GEM FROM THE ARCHIVE
17th century consistory court papers
Sometimes when piecing together the lives of our ancestors, it can become all too easy to stop seeing them as real people. We end up being preoccupied with names, dates and movements, rather than attempting to understand their worldview or how they would have spoken.
Although sources such as diaries and newspapers can aid us in our detective work, the most revealing documents can be those created in more unfortunate circumstances, such as legal disputes. By examining these records, we can learn more about human nature and discover language that is far removed from the formal nature of other sources from the period.
This month, Vicky Grindrod from the Leeds branch of West Yorkshire Archive Service reveals a fantastic example, originating 50 miles further north in Richmond.
Which document have you chosen?
There are so many gems in the collection that it’s been tricky to pick just one. However, I’ve chosen something which I think is a fairly under-used type of document and which will hopefully highlight a potential source of research for Who Do You
Think You Are? Magazine readere s. This is an example from the Archdeaconry of Richmond and the Diocese of Ripon and Leeds consistory court collection.
A consistory court is a type of ecclesiastical court within the Church of England, which had, up until the middle of the 19th century, jurisdiction over maintaining spiritual discipline, presiding over issues of morality and matrimony among others.
Here at the West Yorkshire Archive Service (Leeds) we are extremely lucky to be the Diocesan record office for Ripon and Leeds and we look after, on behalf of the Church of England, the consistory court cause papers. These cause papers record the process of legal cases, covering the 16th to the 19th centuries and are a fantastic, untapped resource for family and local historians alike.
The document shown opposite is one of the interrogatories in a case from the 17th century in Richmond in the North East of England. This particular example is taken from a dispute between Susan Murthwaite and Mistress Anne Taylor.
Susan Murthwaite, and her servants had been keeping cows for a few years and had been making, according to Susan, “much holesome butter, cheese and curddes”, selling the products to the parishioners and inhabitants of Richmond.
Mistress Anne Taylor, apparently unimpressed by Susan’s efforts is reported to have said that Susan made “dirtie cheese and stinkeinge butter” and by saying this, potentially damaged Susan’s reputation in the village. In this document Susan is bringing the matter before the church courts in order to clear her name and reinstate her reputation.
What does it reveal about the lives of our ancestors?
These cause papers are a fantastic source of information for legal history, social history, local history and family history and certainly here at Leeds have not been usedu to their full potential. I see peeople researching their family historry every day, keen to trace their ancestors and find out about mmore about their lives.
What really intrigues me iss the relationship between people – not just about who was married too whom, but how they interactedd with the rest of their communiity. These papers highlight the triaals and tribulations of the average person and provide a unique insight into their characters. Thhe church courts provided a meanns for ordinary people to bring casses against each other and as such youy are able to find out what causedd disputes amongst couples, friennds and neighbours.
The church courts dealt withh a wide range of cases, from non-payment of church rates annd tithes, to matrimonial disputes and defamation of character. Whilst usually written in Latin until 1733, parts of the allegation are often given in English and in defamation cases usually contain somewhat colourful language, allowing you to listen to the voices, and sometimes even the accents, of those bringing these cases to court.
Up until the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 the Church Courts oversaw marriage litigation so you can find cases of divorce,
adultery and discrepancies about marital rights which pprovide ddetailedild information about a couple’s relationship which would not be recorded anywhere else.
Why did you choose this document?
I chose this document not only to highlight its use for historians but because it’s in a collection which has only recently been fully listed. Thanks to staff and a very talented volunteer, descriptions of all of the cause papers have been added to our online catalogue within the last few w months and are noww available for family historians to view at home for the first time.
And it’s not something that you would necessarily expect to find at an archive in Leeds as it covers, geographically, an area much further north. The cause papers we hold cover the deaneries of Catterick, Richmond, Boroughbridge and part of Lonsdale so it can be a little confusing for researchers who may not realise that those records are stored here with us.
Tell us more about your collections....
The West Yorkshire Archive Service has five district offices in Leeds, Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees and Wakefield. At Leeds, we collect and look after the unique documentary heritage of this area and help members of the public use and enjoy these records. The Leeds collections incorporate the records of Leeds Metropolitan District Council and its predecessor bodies including Leeds Corporation records dating back to 1662.
Our earliest document dates from circa 1156 and can be found amongst the Ingilby of Ripley papers which is just one of the many family and estate collections held here. As well as having the Diocesan collection we also hold records of most Anglican parishes in the Archdeaconry of Leeds and some in the Diocese of Bradford.