Common law records

Litigation is not a modern invention, and the medieval law courts contributed their fair share to the bulk of the surviving public records. The English legal system was a complex one, and remained in a continual, and rather chaotic, process of evolution throughout the medieval and early modern period. This section treats only the main courts of common law – which are complex enough in themselves.

The courts of equity – which developed in late medieval times to deal with cases where the common law could offer no remedy – are dealt with in a separate section. There were also the borough courts and manorial courts, which acted as courts of law at the local level, and the ecclesiastical courts, which dealt with the probate of wills as well as ‘moral’ cases and those involving clerics. (Another separate section deals with Feet of fines, which record the transfer of property by means of fictitious common law suits.)

The courts

Most surviving medieval legal records relate to the central, royal court – the ‘curia regis’. In the late 12th century the king’s court divided into two main sections:

  • the Bench – later known as the Court of Common Pleas – which dealt with most of the civil cases, and was the busiest medieval court
  • the King’s Bench – where pleas were heard, in theory, before the king, or ‘coram rege’ – which had jurisdiction over criminal cases (the crown side, or pleas of the crown) and also over some civil cases, particularly those involving a breach of the king’s peace (the plea side)

There were also eyres (‘wanderings’) – royal courts held every few years in the provinces by justices itinerant – which continued until the mid-14th century. (Both the Exchequer and the Chancery also had limited common law jurisdictions, but these remained relatively unimportant in medieval times.)

Records of local courts from medieval times have survived only sporadically. The functions of the old county courts were severely curtailed, but they retained jurisdiction over some minor civil cases. Commissions of various kinds were also issued for the hearing of both criminal and civil causes locally; in the 13th century these were combined in what were later known as the assizes (‘sittings’). Other commissions appointed prominent local men to ‘keep the peace’ – originally a police rather than a judicial role. From the 14th century they were known as justices of the peace, and their hearings, four times a year, were known as the quarter sessions – in practice their jurisdiction was inferior to that of the assizes.

For the counties palatine of Chester, Durham and Lancaster – which were in many ways exempt from direct royal jurisdiction – there were separate courts of common law, mostly with structures similar to those of the royal courts.

Their procedure

Most medieval records can be used as genealogical evidence without a detailed understanding of the administrative processes that produced them. Although this is still true of legal records to some extent, it is probably less so than for any of the other types of source material.

The process of the common law was intricate and cumbersome – in civil causes it began with the plaintiff obtaining from the Chancery a writ addressed to the sheriff of the appropriate county. A selection of different kinds of writs was available, according to the nature of the case – and each type had its own Latin name. The process continued by means of a further series of writs issued by the court itself, until the defendant finally appeared. Delays were frequent, often because of the failure of the defendant – or of jurors – to appear. Many entries record essoins – excuses for non-appearance at court.

The record of the outcome, when the case was finally heard, was usually relatively brief. Often much of the hearing was taken up with oral pleadings on points of law, of which no official record was made. However, beginning in the 14th century, many pleadings were recorded unofficially, for the benefit of lawyers. The resulting transcripts (in French) are known as the year books, and extend until the 1530s, although similar reports continued to be made after this. Their emphasis is on legal technicalities rather than the people involved, to the extent that the names of parties are often omitted, or represented by initials. Nevertheless, they can contain valuable information, particularly if other sources are available to fill in the gaps.

Law and the genealogist

Unfortunately, legal records are not the most accessible of sources for the family historian: the lack of detailed indexes makes it difficult to go beyond the records that have been published; published texts are more likely than most to be in Latin rather than English translation; and even when translated there are difficulties of terminology and interpretation to be faced. Having said this, the records – particularly those concerning civil disputes over land or other property – preserve a mass of contemporary information, and often deal with people outside the ‘manor-holding’ class who predominate in most medieval records. It is well worth checking the printed editions that are available, particularly the modern series of Curia Regis Rolls covering the first half of the 13th century.

Links and bibliography for common law records

For source material on the internet, click here


The following resources are available online:

For detailed reference to relevant points of medieval law, the following are available online:

The following printed works describe the law, its processes and its records:

  • J.H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History (3rd edn; London, 1990)
    A detailed and clear – though at times quite technical – account of both the administrative structures and the principles of the law itself, with an emphasis on the medieval period
  • D. Crook, Records of the general eyre (Public Record Office handbooks, no 20; London, 1982)
  • Sir F. Pollock and F.W. Maitland The history of English law before the time of Edward I (2 vols; 2nd edn, Cambridge, 1923; reprinted 1996)

Transcripts of many medieval legal records have been published by the Selden Society (115 volumes – and 12 supplementary volumes – 1888-1998); their web site includes a list of their publications.

A collection of pedigrees, extracted from various plea rolls, has been published as:

  • G. Wrottesley, Pedigrees from the plea rolls, collected from the pleadings in the various courts of law, A.D. 1200 to 1500 …(London, [1905])
    Most after 1327 (except for Staffordshire cases); mainly from the Court of Common Pleas, but with some from the King’s Bench, Assize Rolls, Chester Plea Rolls, Bracton’s Note Book etc
None found.
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