England Assize Court Records (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 ($).

Commission of Oyer and Terminer[edit | edit source]

In addition to their courts of gaol delivery (from 1299), the early circuit judges also held courts of oyer and terminer (to hear and determine) and alsonisi prius (unless another court had met). Commissions of Oyer and Terminer date from 1329 and had the responsibility of hearing any complaints of serious crimes within their respective circuits (Friar), such as murder, treason, counterfeiting and clipping coin and other felonies.

The Commission of Oyer and Terminer was less cumbersome than the Justices in Eyre, and eventually gave rise to the Assizes.

An interesting certificate awarded by the Bristol Sessions of Oyer and Terminer in 1821, and known colloquially as a Tyburn ticket, is mentioned by Titford (2003). It exempts William Dubberley yeoman of St. Nicholas Ward, Bristol from all manner of parish and ward offices within the parish of St. Nicholas as he had apprehended John Flemen who had been convicted of stealing a mare worth £8 from him.

Possessory Assizes[edit | edit source]

This term encompasses the three following special assizes in effect from the late 12th century until 1833.

  • Assize of Darrein Presentment
    This was concerned with the right to present a benefice (advowson) and was in effect from the time of Henry II.
  • Assize of Mort D’Ancestor
    This concerned dispossession of property from one who inherited it and commenced in 1176.
  • Assize of Novel Disseisin
    This assize heard cases from 1166 where a tenant was unjustly ejected from a holding.

Grand Assize[edit | edit source]

Another type of assize developed in the 12th century and lasted until 1822, this one involved only with a tenant’s defence of his right to his land.

Bloody Assizes[edit | edit source]

Mention should be made of theBloody Assizes. This was the nickname for the mass trials of Monmouth’s rebels in 1685 presided over by the notorious Judge Jefferies and four other judges. There were 1,300 prisoners tried for treason for supporting the Duke of Monmouth against James II. The repressive trials, multiple executions and grisly display of pickled heads and quartered bodies around the West Country still evokes much emotion. The classic description is by Tutchin (The Western Martyrology or Bloody Assizes: Containing the lives, trials and dying speeches of all those eminent Protestants that suffered in the west of England and elsewhere from the year 1678 to this time …. Blackwood, London. FHL book 942 K2t).

Records of Assizes[edit | edit source]

It is a sad truism that the family historian is likely to find out more about the everyday life of a particular ancestor whose misdemeanors landed him in court, than about all the others who either never stepped out of line or who were not caught! A great deal of the criminal activity was petty and the result of appalling poverty.

Hawkings’ excellent book onCriminal Ancestors contains a definitive list of documents held by various institutions, with TNA holding the most such records. He described one case with all the relevant records in Family Tree Magazine. TNA research guide L18 describes sources for the history of crime and law in England and D78 describes what they have for 19th century criminals; L13 describes assize criminal trials records with L12 being the key for civil trials 1656-1971 and L14 the key for criminal trials 1559-1971.

The original documents are at TNA, mainly in series ASSI and are on their online catalogue. Records prior to 1834 for London and Middlesex can be found at the London Metropolitan Archives. Note that the Old Bailey was the Assize court for London and surrounding counties from 1834 and its records are at TNA. The most useful assize records for genealogy are:

Indictments and Recognizances[edit | edit source]

Indictments before 1916 have a nice clear format, whilst from that date there is much more text to wade through. They usually start with the set phrase The Jurors for our Lord the King upon their oaths present that …and are pre-printed with spaces for name, place of residence and occupation – however the latter two are not usually correct, and the details of what they did or stole cannot be trusted either, as they were typically prepared just to give an amount for the verdict required (Paley 2003).

Indictments at Huntingdon Assizes 20 Mar 1869
John Driskell 40 hawker for stealing from the person of Mary Sawyer, one purse containing 20s at St. Neots.
William George Savage 25 labourer and William Brown 27 carpenter for having willfully set fire to two stacks of straw and one stack of hay, the property of John Cullip at Ramsay on 12 Sep 1868.
James Row 24 for the abduction of Elizabeth Norwood 16 at Huntingdon.

The recognizance will give the true name, address and occupation of the accused and those willing to stand bail for them. These are typically long, thin off-cuts of parchment startingBe it remembered that…and have the principal bond for £20 in the top right hand corner, and two witnesses’ bonds for £10 each. If there is no recognizance the same information may be able to be gleaned from the depositions or the gaol calendar.

Crown Minute Books[edit | edit source]

These records form the entry point for identifying a criminal before the annual register of criminals commenced in 1805. Each crown minute book covers a certain circuit of counties for a period of years and the entries record the name, offence, verdict and sentence of each defendant. However, they don’t record what really went on in court – newspapers and local pamphlets are better sources (Paley (2003).

Deposition Books[edit | edit source]

These are the sworn testimonies of witnesses and contain so much of daily life; Biggs (The Usefulness of Depositions. North West Kent Family History Vol 8-#2, page 48-50) discusses their usefulness. Some examples of assize records include:

  • Gillett (Against His Crown and Dignity. Family Tree Magazine Vol 8 #12, page 8-9) recounts the trial and hanging of Edmund Bushby in 1830 at Lewes Assizes, Sussex for setting fire to a stack of wheat during the agricultural disturbances known as the swing riots.
  • Edwards (The Welford Pastures Murder. Family Tree Magazine Vol 19 #10, page 57-59) has a detailed account of a murder in Gloucestershire in 1911 taken from newspaper reports of assize, magistrates and coroner’s court proceedings.


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.