The Papers of the Archbishops of Canterbury

One of Lambeth Palace Library’s core roles is as the official archive of the Archbishops of Canterbury, managing the preservation of, and access to, records created by the administration based at Lambeth Palace over many centuries.

The Archbishops’ Papers are rich and varied, and include correspondence, reports, memoranda, speeches, photographs and a range of other material created in the course of the work of Archbishops and their staff. The collections constitute an invaluable resource for research into a large array of topics, be they ecclesiastical, social, political, national or local, and their popularity is shown by the high number of research visits and enquiries relating to them which the Library receives.

From 1279 to 1642, the Library’s series of Archbishops’ registers are the principal record of the Archbishop’s activities, and include material relating to institutions and appointments, visitations and other correspondence. After the Restoration the registers were superseded in importance by the Archbishops’ Act Books, part of the Vicar General archive.

Whilst these sources provide valuable insights into the activities of early Archbishops, it is likely that many office holders may well have considered the papers they created to have been their own personal property, so sadly material does not survive in great quantities for seventeenth and eighteenth century Archbishops. One notable exception is Archbishop William Wake (1716-1737) who gave his papers to Christ Church College, Oxford (Lambeth holds microfilm copies).

But by the time of Archbishop Charles Longley (1862-1868) there had clearly been a change of approach, and series of papers survive in large quantities from then on. In the cases of Archbishops Archibald Tait (1868-1882) and Randall Davidson (1903-1925), the amount of material is vast; the Davidson papers for example, run to over 800 individual volumes.

Archbishop Tait (1811-1882)
Archbishop Tait (1811-1882). This portrait hangs in Lambeth Palace.

A major part of the Library’s ongoing work consists of the appraisal of recent Archbishops’ papers, where material worthy of permanent preservation is identified, and subsequently catalogued so that it can be made accessible. Current work focuses on the papers of Archbishop Robert Runcie (1980-1991) with papers from the early years of his time in office now available following a 30 year closure period, and covering such topics as the Falklands War and the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1982. Preparatory work is also being carried out on the papers of subsequent Archbishops, such as capturing information which will be of use in cataloguing, or dealing with the increasing prevalence of digital formats and alternative media.

The Library is also cataloguing the papers of the Council on Foreign Relations (CfFR), the body responsible for the Archbishop’s ecumenical relations with overseas churches for the period 1933-1982, which form a distinct subset of the Archbishop’s papers.

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