England Court Records

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Court records will probably mention some of your ancestors as defendants, plaintiffs, jurors, or witnesses. Court records can establish family relationships and places of residence. They often provide occupations, descriptions of individuals, and other family information. They seldom provide birth, marriage, or death information.

Most researchers use court records after they have investigated other records. Court records tend to be difficult to use since few are indexed, the handwriting is hard to read, and they include unfamiliar legal terms. To interpret court records, you may need to consult a dictionary.

There are many English courts. Those described here (except for the Chancery Court and the Court of the Exchequer) generally pertain to the poorer classes. If your ancestor was wealthy, search the records described in the "Land and Property" article.

Sessions Courts[edit | edit source]

Quarter Session Courts[edit | edit source]

Main article: England Quarter Session Records

From the 16th century on, and in some cases from the 13th century, Quarter Session courts dealt with many issues, including crime, land, licensing, oaths of denization, militia, county rates, roads and bridges, taxes, religion, social welfare, lunatics, and so on. Many middle class and poor people are mentioned.

A more detailed discussion of these records is in:

  • Emmison, F. G., and Irvine Gray. County Records. Revised Edition. London, England: The Historical Association, 1973. (Family History Library book 942 H2ha no. 62 1973.)
  • Emmison, F. G and Irvine Gray. County records: Quarter Sessions, Petty Sessions, Clerk of the Peace and Lieutenancy. London: Historical Association, 1987. In series "Helps for the Student of History", no. 62. (Family History Library 942 H2ha no. 62 1987)

A list of available records is in:

  • Gibson, J. S. W. Quarter Session Records for Family Historians: A Select List. 4th ed. Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies Publications, Ltd., 1995. (Family History Library book 942 P23gjs 1995).

The original records are in the respective county or council archives. Copies of some quarter session records are in the Family History Library. Use the Place Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under:


A wiki article describing an online collection is found at:

England, Kent, Quarter Sessions and Court Files - FamilySearch Historical Records

Petty Session Courts[edit | edit source]

Main article: England Petty Session Records

Borough Session Courts[edit | edit source]

Main article: England Borough Session Records

Manorial Courts[edit | edit source]

A manor is a property for which the owner held a court for his copyhold tenants. Manors were often farms or multiple farms and could include other rural lands, but could also comprise a group of town houses (see Gibbens’ English Magistrates. Metropolitan (London and North Middlesex Family History Society) Vol 18 #3, page 137-143). The land of a given manor was rarely coterminous with parish boundaries, either ecclesiastical or civil, and frequently contained a part of one parish, or parts of two or more parishes, not always contiguous to one another. One land owner might hold several manors and tenants might therefore transfer from one part of his estate to another—a point to remember when an ancestor suddenly appears in or disappears from a certain parish. A land owner could also hold freehold properties with tenants which were not part of any manor and hence held no court. Some manors were small and the lord could be the occupier farming his own land, living in the home or barton farm or desmesne land. Other manors were much larger, up to 150 square miles, and here the land was leased out except for the lord’s demesne lands which he farmed himself, or let out at fixed rent to a bailiff, the latter being the commonest situation from the 17th century.

Records of these courts give information about the day-to-day life on a manor (an estate held by a lord), including petty crimes, land transfers, manorial appointments, customs, rental fees, and so on. The court regulated the responsibilities and interrelationship of the manorial lord, his steward and bailiff (law officer), and the village people. Manorial court records began in 1066 and ended in the early 1900s.

The Victoria County Histories, which can be found in larger libraries and online, normally trace the ownership of manors but the series is not yet complete. A list of currently available VCH volumes is given in the course English: Education, Health and Contemporary Documents. TNA research guides L1 and L9 have good background information and help access what is available there, much of which is also available on film, of-course. Estimates of the number of manors vary between 25,000 and 65,000 (Travers) whereas there are about 12,300 ancient parishes (Humphery-Smith 1995).

To find the name of the manor, or if there was a manor for the locality where your ancestor lived, use a gazetteer such as The Imperial Gazetteer on Vision of Britain (see also the England Gazetteers article).

Manorial court records in England can be found in many different repositories. For more information on the location of manor records in the following counties, consult the Manorial Documents Register:

  • Cumberland
  • Hampshire (and the Isle of Wight)
  • Lancashire (north of Furness)
  • Norfolk
  • Surrey
  • Middlesex
  • Westmorland
  • Yorkshire (all three Ridings)

Additional counties are being added as resources permit.

Travers estimated the amounts of surviving manorial documents from samples from five counties (see chart below). From this it can be seen that there is a greater chance of being able to use them for confirming, or replacing missing, parish register information as only a lucky few will be able to use them to continue a pedigree prior to 1538. Manorial records are the most reliable statements of ancestry (Humphery-Smith 1997) and should be sought out if at all possible.

