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Court of Common Pleas (Courts)

Nature of Source

Records from one of the common-law courts that heard civil disputes (actions) between individuals principally about land or property, real estate and debt. The court held jurisdiction over almost all civil litigation and also supervised local and manorial courts.

The proceedings were recorded on Plea Rolls or De Banco Rolls and included the writ, pleadings, verdict, and judgment of each civil action. The Plea Rolls present some form of cohesive narrative of a dispute and record the nature of the action, an account of the case and the final judgement. Many of the records relate to disputes over land and property tenure. The Recovery Rolls of the court are of particular interest as land disputes were recorded separately on the rolls.

The legal system that developed in medieval Britain centred around the principals of common law dominated by the royal courts, known as the King's or Royal Court otherwise referred to as the Curia Regis. In the 12th century the King’s Court divided into two separate entities, firstly the Court of Common Pleas and secondly the King's Bench. Three competing courts were active in hearing common law cases, namely the Exchequer (which later developed into an equity court), the Court of Common Pleas, and the King's Bench. The principles of equity justice which for many offered a fairer less rigid system of justice did not develop until the mid 14th century.

The court originated in 1178 but only maintained separate rolls in 1223 before which date it formed a part of the Curia Regis. It competed with the Court of King's Bench and the Court of Exchequer until the Supreme Court of Judicature was established in 1873. Under the far-reaching reforms of the Judicature Acts of 1873 and 1875, existing courts were combined into the Supreme Court of Judicature which was subdivided into the High Court and the Court of Appeal. Under the terms of the Acts, the King's/Queen's Bench, the Court of Chancery, the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of Exchequer became part of the High Court of Justice.

Title deeds and pedigrees can be found amongst the court records of land tenure disputes. The court was used to hear fictitious actions known as Feet of Fines which were used to obtain the court's ruling on property ownership and transfers. It also heard common recovery cases where land held in fee tail was in dispute.

The records of the common law courts are heavily abbreviated and written in a technical language. Even those written in English employ the style of a technocrat. They are therefore inaccessible to most researchers without excellent palaeographic skills and a good understanding of legal procedures.

Where Found

The National Archives (CP 40, Court of Common Pleas: Plea Rolls)
Selden Society
(Published volumes. The society publishes records from the Court of Common Pleas such as De Banco Rolls and Curia Regis Rolls. Each volume includes an introductory essay on the material)

Period Covered

1194 - 1880

Genealogical Value

Names, addresses, ages, occupations, status, family relationships even from previous generations. Birth, marriage and death dates. Land ownership details. Deponent's name, age, address, occupation and other personal information.

Further References

Bevan, Amanda. Tracing Your Ancestors in the National Archives: The National Archives, 2006

 

Jacob, Giles. A New Law-Dictionary: Containing The Interpretation and Definition of Words and Terms Used in the Law: London, 1729 five editions (Some editions available to read online or download from Google Books and the Internet Archive)

 

Oates, Jonathan. Tracing Your Ancestors from 1066 to 1837: Pen and Sword Books, 2012

 

Websites

www.medievalgenealogy.org.uk/guide/leg.shtml (Common law records)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Court_of_Common_Pleas_(England) (Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia: Court of Common Pleas)
http://yourarchives.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php?title=Court_of_Common_Pleas (Your Archives: Court of Common Pleas)
http://media.nationalarchives.gov.uk (The National Archives Podcast: The Court of Common Pleas and its Records)

Online Databases

British History Online (Transcribed records from the Court of Common Pleas, 1399-1500 extracted from series CP 40 held at The National Archives. The site consists of a digital library of British historical sources developed by Institute of Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust. The site is free to use with a search facility linking users to full transcripts of various sources. The contents of British History Online can also be searched at Connected Histories together with a number of other databases)
http://aalt.law.uh.edu (Digital images of documents from Medieval and Early Modern England from The National Archives, 1200 to 1650. Series covered include CP 40 (Court of common pleas plea rolls), KB 27 (Court of king's bench plea rolls), E 159 and E 368 (Memoranda rolls), E 13 (Exchequer plea rolls), C 33 (Chancery orders and decrees), JUST 1, (Records of the General Eyre and commissions of assize), CP 25 (Feet of Fines)