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England, How to Use Court Records
Guide
Introduction
Court records are official documents concerning civil or ecclesiastical matters. Various types of
courts exist in England to handle judicial matters. They include:
• National government courts.
• County government courts.
• Manorial courts.
• Ecclesiastical courts.
This guide deals with the records of the first three types of courts.
Most court records identify individuals named in court cases as:
• Defendants.
• Plaintiffs.
• Jurors.
• Witnesses.
Court records usually do not include birth, marriage, or death information but will provide other
valuable information such as family relationships and places of residence. Most researchers use
court records after they have investigated other records. Court records are found on both country
and county levels. You need to determine which court would have dealt with legal matters in your
ancestor's place of residence.
For more information about court records, including types of courts, see Background.
What You Are Looking For
You are looking for court records which may provide the following details about the lives of your
ancestors:
• Ages.
• Residences.
• Occupations.
• Physical descriptions.
• Family relationships.
• Events in their lives.
England, How to Use Court Records
Research Guidance
Version of Data: 08/08/01
2
Steps
These three steps will help you find and use court records.
Step 1. Learn more about court records.
For more information about the records of specific courts, follow these links to informative Public
Record Office leaflets:
CHANCERY COURT RECORDS
• Chancery Proceedings (Equity Suits)
• Chancery Masters’ and Other Exhibits: Sources for Social and Economic History
• Chancery: Masters’ Reports and Certificates
EXCHEQUER COURT RECORDS
• Equity Proceedings in the Court of Exchequer
KING'S BENCH COURT RECORDS
• King's Bench (Crown side) 1675-1875
RECORDS OF THE COURT OF REQUEST
• Court of Requests, 1485-1642: a Court for the Poor
RECORDS OF THE STAR CHAMBER
• Court of Star Chamber, 1485-1642
RECORDS OF THE COURT OF WARDS AND LIVERIES
• Court of Wards and Liveries, 1540-1645: Land Inheritance
ASSIZE COURT RECORDS
• Criminal trials at the Assizes
• English Assizes: Key to Records of Criminal Trials
• English Assizes, 1656-1971: Key to Classes for Civil Trials
MANORIAL COURT RECORDS
• Manor and Other Local Court Rolls, 13th Century-1922
• Manorial Records in the Public Record Office
OTHERS
• Tracing 19th Century Criminals in the PRO
• Sources for Convicts and Prisoners 1100-1986
• Supreme Court, Chancery Division: Cases after 1875
• Supreme Court: Appeal Cases after 1875
The Public Record Office does not hold county Quarter Sessions records and therefore does not
publish any leaflets about them. Quarter Sessions records are held by county record offices and
other county repositories.
England, How to Use Court Records
Research Guidance
Version of Data: 08/08/01
3
Step 2. Determine which court level to search.
Determine which court level to search by asking yourself questions such as:
• Did my ancestor own property?
• Was my ancestor a merchant or craftsman?
• Was my ancestor poor?
• Was my ancestor known to have been in trouble with the law?
The answers to these and other questions will help you determine which courts might have
records of your ancestor. However, whatever the circumstances of your ancestor's life, you
should start on the county or local court level and move up to the national court level.
Step 3. Find the records.
For information on where to find court records, see Where to Find It.
Background
Description
Civil courts on the county level included:
• Quarter Sessions.
• Assize Courts.
Quarter Session records are usually the first court records to check for your ancestors.
Civil courts on the national level included:
• Court of Chancery (absorbed into the Supreme Court in 1873-5).
• Court of Common Pleas (absorbed into the Supreme Court in 1873-5).
• Court of the Exchequer (a court of equity until 1841).
• Court of the King's Bench (absorbed into the Supreme Court in 1873-5).
• Court of Requests.
• Court of the Star Chamber.
• Court of Wards and Liveries.
• Supreme Court of Judicature (established in 1875).
The national courts dealt with matters appealed from the county courts, or which could not be
handled by the county courts, as well as matters of direct concern to the Crown. The court with
the largest collection of records covering the most people (before 1875) is the Court of Chancery.
Some indexes to Chancery Court cases are available at the Family History Library:
• Charles Bernau's Index. (In the catalog record, start with film note 37 for the surname index.)
• George Sherwood Collection index.
• Calendars, abstracts, etc., of Chancery Proceedings. (Include indexes.)
Other indexes are also available at the Public Record Office of England, some of which cover
later periods.
England, How to Use Court Records
Research Guidance
Version of Data: 08/08/01
4
There were also manorial courts. A manor was a large area of land held by a lord, which did not
necessarily conform to parish or county boundaries. The lord had tenants who provided him with
services or rent for their parcels of the manor lands. The lord held courts to try offenses
committed by the tenants, to settle disputes between tenants, and to handle the official business
of the manor. Records of these courts give information about the day-to-day life on a manor.
Manorial court records began in 1066 and ended in the early 1900s, though many ended earlier.
Court records tend to be difficult to use because:
• Few are indexed.
• Handwriting is hard to decipher.
• They may be written in Latin.
• They include unfamiliar legal terms.
However, the great amount of information and details about everyday life found in the records
makes them a very valuable source, not to be overlooked. Some Family History Societies in
England are beginning to index the names of people found in court records of their counties of
interest.
Where to Find It
Family History Centers
Most Family History Centers will not have microfilms of court records in their permanent
collections, but centers can borrow microfilms from the Family History Library. There is a small
fee to have a microfilm loaned to a Family History Center.
Family History Centers are located throughout the United States and other areas of the world.
Find a Family History Center near you.
Family History Library
The Family History Library holds many English court records and indexes, mostly on microfilm.
There is no fee for using the microfilms in person.
To find the court records and indexes available at the library, look in the Family History Library
Catalog. Go to What to Do Next, select the catalog, and look for court records for England or
Great Britain, or for a specific English county.
If you can supply an index reference, you may request photocopies of court records from the
library for a small fee. You will need to fill out a Request for Photocopies form with the index
reference and the library microfilm number of the record. The microfilm number is available from
the Family History Library Catalog. Send the form and the fee to the Family History Library.
See Library Services and Resources for more information about using the Family History Library
and Family History Centers.
In England
The Public Record Office of England holds records of the national courts and Assize courts.
County repositories and libraries hold Quarter Session records. Addresses for many English
repositories can be obtained on the Internet by choosing Repository Lists on the ARCHON
home page. Addresses for public libraries can be obtained from Public Libraries on the Web.