhaustive survey to determine the next steps for preservation and maintenance. NCS’s ongoing environmental monitoring meant there was no recent insect infestation to look out for. They were able to concentrate on assessing the state of each piece, noting what, if any, action was needed and measuring the collection with a view to digitization. To record their observations, Mary and Charlotte used NCS’s particular survey form, which is adapted to suit the individual parameters of every project undertaken. As well as basic information such as dimensions, materials, any damage, prior and recommended treatment, the data collected included the number of camera images required to digitize each item. This helped them assess how large a task a future digitization project would be.

A corner of the large workspace was filled with the boxes of materials for examination. Some rolls were neatly bound in grey protective paper; others more haphazardly wrapped in a variety of paper coverings. Manila labels attached with tape identified the contents of each one. Working in tandem, Mary and Charlotte used an efficient system of “measure out, condition in”. They carefully unrolled the scrolls, holding them open with little leather-covered weighted bags in order to measure and count each membrane sheet, then assessed and noted any conservation issues before re-rolling and wrapping the document. The average length of three sheets provided an estimate of how the roll would fit under the digitizing camera. Measurements complete, attention turned to the condition of the roll, using the survey form and a camera to record its condition - the stitching between the membranes, any ingrained dirt, discolouration, tears, holes or nibbled edges and whatever else caught the eye. Other than some tears which needed repairing, the scrolls were in pretty good shape overall. Some pieces were more of a challenge to unroll than others but that could be resolved by wrapping them around a core, ideally of Perspex. If left in inert conditions, this would allow the scroll to adapt and loosen, making it easier to unroll in future. With the books, once basic measurements were taken attention turned to issues such as rebinding (was it needed? had it been done? and if so, when?), what the pages were made of and the state of the covers and boards.

Beyond questions of conservation, the scrolls and registers provide a fascinating and tangible link with the past. The Gravesend scroll is 17 meters long and 24 centimeters wide, made up of 33 separate membranes. It contains information from 1258-1279; the 19-year time span meaning that different scripts are distinguishable and even the sewing technique joining the membranes varies from beautifully small, neat stitches to rather amateurish large zigzag ones. Another scroll has the 13th century equivalent of a Post-It note – there’s a small drawing of a pointing hand on the parchment highlighting a note in the margin. Unless you read Latin and can decipher the clerical script, the scroll text itself doesn’t provide too much of a distraction. As many of the register entries are legibly written in English it is tempting to become sidetracked by the minutiae of church concerns in the volumes - although Mary and Charlotte, used to working with such material and conscious of the workload, displayed remarkable constraint and focused on the task at hand. The Red Book (1611-1693) includes a license issued to a midwife and another for the painting of churches. The Registrar Book of 1844-1911 has long lists of those appointed to diocesan offices as well as an account of “The Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty in Council” from July 25 1882.

After two full days of examining the 50 odd boxes of material the visual assessment part of the work was finished, but the overall task was far from complete. All the information would go to one of the NCS London studios for the next, lengthy stage - transforming notes and observations into a detailed report for the LAH. For Lincolnshire Archives and Heritage Service, the NCS findings and evaluation provide expert analysis on the next steps needed to best to preserve and maintain these valuable holdings. And for two young conservators, the rolls and registers offered a fascinating opportunity to work on a significant collection spanning centuries of techniques, materials and English church history.

See the Gallery section at right for pictures from the Rolls and Registers collection.