State Records


  1. Overview
    1. Government and Administration: Parliament and Council
    2. Chancery
    3. Records of the Secretary of State
    4. The state records of Earls Colne
  2. Records of finance
  3. The common law courts
  4. Equity and concilliar courts
  5. Commissions of the peace and quarter sessions
  6. Nineteenth century censuses
  7. References
  8. Further reading


This section contains descriptive information about the state records. To view the state source materials, please go to the state records in the documents section.

The central legislative and judicial institutions are the King in Parliament and the King in Council. The King's will is transferred in action principally through the great seal held by the Chancellor, hence the records of Chancery. His government is financed through various offices, principally those of the Exchequer. His peace is maintained through the common law courts, King's Bench and Common Pleas foremost amongst them. The defects in justice are remedied through the equity courts arising out of his Council, particularly Chancery. His peace is further maintained through the Commissions of the Peace issued to Justices.

These branches of government are highly integrated, of great antiquity and sophistication. They were largely established before 1400. Though they were developed, elaborated and modified, they remained recognizably similar until the nineteenth century. The law here administered was the common law of England, including statute, plus the system known as equity. This law was enforced by officers from the village Constable at the lowest level, up through the High Constable, the Justice of the Peace and Sheriff, up to the most powerful men in the land, the Chief Justice of England, the Chancellor and the King.

The records which this system created survive from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries and are the most majestic and continuous set of governmental archives in the western world. They provide an immense amount of material concerning the integration of every parish in England into a highly centralized and bureaucratic nation state from an early period.

Yet the records are so vast and complex that only a tiny fraction of them have been used by either local or national historians. In the following description it will only be possible to show very generally what exists and what has been searched for one English parish between 1400 and 1750. All the records described below in the sections before 'Commissions of the Peace' are deposited in the Public Record Office, London. The Record Office class numbers are given in brackets.

Government and Administration: Parliament and Council

The most important decision-making institutions in the realm were the King in Parliament and the King in Council. No systematic search has been made of the massive archives of Parliament, particularly the Journals of the Commons and Lords. This is because, though parliamentary proceedings and statutes affected every parish very considerably, it is unlikely that very much specifically concerning one parish will be found in the surviving records before the middle of the eighteenth century. Equally important was the King's Council, which advised the King, helped in the ordinary administration, and acted as a court of appeal. Many of the Council records have been lost or were destroyed by a fire in 1619. From 1540 onwards there exists a continuous series of 'acts' or minutes of the Privy Council; all the published calendars, which reach the year 1631, have been searched.


The central institution which carried out the will of the King in Parliament and in Council was the Chancery, the Chancellor being in charge of the great seal of England which authenticated orders and decrees. The importance, as well as some of the functions of Chancery, was well summarized by Chamberlayne.

This court is the 'officina justitiae', the womb of all our fundamental laws, the fountain of all our proceedings in law; the original of all other courts. It is as ancient as the civility of the nation...Out of this court are issued writs, or summons, for Parliaments and Convocations, edicts, proclamations, charters, protections, safe-conducts...patents for sheriffs, writs of 'certiorari', to remove records and false judgments in inferior courts...Here are sealed and enrolled letters patent, treaties and leagues with foreign princes, deeds between party and party, touching their lands and estates, or purchasers taking recognizances, and making of extents upon statutes and recognizances for payments of money, or securing of contracts, writs remedial or magisterial, commissions of appeal, oyer and terminer etc.' (Chamberlayne: 111).

The records produced by this branch of government were kept 'very professionally, with much system and care' (Elton l969:35) from the end of the twelfth century onwards. Only a general idea of what might be contained in them can be given here.

There are some 200 rolls of 'charters' (C 53) from 1199- 1516, which contain copies of the formal grants by the Crown, for example the right to hold markets, the incorporation of towns, the right to hold certain courts. There are some 5,432 'patent' rolls (C 66) from the period between 1201 and 1944. They contain a very wide and diverse set of public grants made in open (patent) letters to individuals and corporations, including 'presentations to churches and chapels, creations of nobility, special and general pardons, special liveries, licences and pardons of alienation...' (Guide:22). These contain the enrolments of letters close, called this because they were issued folded and 'closed' by the Great Seal. There was also a growing tendency to use the back of these for the enrolment of private deeds.

There are the massive number of 20,899 'close' rolls (C 54) between 1204 and 1903, though from about 1540 the rolls are blank except on the back. There are some 553 'fine' rolls (C 60) from 1199 to 1648. These were rolls upon which 'were entered the payments, in money or in kind, offered to the King by way of oblation or fine for the passing or renewal of charters or grants, and for the enjoyment of lands, offices, wardships, exemptions, liberties, privileges, and other marks of the royal favour...' (Guide:19).

The other main class consists of the warrants which the Chancery received. Many of these have been lost, but many also survive. For example, from the period from Henry VII to Anne, there are some 360 bundles (C 82). There are also numerous classes which could contain material. For example, there are 146 bundles of 'miscellanea' (C 47) of the Chancery, which contain many types of record; special commissions, ecclesiastical documents, writs and returns from Chancery. Almost all of these documents were written in latin, on rolls which each contain many hundreds of feet of parchment.

One class of documents produced by Chancery requires separate attention. These are what are known as 'inquisitions post mortem'. The Crown could, through the use of the Great Seal, order a great many enquiries to be carried out, known as inquisitions. One of the chief reasons for such inquisitions was to examine the situation after the death of people who held land directly of the King, typically by knight service where the tenant was 'in chief'. If such a tenant died without an heir, his land escheated to the lord. If there was an heir he could not take legal possession of the land until he had paid a relief, roughly equivalent to a year's rent. During any minority, the King took the revenues of the estate and could dispose of the heir or heiress in marriage.

In order to exploit these important sources of revenue, special officials were appointed from the middle of the thirteenth century onwards to investigate the circumstances at the death of each tenant in chief. A writ was sent to these men, directing them to take possession of the lands of the deceased, to summon juries of local free men. These inquisitions gave rough ages, which have been used by demographic historians.

Accompanying the inquisitions there are also extents or valuations. These, because of the uncertainty of their accuracy, have usually been omitted from the published calendars of inquisitions, though they are often very valuable for historians. The inquisitions continued to be taken until the end of feudal tenures in 1660. The originals were sent into Chancery; some 1,847 files survive for the whole period (C 132-C.142). Copies, which are often in better condition, also exist for many of these in the Exchequer (E 149,E.150) and in the Court of Wards and Liveries (WARD 7), another 1,577 bundles in all.

Records of the Secretary of State

One other governmental archive, which complements that of Chancery, was that created by Secretaries of State, a heterogeneous collection called 'State Papers'. These cover a wide range of topics, but they are unsystematic in content and survival. Furthermore, they only preserve incoming correspondence. Elton has given a good account of their virtues and defects (Elton 1969:66-75). The originals are in the Public Record Office (S.P.) and there is a published calendar.

