Researching an ancestor in the Chancery Courts

This blog sets out to demonstrate what resources maybe available and how they may be used to research an ancestor in the Chancery courts.

The National Archive (TNA) collection of Chancery Records are now largely searchable online at their discovery[1] website and provides a good starting point.

A quick of family surnames, Richardson and Huddlestone, on the (TNA) discovery website for chancery proceedings, being common surnames finds around 4,500 and 500 references respectively. Researching my married surname, Pettyfer, finds only 4 references[2]:

  • “Reference:    C 6/548/132
  • Short title: Pettyfer v [unknown]
  • First plaintiff: Richard Pettyfer.
  • Defendants: [unknown].
  • Document type: bill only.
  • Date:   [1649-1714]
  • Reference:      C 8/321/212
  • Short title: Pierce v Cotterell.
  • Plaintiffs: Edward Pierce.
  • Defendants: George Cotterell, Richard Pettyfer and Thomas Goodlucke.
  • Subject: money, Wiltshire.
  • Document type: bill only
  • Date:   1668
  • Reference:      C 2/ChasI/K27/108
  • Short title: Knybbe v Dean of Windsor.
  • Plaintiffs: Henry Knybbe and Emott Pettyfer on behalf of themselves and other copyholders of Manor of Austy, Warwickshire.
  • Defendants: Dean and Canons of His Majestys Chapel of St George in the Castle, Windsor, Berkshire.
  • Document type: rejoinder only
  • Date:   1625-1660
  • Reference:      C 11/1719/9
  • Short title: Cotton v Cotton.
  • Document type: Bill and four answers.
  • Plaintiffs: Robert Cotton, esq of Gidding, Huntingdonshire.
  • Defendants: Jane Cotton, John Cotton and Elizabeth Stewart Cotton, infants (by John Pettyfer, clerk), Charles Jamens senior, Charles Jamens junior, Mary Jamens, Elizabeth Jamens and Robert Jamens, infant (by said Charles Jamens senior), Dame Mary Burdett, Sir Robert Burdett bart, infant (by Robert Holden, esq), Elizabeth Burdett, Jane Burdett, Mary Burdett, Frances Burdett, Ann Burdett and Dorothy Burdett.
  • Date of bill (or first document): 1722”

I also searched the spelling ‘Pettifer’ and found 55 references; the spelling ‘Pettefer’ found 4 references; and the spelling ‘Pettifor’ found 5 references. These of course should also be checked to see if they are in fact ancestors. These are all cases where a ‘Pettyfer’ is named as a party to the proceedings.

The online searches at TNA can only be by names of Plaintiffs and Defendants. They do not include cases where a ‘Pettyfer’ was a Deponent in a case or made an Affidavit. If it is known that an ancestor was a Deponent or made an Affidavit in a case any record of the deposition/Affidavit would need to be searched on the TNA website by the case name/parties using indexes IND 1/16759 and IND 1/9115 to IND 1/9121 for town depositions, IND 1/14545-14567 for Affidavits covering the period 1611-1800 and IND 1/14575 -14684 for Affidavits covering the period 1801-1875. Country Depositions can only be searched by surname of the parties there is no index.

Further, the references found all concern pleadings: the first two cases appear to have Bills of Complaint only; the second is a Rejoinder; and the third is a Bill of Complaint and four answers. It may be that the cases did not progress further and therefore no other records exist; or it may be that other records have either not been missed from the online listing; or appear under different names if the parties changed perhaps because a party died, married or due to some legal necessity. Cases could be protracted and continue for many years.

Whilst the TNA online index does not appear to limit its searches to first plaintiff and defendant (from my searches above) it may not always correctly identify cases involving a particular surname (most likely due to mis-spelling, simply missing a party from the list etc). Further the descriptions on the online catalogue are not always accurate or full so through viewing the actual records more about the case may in fact be discovered without resorting to further indexes. For example, if a case did not proceed further there may be a record to that effect on the documents; or there may in fact be more documents in the ‘bundle’ of pleadings than is stated in the description.

It is therefore always worth searching the records found in an online search and the physical indexes and calendars at TNA.

