England Overview of Assize 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 ($).




Criminal Courts[edit | edit source]

Criminal laws are for the prevention of conduct contrary to and unacceptable by the community, and transgression leads to retribution. Civil Law is concerned with solving disputes between individuals by means of courts or tribunals. In some societies over time and in different countries there has been little distinction between the two. In England there has been a gradual evolution and different offences have been tried in various courts at various times.

Chart: Classes of Crime

Summary offences
The least serious offences which can be tried by two magistrates.
Misdemeanour
An offence less serious than a felony.
Felony
In feudal times, any act for which forfeiture was the penalty. Later it meant offences for which the punishment included forfeiture of lands and/or goods and chattels. The chief common law felonies were homicide, rape, larceny, robbery and burglary.
Treason
The most serious class of crime comprising a breach of allegiance owed to a sovereign or state.


Quarter Sessions handled summary offences and misdemeanours, but sometimes heard felonies. The Assizes were supposed to hear only serious criminal cases, but in practice some minor ones are found in their records. The reasons are no doubt complex but some may be related to the convenience of the court, and to the expenses of arrest, detention in gaol, and proceedings. The county paid the bill for the quarter sessions whilst the central government paid for the assizes. In order to reduce the burden on county funds local magistrates might commit as many prisoners to the assize as they thought reasonable.

Assize Courts[edit | edit source]

Assize courts handled felonies, the more serious criminal offences, from the 13th century when pairs of judges from King’s Bench started going on circuits twice a year to administer unbiased justice, usually before juries. The circuits were based on groups of counties and remained in existence until 1971 when they became crown courts.

Chart: Assize Circuits and Special Jurisdictions

County
Dates

Circuit or Special Jurisdiction

Bedfordshire
1558-1876
1876-1971
Norfolk
Midland
Berkshire
1558-1971
Oxford

Buckinghamshire
1558-1876
1876-1971
Norfolk
Midland
Cambridgeshire
1558-1876
1876-1971
Norfolk
South Eastern
Cheshire
Pre-1830
1830-1876
1876-1945
1945-1971
Palatinate Court of Chester
North and South Wales
North Wales
Wales and Chester
Cornwall
1558-1971
Western
Cumberland
1558-1971
Northern
Derbyshire
1558-1971
Midland
Devon
1558-1971
Western
Dorset
1558-1971
Western
Durham
Pre-1876
1876-1971
Palatinate Court of Durham
North Eastern
Essex
1558-1876
1834-1971
1876-1971
Home
Central Criminal Court
South Eastern
Gloucestershire
1558-1971
Oxford
Hampshire
1558-1971
Western
Herefordshire
1558-1971
Oxford
Hertfordshire
1558-1876
1876-1971
Home
South Eastern
Huntingdonshire
1558-1876
1876-1971
Norfolk
South Eastern
Kent
1558-1876
1834-1971
1876-1971
Home
Central Criminal Court
South Eastern
Lancashire
Pre-1876
1876-1971
Palatinate Court of Lancaster
Northern
Leicestershire
1558-1863
1864-1876
1876-1971
Midland
Norfolk
Midland
Lincolnshire
1558-1971
Midland
Middlesex
Pre-1833
1834-1971
Old Bailey
Central Criminal Court
Monmouthshire
1558-1971
Oxford
Norfolk
1559-1876
1876-1971
Norfolk
South Eastern
Northamptonshire
1558-1863
1864-1876
1876-1971
Midland
Norfolk
Midland
Northumberland
1558-1876
1876-1971
Northern
North Eastern
Nottinghamshire
1558-1971
Midland
Oxfordshire
1558-1971
Oxford
Rutland
1558-1863
1864-1876
1876-1971
Midland
Norfolk
Midland
Shropshire
1558-1971
Oxford
Somerset
1558-1971
Western
Staffordshire
1558-1971
Oxford
Suffolk
1558-1876
1876-1971
Norfolk
South Eastern
Surrey
1558-1876
1834-1971
1876-1971
Home
Central Criminal Court
South Eastern
Sussex
1558-1876
1876-1971
Home
South Eastern
Warwickshire
1558-1971
Midland
Westmorland
1558-1971
Northern
Wiltshire
1558-1971
Western
Worcestershire
1558-1971
Oxford
Yorkshire
1558-1863
1864-1876
1876-1971
Northern
Midland
North Eastern


Many calendars of assize records have been published, often with lengthy introductions explaining the system. As an example, the Home Circuits for Elizabeth I and James I have been published by Cockburn who has nine chapters describing the workings of the courts, but most of the book consists of:

  • Kent gaol delivery roll 1596-1604.
  • Prison deaths on the Home Circuit 1559-1625.
  • Number of Trial Juries sworn and Prisoners arraigned 1559-1623.
  • Jury verdicts 1559-1624.
  • Disposition of male and female suspect felons 1559-1624.
  • Pardons on the Home Circuit 1559-1603.
  • Then there are illustrations, transcripts, translations and indexes of persons, places and subjects.


Hilton (The Assizes Come to Town. Bygone Kent Vol 19 #2, page 107-111.) describes the ceremony and tradition associated with the arrival of the assizes in town.

The General Eyre[edit | edit source]

The General Eyre (from the Latin itinere, meaning on journey), established by William I, was a precursor of the assizes. Representatives of the crown, the Justices (or Judges) in Eyre inspected local administration, audited royal revenues and heard civil cases in local courts but rather infrequently. The General Eyre was suspended in 1294, and completely abandoned in the late 14th century, by which time the assize system of circuit judges from King’s Bench was established. Friar has a succinct summary of these events and TNA research guide L20 describes the records from 1194-1294.

Examples of published material, each with useful introductions to the Eyres, include the roll for Derbyshire in 1281 (Hopkinson) and Devon for 1238 (Summerson).


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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

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