The State Records for Earls Colne

It would take many lifetimes to make a proper search of the public records for all the references to a specific place. We have only been able to dip into these vast archives, probably locating and transcribing less than half of the material they contain relating to Earls Colne.

All the relevant quarter sessions material at the Essex Record Office has been searched, and it is therefore not listed here. We have also attempted to search all the published series of central records, all the published and manuscript indexes on the open shelves of the Public Record Office, and large numbers of indexes to special classes which have to be ordered under the call mark IND.

During the 1970s the early modern historian's position improved immensely. The move of modern records to Kew freed space and indexes which were before difficult to find are now on the open shelves. Furthermore, records which could only be ordered in small batches from another repository and searched after a delay, were at Chancery Lane. Never since the records were created had they been in a more organized and centralized state.

[Further developments in the Public Record Office since this data was collected mean that now these documents are available at Kew.]

Records of finance

There were several financial organs of the government, but pride of place must be given to the Exchequer. Its records are vast. As Elton points out 'the 'Guide to the Public Records' devotes sixty-nine pages to what is little more than a list' of these records.

'The mass is so enormous that research on it will never end; the information is so multifarious that nothing, one feels, that happened in the realm could possibly have escaped record; the technical difficulties are such that very few scholars have ever mastered more than a part of these sources; and compared with the Chancery, very little has so far been done to make the records accessible in print.' (Elton l969:46).

All that we can do here is to broadly sketch a few organizational features of the system and the records which they produced. Broadly speaking, the Exchequer was divided into two parts. The Lower Exchequer (or Exchequer of Receipt) was concerned with the actual receipt, collection, storing and issuing of the revenue. The Upper Exchequer (or Exchequer of Account) audited the accounts of the receivers of revenue. Exchequer of Receipt

The Lower Exchequer's records are vast. For example, there are 2,620 rolls and volumes of 'enrolments and registers of receipts' (E 401) between 1160 and 1866, and 3,109 rolls and volumes of 'enrolments and registers of issues' from the reign of Henry III (mid thirteenth century) to 1834 (E 403), as well as many other volumes and books. The huge array of records, with no obvious calendars and indexes to help entry into them, has precluded a search of this mass of material. Such a search was further inhibited by the fact that only a very detailed knowledge of Exchequer procedure would make it possible to interpret what was found, for there were considerable complications in the system of duplicate book-keeping employed (Elton 1969:48). Exchequer of Account

Somewhat more accessible, but even more daunting, are the records of the Upper Exchequer. During the centuries there were considerable changes in the composition and divisions within the Upper Exchequer, but for the present purposes we can distinguish between three main branches, the Pipe Office, the Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer, and the King's Remembrancer. Pipe Office

The Pipe Office kept the oldest and grandest master record of all, the great roll of the Exchequer or Pipe Roll, which was continuous from 1155 to 1833. Later it became so bulky that it was split into separate series so that the so-called 'foreign accounts' (those rendered by anybody except the sheriffs) were split into customs accounts, accounts of subsidies, declared accounts and so on. Thus there are 676 Pipe Rolls (E 372) from 1131 to 1832, 3,617 rolls of 'declared accounts' from 1500 to 1810 (E 351), as well as many other, smaller, collections.

As the business of the Pipe Office grew more complex, it spawned other offices. The two main ones arose out of the existence of debts (outstanding items), of which the Exchequer needed to be 'reminded'. Hence the creation of two further record-keeping departments, of the Lord Treasurer's and the King's 'Remembrancer'. Elton writes that 'since their main purpose was to remind the Exchequer of outstanding business, their contents are miscellaneous and illumine all sorts of matters connected with the revenues' (Elton 1969:49). Their purpose was to proceed against defaulting persons, to institute enquiries, and to verify claims for allowances etc. Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer

We may deal first with the Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer, which developed in the late twelfth century and which, as an office, had its duties first defined in Ordinances in 1323. This office was more particularly concerned with fixed revenues, mainly from land, of the types that had existed in the twelfth century. The major class of record produced are the memoranda rolls (E 368), some 804 rolls from 1218 to 1833. There are also some 131 volumes of 'miscellaneous' books' (E 369), 154 bundles of 'miscellaneous rolls' (E 370), and 1,102 'originalia rolls' (E 371) made in Chancery for the information of the Exchequer.

The memoranda rolls, for example

include proceedings relating to the accounts of sheriffs, escheators and bailiffs, from the fines, issues and amercements contained in the rolls of estreats returned into the Exchequer from other courts, from writs...and from the seizure of lands belonging to recusants. These rolls also contain the enrolments of deeds...From the sixteenth century the sheriffs' cravings for allowance of expenses provided some information about the holding of Assizes and Quarter Sessions, including the custody of persons awaiting trial and the execution of convicted felons.(Guide:75)

As with most of the major Exchequer records, they are written in abbreviated latin on huge parchment sheets. King's Remembrancer

By the same Exchequer Ordinances of 1323, the duties of the King's Remembrancer were officially defined. Among these was to enrol all deeds, charters, and recognizances of debts made or acknowledged before the Barons and to issue any consequent writs of execution. He was to keep extents returned into the Exchequer, particulars of accounts rendered... rolls of taxation granted by the clergy or the laity, rolls of attermined debt (for the recovery of which he was to issue writs)...He thus became primarily responsible for the collection of the casual revenue of the Crown... (Guide:49) whereas the Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer had dealt with fixed revenues from lands etc. The ensuing records are vast.

At the heart of them are the memoranda rolls, 789 of them between 1156 and 1926 (E 159). Among their contents are the following:

transcripts of outlawries and other proceedings whereby lands or goods were forfeited to the Crown; special commissions of inquiry with the returns thereto; informations of intrusion on the royal forests and wastes; and enrolments of enclosure awards. From the 16th century onwards they also record informations of offences against the various statutes regulating trade and industry and of goods seized for non-payment of customs (and later also of excise) or for unlawful importation... (Guide:62).

Like the Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer rolls, the documents are physically vast. They consist of strips of parchment,each over two feet long, with writing on both sides, and about five hundred strips per roll. They are mainly in latin, though there are by this time some English depositions.

There are numerous classes of subsidiary documents. As Elton (1959:47-8) wrote:

masses of accounting documents, subsidiary to the final statements, survive in a class called, despairingly, "Accounts, Various" (E 101) it took a folio volume of 351 pages to list the main bulk of them. There are numberless files of writs for payments, and archives of papers produced by investigations.' For example, just one category of records are 'fines and amercements' from Henry III to Anne which are described as 'chiefly accounts of fines and amercements before Justices of Assize, King's Bench, Common Pleas and Forest, Barons of the Exchequer, and Justices of the Peace in various counties...' (Guide:51). The most accessible and obviously useful category of material is the set of documents relating to taxation. The main series are the subsidy rolls (E 179) with which we will be concerned shortly. As a background to these, there were numerous series, of which we may mention a few.

