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June 2013 Item of the Month

Durham Halmote Court copyhold records, Masons Arms, Middridge, 1920

Last month a map from the Dean and Chapter’s estate records was featured, and so this month we turn to the Bishopric estates. The bishops of Durham and the Dean and Chapter (formerly the Priory) each owned extensive estates and manors across County Durham and also Northumberland and North Yorkshire. In addition to detailing the administration of the church's substantial agricultural and industrial resources, these records include the property transactions of leasehold and copyhold tenants, many of whose names and family relationships would otherwise remain unrecorded. Such records can also inform our understanding of community life, and provide fine detail on particular properties and buildings, including many 19th-century maps. Detailed guides to tracing the history of a property using these collections are available.

The document of the month is an index map maintained by the bishops’ estate officers until the 1950s identifying his lands across the region and indicating his tenants’ form of tenure (copyhold, leasehold, free). On first sight it may not be as attractive a map as the 1765 plan that we featured in May, but it is an extremely useful entry point to records of the Bishops' estates: the references (C4, C5 etc.) lead into the records of copyhold transactions in the Halmote Court and lease renewals, and can, with perseverance and luck, lead the researcher back into the 15th century. Until 1733 such records are in Latin, but are of a common form, such that a little study of one or two document types will frequently open up long series of similar records. Even earlier manorial documents can be found in the Palatinate of Durham records series held in The National Archives, and which date back to the 14th century: microfilm copies of these are also held in our search room. Click on the image to search for Bishopric properties in your area.

Image of Halmote Court book, 19 May 1920. (Ref: DHC 1/II/22)
Halmote Court book, 19 May 1920. (Ref: DHC 1/II/22)

This is the court record of an (out of court) admission on 19 May 1920 of Bentleys Yorkshire Breweries Ltd to the Masons Arms in Middridge (property C5 in the above index map), with other lands, which had been sold to them by the former tenant George Wright. The excerpt from a ‘Call book’ illustrated below, indexed by place and number, notes a series of five copyhold transactions for this property back to 1802; earlier transactions will be found in another series of call books. The property would have been compulsorily enfranchised in 1926, but the red ink stamp indicates that the manorial incidents (certain rights and liabilities) remained, in theory at least, attached to the property until 1932.

Image of Call book entry for the property C5 in Middridge. (Ref: DHC 1/V/B/6)
Call book entry for the property C5 in Middridge. (Ref: DHC 1/V/B/6)

The bishopric of Durham was a particularly wealthy one. Both the bishopric and the cathedral of Durham had been especially generously endowed by medieval donors due to the very popular pilgrim cult of St Cuthbert centred on Durham and, in the case of the bishopric, the need to attract powerful and influential men as bishops to control the turbulent frontier region bordering on Scotland and then to remain in favour with them. Later on the industrial revolution brought vastly increased revenues to the bishopric because many of its properties were discovered to lie over valuable mineral deposits, especially of lead and coal, or were in areas which suddenly developed from small rural communities into rapidly growing towns. The bishops’ and the priory’s estates were administered completely separately from the 12th century, and their records thus form two distinct collections, though both are curated by the university.

Many bishops were also wealthy men in their own right, and, certainly in the medieval period, often influential statesmen, so that frequently, in addition to the bishopric estates, they also owned private estates and properties – these might be anywhere in the country or abroad. We hold only the odd stray record relating to such private estates. Such records should be among the private papers of the bishop in question if they survive.

Within County Durham the bishopric estates lay in all four wards (see index map key).




Chester, Gateshead, Lanchester, and Whickham


Auckland, Darlington, Evenwood and Wolsingham, and the bailiwick of Sadberge


Easington and Houghton, and parts of Durham City


Bishop Middleham and Stockton

Outside the county the bishop held lands in Northumberland, in Norhamshire, Islandshire (Lindisfarne and nearby coastal areas) and Bedlingtonshire (all detached parts of County Durham until 1844), and in Yorkshire, in Allertonshire, Howdenshire and the manor of Crayke. These estates often consisted of scattered properties and even in a manor predominantly owned by the bishopric other landowners might also feature.

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.