Chart: Survival of Manorial Documents (data from Travers)

Surviving manorial documents  % of manors
Name only, no records 34%
A few of different dates 44%
Good run from 16th or17th century 18%
Good run from before 16th century 4%

The lord of the manor could hold two main courts:

Court Baron[edit | edit source]

This was obligatory and dealt with transference of copyhold land, enforcing local customs and agricultural practice and settling minor disputes and debts involving less than 40 shillings. It was held by the lord of the manor or his legally-trained steward at least once a year or as often as its business demanded. The court baron often included the old court customary of the bond or villein tenants, and there were other minor courts in some places. The records of courts baron which deal with inheritance, sale and transfer of land are discussed in the National Institute for Genealogical Studies course English: Land and Property Records Including Manorial Documents and Maps. Other court baron records are covered here.

Court Leet[edit | edit source]

There may also have been a court leet (including, and also alternatively called, the view of frankpledge) which was essentially a subsidiary hundred court. The view of frankpledge was a method of checking to which tithing each man belonged, and it records the names of the most substantial men, usually the freeholders, who do not appear, of-course, as copyhold tenants in the court baron records (Cox). The court leet dealt with criminal offences such as murder, treason, rape, arson, counterfeiting and burglary, which it then referred on to the county assizes, as well as common law offences for which it levied punishments, and it also appointed some local officials.

Chart: Format of a Court Roll or Record
There is some variation in the order of items after the first two.

Name of manor, lord and steward.
Place and date of court.
Essoins (excuses).
List of homage (jury) of 12 or more men.
Appointment of officers.
  1. Court Baron (and transactions)
  2. View of Frankpledge where the tenants reported on misdeeds and named those responsible—there is much that is entertaining and curious here.
  3. Custom breach and variation.[1]

Procedures and Practices[edit | edit source]

In practice the two courts were usually held on the same day, one after the other, and recorded separately but often in the same manor court roll or book. All tenants of the manor had to attend, this duty being called suit of court. Absentees had to provide excuses (essoins) and those who didn’t were fined (amerced) as defaulters. Local practice determined whether freeholders attended the manor court; in some all freeholders attended, in others only some did so (Hey) and custom varied over time and from one part of the country to another.
It has been estimated that at least three-quarters of the adult male population appear in manor court records (Hey). Tenants of the smallest holdings, women, children, servants and the poor are the least likely to be recorded although some are.

Although customs (the customs of the manor) varied greatly from manor to manor there were uniform standards of procedure and practice of record keeping, which simplifies their use by the researcher. The records, (the court roll or book), was typically in Latin from feudal times, (the earliest extant is from 1246), until the end of 1732, except for ten years in the Commonwealth period but from 1733 they will be in English. They may have a contemporary index at the beginning, end or at the side of the text. The lord of the manor’s steward (seneschal) was a lawyer who presided over the court, and may have supervised several manor courts in his area. He conducted the proceedings and wrote up the court book or roll.

Juries[edit | edit source]

A manor court usually had 12 homagers, selected from the chief tenants of the manor, forming its jury. It was the jury which made the decisions, not the lord or the steward; and freeholders played little part in manorial administration. The jury attended to the following duties:

  • The lord’s financial interests in his manor.
  • Appointing of officers within the manor.
  • Reeve or local manager particularly concerned with weights and measures at the market.
  • Hayward who looked after hedges, fences and straying cattle.
  • Beadle who acted as a court summoner, kept order and headed processions.
  • Constables acted as the policemen, placing offenders in the local lock-up until tried, and had many other duties.
  • Aletasters (aleconners) determined the quality of beverages.
  • Affeerors who assessed the value of penalties imposed by the court.
  • Judging pleas brought by individuals, there being over 60 offences liable to be dealt with by the Court Leet and more than 40 by the Court Baron, including:
  • Petty theft, especially of farm implements and produce.
  • Failing to do their allotted duties in respect to communal facilities such as Streams, hedges, paths, bridges, harvest, carting stones for highway etc.
  • Obstruction of roads and watercourses, like digging a hole in the road or damming a stream to make a mill pond.
  • Allowing buildings to decay or having dangerous chimneys.
  • Grazing too many animals.
  • Letting their animals stray.
  • Cutting wood to which they were not entitled.
  • Domestic violence or desertion.
  • Drunkenness, fighting and quarrels, even youths loitering on street corners in the evenings (so what else is new!)
  • Building on the manor wastes.
  • Bawdiness.
  • Eavesdropping.
  • Gossiping.
  • Failing to maintain the watch or the hue-and-cry (to catch offenders).
  • Breaking the assize of bread by selling underweight loaves.
  • Breaking the assize of ale be selling weak beer, short measure, adding salt to the liquid to increase the thirst of drinkers, selling on Sundays or by unlicensed people.
  • Butchers were fined for blowing air into the arteries of venison to give a plumper look.
  • Laying pains or ordinances (setting regulations) and fixing penalties for breaching them. Pains included:
  • Organization of communal agriculture.
  • Scouring of ditches.
  • Use of public wells.
  • Muzzling of mastiffs (large dogs).

