The Archbishop as Visitor

The ‘Archbishop as Visitor’ subfonds (Order No: ‘VV’) is a rich resource as to the government of institutions—such as universities, colleges, schools, hospitals or charity foundations—from the 16th to 20th centuries. Descriptions of its contents are now available online for the first time on our online catalogue, CalmView: VV online.

A ‘visitor’ is appointed to an institution to ensure it is administered according to its foundation charter or statutes. They are the ultimate authority for deciding disputes within the foundation and amending the statutes if necessary. Archbishops of Canterbury have been appointed visitors to institutions, sometimes individually or by reason of their office (ex officio), different examples of which can be seen below.

The series is divided into 4 parts, each representing a type of institution: universities (VV I), schools (VV II), clergy training colleges and missions (VV III) and hospitals (VV IV).

The Archbishop of Canterbury and Universities

The majority of the records in VV concern the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, where the archbishops’ duties are often concerned with the appointments of college officials (such as wardens, fellows and scholars), and appeals made against their decisions.  

Red wax seal of All Souls College in metal skippet, detached from document. The images on the left and right show the seal in raking light (VV I/4/8/13)

All Souls College in Oxford, for example, was founded in 1437 by Archbishop Henry Chichele, who named his successors as visitors of the college. The Library’s records concerning All Souls span across three centuries of archbishoprics (1636­-1952), which is reflected in their material diversity. Many still maintain their original red wax seals, in which Archbishop Chichele (right) kneels in the company of Henry VI (the college’s co-founder) to the left, before the Christ of the Last Judgment, as can be seen from the souls of the deceased scrambling in the lower central portion.[1]

One of the most attractive parchment items that falls within the All Souls subseries is the pedigree of William Harrington (dated 1681), which features a portrait of the reigning monarch, Charles II. The document certifies that Harrington was related to Henry Chichele meaning that, as the founder’s kin, his application to the college would be looked upon more kindly.  

A charter with red seal at the bottom, with a portrait of Charles II

Pedigree of William Harrington, 1681 (VV I/4/2a item 5)

Some college papers include information on appeals and Visitations that record troubled times in their histories, including details of their financial mismanagement. The collection of papers tacked and rolled together below concern a Visitation of Exeter College in 1674-75. No longer in the tangled and illegible state they were when first presented for cataloguing, they are now reading room ready thanks to the work of our collections care team. The Visitation was called at a time of severe financial trouble for Exeter, and concluded that too much was being spent unnecessarily whilst the accounts were not being kept to a high enough standard.[2] Further details of the scandal are contained within.

Papers concerning a Visitation to Exeter College, 1674-75 (VV I/6), before cleaning (left, closed) and after (right, open)

The Archbishops’ other roles

Not all of the records in VV concern the archbishop’s exercise of his visitorial powers. Some relate to his duties from another role, such as trustee or elector. VV I contains application materials for Oxford Professorships to which the archbishop has been an elector, namely the Chichele Chair of Modern History and the Savilian Chairs of Geometry and Astronomy. A printed notice calling for applications to the Savilian Professorship of Astronomy from 1861 (below) includes minimum requirements that are in high contrast to the recruitment specifications of today’s academic posts.

Notice of the Advertisement for the Savilian Professorship of Geometry

Advertisement for the Savilian Professorship of Geometry, 1861 (VV I/11/4)

VV IV: The Archbishop as Visitor to Hospitals

As with the University materials above, the other three subseries contain a great deal of information on appointments, admissions, appeals, and Visitations to their institutions. One of the most substantial bodies of records in VV IV, however, comes in the form of petitions for indweller’s places at hospitals founded by archbishops: St John Northgate and St Nicholas Harbledown in Canterbury, and Whitgift’s Hospital of the Holy Trinity in Croydon. In the hundreds, most are printed petitions that leave spaces for the applicant’s personal information to be filled in by hand. Some only include their name, parish and age, but the later examples are more extensive (see below), including information on their familial ties, occupation, income and the length of time they have been attending Communion. Together, these extensive details provide a rich resource on the lives of the lay community in the 19th and 20th centuries.

A petition to the Archbishop of Canterbury with handwritten answers

Petition of William Swain for an indweller’s place at Whitgift’s Hospital of the Holy Trinity, Croydon, 1906 (VV IV/9/2/136)

Similar in subject are the applications to Bromley College, founded in 1666 to provide accommodation for the widows of clergymen. Alongside the manuscript applications are some unexpected items, including a touching letter to Archbishop Moore dated to 1793 in which the widows thank him for the comfort of their housing. Underneath the carefully written note are the elegant signatures of 14 widows, providing a rare moment in early archives where so many women’s names feature together, independent of a male counterpart and in their own hand.  

A manuscript letter from the Widows of Bromley, with a list of signatures

Letter from the widows of Bromley College to Archbishop Moore, 1793 (VV IV/2/5/13)

[1] A full description of the seal is found in ‘All Souls College’, A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, ed. H. E. Salter and Mary D. Lobel (London, 1954), pp. 173-193. British History Online [accessed 22 February 2023].

[2] The results of the Visitation are summarised in the Register of Exeter College, Vol II, entry dated 9 January 1675 (Exeter College Archives, reference EC/2/1/2).