Ecclesiastical visitations were part of a programme of visits by bishops to the main towns in their diocese, where they would meet with the local clergy. These normally took place every three years. In the eighteenth century, printed series of questions were sent round to the clergy in advance. The questions varied but might include matters relating to population, the frequency of services and communion, schools in the parish and numbers of non-conformists. Churchwardens also had to make presentments of malefactors in their parish. Thanks to The Friends of Devon Archives, we have access to several of the resulting reports about Buckland Brewer.
There were also, completely separate, visitations by heralds, which took place between 1530 and 1686, The heralds were required to check that all those using a coat of arms were entitled to do so. Their tours of inspection occurred roughly once in a generation. They referred back to previous visitations, inspected church monuments, stained glass windows and engraved items before assessing a gentleman’s claim. Any unlawfully displayed arms, on parchment, plate, memorials or elsewhere, could be defaced or destroyed. The resulting visitation pedigrees provide evidence for the armigerous residents, or gentry, such as the Dennys family. The records for Devon have been printed. The visitations for 1531, 1564 and 1620 are available online.