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The history of the diocese of Ely is a complicated one, with several changes in boundaries and parishes that do not always align with county boundaries.  Originally part of Lincoln diocese, Ely was founded by Henry I in 1109. The cathedral was a Benedictine abbey first established by St Etheldreda in 673.  The diocese received a share of the abbey's lands and endowments, and the bishops were granted secular jurisdiction over the Liberty of the Isle of Ely.

  • The diocese initially covered the area around Ely (the Isle of Ely) and pre-1965 Cambridgeshire, with the exception of some eastern parishes. 
  • In 1837 the former county of Huntingdonshire was added to the diocese (from Lincoln).
  • Bedfordshire and West Suffolk were part of the diocese from 1837 to 1914.
  • In 1914 two `marshland' deaneries of north-west Norfolk (from Norwich) became part of Ely.

The Diocese exercised both spiritual and temporal functions and there are records reflecting both within the collection.  The records are those of the bishop's administration and of his officials (archdeacon, chancellor, registrar, etc.).  Parish registers are not held at the University Library but can be found in the relevant county archive service - Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Wisbech, Bedfordshire and Suffolk.

The bishops' registers, which at first contained all episcopal acts but later recorded only certain important items of business, start with Bishop Montacute's register in 1337.  Earlier registers, and those from 1610 to 1702, are lost, but transcripts of some 17th century registers survive.

From the fifteenth century separate registers and records were kept of various branches of the bishop's administration. Visitation records, periodic inquiries into the state of the diocese, personnel, fabric, endowments and social conditions, survive from the mid sixteenth century. They include returns to visitation inquiries from 1775, and churchwardens' presentments of abuse and things amiss in parishes from 1582.  Churchwarden's presentments can also be found among the parish records in the relevant local archive service.

Much of the bishop's business was transacted through his consistory court. The records include actual law-suits which took place in the court, either office cases where the diocese was prosecutor (early sixteenth century onwards), or instance cases, between two private parties (mostly seventeenth century). Until 1856 the bishop (and in some Cambridgeshire parishes the archdeacon) had the probate of wills. The registers and surviving wills, long separated from the diocesan records, are now deposited at Cambridgeshire County Record Office. The diocesan records still include registers of administration of those who died intestate (late sixteenth century onwards). Other records stemming from consistory court include:-

  • marriage licences (intermittent from 1711, continuous from 1742),
  • ordination papers (from 1771),
  • curates' licences (from 1816; earlier licences in general registers),
  • licences for non-residence of incumbents (from 1812),
  • consecrations of new churches (from 1834),
  • faculties for alterations to churches (registers from 1724, papers mostly post-1870).

From the end of the 16th century there was a requirement for annual transcripts from parish registers to be made by each parish and sent to the DioceseRecords survive for most parishes from 1599-c.1860 and can be a good back-up if the parish registers have not survived or are illegible.

Other record series arising from the ecclesiastical function include:-

  • registration of dissenting meeting houses (1697-1852),
  • mortgages of benefices to pay for rebuilding of parsonages (from 1790),
  • tithe maps and apportionments (c.1840) (Huntingdonshire maps at Huntingdonshire Archives).

The bishop's temporal jurisdiction over the Isle of Ely was abolished in 1836. Until then the bishop's officials held assizes and quarter sessions, which cover a wide variety of administrative and judicial functions. Records of these courts survive for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The bishops had extensive manorial and other estates and endowments. These were first surveyed and recorded in the Old Coucher book, 1251. For some manors there are long runs of medieval court rolls and bailiff's accounts. In the mid nineteenth century the episcopal estates were commuted to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners (now the Church Commissioners [CC]), and the Commissioners took over a large quantity of post-medieval court books and leases. These have now been returned to the Library and stand alongside the diocesan records.

There is a published catalogue by Dorothy M. Owen, Ely records: A handlist of the records of the Bishop and Archdeacon of Ely, 1971, which is the working catalogue for the collection. An earlier guide, Alfred Gibbons, Ely episcopal records: A calendar and concise view of the episcopal records preserved in the Muniment Room of the Palace at Ely, 1891, is occasionally useful, and Gibbons' classification still forms the basic classification for the diocesan records.

The Ely Diocesan Records [EDR] were deposited in Cambridge University Library in 1962.  The archives of the Dean and Chapter of Ely have also been deposited in the Library.

Contact: Sian Collins (01223 333141; sec93@cam.ac.uk)