There are some 462 bundles of 'certificates of residence' (E 115) from Edward VI to Charles II which certified that the persons named were, at the time of a particular assessment, resident at the place specified in the certification, and had there been taxed. They were originally attached to returns now in the Lay Subsidies. There are nearly 1,500 bundles of 'receivers accounts of land and assessed taxes' (E 181-3) between 1689 and 1830. These include parchment duplicates of totals paid by parishes in the Land Tax, as well as many other certificates and miscellaneous papers.

The 'lay subsidy' rolls (E 179) are the most widely used and accessible of the Exchequer records. During the period between 1400 and 1750 the two types of tax which generated the largest number of names for a locality were the lay subsidies and the hearth tax. The lay (that is, non-clerical) subsidies were first introduced in 1523. In the collection of the first two years (1523, 1524) they covered a large proportion of the adult male population, but thereafter they fell on a diminishing proportion of the population. There is considerable discussion as to what can be deduced from the various categories in these subsidies; for example, Stephens has argued that the 'number of persons paying tax only on wages will indicate the size of a landless labouring class. But it must be noted that the adolescent sons of yeomen and husbandmen were assessed on "wages" though not really of the labouring class' (Stephens:110). The documents themselves are arranged by parishes on narrow membranes , and written in lists, in latin.

As the needs of the Crown continued to grow and its revenue failed to keep pace with inflation, other expedients were tried. One of these was 'ship money', in which an attempt was made to tax the whole country, including the new commercial wealth. The 1636 assessment for Essex (S.P.16/358) contains many local names. The most useful of all the taxes for a local historian was the 'hearth' tax, which was levied from 1662 to 1689. The care with which taxation was undertaken and the need for careful inspection can be illustrated more generally by a description of the process in this particular tax.

By an Act of 13-14 Charles II c.10 (1662), every householder who owned property worth 20s. a year or more, and was not otherwise exempted by poverty, that is by the receipt of alms or relief, was liable for 2s a year for every fireplace or stove in his house. Returns of lists of persons were ordered to be made to the Justices of the Peace by the constables and tithing-men. One copy was to be enrolled by the Clerk of the Peace and a duplicate sent to the Exchequer. Every owner or occupier of a property was ordered within six days of receiving notice from the constables to 'deliver unto the said constables...a true and just account in writing under the hands of such owners or occupiers'.

If there was no such return, or the officials were not satisfied with the statement, the constables were empowered to search the house. If the person paid the tax, the constable was to give an acquittance; if he refused to pay, his goods were to be distrained. If the person was living in a house under the value of 20s. per annum and did not have property to that value, then the churchwardens and overseers of the poor were to write out a certificate to that effect. As with all other taxation documents, it is a difficult matter to deduce much from them. But generally speaking, a small number of hearths can be used as an indicator of a small house, and exemption can be used as an index of a certain poverty. Where a return does not have the exemptions specified, it is not possible to use these returns in order to estimate total population.

The other major tax, which was later to become so important, only appeared towards the end of the period, namely the land tax. This was voted annually from 1692 onwards. The totals by parish survive in the Exchequer (E 181-3), but it was not until 1780, outside the scope of our work, that a list of the names of those assessed had to be deposited with the Clerks of the Peace and have hence survived. Before that date only a few of the Assessment Books which give the names of the persons paying the tax, have been deposited in local Record Offices.

There were a number of other offices which were either closely or loosely attached to the Exchequer. One was the Treasury of the Receipt of the Exchequer This not only contained the chests that held the King's money and jewels, but also the most valuable parchment records, such as Domesday Book, Assize Rolls and various court rolls. There are many deeds, miscellaneous books and other materials here, as well as certificates of the military 'musters. 'General Surveyors and Augmentations'

Parallel to the system of finance through the Exchequer was a system whereby the Crown dealt with its finances through the Chamber. An ancient tradition was regularized by the Statute of 3 Henry VIII,c.23 (1511) whereby 'General Surveyors and Approvers of the King's Lands' were appointed. The effect was 'to remove the receipt and audit of the greater part of the revenues of the Crown from the purview of the Exchequer to the hands of the King's personal servants.' (Guide:80).

The Court of Augmentations and Court of General Surveyors were later merged. They created massive records during their existence, particularly as a result of the confiscation of monastic lands. There are, for example, 527 volumes of 'miscellaneous' books (E 315) and many volumes of the proceedings of the court (E 321). The Court of Augmentations was abolished in 1554 and its business was taken over by the Auditors of the Land Revenue. It produced a large set of records. For example, there are 421 bundles and volumes of 'views of accounts' (L.R.8), as well as court rolls and 371 enrolment books of grants, leases, warrants etc. (L.R.1). First Fruits and Tenths, Wards and Liveries

Two other important prerogative or statutory courts were set up by Henry VIII to deal with the revenue. One was the Court of First Fruits and Tenths, which was to receive clerical payments. This business was later put into the hands of the Exchequer. The surviving records are, relatively, few in number, being approximately the equivalent of 300 volumes and bundles in all (E 331-E.344). The other prerogative court, set up formally by the Statute of 32 Henry VIII c.46 (1540) was that of Wards and Liveries. This dealt with the rights of the King over his tenants in chief, that is their wardship during a minority and their marriages. The records include 700 volumes of 'miscellaneous' books (WARD 9), 174 bundles of pleadings (WARD 13), 55 boxes of 'deeds and evidences (WARD 2) and 53 bundles of 'feodaries surveys' (WARD 5).

Only a tiny fraction of the financial records of the State have been indexed or calendared. What treasures await the historian in the remaining material it is difficult to say, but it is important to realize that the financial fragments which have been recovered are only a small part of what survives, which in turn is only a part of what was once written down.

The common law courts

The system of English government and finance rested, ultimately, on the common law. Sir Matthew Hale stressed that the common law

is not only a very just and excellent law in it self, but it is singularly accommodated to the frame of the English government, and to the disposition of the English Nation, and by such as by a long experience and use is as it were incorporated into their very temperament and, in a manner, become the completion and constitution of the English Commonwealth' (Hale:30)

He continued as follows:

This law is that which asserts, maintains, and with all imaginable care, provides for the safety of the King's Royal Person, his Crown and dignity, and all his just rights, revenues, powers, prerogatives and governments, as the great foundation (under God) of the peace, happiness, honour and justices, of this kingdom; and this law is also, that which declares and asserts the rights and liberties, and the properties of the subject; and is the just, known, and common rule of Justice and Right between man and man, within this Kingdom.' (Hale:30-1).

The matters which it dealt with are also well summarised by Hale.

