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Beyond the Archive Door: Chapter Acts

Posted By : Emily Naish Thursday 13th November 2014
One of the key series of records in the Archive are the Chapter Act Books.   These are, in essence, the records of Chapter meetings.  The Chapter, led by the Dean and composed for much of its history of the body of canons, is the main governing body of the Cathedral.  Its history stretches right back to the Cathedral’s Institution Charter of St Osmund in 1091 recorded in the Register of St Osmund.  In 1091 Osmund provided for a Dean, Chanter (Precentor), Chancellor and Treasurer, together with Archdeacons and Canons.  When met together these individuals were the Chapter and the Institution Charter specifies that it is the Dean’s privilege, and that of all the Canons to make answer to the Bishop in no matter unless it be in Chapter, and to comply with the judgement of the Chapter only.
 
The Cathedral therefore, from its beginnings administered its property and ruled the Cathedral by a series of decisions reached by the whole body or by an active committee of it and binding upon it.  Therefore became important, from an early stage in its history, that these decisions should be recorded for posterity.  By the end of the thirteenth century most of the Cathedrals organised around a chapter had evolved their own series of chapter act books.  These are not minutes of discussions, but registers of decisions taken, or actions done and usually include records of the installation of deans and canons, assignments of churches or other property to Chapter members, decisions about services, leases of properties and orders involving much of the minutiae of chapter administration.
 
The earliest surviving Chapter Act Book for Salisbury is dated 1329-1352.  It is known as Hemingby after the Clerk responsible for maintaining it at the time.  An edition of this first book has been published by the Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Society, edited by Helena Chew, consisting of partly Latin transcript and partly English abstracts.  
 
From 1329 the series of Chapter Act Books is mostly continuous with the exception of the period 1643 during the Civil War to 1660 with the restoration of the monarchy.    Kathleen Edwards in her history of Salisbury Cathedral for the Victoria History of Wiltshire explains further:
 
The period of the Civil War and the Commonwealth saw the only compete break in the Chapter’s history, when the whole institutional structure and Anglican form of worship was swept away and a new Presbyterian system established in its place at the cathedral.  It is difficult to discover how long the chapter continued to function.  The abolition of deans, chapters, vicars coral, and choristers was made law in 1648, and was followed in 1649 by the Act for the Sale of Deans’ and Chapters’ Lands…No entries were made in the Chapter Act Books between 29 November 1642 and 13 September 1660… 
 
While we already have a comprehensive list of the surviving Chapter Act books I’m in the process of bringing together the numerous drafts and individual Chapter Acts which have survived in various forms.  You can see some of these in the Chapter Acts Gallery.