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Court records relate to civil and criminal matters. They may refer to a local or rural area or to the nation. They involve people from all walks of life.
Court records may mention some of your ancestors as defendants, plaintiffs, jurors, or witnesses. They can establish family relationships and places of residence and occasionally provide occupations, descriptions of individuals, and other family information. They seldom provide birth, marriage, or death information.
Most researchers use court records after they have investigated other records. Court records are written in Latin before 1733 and may include terms unfamiliar to you. Some are indexed and with patience you can find much information.
Court of Quarter Sessions
From the sixteenth century onwards, this court dealt with many items including crime, land, licensing, oaths of denization, militia, county rates, roads and bridges, taxes, religion, social welfare, lunatics, and so on. Many middle class and poor people are mentioned.
The original records are usually housed in a local record office. Copies of some quarter session records are in the Family History Library.
A more detailed discussion of these records is in:
Emmison, F. G., and Irvine Gray. County Records. Rev. ed. London: The Historical Association, 1973. (FHL book 942 H2ha no. 62 1973.)
A list of available records is:
Gibson, J. S. W. Quarter Session Records for Family Historians: A Select List. 4th ed. Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies (Publications) Ltd., 1995. (FHL book 942 P23gjs 1995.)
Court of Great Sessions
Great sessions courts were used only in Wales. They were established when England and Wales were united through the Acts of Union of 1536 and 1543 and were abolished in the 1830s. Wales was divided into four circuits. Court was held twice a year, usually dealing with the more serious criminal cases. Judges also arbitrated between local landlords and in inter-jurisdictional disputes. Many middle class and some poor people are mentioned here. For more information, see:
Parry, Glyn. A Guide to the Great Sessions in Wales. Aberystwyth, Wales: National Library of Wales, 1995. (FHL book 942.9 P27p.)
Williams, W. Llewelyn. An Account of the King’s Court of Great Sessions in Wales. London, England: Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1916. (FHL book 942.9 P2w.)
Since the handwriting on these records may be difficult to read, it may help you to see a transcribed, printed copy of some of the documents. The following book is a good example. The introduction is also helpful in understanding the records.
Chapman, Murray, trans. and ed. Criminal Proceedings In the Montgomeryshire Court of Great Sessions: A Transcript of Commonwealth Gaol Files, 1650–1660. Aberstwyth, Wales: National Library of Wales, 1996. (FHL book 942.94 P2c.)
You can find the original copies of the Great Session records at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. Some copies are on film at the Family History Library.
Records of these courts give information about the day-to-day life on a manor (an estate held by a landlord), including petty crimes, land transfers, manorial appointments, customs, rental fees, and so forth. It regulated the responsibilities and interrelationship of the manorial lord, his steward and bailiff (law officer), and the village people. Manorial court records began about 1066 and ended in the early 1900s. Some of Wales was not under manorial tenure. More detail is given in:
Watt, Helen. Welsh Manors and Their Records. Aberystwyth, Wales: National Library of Wales, 2000. (FHL British book 942.9N2w.)
Park, Peter B. My Ancestors Were Manorial Tenants: How Can I Find Out More About Them? 2nd ed. London, England: Society of Genealogists, 1994. (FHL book 942 D27pp.)
Ellis, Mary. Using Manorial Records. London, England: PRO Publications in association with The Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, 1994. (FHL book 942 J77e.)
Guide to the Department of Manuscripts and Records. Aberystwyth: National Library of Wales, 1994. (FHL book 942.9 A3g.)
The Family History Library has a copy of Indexes to Schedules from the National Library of Wales. These indexes include a topographical index by county, parish, manor, and capital messuage. This index can help you to locate documents at the National Library of Wales for a particular manor or a parish. The index is on a series of microfilms. (FHL films 1597275–7 and 1597224–6.)
The Manorial Documents Register is a listing of the manors and the location of all known records. While the National Library of Wales is a major depository of manorial court records, other repositories also house these records. It is best to check this register first.
Court of Chancery
Records from the Chancery Court begin in 1199 and relate to wealthy people. The court heard disputes about such items as property or land rights, debts, inheritance, trusts, and frauds. Many witnesses from all walks of life were called to testify for the plaintiff or defendant.
A helpful guide about these records is:
Garrett, R. E. F. Chancery and Other Legal Proceedings. Oakhill, Somerset, England: The Oakhill Press, 1968. (FHL book 942 P2ga.)
Chancery Court records are housed in the National Archives near London. Some chancery cases have been indexed. The best index to start with is available on the National Archives web site. Search the Catalogue for the surname and put the letter C in the "Department or Series Code" box. The Family History Library has microfilm copies of some records.
Several other courts created records which related to people in Wales, such as the Court of the Exchequer, the Court of Request, and the Court of Star Chamber. To learn more about these courts and their records, refer to Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office.
Court records available in the Family History Library are listed in the Locality Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
WALES, [COUNTY] - COURT RECORDS
WALES, [COUNTY], [PARISH OR MANOR] - MANORS
WALES, [COUNTY], [PARISH or MANOR] - COURT RECORDS
National Library of Wales: http://www.llgc.org.uk/