This is that law by which proceedings and determinations in the King's ordinary courts of justice are directed and guided. This directs the course of descents of land, and the kinds; the natures, and the extents and qualifications of estates; therein also the manner, forms, ceremonies and solemnities of transferring estates from one to another. The rules of settling, acquiring, and transferring of properties; the forms, solemnities and obligations of contracts; the rules and directions for the exposition of wills, deeds and Acts of Parliament. The process, proceedings, judgments and executions of the King's ordinary courts of Justice; the limits, bounds and extents of courts, and their jurisdictions. The several kinds of temporal offences, and punishments at common law; and the manner of the application of the several kinds of punishments, and infinite more particulars...' (Hale:l7-l8)

The law was called 'common' because it was general to the whole kingdom; its roots were in the laws of the Angles, Saxons and Dane, modified and strengthened by the Normans and Angevins. The praise of Edward Coke was repeated by Jacobs (s.v.common) as follows:

The common law is grounded upon the general customs of the realm; and includes in it the law of nature, the law of God, and the principles and maxims of the law; it is founded upon reason; and is said to be the perfection of reason, acquired by long study, observation and experience, and refined by learned men in all ages.

The common law was divided into two major branches, that concerned with actions between the Crown and an individual, known as 'pleas of the Crown', and actions between individuals, known as 'Common pleas': 'pleas of the Crown are all suits in the King's name, for offences committed against his own crown and dignity, and also against the peace, as treasons, felonies, mayhem etc. And Common pleas are those that are agitated between common persons in civil cases...' (Jacobs:s.v.common).

The process in these two types of plea was slightly different, though there was great similarity across the various courts whose jurisdictions we shall be examining.

In pleas of the Crown, the procedure consisted in essence of the bringing of an indictment or formal charge written in latin, presented on behalf of the King, to the grand jury. This jury would then either find it 'true', that is technically accurate, as a bill and the person to be suspected of the crime, or would dismiss the charge. The Crown would then have to prove the case before a petty or trial jury which would pronounce the person to be guilty or not guilty, and the judge would then sentence the offender.

In civil cases, the procedure was more complex, reflecting the major stages in any case, namely the method of bringing the case to the court's attention, the enquiry into the case, the proof (or 'trial' as it was known), and the decision and enforcement of the decision. The common law action would begin with the plaintiff suing out a writ from Chancery (the 'original' writ), which enabled the relevant court to hear the case. Only if a person's troubles fell within these recognized 'forms of action' could he find a remedy. The 'mesne process' or machinery for bringing a person into court to answer the charge 'was exceedingly cumbersome and afforded vast opportunities for dilatory tactics' (Elton 1960:149).

When the case came to be tried, it was pleaded in front of the judges in a form of law French, though these pleadings were gradually being supplemented by documents. The use of mainly oral trial methods meant that the whole case had to be reduced to a specific point of dispute (the issue). By the fifteenth century, the only method of trial or proof widely used was by the jury, originally of local freeholders. The judge would then give sentence. Thus the major differences from the Crown pleas were that the original writs were brought in by plaintiffs, rather than on behalf of the Crown by the grand jury.

This form of process and the way in which it was recorded have made the central documents produced in these courts difficult to use. From the middle of the fourteenth century, at the latest, the plea rolls were fixed in a rigid form. As Elton puts it:

They effectively record only the regular sequence of instruments under which actions were started (original writs) and the trial of cases was conducted (process out of court) Common Pleas and King's Bench the business was written up day by day, so that one has great difficulty in tracking the history of a given case through the rolls. All entries follow common form and tell almost nothing of the personal or individual facts behind a case: one will be told the names of the parties and usually their employment or status, and one is likely to discover the cause alleged in dispute, but that is all. (Elton 1969:59).

They are consequently daunting records to use, but, as we shall see, they can be supplemented by other classes.

The common law was enforced and administered by a number of courts whose overlapping jurisdiction is confusing, and constantly changing over time. To simplify very considerably, the most important court for the hearing of pleas of the Crown was the King's Bench. Judges also held assize commissions under which they tried Common pleas in the locality (by process of gnaws pries ). They came also to hold commissions of oyer and terminer and of gaol delivery: these enabled them to hear pleas of the Crown (criminal jurisdiction).

The most important court for civil litigation was known after the type of action as the court of Common Pleas (Common Bench). Common law jurisdiction was also claimed by the two great governmental departments, Chancery and Exchequer. At the lower level, and to be dealt with elsewhere, were the local franchises, the courts leet and courts baron, which, as we shall see, acted in minor cases of the kind that came to the central or circulating courts.

King's Bench

The most powerful of the common law courts, excepting Parliament itself, was the court of King's Bench.'For the execution of laws, after the house of Lords in Parliament, the highest court in England at common law, is the King's Bench, so called, because anciently the sovereign sometimes sat there in person on a high bench...' (Chamberlayne:109). Chamberlayne continues that

In this court are handled the pleas of the Crown, all things that concern the loss of life or member of any subject; for then the King is concerned, because the life and limbs of the subject belong only to the King. Here are handled all treasons, felonies, breach of peace, oppression, misgovernment etc. This court moreover hath power to examine and correct errors in facto, and in jure, of all the Judges and Justices of England in their judgments and proceedings; and this, not only in pleas of the Crown, but in all pleas, real, personal, and mixed, except only in the Exchequer. (Chamberlayne;110)

In recognition of this supremacy, the chief Judge of the court was popularly known as the Lord Chief Justice of England. It was thus primarily concerned with actions between the Crown and individuals, but from the reign of Elizabeth onwards the monopoly of the court of Common Pleas in actions concerning property 'was threatened by the various fictitious devices used by King's Bench to extend the quasi-criminal action of trespass into a general civil jurisdiction'. (Elton 1960:148). Thus its records contain many Common pleas between persons.

The surviving records of this court constitute a formidable collection. They are divided roughly into the records of the Crown pleas (Crown side) and Common pleas (Plea side). We will here discuss only a few of the records of the Crown side. The major series are the cram rage rolls (KB 27), of which there are 2,149 extending from 1273 to 1701. These are a continuation of an even earlier series, the curia regis rolls (KB 26), some 234 rolls between 1194 and 1273.

The difficulties of using these plea rolls has already been mentioned. They are written for the most part in latin, though some of the later depositions are in English. The cases are split apart and continue over several rolls. There are some indexes to the rolls, however, principally the 'controlment' rolls (KB 29), of which there are some 503 between 1329 and 1843. These consisted of memoranda compiled for the use of the King's Attorney and cross-refer to the coram rege rolls.

Another set of King's Bench records are those known as 'ancient indictments' (KB 9-11). The King's Bench not only acted on business brought directly to it, but it had the power to remove indictments, presentments, and convictions from other courts, particularly from those two jurisdictions, the Justices Itinerant or Assizes, and the Commissions of the Peace, or Quarter Sessions, to whom it had delegated power. By a writ of certiorari, that is a

writ issuing out of the Chancery to an inferior court, to call up the records of a cause there depending, that justice may be done therein, upon complaint that the party who seeks the said writ hath received hard usage, or is not like to have an indifferent trial in the said court' (Jacobs,s.v. certiorari quoting Fitzherbert),

King's Bench called in many of the records of the inferior courts. These records survive from the end of the thirteenth century until the middle of the nineteenth century.

