The 18 June 2019 marks the twentieth anniversary of the official opening by Her Majesty The Queen of the Vicars’ Hall Undercroft as the new home for the archival and rare book collections belonging to the Dean and Canons of Windsor.
This building – which was renovated from a domestic property for office and storage use with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund – includes a reading room and a permanent exhibition space which over twenty years have enabled thousands of visitors to experience a previously inaccessible collection through research, group tours and our Adopt a Book programme.
But where were the archives prior to that?
The Dean and Canons have been collecting documents of significance to them ever since St George’s Chapel was founded in 1348. At the time they were not of historical interest but formed vital pieces of evidence for the Chapel to function: charters establishing its existence and rights; deeds proving its ownership of land and income; inventories and registers chronicling day to day business in the Chapel.
The value of these and other documents to the Dean and Canons was very high and so they had to be kept securely. When the College Statutes – the formal rules governing the Dean and Canons – were produced in 1352 they included a passage about keeping the documents:
We do order and enact that the said Dean and College shall have a common seal, and a chest in which the said seal, the instruments, the charters and the letters, the privileges and other writings shall be deposited: we do enact moreover that the said chest for the same be secure with three different locks and keys. [SGC M.10, cap. 43]
One of these keys was to be held by the Dean and the other two by men appointed by the King. It would be impossible to open the chest unless all three men were present, which created a certain degree of security.
The chest itself was kept in the treasury along with the Chapel’s money and precious relics and ornaments. At St George’s Chapel that was a building known as the Aerary (the name comes from the Latin aes, aeris, meaning ‘bronze’ and, by extension, ‘money’), a tower constructed between the Chapel and the Canons’ Cloister during the 1350s. It was later agreed that any Canon who took documents out of the Aerary would lose his daily income until he returned them.
When St George’s Chapel was rebuilt under King Edward IV, the money was moved to the new Schorn Tower above the Chapel. Following the English Reformation in the 1530s all of the Chapel’s ornaments and relics were sold off or destroyed, leaving the Aerary to house only the ever-growing collection of documents, which in time spread to the Schorn Tower too.
Throughout most of the Chapel’s history, its documentary collection has only been accessible to members of the College and a select few respected historians. It was not until the late-nineteenth century that the collection was fully put in order through the work of Joseph Burt – the first professional archivist to work with the collection in 1862 – and Canon John Neale Dalton – who produced the first comprehensive catalogue of the archives in the 1890s. However, access to the Aerary and the Schorn Tower (across the roof!) was extremely difficult. Nor were the environmental conditions ideal. Heavy snowfall in 1963 damaged the Aerary roof and several documents were damaged by water, while former archivists recall working in coats and hats throughout much of the year in the Schorn Tower.
In the 1990s the Dean and Canons together with archivist Eileen Scarff recognised the great potential of the collection if better housed. Architects were initially brought in to design a new Archive House, before the plan to convert the Vicars’ Hall Undercroft was arrived at instead. The move ensured better conditions for preservation and access to this extraordinary collection, enabling its richness and significance to be fully explored and appreciated. To arrange a research visit or to book a group tour, contact us on [email protected].
Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian