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Local Courts and Justice

The Department  of Manuscripts and University Archives holds a surprisingly high number of collections related to local justice, especially for areas within East Anglia.  From the Middle Ages there were several layers of local and national justice and it can be difficult to pinpoint which court might be of use to your research.  The monarch was the source of justice and s/he dispensed it either through direct representatives or via franchise.  Towns, counties, bishops, Universities and individuals could be granted the right to hold a court for an area or community via charter and this right was highly prized due to the independence it gave and the income it created.  This guide covers the courts whose records we hold here.


Churchwardens “presented” parishioners for what were considered to be moral offences.  These included slander, scolding, adultery, playing ball games on a Sunday, sleeping through church services and talking through services.  The records can be found in Ely Diocesan records from the 16th to the 18th centuries.  There may also be churchwardens' presentments in the parish records held by local archive services.  Most are in English and fairly accessible once you get used to the handwriting.  They are a lovely resource, providing a real insight into everyday life in a parish.

Church court

The next level up was the church court.  Some of those presented by the Churchwardens wound up here.  There were two kinds of church courts – one for dealing with disputes between individuals (instance) and one for dealing with cases brought by the church relating to the soul’s welfare (office).  Acts of office and instance books are held in the Ely Diocesan records.  The records can be in English or Latin.  Cases might relate to bastardy, defamation, adultery, failure to attend Anglican service, other breaches of religious law, tithe payments, marriage, probate and arguments over estates.  They can be a fascinating read!

Manorial courts

After the conquest of the country by William I, much of England was divided into manors and granted to his vassals, who in turn divided their land into smaller areas.  Those who lived on the land became free or unfree tenants of the lord of that manor.  Living and working in the manor depended to a great extent on co-operation.  Rules and regulations (the “customs” of the manor) were developed for each, and courts were held to ensure compliance.  Courts were also used to keep track of changes of tenant and to see that they paid the dues and service they owed the lord.  There were different types of court and some could deal with more serious crimes, such as affray, assault and criminal damage.  As agriculture developed and local justice became more organised, manors began to lose their importance.  Many courts fizzled out from the 16th century but some kept going for far longer.

There are manorial court records in EDC, EDR, various estate collections and other series that cover much of Cambridgeshire and other areas in East Anglia.  The earliest court rolls are from the late 13th century.  The best way of tracking them down is to check the Manorial Documents Register or indexes available in the Department.  A manor could form part of a parish or could include land from several parishes.  If you are unsure as to which manor covered the area you are interested in, a good place to check is the Victoria County History for the relevant county.  The entry for each parish will describe any manor within that parish.  Earlier records are usually in Latin but they gradually turn into English after the 16th century.  They tend to follow a set format so it is possible to work out what’s going on even when they are in Latin.

Quarter Sessions

This was the body that undertook the majority of local administrative work and justice from the 13th century until the late 19th century when it lost most of its administrative functions to County Councils.  Its judicial function came to an end in 1971.  Quarter Sessions acted as the local authority and county court and was the main, if not only, method of official communication between central Government and the localities.  Sessions were held four times a year in front of local Justices of the Peace, usually made up of local gentry.  They dealt with all but the most serious of offences.

We have 16th to 18th century Quarter Sessions for the liberty of Ely, ie most of Cambridgeshire.  Many of the records relate to the judicial function but are quite difficult to access due to the lack of indexing and internal arrangement.   Relatively few presentments and depositions seem to have survived.


The monarch’s justices were sent around the country to hear more serious cases, usually referred from Quarter Sessions.  They were held once or twice a year until the 1970s when they became Crown Courts.  You will often see the phrase “gaol delivery” in relation to Assize and Quarter Sessions.  This is the procedure when they went through the local gaols and dealt with the inmates present at that time.  Gaol delivery rolls will list the prisoners and provide information about them.  They may be annotated with their sentence/fate once a trial or summary justice had taken place.  

We have 16th to 18th century records for the liberty of Ely, ie most of Cambridgeshire.  There are presentments and witness statements for many cases.  The records are a mixture of English and Latin.  Many of these records have not been listed and are in need of some conservation.  Availability for research will be decided on a case by case basis.

Formularies, legal tracts and manuscripts

We also hold a large number of documents relating to the theory and practice of law.  The best way to find many of the legal manuscripts is to use J.H. Baker and J.S. Ringrose, A catalogue of English legal manuscripts in Cambridge University Library (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1996), from which the following is taken:

The English legal manuscripts in Cambridge University Library form one of the most important collections in the world. The principal treasures derive from the renowned library, containing over 230 volumes, collected by John Moore (d.1714), Bishop of Ely, presented to the University by King George I in 1715. It includes some of the old manuscripts collected by Francis Tate (d.1616), and the working manuscript library of Mr Justice Nicholas (d.1667). The collection also contains medieval statute-books, year-books, medieval and early modern readings and moots in the inns of court, and law reports from the Tudor period down to the reign of Charles II, together with examples of every other major type of manuscript law book in use in England prior to the eighteenth century.

Contact: Kevin Roberts (01223 333141;