Also filed with these documents were the returns of Coroner's, that is their inquests on all sudden deaths. 'By 1500 most coroners were surrendering copies, in the form of individual indentures, of all their inquests, into cases of homicide, suicide, death by misadventure and natural death...for two and a half centuries after 1500 the records of King's Bench contain copies of almost every case of every coroner' (Hunnisett:116).


Very closely associated with the King's Bench, employing the same judges and process and dealing with similar cases were the Assizes. The itinerant judges acted during our period under four separate commissions issued out to them. The commission of assize after which they were named, enabled them to deal with ejectments, an action that lies with a lessee for years who is ejected before his term of years expires, which developed in the seventeenth century into the main way of trying titles to freehold estates.

The commission of nisi prius, which enabled the judges to deal with civil cases similar to those which King's Bench managed to attract through the fictions of trespass. The commission of oyer and terminer, enabled them to deal with treasons, felonies and trespasses, and that of general gaol delivery with the prisoners in gaol. The judges also sat as Justices of the Peace, by virtue of a Commission of the Peace.

This system of travelling Justices was well established by the middle of the thirteenth century and it continued until the middle of the twentieth. There were only slight alterations to the circuits: for most of the period there were six of these in England. Essex lay in the 'Home' circuit. There are many records for this circuit in the archives of the medieval Justices Itinerant. Fortunately, the later records of the Home Circuit are the earliest surviving files from the sixteenth century for England.

The major surviving documents from the sixteenth century are the indictments, which commence in 1559 (ASSI 35). Such indictments, as likewise the indictments in other common law courts, have to be treated with considerable caution since the details concerning time, place, occupation and status are often somewhat misleading if taken at their face value. Yet they are still useful since they give us essential detail concerning offences such as murder, robbery, burglary and grand larceny, and the other serious offences with which the Crown or criminal side of the assizes were concerned.

But we need to remember that what has survived in this archive is only a tiny fragment of what once existed. Cockburn estimates that the Assizes in session produced at least ten classes of record: for Essex throughout this period, only one of these ten classes, the indictments, have survived in any quantity (Cockburn 1975:216).

Common Pleas

The major court for the trial of civil pleas was that of Common Pleas, of great antiquity but only established formally by Magna Carta to sit at Westminster. It had a universal jurisdiction throughout England and was the primary court for the trial of disputes between persons, particularly those cases concerned with real estate.

According to one authority, the court's jurisdiction

was exclusive in the real actions, that is, those involving rights of ownership and possession in land; in the older personal action of debt, detinue, account and covenant; and finally, in mixed actions, both personal and real, such as ejectment. Jurisdiction was shared with the King's Bench in maintenance, conspiracy, other breaches of statute, trespass, trespass on the case, and their derivatives. (Hastings;16)

This was true of the fifteenth century, though it is clear from statistics by the same author that at least in the reign of Edward IV over three-quarters of the cases concerned the recovery of debts (Hastings:27). Another large category was that of trespass. The court was active from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries and hence created a vast set of archives.

The records are indeed daunting. The central records are the plea rolls themselves (C P.40). There are some 4,135 rolls between 1273-1874, constituting approximately a million feet of parchment, written mostly in abbreviated latin and with the process scattered across the rolls, often giving only a summary of the case. A single roll could easily contain more than seven thousand entries, many hundreds for a single county. Another important class are known as 'final concords' or 'feet of fines' (C P.25). But since these are in fact documents produced when individuals used the court merely as a registry for the transfer of freehold lands, it is more appropriate to deal with them alongside deeds and other estate records and their nature will be described there.

Exchequer of Pleas and Chancery (latin side)

There were two other courts which dealt with civil suits or common pleas at the national level. One was the branch of the Exchequer known as the Exchequer of Pleas. Originally this had been concerned with revenue cases, but in a similar development to that of King's Bench it managed to use a legal fiction to bring in a growing amount of business from the sixteenth century.

Anyone indebted to the Crown could

sue upon a suggestion of quominus, that is, of his being "the less" able to satisfy the Crown by reason of the cause of action he had against the defendant...the application of the writ of quominus was eventually so far extended that practically anyone might institute in the Exchequer proceedings in any personal action and in ejectment (Guide: 92).

This court also had special powers in the Palatinates, Wales, Ireland, the Cinque Ports and Channel Islands. Although the amount of business transacted here was never as great as that in King's Bench or Common Pleas, there is still a very considerable archive of material, for example some 209 volumes of bills and writs (E 5) and 1,499 rolls (E 13) from 1236 to 1875. There are also a small number of rolls and bundles recording the activities of Chancery as a common law court.

Equity and concilliar courts

Equity is defined to be 'a correction, or qualification, of the law generally made, in that part wherein it faileth, or is too severe. And likewise signifies the extension of the words of the law to cases unexpressed, yet having the same reason..'. (Jacobs:s.v.equity). 'Equity' or 'fairness' was a principle and system of justice which was gradually evolved to provide flexibility and refinement to the framework of common law which has already been described.

By the later fifteenth century the common law courts had several disadvantages. Chancery had not continued to create new writs valid in the courts, so that a person could only find remedy in the courts if his difficulty lay within the recognized and circumscribed 'forms of action'. As Maitland put it, the common law held that 'where there is no remedy there is not wrong' (quoted in Elton 1960:149), thus reversing the normal principles of justice. Furthermore, the procedure at common law was both long and cumbersome; it encouraged obstructions, delays and large expenses.

These and other difficulties led to the emergence of a parallel set of courts which grew out of the King's Council and were hence also known as 'Conciliar' courts, operating a more equitable jurisdiction. They developed originally under the eye of the greatest legal official in the land, the Lord Chancellor, and hence Chancery remained the main equity court, although the Exchequer developed an equity jurisdiction during the sixteenth century.

At the start, 'equity' was not a system, but 'simply the name given to the sum of spasmodic decrees issued by the Chancellor in individual cases of hardship, where either common law provided no remedy, or the remedy had proved inadequate or abortive' (Hanbury 1944:128). But during this period the procedure became more elaborate and in order to understand the important documents which these courts produced, it is necessary to outline this process.

Firstly a bill of complaint was filed. This was a petition for redress, written in English, in which all the grievances could be elaborated. After the bill was filed, a subpoena was issued which compelled the defendant to appear and answer the charge. This was a vital weapon in the hands of the equity courts, for it avoided those long delays found in civil cases in the common law courts. The subpoena could be worded vaguely, ordering a person to appear to answer 'whatsoever may be objected'.