A good starting point to search for other records where the date (range) of a case is known is the indexes to the Masters’ Reports (C38) found in IND 1. For example, the second case listed above is dated 1668, I would therefore start a search in IND 1/1937, the index covering that year’s Master’s Reports for Plaintiffs with surnames beginning K – R (the plaintiff in that case being Edward Pierce) and then search the indexes for a period of at least five years.

If records exist, the relevant bundles can be found by searching the indexes for the Masters’ Documents and Master’s exhibits (C117 – C126 (covering period 17th Century to 19th Century) and C103 – C114 (covering period 1234 to 1860)) again in IND 1 locating the relevant index for the appropriate period. These records are particularly useful from the 18th Century onwards.

However, a case may not have been referred to a Master if no factual evidence was required. In such cases, or if nothing is found in the Masters’ Reports, the Decree and Order books may be the next stage. These are found in C33 (1544 to 1875[3]) and are indexed in IND 1 locating the relevant index for the appropriate period, and in calendars on the open shelves at TNA. Taking the same example of the 1668 case, the appropriate index to begin with would be IND 1 1613 which covers book B (surnames beginning L – Z) for 1668 and then search indexes for at least the next 5 consecutive years.

Final decrees could be Enrolled. Enrolled Decrees covering the period 1534 to 1903 can be found in C 78 and C 79. The Anglo-American Legal Tradition website[4] can be searched for online versions covering the whole of the series. For those enrolled during the reigns of Henry VIII to George III the index IND 1/16960A & B can be searched.

There may also be records of appeals against enrolled decrees and those records are now held at the Parliamentary Archives as such appeals were made to the House of Lords but can be search on the TNA discovery website.

Decrees which were not enrolled were also often appealed. These appeals went back to the Lord Chancellor and would be found amongst Ordinary and Appeal Petitions in C 36 (covering the period 1774-1875) which can be searched in the indexes 1/15029-15047 or for period 1876-1925 in IND 1/15048-15282.

For later cases, those between 1842-1880, the best finding aid to begin with may be the Cause books which consolidate “references to decrees, orders, reports and certificates made during the course of a case, together with the names of all the parties to it and their solicitors and the dates of all their appearances”[5]. They are found in series C 32 and are indexed for the period 1860 to 1880 in IND 1/16727-16747.

I have considered above depositions available to search by index at TNA and noted that there is no index to country depositions at TNA although an online search of the case name may find such records. A better finding aid is Bernau’s Index and if no records for an ancestor can be found at TNA online, then this may be the better starting place as they may not have brought or defended a case but may have been a witness.

Bernau’s index can be found on microfilm at the Society of Genealogists (SOG) and at LDS[6] Family History Centres. This is a card index of proceedings and depositions (although many cards refer to ‘correspondence’) in the Courts of Chancery and Exchequer includes about 4.5 million individuals and is particularly useful for Chancery Proceedings between 1714 and 1758 found in TNA series C 11 as the index for this period names every litigant. Bernau’s notebooks for this period, in 426 volumes, also include parties and summaries of the disputes.

The Index is also particularly useful for finding country deponents, listing all county depositions from 1558 to 1649 (TNA Series C 21) and town depositions up to 1800 (TNA series C 24).

The index cards provide a bundle and suit number and the reference should be noted in full as they do not represent modern references at TNA and “you will otherwise be lacking vital clues when it comes to translating the obsolete references given into the modern National Archives references”[7]. To translate the references, Sharp’s How to use the Bernau Index[8] should be consulted. Because the index provides a bundle number, which usually refers to a box of depositions from many different suits, the suit number is provided by Bernau’s index to be able to find a specific deposition within the box, although the names of the parties to the proceedinsgs are not provided.

Another drawback to using Bernau’s Index is that it can be difficult to read and there can be variations in spelling of the same surname. There is also a lack of additional information to be able to distinguish between individuals with common surnames without recourse to the original documents. They are however indexed in alphabetical order by surname and then first name.

The SOG also holds the Great Card Index on microfilm, which is another card index of several million names containing various miscellaneous information, including amongst others, references to Chancery proceedings. If visiting the SOG to search Bernau’s index it may be worth searching the Great Card Index too.

