The English Court of Chancery, so often ignored because of its association with the wealthy, can be a great source of genealogical information. Just because your family is not now in the upper class does not mean that they were not in past generations. The Chancery is primarily a record of disputes about inheritance of land, land debts and the like, covering a period of time from the 1300s to around 1873.
The main documents used in the Court of Chancery were proceedings, also called pleadings and registers. The proceedings contained these types of documents:
- A bill of complaint. The plaintiff filed to begin the court case. The information provided in the bill included the plaintiff’s name, occupation or rank, place of residence, and his case against the defendant. The case is repeated in the form of questions directed to the defendant to answer. The defendant replied by filing an answer to the plaintiff’s questions.
- A writ of subpoena. Put simply, this is an order to appear at court at a specific date and place.
- A replication or exception by the plaintiff. This is the plaintiff’s response to the defendant’s answers. The plaintiff disputes the answers, which the defendant would rebut with a rejoiner. These back and forth communications would go on as long as necessary.
- All relevant information was gathered together in writing before the court met. Both sides of the dispute assembled lists of questions (an interrogatory) to be put to their witnesses (deponents) by officials of the court. The answers made by the witnesses were written down on a form called a deposition.
Registers contained the following types of documents:
- Orders and decrees. The court’s orders and decrees were written into decree and order books. These give a summary of the case and record the court’s decision on the case.
Unfortunately, the Family History Library does not have copies of the original records from the Court of Chancery. But it does have calendars, abstracts, and indexes. Two men, Charles Allen Bernau and George Frederick Tudor Sherwood, indexed many Chancery records. These are available through the Family History Library in the Bernau Collection and the Sherwood Collection.
For more information about the Chancery Court and its records, see the FamilySearch Research Wiki article at https://wiki.familysearch.org/en/England_Chancery_Court_Records.
Good luck searching the amazing but little-used records of the Chancery Court. You might be surprised by what you find out about your ancestors.