The defendant then put in his or her answer to the complainant, another written document in English. Then the plaintiff could bring in his replication, unless he filed exceptions against the answer as insufficient, referring it to a Master to report. Exceptions could also be made against the report. These replications and rejoinders were often merely repetitions of the original bills and answers. If necessary, the process could continue with a rebuttal and surrebuttal, but normally the case would then move to the stage of issue or proof.

This consisted of the examination of witnesses who had to answer to a set of written interrogatories, either in London, or by commission in the country. These witnesses were chosen by the two parties and made written depositions, on oath. In complicated cases special commissions could be granted and a groups of officials would spend days or weeks gathering evidence in the locality.

A day would then be set down for the hearing, after which followed the decree of the Lord Chancellor. There was, it will be seen, no jury system and the whole procedure relied heavily on written documents and was in English. This makes the documents it produced many times more usable and valuable for the historian than those created in the normal course of events by the common law courts. The proceedings could be terminated at any time if the parties could agree and it is clear that one of the main aims of the procedure was to lead to a reconciliation and a compromise.

The type of business which the equity courts dealt with was very wide and varied. It can negatively be defined as concerning all those matters about which people could dispute but which did not fall within the province of ecclesiastical law, criminal law, or the law of real estate. 'Real' actions, those in which the loss of landed property might be the outcome, could only be heard in the common law courts, and since the punishments which the equity courts could inflict (fining and imprisonment in the Fleet), could not be extended to the death penalty or the taking of possessions (distress), it could not deal with felonies.

But this left it a vast area, principally centred round the question of trust and covenant and breach of faith: the 'scope of equity jurisdiction was well expressed under the three comprehensive headings of "fraud,accident,and breach of confidence"' (Hanbury 1944:129). A general description of the wide range of business which was dealt with by Chancery by the end of the seventeenth century is given by Jacob.

It gives relief for and against infants notwithstanding their minority: and for and against married women, notwithstanding their coverture: in some cases a woman may sue her husband for maintenance; she may sue him when he is beyond sea,&c...All; frauds and deceipts, for which there is no redress at common law; all breaches of trust and confidences; and accidents, as to relieve obligors, mortgagors,&c.; against penalties and forfeitures, where the intent was to pay the debt, are here remedied...

Also this court will give relief against the extremity of unreasonable engagements, entered into without consideration; oblige creditors that are unreasonable, to compound with an unfortunate debtor: and make executors,&c.; give security and pay interest for money that is to lie long in their hands...Here executors may sue one another, or one executor alone be sued without the rest; Order may be made for the performance of a will: it may be decreed who shall have the tuition of a child: this court may confirm title to lands, though one hath lost his writings; render conveyances defective through mistake, &c.good; and perfect... copyholders may be relieved against the ill usage of their lords; inclosers of lands that are common be decreed; and this court may decree money or lands given to charitable uses...oblige men to account with each other.' (Jacobs: s.v.chancery)

This is just a selection of the types of action that might come to the court.

Court of Chancery

The largest and the most long-lived of the equity courts was Chancery. The records of this court have never been explored in any great depth and only part of them have been indexed. Following the process of the court, we may divide these records into three stages.

The original bills, answers and further replications etc., which are often known as 'proceedings'; the examinations and depositions; and the final decisions of the court. The 'proceedings' have been most fully indexed and survive fairly well. These proceedings (C 1-C.10) survive from the late fourteenth century, and there are some seven thousand bundles up to the year 1714. There are another three thousand bundles in the years 1714-1758 (C 11).

Each bundle contains up to two hundred or more 'cases', each case consisting of one or more large parchment sheets, some two foot by two foot or larger. There are thus probably over two million 'cases' up to the middle of the eighteenth century. There are reasonable indexes, either printed or in manuscript, to about three quarters of the documents up to 1714.

A record of the progress of the cases which were initiated by these bills and answers is kept in process books termed 'decree and order' books (C 33). There are many hundreds of these volumes from the sixteenth century onwards. In certain cases the original proceedings were referred to one of the Masters in Chancery for a report. A few of these reports survive from the Elizabethan period, but they grow numerous in the seventeenth century (C 38).

The next major stage in those cases which proceeded this far was the interrogation of witnesses. Each party could set out a number of questions to be put to one or more witnesses. If the examinations were taken in London they were called 'town' depositions (C 24), if outside London, then 'country' depositions (C 21,C.22). There are some 2,509 bundles of the town depositions from 1534 to 1853, perhaps a ratio of one to every four or the proceedings. There are almost as many country depositions.

In some cases, copies of relevant documents were shown in court. 2,500 bundles of those 'master's exhibits', which were never reclaimed (C 103-C.114) survive from the thirteenth century. Likewise, there are some 5,000 bundles of 'master's documents' from the 17th to 19th centuries, containing 'affidavits, examinations of witnesses, accounts and other documents on which the Masters founded their reports, together with the drafts of the reports' (Guide:31).

The final stage was the decision of the court and the decrees it made. Whereas the proceedings and depositions have survived relatively well, many of the decrees have been lost. Nevertheless, a good deal remains. There are 2,500 decree rolls, containing decrees and orders, stretching from the early sixteenth century to 1903 (C 78,C.79).

Court of the Exchequer

The equity jurisdiction of the Exchequer developed during the early sixteenth century. Its procedure was similar to the other equity courts and it obtained its business 'on the bare suggestion' that a person who filed a bill was the 'King's accountant' (Guide:48), for it had originally been a court especially for the King's servants.

The records of this court 'have remained virtually intact' (Bryson:86), being stored among the records of the King's Remembrancer. Like other equity records, they are in English, except for the formal patents, writs and endorsements. The major series reflect the original stage in the process, some 2,386 portfolios of bills and answers (E 112) from Elizabeth I to 1841. There are good contemporary indexes to these bills and answers. The cases were concerned with financial matters, particularly disputes over tithes.

As regards the next stages, the interrogatories and examinations of witnesses, there is also a good deal of material. There are 163 bundles of depositions taken before the Barons of the Exchequer (E 133), Elizabeth I to 1841, which are equivalent to the 'town' depositions of Chancery. There are 834 bundles of depositions taken by commission (E 134) which are equivalent to the 'country' depositions in the Chancery. There are also 246 bundles of 'exhibits' from the 17th to 19th centuries (E 140). Finally there are 200 bundles of 'informations' (E 148) from Henry VII to 1923, which before 1842 were also enrolled on the memoranda rolls of the King's Remembrancer (E 159). These again largely concern drainage, enclosure, tithe and other agrarian matters.

The final settlements by which these actions were ended were also recorded on the rolls. The other source for the final decisions are the more than 600 bundles of decrees and orders of the court, either the originals or entry books, from 1558 onwards (E 123-E.131).

