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The period 1520-1750 saw English become the dominant language of record, and many types of evidence appear for the first time, or in increasing quantity.This is true of parish registers, poor law records, wills and inventories, vernacular buildings, maps with local detail, estate and quarter session records, and the personal evidence of letters and diaries. Not only was more evidence produced from the sixteenth century, but more of it survives, both written and in the form of buildings. The nature of the sources also changed. More records than before were generated by local people rather than central government, and dealt with individuals and families rather than mentioning them only incidentally in the records of institutions. As a result evidence covers a much wider social spread, although not equally. For the first time we have extensive records of the poor as well as the rich and middling, of women and children as well as male family heads. Rather than struggling to exploit scanty evidence to its fullest extent, as in the Middle Ages, the `problem' now becomes deciding priorities amongst large amounts of available material. Reasearch focus, content, survival, present location, language and handwriting may all be considerations. 

Probate inventory of William Batchelor of Henley, 1626.jpgCertain sources are much used, being generally available, touching on a wide range of experience, and offering illuminating comparisons with existing local and national studies. A good example is wills and probate inventories. Probate was the responsibility of the Church until 1858. Before this probate had to be proved in  the archdeaconry or bishop’s courts, and the resulting records of individual, local cases are kept in the diocesan record offices (Oxfordshire and Berkshire Record Offices are designated in this role), unless property lay in more than one diocese, in which case the Prerogative Court of Canterbury dealt with it and the records are in the National Archives. Another jurisdictional twist was added where an area was exempted from standard jurisdiction, as an ecclesiastical peculiar, and had its own court. These separate records have also ended up in local county record offices. Unravelling these untidy contexts of accumulated jurisdictions is a typical and unavoidable part of local studies. Once done thousands of documents can be identified, of which wills and inventories are the main types. Wills reveal property ownership, family relationships and attitudes, patterns of charitable and personal bequests and levels of wealth. Their wordings in the 16th and early 17th century have been interpreted as indicators of the Catholic or Protestant sympathies of the testator (or perhaps the scribe). Inventories provide complementary coverage, listing and valuing movable goods in remarkable detail until the mid-18th century. From them detailed evidence of farming (crops, stock, and implements), household produce and industry (from hives of bees to looms), numbers and use of rooms, furniture, utensils, luxuries and utilities, personal clothing, books, cash, debts and credits can all be found.Like every source, probate records will be most useful when linked to other evidence. The most likely tie-ins with inventories are:



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Another necessary skill will be paleography, in order to read the characteristic secretary hand of the period. In addition to printed guides, there is also coverage in the online tutorials offered by the National Archives - getting started. Cracking the handwriting is satisfying in itself. It will also open up enormous possibilities. For local probate records there are full indexes for the archdeacon’s and bishop’s courts of Oxford  for 1516-1732 (E.Cheyne and D.M.Barratt, The Index Library, vols 93 and 94 (1981 and 1985)). Digitisation of these indexes is planned and an index to the Berkshire archdeacon’s probate records is being prepared. Household and Farm Inventories in Oxfordshire, 1550-1590,  edited by M.A.Havinden (Oxfordshire Record Society, vol.44, 1965) has many full texts of original documents, together with an excellent introduction and glossary. (The Oxford English Dictionary finds word uses reported by local historians from inventories invaluable in its work).As part of the England’s Past for Everyone project, run in conjunction with the VCH, groups of volunteers have transcribed large numbers of probate records for Burford, 1500-1700 and now for Henley. Transcriptions are being published on the web Englands Past For Everyone website.   


Wills and inventories are a prime example of some major characteristics of early modern documents. This is not to say that you should ignore the others (see checklist which follows). Some are not so central to local studies but may be highly relevant, particularly as research into particular themes progresses. For example, the records of the central courts, particularly Chancery, deal with all manner of local detail, especially in the verbatim depositions of witnesses' evidence. Chancery proceedings are the subject of some of the excellent National Archives online guides, and the vast documentation has been opened up to some degree by cataloguing (see the  National Archives catalogue). However, to search by subject and place is still ‘almost impossible’; you need to know the name of law suits and the parties in them. This means that it is only sensible for the local historian to delve into what one writer has called this `great bran tub' when he or she has got to know more obvious local sources, and through them picked up local names or references to enclosures of land or disputes over property which may offer a way into the indexes.


Principal sources for early modern local studies: a checklist

This is organized according to which institution, group of people or person produced the evidence. This is also the basis of where the evidence will be located archivally. In practice the business involved frequently cut across divides. For example, parish poor law concerns were constantly involving magistrates, sometimes at Quarter Sessions, while punishments handed down by ecclesiastical courts were enforced by secular courts if necessary.

Central government records


·         taxation lists e.g. 1524-5 lay in subsidies, 1660s hearth taxes

·         muster rolls

·         Protestation Returns of 1641-2

·         Calendars of State Papers Domestic

·         central courts of equity, e.g. Exchequer, Chancery

·         prerogative courts to 1640, e. g. Star Chamber, Requests and



Ecclesiastical records of diocese and archdeaconry


·         courts (including churchwardens’ presentments, depositions)

·         visitations queries and answers

·         glebe terriers

·         faculty papers

·         probate records


Quarter Sessions


Parish registers


Other parish records


·         vestry minutes

·         churchwardens' accounts

·         papers of overseers of the poor including rate assessment lists, accounts (showing relief paid), settlement certificates and examinations, removal orders, bastardy examinations, bonds and orders, apprenticeship indentures

·         accounts of surveyors of the highways

·         constables' books

·         militia papers


Town records


·         Council minutes, in incorporated boroughs

·         freemen's register, also in incorporated boroughs

·         accounts, of property, market tolls, festivities, charities

·         courts

·         charity and education


Estate records


·         court rolls

·         custumals

·         surveys

·         accounts

·         rentals

·         leases

·         deeds

·         mortgages, bargain and sale, conveyances, final concords

·         plans and maps

·         correspondence






Diaries and letters


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