HOW TO PRESERVE INFORMATION FOR A THOUSAND YEARS:A brief survey of the archivists of Christ Church cathedral, Dublin

Dr Stuart Kinsella, Research Advisor to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin Adjunct Research Fellow of University College Dublin.

The cathedral of Christ Church in Dublin is fortunate to have an archive spanning the longest period of any institution in Ireland. The first surviving records are from the Anglo-Norman period but the earliest include lists of land grants which may represent evidence of record keeping in the Hiberno-Norse period. The cathedral priory of Holy Trinity as it was known – the name Christ Church first appears in 1282 – was a monastery from its foundation until the Reformation. Established as Benedictine, with strong influence from the Irish monastery of Great St Martin in Cologne where the first two Dublin bishops trained, the cathedral underwent a turbulent period in the early twelfth-century with the expulsion of the monks by the then bishop. While some normality may have resumed, the cathedral clergy were to become Augustinian canons regular sometime after the appointment of Laurence O’Toole as archbishop of Dublin. This monastic community was sustained from the income generated by considerable land holdings, including the granges of Gorman, Clonkeen and Glasnevin. This required administrative acumen, accounts and records of these and many other landholdings.

The first major archival figure in the history of the cathedral is Thomas Fich, who studied at Oxford and appeared at Christ Church in Dublin in 1467, just six years after a great storm blew in the east gable of the choir and badly damaged many of the cathedral records.


‘View of the east window of the choir of
Christ Church cathedral, Dublin
by J.S. Templeton (1824)’

For a man who was clearly of an academic persuasion who moved in the educated circles of notaries and high officials, many of whom were his relatives – a Master Richard Fyche worked in the consistorial court of Dublin (1471-7), while Geoffrey Fych would become dean of St Patrick’s (1530-7) – this destruction may have spurred his archival interest. Thomas Fich is mainly remembered for his assemblage of the ‘Liber Albus’ or white book (RCBL C6/1/2) which contains many valuable transcripts of earlier documents. Neither did he do this alone, but brought together up to 20 notaries and scribes to help him in this work. He is probably also responsible for producing the book of obits which recorded the names of many of those associated with the cathedral and remembered them annually on their date of death. He was appointed sub-prior in 1502 which he held, eschewing the office of prior in favour of his bookish pursuits, until his death in 1518.

There was a remarkable continuity of personnel at the Reformation with the prior and Augustinian canons becoming the new dean and secular chapter in 1541, which meant that the cathedral’s land holdings also were largely unaffected. The dissolution of the cathedral’s monastic tradition offered commercial opportunity for the leasing of property within as well as without the precincts, and by 1608, the four courts of the judiciary occupied the old monastic buildings on an ambitious thousand year lease. It was not however until the appointment of Thomas Howell as chapter clerk in 1631 that a firm hold was taken of the detail of the cathedral’s property holdings. Howell set about reordering the cathedral muniments which he completed in 1644 in the form of a ‘Great Parchment Book’ (NAI M 2534). Revolution, both political and religious, during the 1640-50s saw the cathedral chapter evicted in favour of independent congregations, but with the restoration of Charles II, Thomas Howell returned to his position to re-establish the old regime.

The vaulted chapter house was the location of the cathedral records until 1699 when, probably combined with the restoration of the Four Courts by William Robinson four years earlier, the chapter decided to remove themselves to the old Trinity chapel in the south aisle of the nave. This formed the space where a third figure had a considerable archival impact in the eighteenth-century. Realising, as had Fich and Howell, that the cathedral records were in need of preservation, John Lyons, a canon of St Patrick’s, appreciated not only their value as property records, but also their inherent antiquarian and historical worth, and he and a number of the Christ Church chapter spent many years transcribing the cathedral records for posterity, the fruits of which survive in three volumes called the ‘Novum Registrum’ (RCBL, C6/1/6/1-3).


Entry on the library of Christ Church in
‘Reports from the Commissioners … respecting the public records of Ireland …’
(Irish Record Commission, 1819), p. 442

By 1819, the Irish Record Commission reported that the records were still ‘In good Preservation, in general; numbered, and in Bundles, or on Files, and kept in Oak Presses’, significantly with ‘no general Index or Catalogue’, but noted the ‘great fund of Antiquarian information in this Repository’. This fund of information attracted many a transcriber, none more so than William Monck Mason, many of whose manuscripts still survive, including two which contain a draft history of the cathedral to 1809, butnever published.