Court of Star Chamber

One of two relatively short-lived courts arising out of the King's Council was Star Chamber, which grew in power and influence from the early part of the sixteenth century. By a process of English bill addressed to the King, the court 'might make process against maintainers, rioters, persons unlawfully assembling, and for other misdemeanours, which through the power and countenance of such as did commit them lifted up their heads above their faults, and punish them as if the offenders had been convicted at law, by a jury &c.' (Jacob:s.v.Star Chamber).

It will be seen that this was a court particularly concerned with serious offences concerning the peace, and particularly the matters of riots and assemblies. It continued to function until it was dissolved in 1641.

In many ways its records are easier to use than those of Chancery and Exchequer equity courts, for the documents created by various early stages in the process were not filed separately. Thus a Star Chamber case sometimes consists of a huge bundle, often more than fifty sheets in all, with the original bills, answers, replies, subsequent interrogatories and examinations.

But there are also ways in which the records are less helpful. One is the result of a loss of records: most of the documents for the first half of the sixteenth century and the reign of Charles I have been lost. The entry books which recorded the court's decisions have almost all disappeared since the Civil War. The second disadvantage is the absence of a reasonable calendar to the largest bulk of records. Only 57 bundles of proceedings have survived before the reign of Elizabeth (STAC1-STAC4). By far the largest collection are the 1,027 bundles of Elizabethan proceedings (STAC5-STAC7). There is only an index of personal names, giving plaintiff and defendant. The surviving Jacobean cases (STAC8) are only a quarter of the quantity, some 312 bundles. But they have been fully calendared.

Court of Requests

The other relatively short-lived conciliar court was Requests, which operated over almost exactly the same years as Star Chamber, and used a similar process to the other equity courts. It dealt with similar matters to Chancery, but was regarded as a poor man's court. Its procedure was swifter and cheaper than that of the other equity courts, and this attracted a growing flow of litigants.

Much of its business was concerned with such matters as enclosure, rack renting, rights of common and the customs of the manor, though it also dealt with many other matters. It exercised a 'civil jurisdiction comparable to the criminal jurisdiction of the Star Chamber' and it 'eventually took cognizance of almost every kind of complaint...' (Guide:148). Like Star Chamber, its records were filed in such a way that the original bills and answers and subsequent interrogatories and examinations were kept together.

A great number of the original bills, answers and deposition materials have been lost. There nevertheless survive some 829 bundles of proceedings between the late fifteenth century and 1640 (REQ 2). There are typed or manuscript indexes to the first 415 of these bundles, giving place, name and subject. There are also 38 bundles of 'miscellaneous' proceedings (REQ3) and 210 volumes of 'miscellaneous' books (REQ1), that is affidavit books, appearance books, note books, order books, process and witness books, none of which have been calendared.

Contemporary extracts and reports.

We have concentrated here on the manuscript records produced by the courts themselves. These can be supplemented and expanded by contemporary printed and unprinted extracts and reports, which are particularly important for the common law records.

The most important of these are the 'Year' books. These are 'In form a collection of notes on cases which the note-taker had attended as an uninvolved onlooker, they offer a great deal of information not only on the law but on many aspects of life.' (Elton 1969:174). Their content and difficulties are well indicated by Elton (Elton 1969:l74-180). There are very many of them; for example, one survives for almost every year from 1307 to 1602. Especially for the later period, they are practically unused:'no one has ever used the unprinted Year Books compiled after 1536...' (Elton 1969:176).

From the early part of the sixteenth century a new set of records, the 'Reports' began to be published. These were less concerned to give the details or ordinary life and speech that are embedded in the Year Books, and concentrate more on points of law. Yet the famous reports, particularly those of Plowden Dyer and Coke, do contain detailed accounts of the arguments in cases which no longer survive in the records.

More informal than the reports are the contemporary accounts, growing numerous from the middle of the sixteenth century, which were written in the form of pamphlets for the literary market. They principally dealt with bizarre or macabre cases. There were also chapbooks and ballads. Many of them describe cases at criminal courts or scenes at the execution which cannot be reconstructed from other sources.


Commissions of the peace and quarter sessions

Majestic and continuous though the central administrative, financial and judicial institutions might be, they were matched by the organization of administration, finance and justice at the local level, without which they could not have worked. Much of the burden here fell on the local gentry, given power through special commissions, issued out annually. The power, longevity and uniqueness of this system is summarized by Maitland.

Certainly to any one who has an eye for historical greatness it is a very marvellous institution, this Commission of the Peace, growing so steadily, elaborating itself into ever new forms, providing for ever new wants, expressing ever new ideas, and yet never losing its identity...we shall hardly find any other political entity which has had so eventful and yet so perfectly continuous a life. And then it is so purely English, perhaps the most distinctively English part of all our governmental organization. (Maitland 1911:470)

General Commissions of the Peace for the whole country were established by Statute in 1327, though before that time there were specific commissions to particular gentry at certain times from at least the later thirteenth century. The institution continued in essence unchanged until the twentieth century. The Justices were appointed shire by shire, year by year. The Tudors added greatly to their administrative offices: 'during the sixteenth century this old system of local law-enforcement was vastly expanded and allowed to engross virtually all local government...' (Elton 1960:453).

Their power derived from a number of Statutes as well as from the commissions. 'By the end of Elizabeth's reign Lambarde could list 309 statutes which in one way or another referred to the duties of the justices of the peace' (Elton 1960:454). Some of their powers by the eighteenth century are summarized by Chamberlayne.

Their offices is to call before them,examine, and commit to prison, all thieves, murderers, wandering rogues, those that hold conspiracies, riots, and almost all other delinquents, that may occasion the breach of peace and quiet to the King's subjects...They are also impowered to put many Laws and Statutes in execution, and act in a judicial capacity, as in cases relating to the poor; the preservation of the same; the repairs of high-ways; the punishment of vagrants and other dissolute and disorderly persons'. (Chamberlayne 1737:125)

The Justices were thus involved not only in judicial matters, being the rung below the national common law courts, but were also responsible for such matters as the regulation of process and wages, licensing, the maintenance of bridges and highways, the enforcement of laws against religious nonconformity and the supervision of the poor laws. Other business included the supervision of the collection of taxes, the examination of weights and measures, and many other duties which will become clearer when we examine the specific records they created.

The justices acted in two ways, either in general sessions, or out of session, as individuals or in combination.

Every quarter, or three months, the justices meet...and there the Grand Inquest, or jury of the county, is summoned to appear, who upon oath are to enquire of all traitors, heretics, thieves, murderers, money-coiners, rioters etc. Those that appear to be guilty are by the said justices committed to prison, to be tried at the next Assizes, when the judges go on their circuits... (Chamberlayne 1737:125).

Other non-judicial business was also transacted at what came to be called the Quarter Sessions. But it was also possible and necessary that a great deal of ordinary business should be transacted outside and between sessions, either by Justices, or by the various officials such as High Constables, constables, churchwardens and overseers of the poor, who were responsible to them in various ways.

