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The Department of Palaeography and Diplomatic

Just as the clouds of the Second World War were gathering in 1938, the University and Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral were making plans to better house and encourage research into the Church’s archives. These plans were unsurprisingly put on hold during the war, but by 1948 the Department of Palaeography and Diplomatic was formed.   

While this might seem like a strange title, it was the perfect one at the time, Palaeography being the study of old writing and Diplomatic the process of proving the authenticity of documents through studying, language, handwriting styles, and materials used.   

The department was initially housed in the Prior’s kitchen in the Cathedral (now the Durham Cathedral Museum) and one of the houses in the Cathedral College, but the plan was so successful that it saw others want to deposit their archives with the fledgeling department. The first were the papers of the Baker Family, taken in when their stately home was sold in 1947. This was followed in the following decades by the estate records of the Earls of Carlisle, the Durham Palatinate records, Earls Grey papers and all the county’s probate records (Wills) plus many more. So much material was being offered that storage soon ran out and something had to be done.   

In the 1960s, the archives moved out of the Cathedral to a location close to the new Science Library on South Road, and then back again in 1982. The archives finally made their way to Palace Green Library in 1992, when the Department for Palaeography and Diplomatic was disbanded.   

Today, the archive collections extend to eight miles of shelving including the internationally important Sudan Archive (designated by the Arts Council). Housed in the Pace Building at Palace Green Library, the archives are available to consult by anyone.