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.
Quarter Session Courts
- 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 Family History Library Catalog under:
ENGLAND - [COUNTY NAME] - COURT RECORDS
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.
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:
- Hampshire (and the Isle of Wight)
- Lancashire (north of Furness)
- Yorkshire (all three Ridings)
Information is also accessible through the GENUKI Web site at: www.genuki.org.uk
If you do not have access to the Internet, or for counties other than those listed above you may write to the National Archives which maintains the register.
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 Family History Library Catalog under :
ENGLAND - COURT RECORDS
[COUNTY NAME] - COURT RECORDS
[PARISH NAME] - COURT RECORDS
[MANOR NAME] - COURT RECORDS
More detail is given in:
- “Manor and Other Local Court Rolls, 13th Century-1922”. London: The National Archives, 2004. Legal Records Information no. 9.
- “The Manorial Documents Register and Manorial Lordships”. London: The National Archives, 2004. Legal Records Information no. 25.
- “Manorial Records in The National Archives”. London: The National Archives, 2008. Legal Records Information no. 1.
- Park, Peter B. My Ancestors Were Manorial Tenants: How Can I Find Out More About Them? London, England: Society of Genealogists, 1994. (Family History Library book 942 D27pp.)
- Ellis, Mary. Using Manorial Records. London, England: PRO Publications in association with The Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, 1994. (Family History Library book 942 J77e.)
- Cheyney, E.P, translator. "English Manorial Documents," Translations and Reprints from the original Sources of European History. Vol. 3 no. 5, pp. 3-32. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1907.
- 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: 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)
Court of the Exchequer
This court also dealt with matters of the wealthy. Beginning early in the 12th twelfth century, it became an administrative body for collecting the royal revenue and performing the accompanying judicial business. As time went by, the court gained jurisdiction over suits between two individuals. 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).
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 a searchable database for the E179 records.
These courts helped regulate religious affairs. The records are in the respective county record office or diocesan archive in England.
Other court records are:
- Probate records, discussed in the "Probate Records" section of this outline.
- Inquisition post mortem records, discussed in the "Land and Property" section of this outline.
Inns of Court
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
“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
- 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
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
“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 havehas a copy of this book.
Source: Inner Temple History Library
Inns of Chancery
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.)