Very considerable as the sessions records often are, they comprise only a very small part of what was committed to paper from the early fourteenth century onwards. As Elton writes 'the records of the courts held by justices of the peace (quarter sessions) begin patchily after 1540; though more carefully preserved from the reign of Elizabeth onwards, they are never very complete in the era here considered ( 1640)' (Elton 1969:56-7).

If the records of the courts are patchy, the surviving records concerning the equally extensive activities of the justices out of sessions and of their unpaid local assistants are practically non-existent, what remains being just a pitiful remnant of what once existed. We thus constantly need to remind ourselves that what has survived, particularly before 1560, only represents a tiny part of what was once written down.

In studying Essex, we are extremely fortunate, for the Essex sessions records are among the earliest and the most complete in the country. Diverse and voluminous documents, surviving from 1556 onwards, are deposited in the Essex Record Office at Chelmsford. We may divide them into the records of the 'court in session' and others.

licencing and the poor law.

Other volumes contain extracts of fines, summaries of indictments, lists of cases taken from the Quarter Sessions to be tried at the Assize or King's Bench by a writ of certiorari. The survival of these sources is poor, and they mainly date from the later seventeenth century. Their contents are fully described in the (Guide to Essex Record Office, 9-11).

Justices out of Session.

The other main category of records are those concerning the various administrative and other duties of the Justices out of court. There are records of finance, for example accounts for the collection of rates and money for the repair of bridges (Q/FAac,Q/FR), and of the assessments for the hearth tax (Q/RTh). There are a number of enrolled private deeds (Q/RDb). There are recognizances for various kinds of tradesmen to properly carry out their trades, particularly victuallers (Q/Rlv).


One important source is the 'association' rolls. By the Act of Association, 7-8 William III, c.27 (1696), every office holder was to subscribe in court to the form of an oath 'for the better preservation of his Majesty's royal person and government' (Q/RRo2). All those who were likely to hold offices, including those of churchwarden and overseer of the poor, were also required to take the oath of loyalty.

Unfortunately, the numerous accounts and other documents which must have been kept by every Justice, High Constable and Constable, have been almost entirely lost. The loss is well known at the level of the Justices, but is equally tragic at the level of the village constable. Their important role in tax collection has already been mentioned, but they were also vital in the keeping of the peace. They clearly had to keep accounts and write many kinds of order and certificate. Twice a year they had to answer a long list of enquiries concerning the state of their parish. Many other aspects of local government are reflected in the largely unsearched papers of local landowners.

One other source under this general head of local government can also be mentioned. These are the printed poll books, which indicate the ways in which parliamentary electors cast their votes. Only freeholders were listed.

Thanks to the excellent organization and indexing of the local record office at Chelmsford, it has been possible to search through all the quarter sessions material before 1750, either in indexes or in the original. While it is obvious that material will have been missed because no residence was given or the indexes are defective, and while it is necessary to remember again how much has been lost, we are nevertheless able to obtain a very great deal of information concerning such matters as the treatment of the poor, bastards, roads and petty offences, which fits in very closely with the parallel organization of the church and the manor which are described elsewhere.

Where it is possible to cross-check information between these various sources, there is a general impression of accuracy and care in the writing of the records. Yet it is clear that of all the scribes, the clerks of the peace were least familiar with the population with whom they were dealing, and there are more strange spellings and wrong attributions of place among the quarter sessions records than among the ecclesiastical or manorial documents.

Nineteenth century censuses

Censuses of the population of Great Britain have been taken every ten years since 1801. However, before 1841 no attempt was made to collect names of individuals, the returns were purely numerical. In the 1841 returns, not only are the names and sex given of all persons resident in a house on a particular night, but so are ages and some occupations. Street names are also often given. In the 1841 returns it is noted whether persons were born in the same county as the return, or in Scotland, Ireland or Foreign Parts. The 1851 returns are more informative as the parish and county of birth are given and so is the relationship of household members to the head. The returns were made by heads of households and then listed by enumerators into schedules. The enumerators then calculated the total population of the census area giving the number of males and females.

PRO H>O>107/1784

Census materials are held at the Public Record Office, London.


(Place of publication London, unless otherwise specified).

BRYSON, W.H. 1975.
The Equity Side of the Exchequer. Cambridge.
The Present State of Great Britain. 33rd edition.
'Early- Modern Assize Records as Historical Evidence', Journal of the Society of Archivists, V(1975),pp.215-31.
ELTON, G.R. 1960.
The Tudor Constitution: Documents and Commentary. Cambridge.
ELTON, G.R. 1969. England 1200-1640.
Guide to the Contents of the Public Record Office. 1963. Volume 1: Legal Records. Guide to the Essex Record Office. 1969. F.G. Emmison. Chelmsford. Part one.
History of the Common Law of England. Chicago. Reprint. .REF
HANBURY, H.G. 1944.
English Courts of Law. Oxford.
The Court of Common Pleas. Connecticut. Reprint.
The Medieval Coroner. Cambridge.
A New Law Dictionary. 5th edition.
MAITLAND, F.W. 1911.
Collected Papers. ed. H.A.L. Fisher. Volume 1.
STEPHENS, W.B. 1973.
Sources for English Local History. Manchester.

Further reading [to 1980]

(Place of publication London, unless otherwise specified).

Essex background

EMMISON, F.G. 1970.
Elizabethan Life: Disorder. Colchester.
Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England.
MORANT, P. 1816.
The History and Antiquities of the County of Essex. 2 volumes.
Poverty and Piety in an English Village: Terling 1525-1700.

Legal and public records in general

BAKER, J.H. 1979.
An Introduction to English Legal History. 2nd edition.
BARNES, T.G. 1961.
Somerset 1625-1640.
COCKBURN, J.S. (ed.). 1977.
Crime in England 1550-1800. Especially J.H. Baker on 'Criminal Courts and Procedure at Common Law 1550-1800'.
ELTON, G.R. 1960.
The Tudor Constitution: Documents and Commentary. Cambridge. ELTON, G.R. 1969. England 1200-1640.
An Introduction to the Use of the Public Records. Oxford. Guide to the Contents of the Public Record Office. 1963. Volume 1: Legal Records. Guide to the Essex Record Office. 1969. F.G. Emmison. Chelmsford. Part 1.
STEPHENS, W.B. 1973.
Sources for English Local History. Manchester.

There are a series of useful introductions to particular records, such as plea rolls, inquisitions post mortem, lay subsidies, etc. in the journal Amateur Historian (1952 onwards).

Common law courts

COCKBURN, J.S. 1972.
A History of English Assizes 1558-1714. Cambridge.
The Court of Common Pleas. Connecticut. Reprint.

Equity and conciliar courts

BRYSON, W.H. 1975.
The Equity Side of the Exchequer. Cambridge.
JONES, W.J. 1967.
The Elizabethan Court of Chancery. Oxford.