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England Types of Civil 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 ($).

Civil Court Proceedings[edit | edit source]

Ancestors may have been involved as plaintiffs, (persons who initiate a suit in a court of law), defendants, witnesses or jurors. All except the witnesses are fairly easy to find as plaintiffs and defendants tend to be indexed by name, and lists of jurors appear at the beginning of court session records.

Depositions[edit | edit source]

Many more ancestors were involved as witnesses (deponents) and each had to give personal details under oath upon starting their statements (depositions). Deponents may have given oral testimony recorded in court, or have responded to an interrogatory (a written question put to a witness out of court); in each case the response was called the deposition.

These depositions are a much under-utilized source of information about ordinary people’s lives as, until recently, there have been few indexes to them. Even if the court proceedings had been published the technology for quickly locating names by optical character recognition has only recently been developed.

The first phrase in a deposition, which is in Latin before about 1733, gives the name, occupation, residence, age, place of birth, and how long the deponent has lived in the present parish. The format is standard so translation is simple.

Depositions, which we must note are given under oath, are vital in providing:

  • Confirmation of information already known.
  • New information unavailable elsewhere.
  • Pedigree linkages which bridge gaps in parish registers, or provide pre-parish register data, and which are especially useful for non-Anglicans who don’t appear in parish registers.
  • Insights into ordinary lives with stories about relatives, friends and neighbours.

It was often the oldest inhabitants who were called upon to provide information and their memories went back a long way. Biggs has provided examples of the usefulness of depositions to the genealogist, and her article is equally applicable to church and civil courts.

Early Civil Courts[edit | edit source]

Hundred Courts[edit | edit source]

Hundreds were subdivisions of counties in southern England, such divisions being known by several other names—wapentakes (in Danelaw counties),sokes, lathes (in Kent), leets (in East Anglia), liberties (in the Isle of Wight), wards (in Cumberland, Durham and Northumberland) and rapes (in Sussex). The name hundred came from 100 hides, a hide being the amount of land that could sustain one family. The hundred became the unit of taxation, military grouping, administration and justice by the 10th century.

The hundred court was essentially a folkmoot attended by all freemen of the hundred, and presided over by the hundred reeve. The latter was a bailiff of the sheriff to whose shire court cases could be appealed. The hundred court was convened once a month at a prominent landmark such as a crossroads, boundary stone, tree or barrow (ancient burial chamber). It considered a variety of cases including minor ecclesiastical matters, criminal offences, individual pleas and levied taxes.

The use of the hundred court declined after the Norman conquest, when the manor and county courts were emphasized. If any written records were made they seem to have now disappeared.

Sheriff's Tourn[edit | edit source]

Twice a year, shortly after Easter and Michaelmas, the sheriff presided at a special meeting of the hundred court called the sheriff’s tourn. The main purpose was to review the frankpledge, the system whereby groups of 10-12 households (called a tithing) were responsible for the behaviour of each member (see manor courts), and to deal with minor criminal cases. The effective power of the sheriff’s tourn ended in 1461 when Justices of the Peace took over these responsibilities, but the tourn wasn’t formally abolished until 1887.

Shire/County Courts[edit | edit source]

Shire Courts date from Saxon and early Norman times when they comprised the freemen of the shire presided over by an ealdorman, later replaced by the sheriff by the Normans. The Shire Court met twice a year to hear both civil and criminal cases, and their importance declined from the 13th century as that of the Quarter Sessions increased. However, they were revived as county courts in 1846 to deal mainly with land disputes.

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

Coldham (Someone’s Tree Will Need Revision. Genealogists’ Magazine Vol 27 #5, page 224) reports on a Somerset sheriff’s craving in 1746 concerning Mary Hamilton who dressed like a man and went around marrying young women! The law did not provide for this scenario but the sheriff had her whipped at several towns and wanted to be recompensed for £5.0.0 in expenses.


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

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.