In an oft-quoted remark Norman Sykes once described the visitation as, 'The keystone of the arch of ecclesiastical administration... upon which to a considerable degree the good estate of the church depended'.4 The visitation itself involved the bishop progressing through a series of centres across his diocese, to which the clergy and churchwardens would be summoned by citation. The citation issued to the deaneries of Holsworthy and Okehampton in advance of the primary visitation of Bishop Ross in 1779 is representative.5 In addition to the clergy, churchwardens and sidesmen it was required that 'all Persons publicly professing the Art of Grammar Physic or Surgery' also appear before the bishop at the visitation centre. The clergy were to present their letters of institution to their benefices and their ordination papers. Specific reference was also made to those clergy holding 'Plurality of Benefices'. Lay impropriators of tithes were cited, as were the executors of wills not yet proved, and the 'possessors of whatsoever Goods of Persons dying Intestate'.6 Failure of churchwardens to appear at the visitation resulted in their presentment to the consistory courts.7 A further important feature of the visitation process was the confirmation service, generally held in the afternoon or evening at each centre. During his visitation of 1779 Bishop Ross confirmed 16,863 candidates in the Devon archdeaconries.8 A member of the local clergy was appointed to preach a sermon at each centre, and these often dealt with matters of ecclesiastical discipline and pastoral responsibility.9
An indication of the scale of the visitation process is provided by the schedule of Bishop Clagett from 1744-45. With the exception of Stephen Weston in 1726-28, Clagett's predecessors tended to traverse their entire diocese in one go. In 1689 Jonathan Trelawny embarked for Okehampton on 19 August, and visited centres at Callington, Bodmin and Penryn in Cornwall before calling at Plymouth on 30 August. From there, he travelled to Totnes before spending three days in Exeter arriving at Great Torrington via Barnstaple on 11 September. Thus a visitation of the whole diocese was completed in 24 days taking in nine centres. Despite having been described as 'the most indolent of Exeter's Bishops',10 Stephen Weston was responsible for an expansion of the visitation itinerary. Whilst his eighteenth century predecessors generally attended nine or ten centres throughout the entire diocese, Weston's 1726 tour of the Devon archdeaconries of Exeter, Totnes and Barnstaple encompassed ten centres.11 The visitation resumed in August 1728, taking in the usual three centres in the archdeaconry of Cornwall.12 The practice of visiting the three Devon archdeaconries and the archdeaconry of Cornwall in separate years was continued by Bishop Clagett, who visited seven centres in Devon during a four week period in June and July 1744, before concluding his visitation by visiting Liskeard, Truro, Penzance and Launceston the following July.13 In 1779 John Ross completed his primary visitation of the entire diocese in six weeks without a rest between the Devon archdeaconries and that of Cornwall.14 His tour began at Exeter on 15 June and concluded at Totnes on 28 July having encompassed 15 centres throughout the diocese, nine in Devon and six in Cornwall.
The diocesan official who bore much of the responsibility for the organisation of the visitation procedure was the bishop's registrar. The registrar was a public notary, whose testimony was equal to that of two witnesses. Together with the chancellor, he was responsible for a great deal of diocesan administrative work and for ensuring the smooth running of the church court.15 Little correspondence survives to illustrate the volume of work undertaken by the registrars responsible for overseeing the running of the primary visitations of Bishops Clagett and Ross. However, some indication of their workload can be seen from the number of extant documents pertaining to the visitation of Bishop Keppel in 1764-65.16 In addition to issuing citations, organising the confirmation service, and collecting in the clergy's replies to visitation queries the registrar was responsible for handling other practical considerations. These included obtaining suitable accommodation and catering provision for the bishop and his retinue at each visitation centre. A local inn would be chosen for the visitation dinner, an occasion that provided the opportunity for the bishop and his clergy to gather in more convivial circumstances than the more formal visitation itself.17 The receipt for the visitation dinner at Exeter in 1764 totalled ?5 5s 4d, including ale, cider, port, 52 bottles of wine and meals for 70 ordinaries and 9 servants.18