Where a case involves an inheritance dispute, Coldham’s Index is a good finding aid to search first. Otherwise known as the Inheritance Disputes Index, it is available to search online at Find My Past[9] and can be searched by name (including variants), year, county and country. The index (a transcript of the original) provides: the names of the testator, the plaintiff and the defendant; the year of case, place and TNA reference covering the period 1543 to 1714.

The index includes over 26,000 cases concerning wills, bequests, grants of administration, descent of property, identity claims and other testamentary disputes tried in the Chancery Court, with cases typically involving several members of the same family.

A search of this index for the name Pettyfer, including variations, finds one result under the variant surname Pettifor. No first name is given but the other information provided is[10]:

  • “Year  1661
  • Place   St. Martin Le Grand, London
  • Testator first name(s) William
  • Testator last name      Samuell
  • Plaintiff last name      Pettifor
  • Defendant last name   Samuell
  • Case details    Pettifor v. Samuell 1661
  • County            London
  • Country           England
  • National Archives reference   C10/487/193”

It would seem likely that the Defendant is the widow, son or daughter of the deceased. This case is amongst the five listed in my search on TNA discovery website in the name ‘Pettifor’. The entry on the TNA website provides further information as to the parties:

  • “Reference      C 10/487/193
  • Description:  
  • Short title: Pettifor v Samuell.
  • Plaintiffs: Elizabeth Pettifor and Jane Pettifor.
  • Defendants: Anne Samuell, widow.
  • Subject: personal estate of William Samuell, St Martin Le Grand, London.
  • Document type: bill only.
  • SFP
  • Date:   1661”

So, it would appear that there are in fact two plaintiffs and that all the parties are female; the defendant being the widow of the deceased and executor of his estate. Other finding aids at TNA should be searched for further records in the case (as discussed above).

Other finding aids include several volumes published by the List and Index Society and available to purchase from their website[11], including:

  • Samples of Chancery Pleadings and Suits: 1627, 1685, 1735 and 178
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls, 31 Eliz I, 1588-9 (C 66/1332-46)   
  • Calendar of Chancery Decree Rolls (C 78/86-130)  
  • Calendar of Chancery Decree Rolls (C 78/46-85)
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls, Calendar, 30 Eliz I, 1587-1588      
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls, Calendar, 28-29 Eliz I, 1585-1587, (C 66/1271-91) Pt. 2 (with index to grantees)                              
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls, Calendar, 28-29 Eliz I, 1585-1587, (C 66/1271-91) Pt. 1         
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls, Calendar, 27 Eliz I, 1584-1585, (C 66/1254-70), with index to grantees, 23-27 Eliz. I          
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls (C 66), Calendar, 20-23 Jas I           
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls (C 66), Calendar, 18-19 Jas I

There are other volumes which are currently out of print.

Whilst the British Record Society website[12] details several Chancery Proceedings index publications, when the items are opened on the website, they all state “This publication is no longer available”. They are publications generally from the 19th and early 20th Century and are available online on websites such as Internet Archive[13].

If it is known a case was begun in the years 1627, 1685, 1735 and 1785 it would be worth searching Horwitz and Moreton’s Samples of Chancery pleadings and suits, 1627, 1685, 1735 and 1785[14] which provides, as the title suggests, an index to a sample of about 1000 cases from the four specified years.

Other finding aids online include Ancestry’s[15] “British Chancery Records, 1386-1558” set which they describe as “an index to the Chancery Court proceedings, which consist of bills of complaint, answers, replications, and rejoinders, from 1386-1558”. This index provides the names of more than 286,500 individuals involved in the Chancery Court proceedings between 1386 and 1558, providing references to the location of their name in the original records, found at TNA in series C 1.

A search in these records produces interesting results for the surname ‘Pettyfer’ and variants, such as:

  • Christopher Petyfrer
  • Place:  Hertford, Hereford
  • Date:   1544-1547
  • Volume:          9
  • Page:               96
  • Bundle:           1150

There were 112 records indexed largely from the 15th and 16th centuries of which in fact only 17 were variants of ‘Pettyfer’ the rest were variants of ‘Bedford’. The surname variants included Petyfrer, Petefer, Petifer, Petyfere, Peytefere, Pitfforde, Pyttford, Pedeford, Paytefere, Pytford. This is a useful tool in finding surname variants to search in other finding aids.