Penalties could be fines (amercements) perhaps recorded in a separate heriot or estreat book, or custodial sentences (poena).

Changes to Customs[edit | edit source]

Breach or change in custom of the manor. The custumal of the manor was the written document outlining the customs of that manor, but any breaches or new variations were noted at court. A new lord might try to assert himself by claiming new rights, and these were rebutted by elderly tenants who remembered past usage, or claimed it was so from time immemorial (legally 1189) or at least before the memory of man (113 years).

Announcements of Coming Courts[edit | edit source]

A precept, or announcement of a forthcoming manor court is shown below, the format of a court roll or record and a transcription of a whole court beneath that.

Precept for a Manor Court

Announcement Notice of Manor Court


The Family History Library has some manorial court records. To find the records that are in the library, look in the Place Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under :





Bibliography[edit | edit source]

More detail is given in:

Assize Courts[edit | edit source]

Main article: Assize Court Records

These circuit courts usually dealt with the more serious criminal cases from the 13th century to 1971. The records mention many middle class and poor people.

Main article: Records of the Old Bailey in London, England

Chancery Court[edit | edit source]

Main article: England Chancery Court Records

What is a Chancery? A simple definition says "Chancery Proceedings record disputes over inheritance, land, debts, etc., from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries" (Gibbons). FitzHugh states, "Chancery as a court of law dates from about 1348. It was a court of equity based on Roman Law to deal with cases for which the Common Law made no provision, and later with cases remediable under Common Law but in which the plaintiff would have found himself under a legal disadvantage. It was absorbed into the Supreme Court of Judicature in 1873" (FitzHugh, 65)

In 1199 important letters from the king started to become enrolled (written onto various parchments which were stitched together and then rolled up) to ensure the survival of an authentic copy. When dealing with original rolls be prepared to encounter Exchequer style sewn at the head, or Chancery style where the foot of each parchment is stitched to the head of the next forming one long roll. The earliest are mostly in Latin but during the Commonwealth and from 1733 they are in English. Some of the records emanating from or inspected by chancery are:

Close Rolls[edit | edit source]

The close rolls contain copies of private documents; the word close refers to the fact that the originals were folded and closed with a seal (letters close), in this case the great seal of the king. They contain copies of:

  • Letters close issued by the royal court of chancery, typically orders to royal officers and writs of summons to parliament.
  • Private deeds, many of them conveyances of land, enrolled in chancery.

The close rolls date from 1204-1903 and are at TNA in class C 54 with indexes and calendars giving names and places. They can give extensive information on pedigrees and relationships. Unett (Making a Pedigree: An Introduction to Sources for Early Genealogy, 1997) has an example of how detailed they can be.

Online[edit | edit source]

Calendars to Close Rolls from 1227 to 1468 are available online, see Some Notes on English Medieval Genealogy.

Images of the original Close Rolls from 1509 to 1540 are available online for free at Anglo-American Legal Tradition (C 54).

Patent Rolls[edit | edit source]

These are public documents which are not closed, having their great seals appended (for example dangling by a strip of ribbon or vellum at the bottom). Patent Rolls date from 3 John to 9 George VI, and are the longest unbroken set of archives extant in the world, over 740 years! They deal with national affairs such as treaties; grants and confirmations of liberties, offices, privileges, lands and wardships to private persons and public bodies; charters of incorporation; licences for the election of bishops; and creations of nobility (Fitzhugh). In addition, denization was recorded on the patent rolls prior to 1844. Patent Rolls are at TNA in class C 66. An example from patent rolls follows:

Patent Rolls 2 Dec 1301 [from Peen]
Complaint by John de Bello Compo about 30 named men who cut his corn at night at Chepstode, Surrey while he was away in Scotland on the King’s Service and carried it away. They also took and drove 200 sheep from his fold and took two of his servants and imprisoned them
Online[edit | edit source]

Calendars have been printed for the reigns of Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, Henry VII, Philip and Mary, Elizabeth I, and James I.

Calendars from 1216 to 1509 and 1547 to 1558 have been placed online. See the Some Notes on English Medieval Genealogy and University of Iowa's website.

Original images of Patent Rolls and indexes from 1625 to 1700 are online for free at Anglo-American Legal Tradition.

Charter Rolls[edit | edit source]

These contain grants of land and rights, and confirmations of these, that are more formal than those in letters patent. They date from 1199-1517 and are at TNA in class C 53. They have all been published so are easy to refer to, but are mainly useful for the history of boroughs.

