The Archwhat of What? : the Norfolk ecclesiastical hierarchy before civil courts, and why knowing about it matters

Following a request on twitter, I hope to explain a little about administration in Norfolk before 11 January 1858, and why it matters to your research. Understanding the ecclesiastical hierarchy helps you set the context for your research, demystify the court system and work out where particular records are most likely to be. 

Where else would I start, but the parish. There is a great podcast about parish level administration (“The Parish: administration and records”) available on the National Archives website here. I will not dwell on this level in this post, but I would certainly recommend listening to the above, or reading the transcript, as an introduction to the responsibilities and dealings of parish officials.

A parish is a small administrative area that usually has a church and an incumbent. Norfolk has had varying numbers of parishes over the years, but it is generally accepted that there were around 700 in the County for much of the time you are likely to be interested in during the course of your family history. At one time, Norwich was the second city in England, and the wealth brought by trade in grain and wool still manifests itself today in the hundreds of medieval churches which dot the local landscape. It is said that there are more medieval churches per square mile here than anywhere else in Western Europe. 659 still remain and there may once have been more than 1000. If I’m going to boast about Norfolk, I’ll do it in style – we also have 130 of the 185 round towered churches in the Country. For more, see

Today, parishes still cover all of Norfolk, with the exceptions of Norwich, Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. There are now just 541 parishes following the split of Walcott, on the coast, from Happisburgh, in 2008. Loads of information about modern day parishes can be uncovered at which contains both current and historic demographic information for the County. According to the site, parish sizes now vary in size from a population of just about ten to around 24,000. Around three quarters (approximately 638,000) of Norfolk residents currently live in parishes. 

Returning to the ecclesiastical hierarchy, parishes were (and are) collected into deaneries, or rural deaneries. The following table lists the deaneries in Norfolk as they stood in 1857, distributed into their archdeaconries: 

Archdeaconry of NorwichArchdeaconry of Norfolk


A word of warning: some of these names are shared with parishes, hundreds, registration districts or sub registration districts. Make sure you work out which your research is refering to! 

In Norfolk, we also had several ‘peculiars’; areas outside the jurisdiction of deaneries until the mid 1800s. Until this time they reported straight to higher levels in the church hierarchy. The peculiars and the parishes they contained are listed below: 

  • Peculiar of the Dean and Chapter of Norwich, including:
St Mary in the Marsh, Norwich
St Helen, Norwich
St James Pockthorpe
St Paul, Norwich
Great Plumstead
Trowse (with Newton)
West Beckham
  • Peculiar of Great Cressingham (just the one parish)
  • Peculiar of Castle Rising, including:
Castle Rising
North Wootton
Roydon All Saints
South Wootton
  • Peculiar of Bishop of Norwich (Thorpe St Andrew)
  • Peculiar of the Bishop of Ely (Emneth)

Deaneries, in turn, were grouped into archdeaconries (as shown above in the deaneries table) which were presided over by an archdeacon. The Norfolk ones were the Archdeaconry of Norwich (ANW) and Archdeaconry of Norfolk (ANF). If you were to draw a map of the deaneries and peculiars, you would not end up with a nice line half way across Norfolk. Rather, you would get a slightly mottled map of large blobs (bits of archdeaconry) with several extra little spots (the peculiar parishes). Maps can be found in the searchrooms at the Norfolk Record Office and Norfolk Heritage Centre, and I’m sure in many other research areas around the Country.

This is the first level of the hierarchy which held courts able to grant probate and marriage licences, two resources you are very likely to encounter during your family history investigations. In terms of marriage licences, the archdeaconry and peculiar courts could deal with applications where both bride and groom resided within that particular court’s borders. They could also deal with probate where lands involved were within their own archdeaconry or peculiar.

Next, the archdeaconries were grouped into dioceses, led by a bishop. In Norfolk, the Diocese of Norwich included both ANW, ANF and all the peculiars except Emneth, which is unique in being the only parish in Norfolk not within the Diocese of Norwich’s boundary in 1857. The diocese also included the archdeaconries of Sudbury and Suffolk at this time – don’t fall into the trap of thinking that everyone within the Norwich Diocese was a Norfolkian!

The corresponding court at this level is the Norwich Consistory Court, sometimes know as the Bishop’s Court. This court dealt with marriage licences where bride and groom came from different Norfolk archdeaconries or peculiars, and probate where lands in question crossed the same borders. It did not generally deal with marriage licences or probate where relevant individuals or lands crossed the diocesan borders. These matters would normally have been referred upwards to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.

Another warning! Having said all the above (this is family history after all), the court jurisdiction guidelines were not always followed – you could well find examples of records which were created by the ‘wrong’ court. For example, despite being in different archdeaconries, couples could very easily live in neighbouring parishes – marriage licences may have still have been granted by an archdeacon, perhaps for the bride’s parish.

So why is it important to be able to understand this hierarchy if the ‘rules’ weren’t always followed? Well, particularly when you’re looking for largely unindexed records like marriage licence bonds and allegations, it is very useful to be able to work out which court most likely dealt with the paperwork. Working this out allows you to trawl through the most likely court’s microform first and foremost. This could save you a lot of time!

In Norfolk we are really quite lucky with probate as wills before 11 Jan 1858 should be catalogued and name indexed on the Record Office’s online system. NROCAT will tell you which court was associated with that will. However, before you even look at the will, being aware of the court system will help you get a sense of the influence of that person. If the will you are looking for is not there, then you are best off trying the Prerogative Court of Canterbury records which are digitised on the National Archives website (also try here if the will you are looking for was proved during the Interregnum or you believe an ancestor died at sea or also held lands abroad).

Further, understanding the church hierarchy and how the borders changed is useful when looking for the location of records. Take the deanery of Lothingland – once part of the Archdeaconry of Suffolk, it was moved into the Diocese of Norwich in the early 1900s and therefore the parish registers are kept at the Norfolk Record Office, the relevant Diocesan Record Office. The Suffolk Record Office on the other hand holds the records of the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich which was created at the same time (1914). On the other side of the County, the deaneries of Fincham and Lynn Marshland were transferred into the Diocese of Ely, and some of these records are now deposited at the Wisbech and Fenland Museum or Cambridge Record Office.

This post has not covered everything there is to know about this topic by any means. There is much more information on the web pages of the various archives and within their research guides. Lists of all the parishes within all of the deaneries at various times can also be found on the Genuki website.

I am not sure how useful this introduction will be, but if it proves helpful, I could also do a similar guide to the civil registration system. Just leave a comment here or tweet me if you have any ideas or questions you think I could answer (or at least ‘discuss’!) in my blog. Also, if you spot any errors let me know and I will update, and credit you.

Have a lovely evening!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Reclaim Jane (February 2022)

What happens if you cast aside the carefully referenced report and try and fill the gaps left by the records? Reclaim Jane is an attempt to find the woman behind the snippets of archival evidence.

Read More »