These can be searched online at the TNA discovery website.

The Ancestry website also holds three further searchable indexes to chancery proceedings:

  • A calendar of chancery proceedings: bills and answers filed in the reign of King Charles the First (976 records)          
  • Abstracts of inquisitiones post mortem relating to the city of London, returned into the Court of Chancery (897 records)
  • Index of chancery proceedings (Reynardson’s division) preserved in the Public Record Office: 1649-1714 (523 records)

There were no results from these sets of records when searching for the surname ‘Pettyfer’ or variants.

As is demonstrated above, finding ancestors in Chancery proceedings may not be an easy task, however where records are found, they can be very rewarding for the family historian providing many genealogical details as well as social, financial and historical context to an ancestor’s life.


[1] https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/

[2] https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/results/r?_d=C&_hb=tna&_q=Pettyfer

[3] Digital images of some of these records are available at the Anglo American Legal Tradition website http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT.html

[4] ibid

[5] https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/chancery-equity-suits-after-1558/

[6] Latter Day Saints

[7] Bevan Tracing your Ancestors in the National Archives page 506

[8] SOG 1996

[9] http://www.findmypast.co.uk

[10] https://www.findmypast.co.uk/transcript?id=GBOR%2FOR%2FIDI%2F00020205%2F2

[11] http://www.listandindexsociety.org.uk/allpubs.html

[12] https://www.britishrecordsociety.org/publications/

[13] https://archive.org/

[14] List and Index Society 1995

[15] http://www.ancestry.co.uk

The equity courts of our ancestors

The English Legal system comprises of criminal law and civil law. Civil law encompasses several areas such as common law (established from cases and judgements of the courts), family law, wills and probate, the law of tort, law of contract, law of trusts and equity and so on.

Prior to 1875 different areas of civil law were administered by separate courts: The Court of Chancery, the Court of Exchequer, the Court of Queen’s Bench[1], the Court of Common Pleas and the High Court of Admiralty. There was no Court of Appeal.

Several other courts had existed in the earlier centuries but ceased to exist before 1875: The Court of Augmentation, the Court of Star Chamber, the Court of Requests, the General Eyre, the Court of Wards and Liveries, and the Palace Court. Away from Westminster there were courts in the Palatines (Chester, Durham and Lancaster) and the court of the Duchy of Lancaster which had the same functions as the central Westminster courts, in their own areas.

The common law courts of the Court of King/Queen’s Bench and the Court of Common Pleas established in the 12th Century had, overall only one means of legal redress, that of financial compensation. This would not solve an issue such as trespass or rights of use of land where what was required was an injunction. Common law courts could also not enforce trusts which by the 14th and 15th centuries were growing in use, particularly in connection with land and inheritance. Courts of Equity therefore began to be established to address the faults with the common law system.

Each court developed at different times and had different functions although there was some overlap between several courts in the types of cases they would hear.

The Courts

General Eyre (12th to 14th Century)

This was essentially the senior criminal court dealing with serious crimes (and some civil matters) which were beyond the jurisdiction of the manorial courts. It was a hearing of the King’s Judges who were sent out from London every few years (an average of every seven but often less frequent) to hear civil cases such as trespass, debts and cases against the Crown; and to hear criminal cases of those accused of felonies, that is crimes which held a sentence of imprisonment or death.

The Coroner was a key figure in General Eyre proceedings, presenting the Justices with rolls of inquests into suspicious or unnatural deaths and collating records of the crimes and events taken place between each General Eyre.

The General Eyre was also responsible for overseeing local administration, presentments made by juries and the general behaviour of the community. Failure to comply with the complex and convoluted legal procedures was punished by the levying of large fines both on individuals and entire communities.

The General Eyre were essentially the ‘eyes, ears and enforcers’ of the Crown maintaining law, order and civility across the country.

