Visitation is the process by which the bishop and archdeacons supervise the work of the clergy and churchwardens in the parishes of the diocese. It was used by medieval bishops chiefly as a means of maintaining discipline in the religious houses in their dioceses. At the height of its powers in the 16th and 17th centuries however, the ecclesiastical discipline exercised in the visitation process extended over the maintenance of church fabric as well as disciplinary matters (i.e. concerning the morals and behaviour of the clergy and laity). Later visitations were more concerned with church fabric, repairs and income.
Records arising from the visitation process include visitation books, sometimes called call books, compiled by inspecting officials, and comprising mainly lists of clergy and churchwardens summoned to attend the visitation. Depending on date, they may also include details of presentments made and any remedial action taken, and a record of correction cases heard at the visitation.
In the 18th century, more detailed clergy visitation returns were also drawn up by local clergymen, in response to articles of enquiry issued by the diocese. Information given may include details of the size and population of parishes, names of patrons, curates and teachers, as well as the numbers of religious dissenters. They may also contain details of parish schools and charities, and on the state of repair of churches, churchyards and parsonage houses, services held and records kept.
Visitation notebook of Archdeacon W A Fearon, showing Alresford 1904 – 1915, 110M98/1