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From the thirteenth century onwards, judges appointed by the king were sent (usually in pairs) on circuits to administer both civil and criminal law. Originally their function was in civil litigation, the periodic regulation and examination of the quality, weights, measure and prices of certain products offered for sale, notably ale, bread and cloth. They were to control local justice in criminal cases, since they administered the law more accurately than the local justices, being more susceptible to royal authority than the local justices of the peace sitting in quarter sessions. They were also charged with reporting the political feeling of the area they served. By the fifteenth century, the criminal side dominated the business of the assize sessions. Any case could be heard but (after 1590) the more serious cases were sent to assize, as well as those dealing with the finer points of the law. In 1971 the assize circuits were abolished and replaced by the Crown Courts.
Most of the counties of England were covered in six circuits:
Certain areas had special jurisdiction, serving much the same function as the assizes. These areas were the Palatinate of Chester (primarily Cheshire and Flint counties), the Palatinate of Durham (covering Durham County and certain areas beyond), the Palatinate of Lancashire (covering Lancashire County), and London and Middlesex counties (covered by the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey). Additionally, in Wales during 1542‑1830, the Great Sessions of Wales was an equivalent court. Between 1830‑1971, the Welsh counties were included among the assize circuits. See Leaflet number 26 of the Public Record Office Information series and Appendix 7 in David Hawkings book Criminal Ancestors for lists of these circuits. The two vary slightly in their listings.
In the early years, most of the cases were heard in the courts in London. As their caseloads increased, a common practice was to fix a date for trial at one of the central courts, then add a note nisi prius, meaning “unless before”. This meant the trial would be held in the central court unless the local circuit assize court was held before the central court date. Usually, a date was fixed in central court after they knew the next local circuit assize court would be held in order to save the central courts from the added burden.
The assize was held twice a year in the “rural” circuits, during Lent and Summer. By the mid-nineteenth century, as the criminal caseload grew, a Winter court was sometimes added. The Home “circuit” held court during the Winter. Judges would be involved in their court cases every winter, then many would travel to the other circuits during Lent and Summer. A few cases each year were referred from the outlying circuit to the Home courts. Most of the records are in Latin until 1733, and they are often abbreviated.
- Indictments-- give the most genealogical information, but the user is cautioned about the false information given as fact. Indictments are set out the charge against the defendant, the depositions or witness statements, and the gaol or crown books, the latter listing the defendants, charges, verdict, and sentence. Ages are not given, and the alleged parish of residence is often given as the same as the place of the offence. No details are given about family relationships, except in some cases where the victim was related to the accused. Other records filed with indictments include judges’ commissions, calendars or lists of the prisoners to be tried, jury panels, coroners’ inquests, and presentments of a variety of lesser offenses including neglect of roads and bridges, keeping unlicensed alehouses, and recusancy.
- Depositions-- are sworn, written testimony of witnesses. The few which survive contain ages and places of residence of the deponents. Some are filed with the indictments instead of separately.
- Gaol Books, Crown Minute Books and Agenda 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-- list the orders made by the judges in local disputes, frequently referring cases to the arbitration of local magistrates. Some are found among the Miscellaneous Books.
- Miscellaneous Books-- record the proceedings under wits of nisi prius (see explanation later). The writs were usually returned to the central courts.
The absence of continuity and the decentralization of the itinerant court reflected in the compilation and custody of its records. As early as 1325, it was necessary to order that the rolls of the circuit judges be submitted to the Exchequer. Ten years later, it was law to surrender the records of each Michaelmas Term. Strict observance of these laws is doubtful. In the fifteenth century, it appeared that circuit records were handed from one presiding judge of the circuit to the next judge. However, gaol delivery records are numerous in the fourteenth and some of the fifteenth century. But in 1470, the records cease. It appears that the circuit rolls remained in the custody of the clerks of assize, and their survival became hazardous. Many clerks seemed to have adopted a radical solution: circuit records should be retained no longer than was required for current business. Most of the Midland Circuit records have virtually been exterminated. Almost all of the Elizabethan assize records for all circuits have been destroyed by accident and clerical weeding, except for the Home Circuit. There are not enough extant records between 1600‑1650 to give a clear idea of the working of assizes. Even after that date, when indictment files and related documents begin in series, all classes are broken or riddled with gaps.
A list of the assize records, arranged by circuit, available in the Public Record Office (now The National Archives) is printed in their "Information leaflet number 26" (see below), and in a section of Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office (see below). You can also find research guides to assize records on The National Archives website.
The following terms are explained in more detail in the FitzHugh and Richardson books (see bibliography).
Gaol Delivery – sometimes referred to as Commission of Gaol Delivery. A judicial hearing of the charges against all prisoners awaiting trial in the area prisons.
Oyer and Terminer – sometimes referred to as Commission of Oyer and Terminer. The king empowered justices of the royal courts to hear all charges of felony (including murder, treason, insurrection, and coining) in the provinces.
Nisi Prius – ‘unless before’
Assize of Darrien Presentment – concerned with the dispossession of advowsons. A writ called on the sheriff to summon a jury to declare whether the plaintiff had the right to present a benefice.
Assize of Mort d’Ancestor – a case where the plaintiff claimed he had been dispossessed of a property that as his by inheritance.
Assize of Novel Disseisin – if a tenant thought he was unlawfully evicted, he obtained a writ to have the sheriff summon a jury to pronounce on his plea.
Possessory Assizes – a collective name for the three previous Assizes.
Grand Assize – where a tenant had a right to defend his right to land a sheriff was issued with a writ of peace.
Justices of Eyre – judges sent on circuits by the king to sit in sessions of county courts for a short period. They were to standardize justice in local areas where local standards were usually the rule.
Abbreviations are used frequently in assize records and sometimes in the calendars of the same. Lists of abbreviations are found in the following places:
- Staff. Assizes Records. London, England: Public Record Office, 1985. FHL book 942 1/L1 A3pa, "Information Leaflet number 26."
- Cockburn, J.S., A History of the English Assizes, 1558-1714. Cambridge, England: Cambridge university Press, 1972. FHL book 942 P2ch, pages ix-xviii
- Cockburn, J.S.,Calendar of Assize Records: Introduction. London, England: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1985. FHL book 942 P23ga, pages viii-x. Appendix VIII contains record examples.
In addition to the above three sources, here is a select list of other sources for more information about assize records.
- Bevan, Amanda and Andrea Duncan, Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office. Fourth Edition. London, England: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1990. FHL book 942 A5p, no. 19, 1990. See Chapter 38, Sections 1, 3 and 4.
- FitzHugh, Terrick V.H., The Dictionary of Genealogy. Third Edition. Totowa, New Jersey, USA: Barnes and Noble, 1991. FHL book 942 B2ff; see pages 40‑41, 118, 208 and 215.
- Hawkings, David T., Criminal Ancestors: A Guide to Historical Criminal Records in England and Wales. Wolfeboro Falls, New Hampshire, USA, Alan Sutton Publishing, Incorporated, 1992. FHL book 942 P27h; pages 77‑90; the chapter includes many examples.
- Richardson, John. The Local Historian’s Encyclopedia, Second Edition. New Barnet, England: Historical Publications, Limited, 1986. FHL book 942 H2rjo; see sections D83, D192, D207, D214, D215, D216, D246, L29, L30, L31, L32, L33, L37, L38, L39, P51, P52, P53 and P56.
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