High Court of Admiralty (1160 to 1875)

Being an Island, England has a long history as a seafaring nation, little is it any wonder that piracy was once a significant problem and that disputes arose in the maritime industry. The High Court of Admiralty was established around 1160 and had both criminal and civil jurisdiction, dealing with criminal matters such as piracy and murder alongside civil matters such as the condemnation and sale of enemy ships (‘prize cases’) including those captured by privateers under Letters of Marque first issued in 1293 and abolished in 1856 (although only usually issued in times of war). 

They also dealt with civil disputes such as collisions between ships and the damage caused including loss and damage to cargo; salvage of ships; seaman’s wages; seizures of ships and cargo by customs officers; and chartering of ships.

From the 17th Century, the criminal jurisdiction of the High Court of Admiralty, particularly in cases of piracy and murder, was transferred to Admiralty sessions at the Old Bailey and in 1834 to the Central Criminal Court. In addition, in the 17th Century ‘prize cases’ were heard in separate Prize Courts.

Appeals in civil dispute cases (other than ‘prize cases’) from the High Court of Admiralty were heard by the High Court of Delegates between 1535 and 1833. The High Court of Delegates[2] was a court in which appeals were made to the Crown in Chancery where they were heard by Commissioners appointed by letters patent under the Great Seal.

Also established from the 17th Century were Vice-Admiral Courts in nineteen maritime counties around England and in the British Colonies which represented the High Court of Admiralty in those areas and dealt with local admiralty cases. Appeals from these courts were to the High Court of Admiralty.

Court of the King/Queen’s Bench (12th Century to 1875)

This along with the Court of Common Pleas was the oldest and highest common law court in England[3], although it did also deal with criminal matters, dealing with matters which either affected the Crown in person on the King/Queen’s peace. They also supervised the lower courts and had a local jurisdiction in Middlesex. The court was presided over by the Lord Chief Justice.  

On the Crown side (criminal law) the court would deal with the most severe crimes such as treason, breaches of the peace, highway robbery, felonies and misgovernment. They would also hear appeal cases; were it was claimed there was an error in a conviction by the lower courts.

On the Plea side (civil law) they would deal again with the more serious cases such as fraud, breach of contract, abuse of power by public officials and writs of habeus corpus (seeking freedom from alleged illegal imprisonment).

Being the highest common law court, there was no means of appeal to the Court’s decision in civil proceedings. Until 1830, the King’s Bench acted as a court of appeal for the Court of Exchequer (see below), Court of Common Pleas, Eyre circuits, Assize courts and local courts.

Its own decisions and records were sent to Parliament to be signed off although from 1585 and the creation of the Court of Exchequer Chamber (see below), King’s Bench decisions could be appealed and following the expansion of the jurisdiction of the Exchequer Chamber in 1830, the King’s Bench ceased to be an appellate court.

Court of Common Pleas (12th Century to 1875)

This court developed in the 12th Century from the King’s Council (Curia Regis) evolving from unlimited jurisdiction to a purely common law court. Typical cases concerned land or debt between individuals, cases which did not concern or affect the Crown. It was presided over by the Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas and a varying number of puisne justices (who were usually Barristers).

The Court of Common Pleas was gradually superseded by the King’s Bench and Court of Exchequer (see below) because its methods and procedures were much slower than those of the King’s Bench and Exchequer courts. But it maintained its dominance in the jurisdiction of real property disputes until 1875.

Privy Council (14th Century to 1875)

The Privy Council developed from the Curia Regis and was a legislative, judicial and administrative body, essentially an advisory court of the Crown.

The Privy Council was made up of the Crown’s most important officials including ministers such as the Lord Chancellor and Treasurer, bishops and household officials, conducting most of its business through committees (one of which is now the cabinet) which were concerned with matters of foreign affairs, royal grants of land, pardons and tax. Judicial matters of public order such as treason, rebellion, heresy and petitions received from individuals and communities to resolve local matters, were in time, referred to the Court of Star Chambers (see below) and Court of Chancery (see below) respectively. In those matters, the Privy Council remained the final court of appeal through its Judicial Committee, the High Court of Delegates.

Appeals were also heard by the Privy Council from the Admiralty Courts (see above), the Isle of Man, Channel Islands, Crown colonies, dominions and later Commonwealth Countries.

