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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Court Records-Criminal, Civil and Ecclesiastical  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Civil Courts

The first section of this course dealt with canon law derived in large part from Roman law. It covered matrimonial, probate and admiralty matters and was administered by the ecclesiastical and admiralty courts. This section on civil law and the next on criminal law both stemmed from the unwritten common law derived from ancient and universal custom and were administered by the king’s courts. In early times justice was dispensed locally for two main reasons:

  1. Communications were bad, with roads frequently impassable or dangerous, thus many communities lived self-contained existences, most people unaware of events taking place in other parts of the country.

  2. There was no permanent seat of justice in London, since the king and his chief officers moved around the country.

The king’s laws were administered through the local lords of the manor who thus had great power. The accused was tried and punished by people who knew him close to home, although the quality of justice was bound to vary from place to place. In addition there was a widespread system of communal responsibility with groups of men held responsible for the acts of the others in their tithing group.

Note that in some counties the church held nearly half the land before the Reformation, which gave it enormous temporal power in addition to its religious sway. When the bishop was also lord of the manor, his steward usually did most of the secular cases, however more important crimes would be dealt with personally. The dominant landowner in a parish was colloquially termed the squire, and there were many clergymen (parsons) who were in this position—they were referred to as squarsons.

Other courts such as Petty, Borough and Quarter Session dealt with those who did not live on manors, with certain non-judicial matters such as licensing and with more serious cases. There was also a wide variety of special courts for special areas and occupations. Then there were the higher courts such as the county criminal assizes, and the national chief court of equity, the Court of Chancery.

Civil Court Officials

In early times the chief official of each county and important town was the sheriff (from shire reeve), but his duties were progressively passed to other officials:

  • Militia to the Commissioners of Array and in the 16th century to lieutenants (later the Lord Lieutenant).
  • Investigation of unusual deaths to coroners.
  • Administration of justice to Justices of the Peace.
  • Taxation to tax collectors.

Richard I commissioned Keepers of the Peace for certain unruly areas in 1195, and by 1327 every county had good and lawful men, usually substantial landowners or men of substance, in these positions.

The law changed in 1906 to allow anyone living within seven miles of the county boundary to be a JP regardless of income. The office of Justice of the Peace (JP) had developed from the keepers of the peace by 1361 when they were required to meet four times a year—the origin of the Quarter Sessions, replaced in 1972 by Crown Courts. They could also meet more frequently to deal with minor matters in Petty Sessions. JPs, also known as magistrates, were unpaid but of important social standing. In some cases involving two magistrates it was required that one be a fully trained lawyer, and the notation of the quorum indicates which one this is.

Stipendiary magistrates are legally-qualified, salaried officers, first appointed in 1792. The responsibilities of magistrates, including the careers of the Fielding brothers, are considered in detail by Gibbens (English Magistrates. Metropolitan (London and North Middlesex Family History Society) Vol 18 #3, page 137-143.) and can be summarized as:

  • Basic policing (assisted by constables).
  • Putting down riots by calling out all men over 16.
  • Holding suspects.
  • Trying suspects, with or without a jury.
  • Deciding which cases to send to higher courts such as the assizes.
  • Examining Poor Law cases including settlement, removal and bastardy.
  • Enforcing other laws, including those against minorities such as Roman Catholics, Welshmen and gypsies, and against forbidden sports such as bull-baiting.
  • Putting unemployed men to work, and dealing with vagrants and beggars.
  • Setting prices and wages and monitoring weights and measures.
  • Construction and maintenance of highways, bridges, gaols and fortifications.
  • Presiding at Petty and Quarter Sessions.
  • Regulation of fairs and markets.
  • Licensing of nonconformist meeting houses, playhouses, alehouses, badgers, drovers, pedlars etc.
  • Levying rates (taxes) for the county.

The principal legal officer of the Quarter Sessions was the Clerk of the Peace, and he was a trained attorney who guided court proceedings and supervised county business between sessions. He was appointed by the custos rotulorum, the principal JP responsible for safekeeping of the county’s records.

When the new county councils were established in 1888 some of the JPs’ administrative functions were transferred to them, responsibility for police was shared, but the JPs retained their judicial and licensing powers.

Barlow Passion, Violence and Petty Squabbles: Hampshire Quarter Sessions 1778-1786. Family Tree Magazine. Part 4 in Vol 21 #1, page 77-79) discusses the roles of the court officials and lists of them are available, for example on film 0990065 is a published list of the clerks of the quarter sessions 1352-1971, clerks of the peace 1537-1971 and sheriffs 1765-1971 for Exeter, Devon.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Court Records-Criminal, Civil and Ecclesiastical offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

  • This page was last modified on 11 September 2014, at 21:03.
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