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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 ($).
Location of Records, Calendars and Indexes
The complexity of the history and storage of church records for many hundreds of years is an obvious problem for the family historian attempting to find documents.
However there are several cheerful notes:
- The present-day location of a document is becoming less of a problem to far-flung researchers due to modern technology.
- Much material has been calendared, transcribed, abstracted, translated, indexed and some has been published. Expect reference to be made to the volumes of the relevant county record society, antiquarian or archaeological society, the British Record Society and the Harleian Society as well as the calendars of the county record office or local archives.
- Repositories are starting to provide indexes and searchable materials online, but indexes for marriage licences and probate material is generally more available than for other court activities.
- Court documents and finding aids for them have been a priority for filming by the GSU and much, including 99% of probate material, is available at your local FSC.
The principal repositories for the province of Canterbury and dioceses are:
- Lambeth Palace Library includes the records of the Court of Arches, the Faculty Office and the Vicar General of the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as matters arising during vacancies of bishoprics or metropolitan visitations. Barber (Records of Genealogical interest in Lambeth Palace Library. Genealogists’ Magazine Vol 17 #8, page 430-438) has an extensive description of the contents of this library relevant to genealogists.
- TNA which include an online index to PCC wills 1384-1857 with an ordering facility for copies or the originals.
- Canterbury Cathedral Library.
- The Welsh diocesan archives are generally in the National Library of Wales.
- The relevant diocesan and archdeacon’s court archives are generally now in the county record office, with the important exception of Westminster and a few others.
For the province of York most records are at:
- Borthwick Institute of Historical Research at the University of York.
- The relevant diocesan archives which are generally now in the county record office.
- There is no union index yet for the more complex probate situation in the province of York, however indexes to pre-1500 wills and those from the 54 peculiars in the province of York are on this website.
The present volume provides an introduction to the types of records. The researcher can now define the chain of courts relevant to a particular research problem and start hunting for the indexes and calendars that will lead them to the original sources.
The researcher should be prepared for different systems of filing in different courts and during different time periods. In some places similar types of documents were filed together whilst in others all files for one case were collected together. Some court records are filed under the rural deanery name, some under the archdeaconry. Yet others will have mixed records of archdeaconry and bishop’s courts as the archdeacon frequently acted as his bishop’s surrogate in commissary court. If a record cannot be found at the obvious level, consider going upwards as there may have been a vacancy in the bishopric or a visitation during the specific period of your search.
Calendaring and indexing has been done to varying standards and should not be expected to include everyone mentioned in the cases. When cases were sent on appeal to a higher court, then a brief, or sometimes quite detailed, recapitulation of events from the lower court’s proceedings can be expected. In some courts draft records of cases were made, and these may survive where the formal act or court books do not.
Prior to 1733 church court records tend to be in Latin, however, once the researcher becomes familiar with the forms in English after that date life is simplified since they remained exactly the same as the Latin. Tarver’s excellent book describes these in detail with copies, transcriptions and translations.
The researcher should also be aware that filing systems are not the same everywhere! All kinds of muddling of ecclesiastical and civil records are found in many catalogues, for example there are citations 1614-1640 and excommunications 1614-1641 on film 1545038 lodged under Ecclesiastical Records, subsection Wiltshire Quarter Sessions in the FHLC! The smart researcher will examine the catalogue details for every court record for the required time period.
Reference books containing more details about ecclesiastical courts and their records include:
- Chapman’s book (Sin, Sex and Probate: Ecclesiastical Courts, Officials and Records. Lochin Publishing, Dursley, Gloucestershire, 1997) for the best summary of the whole system and its procedures.
- Tarver (Church Court Records. An Introduction for Family and Local Historians. Phillimore, Chichester, Sussex) contains details of each stage of court procedure and is copiously illustrated with copies, transcripts (and translations from Latin as required) of every possible church court document.
- Cox (Hatred Pursued Beyond the Grave. Tales of Our Ancestors from the London Church Courts. HMSO and Public Record Office, 1993) has delightful and dastardly tales from the London church courts.
- Camp (The English Church Courts and Their Records. Family Tree Magazine Vol 15 #9, page 20-21) provides a succinct and definitive survey.
- Herber provides legal knowledge and examples (Ancestral Trails. Sutton Publishing and Society of Genealogists, 2003) and a wonderful illustrated history of the people and places in Legal London (Legal London: A Pictorial History. Phillimore, Chichester, West Sussex, 1999).
- Webb (London’s Bawdy Courts. Volume 1. 1703-1713. Consistory Court of London Index to Cases and Depositions (with birthplaces). Society of Genealogists, 1999) has started to index cases and depositions from the London diocesan courts.
- Scott (Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills and Other Probate Records. PRO Publications , 1997) deals with PCC (Prerogative Court of Canterbury) probate materials.
- Newington-Irving (Will Indexes and Other Probate Material in the Library of the Society of Genealogists. Society of Genealogists., 1996) lists will indexes and other probate material in the huge collection of the Society of Genealogists.
- Lawrence (Websites It’s Worth Paying to View. Family Tree Magazine Vol 2- #8, page 38-39) outlines websites with free indexes of several court records, you pay to get copies of originals through them, or use the Request for Photocopies form to access the FHL collection as most are filmed.
- Richardson (The Local Historian’s Encyclopaedia. Historical Publications Ltd., 2003) is helpful with much legal jargon and outdated words and phrases.
The Church Courts
The church courts were abolished in 1641 and even though they were restored in 1661 their authority had begun to decline and did so markedly after the Toleration Act of 1689. More and more cases were regarded as secular and went to the Quarter Sessions and other civil courts. The church courts still dealt with moral lapses of the laity, discipline of the clergy and the state of the fabric of the churches.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.
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