The Court of Chancery (14th Century to 1875)

This was (and remains as a division of the High Court) the oldest equity court in England being established in the 14th Century, originating in the Reign of Richard II (1377-99). The court was presided over by Chancellors, who were originally church men dealing with matters of ‘conscience’ rather than ‘law’, i.e. what was fair and just or ‘equitable’. It was not until the mid-16th Century in the reign of Henry VIII that the first Chancellor with a legal background was appointed, Sir Thomas More.

The Court of Chancery dealt with all manner of cases which either:

  1. Did not come under the jurisdiction of common law, such as cases involving trusts, mortgages, where an injunction or similar order was required to prevent an action or enforce an action, recovery of a debt against a deceased estate; or
  2. Could be dealt with by common law but no appropriate or fair remedy could be obtained, such as a plaintiff being too poor to afford an action in the common law courts, or there was an imbalance of power between the parties (such as a tenant bringing a claim against a landlord); or
  3. Where there was a possibility of oppressive or fraudulent use of the common law because of prejudice within a jury, local corruption or fear of harm from the defendant; or
  4. Where the case involved a plaintiff, who had fraudulently been deprived of monies owed or had been so deprived by duress.

Most cases before both the common law and Chancery courts involved land disputes, the main difference between the types of land cases they dealt with: The common law dealt with ownership of land whilst equity law was concerned with possession of or the right to use land. As many more people had the right to use/possess land (as tenants etc) than owned land, the Chancery Courts became the primary court for civil disputes.

However, there were limits to its jurisdiction. Chancery Courts did not hear cases concerning land or inheritance outside of England and Wales or within the palatinate counties. Neither did they hear inheritance cases which affected the interests of the Crown.

Judgements in the Court of Chancery could be appealed to the House of Lords, save between 1851 and 1875 when there was a Court of Appeal in Chancery.

The Court of Exchequer Chamber (14th Century to 1875)

This was essentially an ‘umbrella term’ used by four separate courts which heard appeals from common law courts – the King’s Bench, the Court of Exchequer (see below) and from 1830, the Court of Common Pleas directly.

Appeals were presided over by four judges belonging to the two courts other than the court the matter had originate in. Where the appeal was to determine an important point of law, twelve common law judges may sit, the matter being referred to the original court once with point of law had been determined.

A judgment of the Exchequer Chamber was usually considered the authoritative statement of the law although further appeal to the House of Lords was possible.

Court of Requests (1483 to 1640’s)

This court was essentially the Court of Chancery for the poor man, also known as ‘the poor man’s court’. It was established to enable those whose cases were below the threshold of £10 set by the Court of Chancery.

The types of cases dealt with included land enclosure disputes, rights over common land, customs of the manor disputes, annuities and marriage contracts. Although its jurisdiction was mainly civil law, it could also hear some minor criminal and admiralty cases.

Its procedures where much simpler and quicker than other courts which made it a popular court, particularly with female litigants who may otherwise be discouraged from bringing a case.

Because of its procedures the court soon became unpopular with common law judges who during the late 16th century became angry at the number of cases being brought before the Court of Requests. The 1590’s was perhaps the start of their downfall when the higher courts began overwriting many of the Court of Request decisions and prevented the Court of Requests from imposing prison sentences.

Court of Star Chamber (1485 to 1641)

This court was established as a committee of councillors to deal with the judicial function of the Privy Council in matters which required the intervention of the Crown (see above). Their role was two-fold: to administer law directly and to supervise other courts.

From 1485 to 1560 the court dealt with both civil and criminal matters; from 1560 it dealt almost exclusively with criminal matters, such as “allegations of official corruption, abuse of legal procedure, alleged perjury, conspiracy, forgery, fraud, trespass, assault or riot”[4].Usually, they were cases involving prominent powerful individuals who were perhaps otherwise thought to be immune from criminal proceedings because the lower courts would not have the power to convict them.

In Tudor times (1485 to 1603) it also dealt with public disorder and rioting, perhaps such crimes were associated with acts of recusancy, heresy and even treason in the turbulent years after the dissolution of the monasteries and establishment of the Church of England.

