If you are looking for information on your English ancestors, have you considered checking Assize court records?
The Assize courts were periodic criminal courts. They were active from about 1350 until 1972. These courts were conducted by pairs of judges from the courts at Westminster. The judges worked through circuits which covered most of England.
At first, the assizes reviewed certain property disputes, but gradually their jurisdiction expanded to include criminal cases, as well. Over time, these courts became the principal criminal courts in England and Wales, until they were replaced by Crown Courts by the Courts Act 1971.
Most of England was covered by six circuits: Home, Midland, Norfolk, Northern, Oxford, and Western. Beginning in 1340, each circuit had jurisdiction over a group of counties, as follows:
- Home: Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Middlesex, Surrey, and Sussex
- Midland: Derbyshire, Rutland, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, and Warwickshire
- Norfolk: Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Huntingdonshire
- Northern: Cumberland, Northumberland, Westmorland, and Yorkshire
- Oxford: Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, and Worcestershire
- Western: Berkshire, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, Somerset, and Wiltshire
- Indictments. These records give the most genealogical information, but caution must be used because many times false information was given as fact. Ages are not given, and the alleged parish of residence is often given as the same as the place of the offense. No details are given about family relationships, except in some cases where the victim was related to the accused.
- Depositions. These give the sworn, written testimony of witnesses. The few which survive contain ages and places of residence of the deponents.
- Gaol Books, Crown Minute Books and Agenda Books. These books list the names of the prisoners and record in outline form the cases heard or yet to be heard. They are annotated with the plea, verdict and sentence.
- Order Books. These list the orders made by the judges in local disputes, frequently referring cases to the arbitration of local magistrates.
- Miscellaneous Books. These books record the proceedings under writs of nisi prius (‘unless before’). This refers to the practice of requiring that assize cases be tried in the central courts, but because of the case loads and distances involved, arrangements were made to hold cases in one of the district courts closer to the place where the crime was committed. The writs were usually returned to the central courts.
Surviving records are generally written in English. Entries are not long. Handwriting will sometimes be a challenge.
A list of the assize records available at the National Archives, arranged by circuit, is available in “information leaflet number 26.” For further information on English Assize court records, see the Assize Court Records article in the FamilySearch Research Wiki.