Public records: Chancery and other equity suits



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Chancery and equity

In their medieval origins, the Chancellor was the king's chaplain, and the Chancery was the secretariat responsible for recording a variety of business on its rolls. From the 14th century, the Chancellor also became responsible for hearing petitions to the King in Council. The Chancery thus acquired an equity jurisdiction - that is, the power to decide upon an 'equitable' solution in cases for which the common law could provide no remedy. While much of the Chancery's earlier business passed to other branches of government, the equity jurisdiction expanded, and remained important until the 19th century.

Although Chancery was the earliest, and is the best known, court of equity, there were others - the Exchequer heard equity suits from Elizabethan times, and there were various local courts of equity, including those of the counties palatine of Chester, Lancaster and Durham. The Court of Requests and the Court of Star Chamber, from the late 15th century - although not strictly courts of equity - used similar procedures and left similar records. The following description relates to Chancery suits, but the others should not be neglected; they are included in the bibliography below.

The records

Several features of equity suits make them particularly fertile ground for genealogists. Most of the suits concern disputes over landed property, often between people who were related to each other. As a result, much of the evidence concerns family relationships. For equity suits - unlike common law suits - most of the relevant records are written in English rather than Latin. Generally the most informative are the pleadings, or statements made by the plaintiffs and defendants; these survive from the late 14th century for Chancery suits (P.R.O. classes C1-4). The suit would be initiated by a bill of complaint from the plaintiff, which would be followed by an answer from the defendant. The process could continue with a replication from the plaintiff, a rejoinder from the defendant (and possibly even further pleadings). Of course, many cases didn't get this far, and there may be only a bill (or even only an answer).

Another distinctive feature of equity proceedings is that the main evidence was in the form of written depositions rather than oral testimony. The depositions were based on lists of prepared questions, called interrogatories, which can be necessary in interpreting the depositions, as the answers are sometimes of the 'yes/no' or 'he knoweth nothing' variety. Depositions taken in London (called town depositions) survive from the 1530s, and country depositions from the reign of Elizabeth (C21, 23-25). Their contents can shed light not only on the facts of the case, but also on the deponents themselves. Most were ordinary - sometimes elderly - people who lived in the neighbourhood where the disputed property lay. Normally their ages and the places where they lived are given, and there are often other incidental pieces of biographical information about themselves, such as how long they had lived there, whose service they were in, and so on. Many early depositions are indexed by the deponents' surnames in the Bernau Index (see below).

The pleadings and the depositions are generally the most informative and accessible Chancery records. There are also the Entry Books (C33, from 1544), which contain procedural notes about the course of each suit, and also final decrees for cases that reached a conclusion. For a minority of cases, the decrees, together with summaries of the pleadings, were also entered on the Decree Rolls (C78,79, from 1534). There also the Exhibits (C103-116, 171), documents deposited as evidence in suits and never returned to their owners; these can include all sorts of miscellaneous material, often of a much earlier date than the suit itself.

Some problems

The records of Chancery suits are a rich source of genealogical evidence. Obviously, some care is needed in interpreting them - by definition, the parties were in dispute, so their statements have to be approached with caution. Indeed, equity pleadings usually contain a clause formally refusing to admit the truth of anything said by the other side. (It is also conventional for the plaintiff to emphasise his own poverty and helplessness, in contrast to the wealth and political influence of the defendant.) On the other hand, it is usually not too hard to read between the lines, and perceive the actual common ground between the parties. And genealogical facts are usually more or less incidental, rather than lying at the heart of the dispute.

Chancery pleadings are not usually dated, although the identity of the Chancellor to whom they are addressed provides limits on the possible dates (see the section on chronology and dating for some online resources). For the later suits, a more precise date, as well as the final outcome - if any - can be found from the Entry Books (although this can be somewhat laborious). For earlier suits, a closer date can only be deduced from the contents of the pleadings themselves. (Note that the dates given in the older printed calendars are not always accurate.)


Links and bibliography for Chancery and other equity suits

For source material on the internet, click here

Discussion

The following National Archives information leaflets are available online - they include details of unpublished indexes available at the National Archives:

The following discussion of the records is available online:

Published works (see also under Common law records):

Printed indexes, calendars and extracts

Various printed indexes and calendars are available, of which the most important are listed below. Some of these are not fully alphabetical - which makes searches very time-consuming - or are indexed by the names of plaintiffs alone. Many of the printed indexes, and much other material for which there is no published index, are covered by the manuscript Bernau Index, which has been microfilmed by the Church of Latter Day Saints (the Society of Genealogists in London holds a copy). The entries in the index give the name of the party, with usually some indication of place and date; promising cases then have to be followed up in the printed indexes, which usually give fuller details. The coverage is summarised in H. Sharp, How to use the Bernau Index (London, 2000). Many of the entries relate to post-1600 suits - for the earlier period, the index was partly compiled from printed indexes and calendars (as noted below), and also covers town depositions (C24) and country depositions (C21), for which there is no published index. (It also contains much miscellaneous material, not relating to equity suits.)

A much more accessible and convenient index is the National Archives online online catalogue, which already covers some of the printed indexes, and can be searched by surname. The National Archives is also organising the systematic compilation of a database containing details of names and places from equity records (the Equity Pleadings Project), which will ultimately be accessible through the online catalogue; the database is now online, and will initially cover part of series C6, which includes mainly 17th-century records.

Chancery

Lists and indexes:

Printed extracts:

Exchequer

Court of Requests

Lists and indexes:

Printed extracts:

Court of Star Chamber

Printed extracts:

Palatinate of Chester

Duchy of Lancaster