Fine Rolls[edit | edit source]

The fine rolls were originally known as oblata rolls, and run from 1199 to 1641. They record moneys received by the king for grants, charters, writs, privileges and pardons given; these include permission to allow an heir to come into his or her inheritance, letters of protection for those travelling abroad, grants of wardship and marriage. Unett remarks that fines, essentially fees or taxes, constituted a large part of the monarch’s income and are the equivalent of today’s dog, television and gun licences. They also record the appointment of royal officials and all orders sent to sheriffs, escheators and exchequer officers. Some early ones have been published by the Record Commission, and TNA has calendars for the later periods.

Online[edit | edit source]

Calendars to Fine Rolls from 1199 to 1461 and 1547 to 1553 are available online, see Some Notes on English Medieval Genealogy.

Images of the original Fine Rolls from 1529 to 1573 are available online for free at Anglo-American Legal Tradition (C 60).

Parliament Rolls[edit | edit source]

These are the records of transactions in parliament down to 1886.[3]

Common Law Appellate Courts[edit | edit source]

The common law originated from the justice of the king rather than the customary law exercised in the old shire and hundred courts, or the feudal law of the manorial courts. The itinerant justices of the curia regis (king’s court) heard cases transferred by or appealed from lower courts and gradually the common law was built up through the decisions of these courts. The central courts, which gradually settled at Westminster, were used to resolve conflicts within families, between neighbours, amongst trading partners, or between landlords and tenants—in short, conflicts about every dimension of human experience (Hey).

It should be noted that it was quite normal for a suit to be fought in several different courts, perhaps at the same time, in order to wear down the opposition or gain some advantage. For example in the 16th and early 17th century a defendant in a suit in one court might commence a suit in another in order to inhibit, by injunction, the litigation started in the first; for an example see Pinhorn (1983). There was a wide range of courts available, each becoming more rigid in its procedures with time, so that dissatisfied litigants appealed to the king, his council or one of his senior councillors (often the chancellor) for justice (see Hey has a good discussion on central courts). During the 13th century the curia regis developed into three entities -Common Pleas, King’s Bench and Exchequer.

These were common law courts in which the plaintiff commenced proceedings by the purchase of a writ and pleadings took place orally before a jury. Later in this book we discuss equity courts which employed English bill procedure where the plaintiff presented a written bill or petition of grievances which, after the collection of evidence, was determined by a judge. The essential difference between the two types of law was that common law was concerned with facts, whereas equity cared more about reconciling the parties.

Curia Regis[edit | edit source]

The records from 5 Richard I to 56 Henry III, that is 1194-1272, are at TNA in class KB 26. Plaintiffs often submitted their pedigrees to the court in order to establish their right as free subjects to plead. An introduction to the curia regis rolls 1199-1230 was written by Flower (Introduction to the Curia Regis Rolls 1199-1230 AD. Selden Society volume 62. FHL film 1414824, who transcribed and indexed many of them—two examples are shown in the reference section. All sorts and conditions of men, and women, appear in these rolls as they were caught in the meshes of the law.

A certain Richard who lost money playing dice with Henry II and had to mortgage his manor in Northamptonshire to pay him.
The defendant in a case of an alleged stolen mare claimed he was given it and some pigs in exchange for teaching him fencing.

King's or Queen's Bench[edit | edit source]

The court of king’s bench had developed from the curia regis by 1268 with its own records, the coram rege rolls. The legal process was very methodical with the king literally sitting on a wooden bench among his judges at whatever place the court was convened. This court became free of the obligation to follow the king around the country in the early 14th century and settled at Westminster Hall. Owing to the absence of a monarch, King’s Bench was known as the upper bench during the interregnum and it was absorbed into the Supreme Court in 1873-75.

King’s Bench at first only tried cases directly affecting the king but later developed two functions:

  • Crown Side dealing with criminal offences, where it had unlimited jurisdiction throughout the realm and was similar, but superior in dignity, to the other common law courts.
  • Plea Side dealing with civil business such as trespass, appeals of felony and suits brought to correct errors in other courts, with an expansion into other areas by the 16th century.

Records of King’s Bench Crown Side 1675-1875 are at TNA in class KB and TNA research guide L34 gives copious information. Criminal cases were prosecuted by information or indictment and there are indexes for defendants for London and Middlesex 1673-1843, and for the Provinces 1638-1704, and 1765-1843, and records are in the indictment files which are of several types.

Non-criminal actions came to court by means of a prerogative writ where the key documents are in the recorda files. Writs are of several types:

  • Writ of habeas corpus for custody disputes such as a runaway apprentice, wife, child or alleged lunatic.
  • Writ of mandamus for disputes about appointments to various offices, or about local taxes.
  • Writ of certiorari for a disputed administrative order, especially the removal of a pauper.

Once a case has been identified the family historian will find much detail in the relevant depositions, which can often give quite a history of relations between the parties involved as well as incidental detail of their lives.

Online[edit | edit source]

Images of the original Kings Bench Plea Rolls from 1246-1690 are available for free online at Anglo-American Legal Tradition (KB 26, KB 27).

