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Church/Ecclesiastical Court Records (Criminals & Courts)

Nature of Source

Records relating to the varied work of church courts, including areas such as the exclusive jurisdiction over probate matters, marriage issues such as marriage licences, separation and legitimacy, licences for certain professions, church administration, recusancy (Roman Catholics) or non-attendance at church (nonconformists), rates and tithes arrears. The courts also ruled on the 'moral' conduct of parishioners which revolved around sexual behaviour, drunkenness and other vices. They also sat in judgement on matters relating to their own clergy and parish officials and the administration of the church. Defamation cases (libel and slander) could also be heard in a church court as well as secular courts.

Those that allegedly broke religious laws were presented to the court by an official such as the churchwarden. Presentments took place every few years and were presided over by the bishop. The presentments were written up in books of detections which list the names of the accused and these books survive in relatively large numbers. The court registrars recorded the events in act or court books which provide a summary of the case or perhaps a detailed account of proceedings. The citations, which summoned a defendant to court, contain useful information by naming the person and the person's parish.

During the 17th century the authority and jurisdiction of the religious courts declined as the power of the secular court increased. By the mid-19th century the civil courts assumed the last vestiges of the church court's power, especially in the case of probate after 1858 when the state assumed responsibility for such matters.

The courts heard two types of case, namely instance and office cases.

Office cases were brought to court by church officials and dealt with 'moral' and disciplinary matters such as bastardy, defamation and adultery, failure to attend Anglican service and other breaches of religious law. In office summary cases the proceedings were conducted orally with no record taking. Naturally, few records of these cases survive. The religious law not only applied to the general public but also to the clergy.

Instance cases were brought to court by individuals and dealt with disputes between individuals such as defamation, tithe payments, marriage, probate and arguments over estates. Most written records originate from testamentary and plenary cases with depositions (witness statements) containing the most useful information. The documents ended up in deposition books which were written in English even if other court business was written in Latin. In an instance case, the plaintiff outlined the case against the defendant in a document known as a libel which could contain many names and places. Disputes between people over wills which ranged from arguments over nuncupative wills (wills made orally by the testator) to those who felt aggrieved by their omission from a will were usually heard as instance cases. However, in the absence of indexes it is difficult to establish if litigation took place. A disputed will case may have been pursued further through the equity courts such as Chancery and Exchequer Courts and the Court of Requests and Court of Star Chamber.

The crime of defamation could be heard either as office or instance case, depending on whether the defendant defamed a religious representative or a lay person. Most instance cases of defamation centred around accusations of sexual 'wrongdoing' including premarital sex, irregular marriages and adultery. Many women featured in defamation cases. If the court proceedings involved an illegitimate child then consult the Bastardy Documents which will provide more information.

Where disputes arose over areas such as contested wills or the legality of a marriage, the higher church courts or secular courts assumed the right to pass judgment. The records can be found at various repositories including The National Archives, Lambeth Palace Library and the Borthwick Institute for Archives.

The courts had the power to issue licenses for those wishing to work as apothecaries, midwives, surgeons and schoolmasters. Entries of such licences and petitions were written up in the court act books or in separate registers. The court also dealt with the ordination of clergy and their appointments to serve in a particular parish, although other church sources should be consulted as the right to appoint clergy was not the sole responsibility of the bishop. It is probable that many of these post-holders would have signed the oath of loyalty recorded on Association Oath Rolls. The oaths were organised in 1696 as pledge of loyalty to King William III following a plot to assassinate him. It was signed by all holders of public office such as MPs, freeman, military and civil officers of the crown, doctors, clergy and most people of some social standing.

The usefulness of the records is devalued by the lack of transcription and indexing of the papers, the technical language, poor handwriting, irregular spelling, the heavily abbreviated style of writing and the use of Latin before 1733.

See also
Bastardy Documents
Marriage Licence Records
Wills and Inheritance and Letters of Administration (Admons) (pre-1858)

Where Found

County Record Offices (Diocesan record)
Diocesan Record Offices
Borthwick Institute (Archdiocese of York records)
The National Archives (Prerogative Court of Canterbury records)
Lambeth Palace Library (Court of Arches records: court of appeal of the Archbishop of Canterbury)
National Library of Wales
National Records of Scotland (The National Records of Scotland was created on 1 April 2011 by the amalgamation of the National Archives of Scotland [NAS] and General Register Office for Scotland [GROS])
Canterbury Cathedral Library

Period Covered

1300 - 1850

Genealogical Value

Name, address, previous addresses, age, condition, occupation and place of birth of plaintiff, defendant and deponent. Names of those licensed to practice certain professions and those accused of recusancy. Marriage and probate details.

Further References

Chapman, Colin. Ecclesiastical Courts, Their Officials and Their Records: Lochin Publishing, 1997  Buy Now on Amazon
Chapman, Colin. Sin, Sex and Probate: Ecclesiastical Courts, Officials and Records. 2nd ed.: Lochin Publishing, 1997  Buy Now on Amazon
Christie, Peter. Of Chirche-Reves and of Testamentes: The Church, Sex and Slander in Elizabethan North Devon: Devon Family History Society, 1994 (Original Name Index available here)  Buy Now on Amazon
Cressy, David. Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England: Oxford University Press. 1997 (Limited preview available from Google Books)  Buy Now on Amazon
Crockford's Clerical Directory: A Directory of the Clergy of the Church of England, the Church in Wales, the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of Ireland  
Durie, Bruce. Documents for Genealogy & Local History: The History Press, 2013 Buy Now on Amazon
Howard-Drake, Jack. Oxford Church Court Depositions 1542-1550: Oxfordshire County Council, 1992 (Volumes covering other years also available)  
Ingram, Martin. Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570-1640: Cambridge University Press: 1990  Buy Now on Amazon
Morton, James. Sex, Crimes and Misdemeanours: Little Brown, 1999  Buy Now on Amazon
Oates, Jonathan. Tracing Your Ancestors from 1066 to 1837: Pen and Sword Books, 2012  
Owen, Dorothy M. The Records of the Established Church in England, Excluding Parochial Records: British Records Association, 1997  Buy Now on Amazon
Tarver, Anne. Church Court Records: An Introduction for Family and Local Historians: Phillimore, 1995  Buy Now on Amazon
Tarver, Anne. English Church Courts and their Records: The Local Historian, Volume 38, Number 1, February 2008  
The Clergy List  
The Clerical Guide  

Websites (About Church of England Courts) (Archdeaconry records and the family historian, by Joan Dils) (Church Courts, by Else Churchill) (Durham University Library: Family and Local History Records: Durham Consistory Court records, 16th-19th centuries. Guides to using records from Durham ecclesiastical courts)

Online Databases

Online Catalogues (Listing of online catalogues for the partial whereabouts of records including Access to Archives [A2A], National Register of Archives [NRA) (London Consistory Court Depositions Index, 1700-1713. Cases may involve matrimonial matters such as divorce and separation, breach of promise, arguments over estates and probate, defamation, and adultery) (University of Sheffield: Cause Papers Database, 1300-1858. Searchable catalogue of more than 14,000 cause papers relating to cases heard between 1300 and 1858 in the Church Courts of the diocese of York. The site includes extensive background material about the courts and a glossary of court terms)