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Court of Chancery (Courts)

Nature of Source

Records of civil disputes (suits) heard in equity courts, such as the Chancery and Exchequer Courts and the Court of Requests and Court of Star Chamber. The equity courts competed with the common or customary law courts which many thought failed to adjudicate in a fair and flexible manner. The court also heard some common law cases. The types of documents of relevance to the genealogist include pleadings, depositions, affidavits, decrees and orders, reports and final decrees which can all be found in different series at The National Archives. The pleadings opened a case, so these records should be the starting point of research. The pleadings stage involved the plaintiff issuing a Bill of Complaint to the Lord Chancellor which set out the case. The Bill provides the plaintiff's name, occupation, rank or title and address aa well as the names of the defendants. The defendant issued an Answer and so followed a long-drawn out process of claims and counter-claims. Witness statements knows as Depositions were also taken and can provide their names, ages, addresses and occupations.

All the court documents were written in English but are heavily abbreviated with legal terminology. They are also unwieldy to use as the papers were kept according to the classification of document and not, as might be expected, by the individual case or suit. The Bernau Index which includes the names of petitioners and defendants and the names of defendants and deponents provides convenient access into the records of the court (see below for more details). Notices and court orders from the Court of Chancery are published in the official government publication the London Gazette.

Expect to find disputes over inheritance and wills, land disputes, trusts, debts or mortgages, marriage settlements, apprenticeships and trading disputes concerning shipping. The records could contain wills and title deeds. Look for documents such as pleadings, evidence (including depositions and affidavits) and final decrees. The business of the court was recorded on Close Rolls, Patent Rolls and Charter Rolls. The Chancery itself dates from circa 1199 and in 1873 the court was merged into the Supreme Court. The Court of Requests (1483-1642) and the Star Chamber (1485-1641) were also equity courts.

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.

Where Found

The National Archives (C series. Individual series include: C 11, Pleadings 1714-1758; C 65, Chancery: Parliament Rolls; C 54, Chancery and Supreme Court of Judicature: Close Rolls; C 38, Chancery: Reports and Certificates; C 103, Chancery: Master Blunt's Exhibits; J series, Records of the Supreme Court of Judicature and related courts)

Series C 11 is indexed by the first plaintiff and first defendant and is available at the TNA Discovery catalogue. First select advanced search from the Discovery home page and enter the name being searched and click on search. Then under the filter ‘Held by’ select The National Archives. Scroll down to ‘Collection’ and click on C-Chancery and finally click on ‘Refine’. Please note that other categories of series 'C' have also been indexed and are available through the TNA Catalogue.

For a full breakdown of TNA series covering Chancery records including the pleadings, see the TNA guide Chancery equity suits after 1558

County Record Offices (ARCHON Directory: Find the details of a UK archive from a searchable list of over 2,500 archives The catalogue can be found on the TNA Discovery home page)
Society of Genealogists (Bernau Index: The records consists of a microfilm collection of around four and a half million slips, dealing with equity courts including the Court of Chancery, the Court of Exchequer, the Court of Requests and the Star Chamber. The information was extracted mainly but not exclusively from series C 11. The index was compiled between 1914 and 1929 by Charles Allan Bernau [1878-1961] one of the founders of the Society of Genealogists. An entry in the index contains the names of petitioners and defendants and the names of defendants and deponents with a reference number to the original National Archives document)
British Record Society
(Founded in 1889, the society specialises in publishing indexes, calendars and transcripts of British public records. The society is best known for indexes to pre-1858 wills and Hearth Tax returns. Other indexes include marriage licences, inquisitions post mortem, chancery proceedings and Coram Rege Rolls. Also check with local Record Societies for indexes and calendars of material held at a local level. Volumes can be found at local libraries, family history societies, the British Library, TNA library, and the Society of Genealogists)
List and Index Society (The Society publishes records found in The National Archives, the British Museum, Scottish Record Office and others. The published records includes calendars of TNA's holdings of Lay Subsidy Rolls, calendars of Patent Rolls, Tithe Award Records. Publications in yellow binders or covers relate to TNA records whilst those in red relate to records from other sources)
Harleian Society (The society is best known for its transcriptions of heraldic visitations but is also involved with transcriptions of parish registers, marriage licenses, pedigrees and chancery proceedings)
LDS FamilySearch Centers (Bernau Index)