Experts have created modern indexes for the years 1530, 1535, 1540, 1545, 1550, and 1555. (last checked 8/15/2014)

Examples[edit | edit source]

Some examples of cases from King’s Bench include:

The Selden Society has published a translation of select cases in the court of King’s Bench 1290-1300 in their volumes 55, 57 and 58 FHL film 1414823 and volume 88 contains selected cases 1377-1422 FHL book 942 p3ss v.80.
Titford has details of Burrow’s rare book on settlement cases at King’s Bench 1732-1776, with many examples.
A Richard Jupp was challenged as a juror in the trial of William Stone for High Treason at King’s Bench in January 1796 as he was not a freeholder. (From Thomson Gale website).
Newspapers reported the activities of the court with a great deal of relish, for example in The Times 26 Feb 1816 there is a long report of a smuggling case (The King v. Jupp) that took place near Brighthelmstone (now Brighton), Sussex involving 500 half ankers of spirits!
Dodgy horse-trading in Clapham came before King’s Bench in 1817 - this case is described in East Surrey FHS Journal vol 25 #1, page xv.
A nice example of a case heard at King’s Bench for grave robbery in 1828 in Yarmouth is given in Family Tree Magazine volume 8 #9, page 8.
Another Queen’s Bench case reported in The Times in Nov 1841 and Jan 1842 concerns a libel suit against Thomas Topping, publisher of The Hull Packet for some nasty remarks about his local magistrates!

Court of Common Pleas[edit | edit source]

The court of common pleas; also known as the court of common bench, was one of the three courts of common law. It developed from the 12th century as a subdivision of the curia regis (king’s court), remaining in London while the king and his curia regis travelled around the country. It sat in a certain spot in Westminster Hall and decided controversies concerning civil cases between the king’s subjects, cases involving claims to land, trespass and debt. It was the busiest of the common law courts in the Middle Ages and its earlier records are called the de banco rolls after the bench of judges. The later records are called common rolls and all are in TNA in class CP. There does not seem to be much on film, except some translated and published Northumbrian ones 1273-1280 on FHL fiche 6073440-1(4). Below you can see how detailed the newspaper reports can be.

Online[edit | edit source]

Images of the original Common Pleas Plea Rolls from 1272-1650 are available for free online at Anglo-American Legal Tradition (CP 40).

Experts have created modern indexes to plaintiffs and defendants for the following years: 1396, 1399, 1418, 1422, 1430, 1440, 1450, 1460, 1465, 1470, 1483, 1484, 1486, 1489, 1490, 1492, 1495, 1498, 1500, 1505, 1510, 1512, 1516, 1519, 1521, 1523, 1524, 1525, 1526, 1527, 1528, 1529, 1530, 1531, 1533, 1535, 1536, 1537, 1538, 1543, 1544, 1545, 1546, 1547, 1548, 1549, and 1554. (last checked 2/6/2015)

Example[edit | edit source]

Chart: Newspaper Report of Case at Court of Common Pleas 1823
The Times 28 Jun 1823 (pg 6, issue 11910, col D)

One of my (thankfully distant) relatives appeared at the Court of Common Pleas on 27 Jun 1823 in the case of Dashwood (clerk) v. Garnham. Mr. Dashwood, a Church of England clergyman from Suffolk, was the plaintiff and the defendant was a shopkeeper at Beccles, who was sued for damages for malicious arrest. The report begins by explaining how Mr Dashwood confiscated his wife’s private income, then gave her an allowance which had not been paid for three years.
It appeared that Mr Dashwood was a man of a very strange and parsimonious disposition, and in the beginning of 1819 he forbade the defendant to give his wife credit. He and his wife did not separate, however, and are still living together, but not on the most agreeable terms. She was in the habit of dealing at the defendant’s shop, and between December 1819 and December 1821 she purchased various articles of dress for herself and her daughter (the latter a young lady of eighteen) which amounted to £54. Mrs Dashwood having no means of paying this, in consequence of the stoppage of her annual allowance, the defendant sent his bill to the plaintiff, who declined paying it.
The defendant sued out a writ against him and Mr Dashwood was put in gaol for two hours, the time it took to procure bail. This information was collected from Mr Dashwood’s own brother-in-law, Mr Farre, who stated that he was a disgrace to his family. After further details, the jury, without hesitation, found a verdict for the defendant.
Annoyingly, The Times does not give first names anywhere in the article, and the Norfolk branch of the Dashwoods has several clergymen. From other studies I know this is Rev Jarrett Dashwood who married Harriott Burton in 1802. They had three sons and a daughter, Harriet born 1804, and both parents died in Beccles in the 1850s. Such fascinating material for a life-history!

The court of common pleas was absorbed into the High Court of Justice by 1875, along with the courts of Queen’s Bench and Exchequer.

