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Joseph Stevenson was born on 27 November 1806 in Berwick-on-Tweed, the eldest son of Robert Stevenson, surgeon, and his wife, Elizabeth née Wilson. His parents were Presbyterians. He was educated first at Witton-le-Wear (County Durham), and then at Durham School, under James Raine; and afterwards at the University of Glasgow.
Moving to London, Stevenson found work in 1831 at the British Museum. In 1834 he was appointed a sub-Commissioner of the Record Commission, and was assigned the task of preparing a new edition of Thomas Rymer's Foedera.
He had married Mary Ann Craig in 1831, and gradually gave up Presbyterianism. The death of his eldest and much-loved son so affected him that he returned to Durham and was ordained as an Anglican priest. He became librarian at Durham Cathedral (1841–48), and was afterwards instituted rector of Leighton Buzzard (1849–63). All this time he was constantly editing ancient texts: for the Maitland Club, Glasgow, eight volumes (1833–42) (including The Life and Death of King James the First of Scotland (1837), which contains the text of The Dethe of the Kynge of Scotis); for the English Historical Society, five volumes (1838–41); for the Roxburghe Club, four volumes; for the Surtees Society, seven volumes, with eight volumes of The Church Historians of England.
In 1856 the British Government was making plans for dealing with the national records on a large scale. Stevenson was one of those appointed to report on the subject, and when the new Public Record Office was opened in 1857, he was one of the first editors engaged. He now edited seven volumes for the Rolls Series, seven volumes of Calendars, Foreign Series, and two of the Scottish Series.
He had converted to Catholicism on 24 June 1863, and following the death of his wife in 1869 he entered the seminary of St Mary's College, Oscott, and in 1872 was ordained priest by Bishop Ullathorne. Next year he was in Rome searching for documents concerning English history from the Vatican archives, being employed by the British Government to begin the series of "Roman Transcripts" for the Record Office; and he also wrote many reports for the Historical Manuscripts Commission.
In 1877, aged nearly 72, he gave up these occupations to enter the Society of Jesus. However, after his novitiate he returned again to historical research, and continued his studies until his death. His chief work of this period was the discovery and publication of Claude Nau's Life of Mary Queen of Scots (Edinburgh, 1883). In 1892 he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of St Andrews.
Stevenson died in London on 8 February 1895.
- Matheson, Lister M., ed. (1999). Death and Dissent: Two Fifteenth-Century Chronicles. Medieval Chronicles. 2. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer. p. 2. ISBN 9780851157252.