Period Covered

1348 - 1873

Genealogical Value

Names, address, age, occupation, status, family relationships even from previous generations, birth, marriage and death dates. Land ownership. Will date and details Deponent's (person making a statement) name, age, address, occupation and other personal information.

Further References

Bevan, Amanda. Tracing Your Ancestors in the National Archives: The National Archives, 2006  
Gerhold, D, Courts of Equity, A Guide to Chancery and other Legal Records, Pinhorn, 1994  
Guy, John. The Court of Star Chamber and its Records to the reign of Elizabeth I: HMSO, 1984  
Horwitz, Henry. Chancery Equity Records and Proceedings 1600-1800: Public Record Office, 1995  
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)  
Jones, W. J. The Elizabethan Court of Chancery: Clarendon. Press, 1967  
Moore, Susan T. Family Feud: An Introduction to Chancery Proceedings: FFHS, 2003  
Oates, Jonathan. Tracing Your Ancestors from 1066 to 1837: Pen and Sword Books, 2012  
Sharp, Hilary. How to Use the Bernau Index: Society of Genealogists, 1996  

TNA Research Guide: Chancery Equity Suits Before 1558
TNA Research Guide: Chancery Equity Suits After 1558
TNA Research Guide: Chancery Cases in the Supreme Court after 1875

Websites (The Court of the Star Chamber) (TNA Your Archives Guide: Chancery Proceedings) (Public records: Chancery and other equity suits) (Research Wiki: England Chancery Court Records) (Guide to Ancient Petitions, Henry III-James I)

Online Databases

Equity Pleadings Database (Discover manorial, domestic and trading disputes, disputes over land purchase, apprenticeship agreements, marriage settlements and much more. Data from the Equity Pleadings database, which was produced with the support of the Transport History Research Trust, the Friends of The National Archives and the Pilgrim Trust, has now [September 2012] been incorporated into the catalogue. The series is searchable by person, place, subject, short title and piece reference) (British Chancery Records, 1386-1558: Index to the Chancery Court proceedings, which consist of bills of complaint, answers, replications, and rejoinders) (Inheritance Disputes Index, 1574-1714. Find out if there really is a relative where there’s a will in our records of inheritance disputes between 1574 and 1714. Search more than 77,000 names of those involved in over 26,000 law suits at the English Court of Chancery) (Charles I Court Of Chancery Index, 1625-1649. Discover your ancestor among almost 82,000 cases tried at the Court of Chancery in England during the reign of King Charles I. The index identifies the names of the plaintiff and defendant and gives the reference for the full documents held in The National Archives in London) (Commonwealth Legal Information Institute: England and Wales High Court [Chancery Division] Decisions, 1606-: Free searchable online access to core legal judgments, decisions and reports from the Chancery Division of the English and Wales High Court. Users can also browse court proceedings by titles or year) (Chancery Proceedings, 1377-1714)
(FIBIS database: Decrees of the High Court of Chancery, London, 1748-1881)
Ancient Petitions, Henry III - James I (Details of petitions contained in TNA series SC 8 pursuing grievances which could not be resolved at common law, or requests for a grant of favour. Searches can be made directly in the TNA Discovery Catalogue with the reference for the petition or a general search within the series) (Seventeenth Century Chancery Suits, 1628-1647; A Genealogist's Kalendar of Chancery Suits of the Time of Charles I, 1628-1647) (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])

CD Roms

Archive CD Books (Index of Persons Named in Early Chancery Proceedings 1385-1467)