Star Chamber[edit | edit source]

The Star Chamber met in a chamber with a starred roof at Westminster from 1485 and lasted until 1641 as the judicial arm of the King’s Council It supervised other courts but also heard cases itself, primarily about land disputes (disguised as alleged public disorder, riot, forcible entry and assault), but also corruption by officials and juries, fraud, perjury, duels, municipal and trade disputes and disputes over the enclosure of land. Star chamber used chancery procedure, a description of which can be found under the section on Chancery.

The records are at TNA in series STAC and are easily found in the online catalogue with the assistance of TNA research guide L3. The Selden Society published a volume of select cases 1477-1509 translated into English (Leadam). Some examples of the titles of cases are shown below .

Chart: Some Cases in Star Chamber

Mayor etc of Exeter v. Stoden and others
Conflict between Gild of Tailor
and Corporation
Couper v. Gervais and others
Illegal toll and violence
Idele v. Abbot of St. Bennet’s Holme
Contempt of court and threats
Lead miners of Yorkshire v. Merchants of York
Illegal weights
Joyfull v. Warcoppe
Riot and assault
Bishop of Worcester v. Thomas and others
Riotous interference with election of constables

Colthurst v. Gentlemen of Furnival’s Inn
Cutting and wounding

Lady Straunge v. Kenaston
The Abbot v. the Bailiffs of Shrewsbury
Municipal and abbatial franchise[4]

Palatinate and Duchy Courts[edit | edit source]

It should be briefly noted that there were also courts for:

  • The palatinates of Chester, Durham and Lancaster which heard equity cases within their territories and sat locally.
Main article: Cheshire Court Records

  • The Duchy of Lancaster which dealt with all matters within the royal duchy of Lancaster, which comprised estates in Lancashire and in most other counties, and sat in Westminster.

Court of the Exchequer[edit | edit source]

The exchequer was a financial institution, its name taken from the chequered cloth (like a chess board) laid on the table to assist in counting money and calculating the amount of tax due to the crown. The lower exchequer dealt with accounts payable and receivable. The upper exchequer managed the royal revenue, audited the accounts and dealt with disputes, thus having a judicial role as well as a financial one. The exchequer administered the king’s finances throughout the Middle Ages, but from the 16th century the treasury began to take over this role. By 1883 the exchequer had no financial functions left but did continue its judicial ones until the 1870s.[5]

The National Archives houses the records from the Court of the Exchequer for people who lived in England and Wales. The Family History Library has a film copy of an index to 127,628 Exchequer depositions between 1559 and 1695 (FHL film 104399 Items 3-6).

Lay subsidies, a medieval and early modern form of taxation, were kept by the Exchequer. The National Archives in England published “Taxation Records Before 1689” in 2004 about tax records in the Exchequer court. (Domestic Records Information 10). It includes a link to an inventory of E179 records, explaining what tax lists are available, by place and year, throughout the realm. Many of these tax lists are available on microfilm at the Family History Library: film 2228633 (1st of 117 films).

Pipe Rolls[edit | edit source]

The early records of the exchequer date from 1129, which makes them the earliest extant records after Domesday. They are called the great rolls of the exchequer but are nicknamed pipe rolls because the parchment membranes are rolled up and resemble pipes.

The Pipe Roll Society is devoted to publishing the pipe rolls and has been active since 1883 with about 100 volumes.

Further information on pipe rolls can be found in Crook (Pipe Rolls. #38 in Short Guides to Records edited by Kathryn M. Thompson. Historical Association, London. GSU FHL book 942 A3t v2. and on FHL film 0990062) and in the TNA research guide D31.

Online[edit | edit source]

Image of the original Pipe Rolls from 1254 to 1578 are online for free at Anglo-American Legal Tradition (E 372).

Exchequer Equity Proceedings[edit | edit source]

The Exchequer also developed an equity jurisdiction by the mid-16th century. This lasted until 1841 when its outstanding business was transferred to the main equity court, the Court of Chancery. Cases included much of interest to genealogists for example disputes over title to land, manorial rights, tithes, mineral rights, ex-monastic land, debts and wills. There are three categories of records:

  • Pleadings

Pleadings constitute the initial stage of an equity or English bill suite. They consist of the litigant’s complaint and in many, but by no means all instances, the defendant’s answer or other response (disclaimer, demurrer or plea), along with any subsequent pleadings (principally, the plaintiff’s replication to the answer and the defendant’s rejoinder to the replication). (Horwitz and Cooke). Pleadings are also known asbills and answers and access is by means of thebill books in class IND 1 at TNA.

  • Evidence

Evidence consisted of affidavits (statements on oath); depositions (examinations of witnesses on lists of previously submitted written questions); surveys (enquiries carried out by commissioners on behalf of the Exchequer); and exhibits (documents and other things shown in court).

  • Court Decisions

The officers of the court recorded the court’s decisions in a variety of decree and order books.