The court was abolished by an Act of the Long Parliament in 1641 perhaps reflecting the fact that the court particularly concerned itself with and imposed unpleasant punishments on those who were thought to oppose the Crown.

Court of Augmentation (1536 to 1554)

This court was a ‘short-lived’ court created by Henry VIII following the dissolution of the monasteries to resolve land and property issues raised as a result of the sale of monastic land and to ensure the revenue from such sales was received.

The court had its own chancellor, treasurer, lawyers, receivers and auditors. Their main purpose and the collection of rent. Auditors would appraise monastic property and prepare particulars upon which the Court would then grant a warrant allowing the sale of the property, the Court being responsible for collecting the income from the sale.

Henry VIII established this court rather than having to go through the complex, lengthy procedures of the Court of Exchequer. Following his death in 1547 the court continued until it was abolished by Mary I in 1554 with the Court of Exchequer taking over its duties. This is perhaps not surprising given her attempt to reverse the Reformation.

Court of the Exchequer (16th Century to 1875)

The Court of Exchequer was originally established to oversee the collection of taxes but soon developed into an equity law court dealing with any cases where, it was accepted for the purposes of the law, it could be argued that the case affected or may affect the plaintiff’s ability to pay any debts or taxes he may owe to the Crown thus affecting the Crown’s revenue. Until 1649 “litigants had to have some genuine connection with the royal revenue, as officials or tenants of the Crown”[5].

This logic meant that virtually anyone could bring a claim in the Court of Exchequer and plaintiffs had a choice of bringing their case in either the Court of Chancery or Exchequer.

A plaintiff may choose to start proceedings in the Court of Exchequer instead of Chancery because it was thought the process in the Exchequer was quicker. However due to its popularity, overtime “its advantages disappeared, and the court became over-burdened”. Thus, from 1841 the equity cases were transferred to the Court of Chancery.

This court was presided over by four Barons who decided cases collectively hearing disputes over title of land, tithes, wills, trusts, mortgages, bonds, manorial rights and debts.

Court of Wards and Liveries (16th Century to 1660)

This court was another court established by Henry VIII essentially as another ‘easier’ means of revenue than the Court of Exchequer. Established as a result of statutes of 1540 and 1542, its role was to supervise and administer the estates of a tenant-in-chief following his death where the heir was a minor (21 for a boy, 14 for a girl) as well as the estates of lunatics. Such minors and lunatics were made ‘wards of court’. The Court was not only responsible for the financial management of the estate and collecting feudal dues, they were also responsible for the care and marriage of young heirs.

Wardships were frequently sold either to the next of kin or the highest bidder. They may also have been given to individuals as a reward for services.

The Court of Ward and Liveries was abolished in 1660 although feudal tenures had been abolished 15 years earlier, in 1645.

Palace Court (1630 to 1849)

The Palace Court was a minor civil law court which sat in Southwark with jurisdiction limited to within 12 miles of the Palace of Westminster, mainly hearing small debt claims with a value of below £5 (raised to £10 by the Frivolous Arrests Act 1725 and to £20 by the Imprisonment for Debt Act 1827), superior courts heard cases above this value. The figure of £5 was raised to £10 by the Frivolous Arrests Act 1725 and to £20 by the Imprisonment for Debt Act 1827. Its lower limit for the value of claims was 40 shillings. This court was abolished in 1849.

The civil court system since 1875 has been much simplified comprising: The High Court of Justice in London with law administered on a local level in County Courts; the Court of Appeal; and the Supreme Court of Judicature.  There are then the appeal courts: The Court of Appeal, the Privy Council (limited jurisdiction[6]) and the UK Supreme Court.


[1] As this was during the reign of Queen Victoria; known as King’s bench during the reign of a King

[2] So named by Privy Council Appeals Act 1832 being the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (see below)

[3] For which there are records

[4] Herber Ancestral Trails page 563

[5] Moore Tracing your Ancestors through the Equity Courts page 9

[6] They hear appeals from UK overseas territories and Crown dependencies and those Commonwealth countries that have retained the appeal to Her Majesty in Council or, in the case of Republics, to the Judicial Committee.