The restoration of the cathedral by G.E. Street from 1871-8 likely prompted a considerable portion of the cathedral archives to be moved in 1872 to the Public Record Office, which had recently opened in 1867 and was conveniently located just across the river. M.J. McEnery began a calendar of the Christ Church deeds spanning 1174-1684 which he published and indexed in the appendices to the 20th, 23rd, 24th and 27th reports of the deputy keeper from 1888 to 1896, while his colleague James Mills edited one particularly extensive account roll (which contained the earliest known morality play in English) for publication as an extra volume of the Royal Society of Antiquaries. Mills published a number of related articles, and was also the first to highlight the extraordinary survival of a year-long diary of building work from 1564-5 kept by the cathedral precentor and proctor, Peter Lewis. The last flurry of this summarising activity was undertaken by the professor of ecclesiastical history and then precentor (later dean) of St Patrick’s cathedral, H.J. Lawlor, who published a calendar of the two early manuscripts still in the possession of Christ Church, the ‘Liber Niger’ and Fich’s ‘Liber Albus’, in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy.

In the wake of the tragic burning of the Public Record Office in 1922, one optimistic bloom of activity relating to the cathedral’s early manuscripts took place in the medieval history department of UCD under Professor Aubrey Gwynn, continued by Geoffrey Hand and Maurice Sheehy. However, it would not be until the 1990s that the archive of Christ Church would once again experience the sustained gaze of professional scholars. As part of a project which produced a history of the cathedral in 2000, a series of manuscripts were published between 1995 and 2001, which would complete the work of Mills and McEnery. Raymond Gillespie, the series editor of the documents series, published Mills edition of the proctor’s accounts of Peter Lewis (1996), reissued Mills’ Account roll with new introductions (1996) and produced an edition of the cathedral’s first chapter act book, 1574-1634 (1997), while Raymond Refaussé produced with Colm Lennon an edition of registers (1998) as well as the final century of McEnery’s calendar (2001), bringing the total number of deeds to 1,952. Barra Boydell undertook the challenging task of assembling all of the documents relating to music at the cathedral before 1800, which he published in 1999 and would, along with his musical chapters from the cathedral history, go towards the writing of A history of music at Christ Church cathedral, Dublin (2004).

Two decades later, the Beyond 2022 project to virtually reconstruct the Public Record Office of Ireland offers a timely opportunity to reconstruct the collection of cathedral muniments deposited there in 1872, listed in Herbert Wood’s 1919 Guide to the records deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland as Miscellaneous Documents, no. 3, located on the first floor, bay K and fourth floor, bay R. Using the abbreviated English summaries in Mills & Refaussé calendar of the Christ Church deeds (2001) as a base line, it will be possible to draw together a wealth of sources to enhance this record drawn from surviving manuscript transcripts, scattered printed publications, and photozincographs and lantern slides. None of it would be possible however without the work of generations of archivists who have preserved this collection over what is now almost a thousand years.

FURTHER READING:

Raymond Gillespie, Thomas Howell and his friends: serving Christ Church cathedral, Dublin, 1570-1700 (Dublin: Friends of Christ Church Cathedral Dublin, 1997)

Toby Barnard, ‘John Lyon and Irish antiquarianism in the time of Swift’ in Hermann J. Real (ed.), Reading Swift: papers from the fifth Münster symposium on Jonathan Swift (München: Fink, 2008), 245-54.

Raymond Refaussé, ‘Introduction’ in Kenneth Milne (ed.), Christ Church cathedral, Dublin: a history (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000), 1-22.

Raymond Gillespie & Raymond Refaussé (ed.), The medieval manuscripts of Christ Church cathedral, Dublin (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2006).

Stuart Kinsella, ‘No good deed goes unpunished: The preservation and destruction of the deeds of Christ Church cathedral Dublin: 1’, Archive Fever, 10 (December 2019) [https://beyond2022.ie/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/10.-Kinsella-No-Good-Deed-1.pdf]