From the BHO editorial team

British History Online (BHO) is a digital collection of key printed primary and secondary sources for the history of Britain and Ireland, with a special focus on the period 1300 to 1800.

From 30 March, all transcribed content on BHO is now freely available to individual users, and will remain so until 30 September 2020. This post describes what’s included in this move.

British History Online (BHO) is a digital collection of key printed primary and secondary sources for the history of Britain and Ireland, and the British world, with a special focus on the period 1300 to 1800. The BHO collection includes over 1280 volumes of primary content and secondary sources.

Most of this content (over 1000 volumes or c.80% of the total) is always available free to use by anyone, anywhere with access to the BHO site. In addition, we offer several subscription packages—for individual users and institutions—that provide access to a further 200 volumes of primary research content.

1. Free access to all BHO content

From Monday 30 March, we’re making the transcribed texts of these additional 200 volumes available in full to individual users who visit the BHO site.

We’re very aware of the current challenges faced by students and researchers with the closure of universities, libraries and archives. We hope that by releasing these additional volumes BHO can provide access to a wider selection of valuable research materials. This extended access runs to 30 September 2020 and will cover the period when most MA students are engaged in dissertation research.

The BHO homepage offers access to all primary and secondary content

2. What’s included in the new content?

The extra 200 volumes now available are predominantly made up of two important series:

Close Rolls record ‘Letters close’ which were issued by the Chancery in the name of the Crown. These letters were ‘usually of an executive nature conveying orders and instructions, and, therefore of a private and personal nature’ (The National Archives, 2020). Because of their nature, letters were ‘issued folded and “closed” by the application of the great seal’ (TNA).

The Close Rolls are records of these letters, initiated by Chancery to create a master version of the letters sent. BHO’s collection covers closed letters issued between 1244 and 1509 in a total of 61 volumes.

The State Papers Domestic are the accumulated papers of the secretaries of state relating to national home (domestic) affairs. They contain information on every facet of early modern government. State Papers took many formats: ‘including private and official letters, musters, reports, commissions and instructions, council orders and correspondence, proclamations, memoranda and draft parliamentary bills’ (TNA, 2020).

BHO’s collection covers State Papers Domestic for the period 1547 to 1704 in a total of 92 volumes.

In both cases, British History Online offers the Calendar of the original records, not the original records. These Calendars were created in the late Victorian period. They provide researchers with a full summary of the contents of the original document. For nearly all purposes these summaries are wholly sufficient for research.

The remainder of the now free BHO content comprises the following eight series:

A final series is the Calendar of Patent Rolls, covering the reigns of Henry III, Edward I and Edward II (1216 to 1307), which appear in 10 volumes. The Patent Rolls are closely linked to the Close Rolls, being the records of Letters patent (or ‘open’).

Letters patent were unsealed letters expressing the sovereign’s will on a variety of matters of public interest. BHO’s 10 volumes are the first output in a new project to digitise and publish the Calendar of Patent Rolls up to and including the reign of Henry VII (1509); this project is ongoing.

For more on the Patent (and Close) Rolls, and their usefulness for medieval historians, see this earlier IHR blog post from Dr Adam Chapman of the IHR.

The petition of sixteen inhabitants of the township of Bollington in the parish of Prestbury. From the English Petitions series in BHO. Image courtesy of Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, QJF 67/3/17.

3. Using all of British History Online for research

If you’re looking to undertake remote research, there’s much on BHO in addition to the newly released content. Notable collections—of private and secondary sources—that remain permanently free include:

3.1. Within our Primary sources collection …

  • House of Commons Journals, 1527-1699, in 13 volumes
  • House of Lords journals, 1509-1793, in 42 volumes
  • 41 volumes of primary works edited and published by the London Record Society – a particularly rich collection (including diaries and correspondence) on London history from the 15th to the 19th century
  • Petitions from English Quarter Sessions, covering the period 1577-1799, in 6 volumes: an ongoing series in association with The Power of Petitioning research project at Birkbeck and University College London
  • Privy Council Acts, 1552-1631, in 46 volumes

3.2. Within our Secondary sources collection …

  • 175 volumes of the Victoria County History, covering selected English counties from Bedfordshire to Yorkshire
  • 60 volumes of the Survey of London which, at parish level, provides detailed architectural and topographical studies of the capital’s built environment.
  • 32 volumes of the Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae: the standard authority for identifying the higher clergy of the Church of England from 1066 to 1857

3.3. Within our Datasets collection …

  • The Cromwell Association Directory of Parliamentarian Army Officers: a born-digital dictionary of over 4,000 officers who served in the armies of Parliament during the first English civil war (1642-6)
  • The returns of the Hearth Tax assessment, covering the City of London (1662), Westminster (1664) and the City of London and Middlesex (1666), in 3 volumes

3.4. Within our Maps collection …

  • Single volume maps of London created between 1561 and 1676
  • Over 100 volumes of the Victorian Ordnance Survey series, including the complete 1:10,560 series and selected areas of the 1:2,500 maps

Detail of Leake’s Survey of the City After the Great Fire of 1666. One of the scalable maps available on BHO.

3.5. Within our Guides and Calendars collection …

4. Subject guides to British History Online

We’ve currently a small but growing set of subject guides to using BHO for the following, written for us by external users of the resource:

We’d love to add some more subject guides to BHO, especially as more people come to the resource for first time. If you’re a historian working in an appropriate field of medieval or early modern British history—and would like to write us something on the following, or something else—please do get in touch:

  • Key documentary sources, such as State Papers Domestic, Foreign, Close Rolls, and others
  • Scottish History
  • Irish History
  • History of the built environment
  • Legal History
  • Britain’s territories and influence overseas
  • Government or other aspects of life during specific periods or reigns

5. Institution subscriptions to British History Online

BHO institutional subscriptions will remain in place during this period. These accounts provide members of institutions with additional options above and beyond the texts of the 200 volumes: for example, tens of thousands of page scans of digitized Calendars, enabling libraries to remove lengthy runs of volumes from library shelves.

All income generated from institutional and personal subscriptions to BHO content is used to sustain the project, support its continuation, extend its range of coverage, and ensure that as much research material as possible remains freely available to all users.

Please do promote the availability of British History Online for research as widely as possible in the coming weeks


Though the IHR’s premises are currently closed, the Institute of Historical Research remains open to maintain as many resources and services as possible. Read our statement onSupporting the historical community‘ #VirtualIHR