Explanations of Exchequer Proceedings[edit | edit source]

Hawkins (An Idiot’s Guide to Exchequer Depositions. East Surrey Family History Society Journal Vol 19 #2, page 22-24) provides a brief but practical introduction to Exchequer Equity Proceedings, Trowles (Eighteenth Century Exchequer Records as a Genealogical Source.

Genealogists’ Magazine Vol 25 #3, page 93-98) has an excellent paper with further details and an in-depth study is provided by Horwitz (Exchequer Equity Records and Proceedings 1649-1841. Public Record Office Handbook #32, 2001).

Indexes[edit | edit source]

Indexes include Sherwood’s (Exchequer Depositions... Index to Calendar of the Deputy Keeper of the Public Records [1877-1879]. Holograph. FHL book 942 P2ash) manuscript ones to the TNA calendars, for example volumes 1-2 cover 1559-1688.

There are some local indexes, for example those for Surrey by Webb (1994). Newspaper indexes can be helpful in finding law suits, thus I found three reports of one exchequer court action for infringement of a patent in The Times (courtesy of Thomson Gale index) in 1836-1837. They were headed Jupp v Pratt, Jupes v Pratt, and Jupe v Pratt respectively—a lesson to us all about spelling variants.

The really good news is that they are now becoming findable on the TNA online equity database with the help of TNA research guide L19.

Court of Augmentations[edit | edit source]

This body was created in 1535 to oversee the lands, possessions and revenues of the dissolved religious houses. It was dissolved in 1554 and its functions and records transferred to the Exchequer, whose archives are now at TNA in H 35. The records are particularly useful for families that had enough money to buy land at the time of the Reformation. Lawes (The Dissolution of the Monasteries and Chantries. Sources in the National Archives. Genealogist’s Magazine Vol 27 #11, page 483-491) describes the records in some detail.

Court of First Fruits and Tenths[edit | edit source]

This court received the annates, or profits of a benefice during the first year after the death or resignation of an incumbent, together with a payment of tithes equal to one-tenth of the value of the benefice. The court started in 1523 when this income was confiscated from the Pope by Henry VIII and lasted until 1553. Records are at TNA in series E 331-347.

Court of Wards and Liveries[edit | edit source]

Land held of the king was subject to royal guardianship if it was inherited by a son under 21 or a daughter under 14, until their minority ended or the ward was given in marriage during minority. "The court of wards and liveries" was established in 1540 to administer funds received by the king for his rights of wardship, marriage and livery (regarding the land) and lasted until 1645. In practice the king typically sold these rights to a near-relative of the minor, and the land also, but not necessarily to the same person. A ward who refused the spouse found for them, or who married without their guardian’s consent, caused a fine for the estate.

Details about the court of wards and liveries can be found in TNA research guide L11 and in Hawkins (1969). As an example, at Essex Archives Online there is a 1641 "grant of wardship and marriage of Michael Heneage, son and heir of Thomas Heneage esq to Dame Bridget Lyddal widow of Battersea, Surrey giving details of his property in Essex."[6]

Ecclesiastical Courts[edit | edit source]

These courts helped regulate a variety of affairs. See the separate article Church Courts in England and Wales.

Other court records are:[edit | edit source]

Inns of Court[edit | edit source]

The Inns of Court served as the place for educating those who were to become barristers, solicitors, lawyers, attorneys, proctors or Serjeants-at-law. With the exception of King’s Inn located in Dublin, Ireland (see Ireland Court Records), all were located in London and have admission records dating well into the sixteenth century or earlier.

The Middle Temple, London[edit | edit source]

 “Although no exact date can be given, it is believed that the Middle Temple and the remaining three Inns of Court were established by the middle of the 14th Century. The Inn's name derives from the Knights Templar who were in the possession of the Temple site for some 150 years. The origins of the Inn can be traced from two roots: the occupation of the Knights Templar and the replacement of the priestly lawyers by a lay profession.”

For a list of admissions to the Middle Temple, London, see:

  • Sturgess, H. A. C. Register of admissions to the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, from the fifteenth century to the year 1944. 3 volumes. London: Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, 1949. Volume 1, 1501-1781; volume 2, 1782-1909; volume 3, 1910-1944. (FHL book number 942.1/L1 C4st vol. 1-3; film numbers 873850 vol.1-2 and 873851 vol. 3.)

Source: Middle Temple

Lincoln’s Inn, London[edit | edit source]
Lincoln's Inn, London

The Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn is said to take its name from Henry de Lacy, third Earl of Lincoln, who died in 1311. His own great house was adjacent and he is credited with being the Society's patron. Although the other three Inns of Court are of comparable antiquity, having evolved from uncertain origins in the fourteenth century, Lincoln's Inn can claim the oldest extant records, the Black Books, which record its principal activities from 1422 to this day.

