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England Chancery Office Records and Revenue Courts (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Court Records-Criminal, Civil and Ecclesiastical  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Chancery Office Records[edit | edit source]

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.

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

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.

Parliament Rolls[edit | edit source]

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

Revenue Courts with Equity Proceedings[edit | edit source]

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.

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.

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 1641grant 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.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Court Records-Criminal, Civil and Ecclesiastical offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.