  • The Records of the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn; vol. 1 from 1420 to 1799, vol. II admissions from 1800 to 1893 and chapel registers. London: Lincoln’s Inn, 1896-1902. (FHL film numbers 845175 and 845176.)
Gray’s Inn, London[edit | edit source]

It is clear that Gray’s Inn was in existence as early as 1388 since that is the first record of members graduating as Serjeants-at-law. “Between 1680 and 1687 there were three disastrous fires in Gray's Inn. That of 1684 was particularly grievous for it burnt the Library, which was then on the present site of No 1 Gray's Inn Square, and that is probably when [the] ancient records were lost.”

For a list of admissions to Gray’s Inn, see:

  • Foster, J. The Register of Admissions to Gray’s Inn 1521-1889 together with the marriages in Gray’s Inn Chapel 1695-1754. London: Hansard Publishing Union, 1889. (FHL book number 942.1/G1 K29f; also on film 844906, item 1; another film copy 1696584, item 3.)

Source: Gray’s Inn

The Inner Temple, London[edit | edit source]

“The history of the Temple begins soon after the middle of the twelfth century, when a contingent of knights of the Military Order of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem moved from the Old Temple in Holborn (later Southampton House) to a larger site between Fleet Street and the banks of the River Thames. The new site originally included much of what is now Lincoln's Inn, and the knights were probably responsible for establishing New Street (later Chancery Lane), which led from Holborn down to their new quarters.”

  • Students admitted to the Inner Temple 1547-1660. London: Inner Temple, 1877. The registers for the later years are only available at the Inner Temple. The FHL does not have a copy of this book.

Source: Inner Temple History Library

Inns of Chancery[edit | edit source]

There were a number of Inns of Chancery associated with the principle inns named above. Students admitted to these Inns might become solicitors or proctors, however, many may also be found in the records of the Inns of Court where they were trained to become barristers. By the year 1900, the last of these Inns, i.e. Clement’s Inn, had closed. Admission registers are available for some of the Inns.

Associated with Lincoln’s Inn were Thavy’s Inn and Furnivall’s Inn; Inner Temple were Clifford’s Inn, Clement’s Inn, and Lyon’s Inn; Middle Temple were New Inn and Strand Inn; and Gray’s Inn were Staple Inn and Barnard’s Inn.

Source: Holdsworth, Sir William, A History of English Law, 3 volumes. (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., Sweet and Maxwell). Vol. 2, p. 498.(FHL book number 942 P3h. BYU Howard W. Hunter Law Library bookKD 532 .H6 1936- 17 volumes.)

Court of Hustings[edit | edit source]

Courts of Hustings were established before 1066 to register deeds and wills, and are in no way related to the modern hustings meetings leading up to parliamentary elections. Sheriff’s cravings are the annual accounts submitted by each county to the Exchequer for repayment of expenses; an example is shown below.

Chart: Kent Sheriff’s Cravings for Gibbeting a Smuggler 1749
(TNA T 64/262)

Amount claimed
Amount allowed
Charges and expences in removing and conveying in carriages the body of Fairall, a very notorious smugler under a strong guard after he was executed in Middlesex, but ordered to be hung in chains in this county, from New Cross turnpike to a place called Horsmonden Heath being upwards of fifty miles
Chains and harness of iron being very strong to hang him up in
Wooden case to put him in to prevent his being exposed to publick view as he was conveyed

Erecting a strong and high gibbett for that purpose and riveting it with iron to prevent the smugglers cutting him down


Resources[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Christensen, Penelope. "England Finding and Using Manor Court Records (National Institute)," The National Institute for Genealogical Studies (2012), https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/England_Finding_and_Using_Manor_Court_Records_%28National_Institute%29.
  2. Christensen, Penelope. "England Manor Courts (National Institute)," The National Institute for Genealogical Studies (2012), https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/England_Manor_Courts_%28National_Institute%29.
  3. Christensen, Penelope. "England Chancery Office Records and Revenue Courts (National Institute)," The National Institute for Genealogical Studies (2012), https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/England_Chancery_Office_Records_and_Revenue_Courts_%28National_Institute%29.
  4. Christensen, Penelope. "England Common Law Appellate Courts (National Institute)," The National Institute for Genealogical Studies (2012), https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/England_Common_Law_Appellate_Courts_%28National_Institute%29.
  5. Christensen, Penelope. "England Chancery Office Records and Revenue Courts (National Institute)," The National Institute for Genealogical Studies (2012), https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/England_Chancery_Office_Records_and_Revenue_Courts_%28National_Institute%29.
  6. Christensen, Penelope. "England Chancery Office Records and Revenue Courts (National Institute)," The National Institute for Genealogical Studies (2012), https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/England_Chancery_Office_Records_and_Revenue_Courts_%28National_Institute%29.
  7. Christensen, Penelope. "England Types of Civil Courts (National Institute)," The National Institute for Genealogical Studies (2012), https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/England_Types_of_Civil_Courts_%28National_Institute%29.