GEM FROM THE ARCHIVE
A Caernarforn Quarter Sessions Record from 1566
Quarter Sessions records, where they survive, can be highly rewarding documents to explore. As well as revealing our ancestors’ misdemeanours, they can also tell us about the workings of the contemporary legal system and the attitudes of society towards crime and punishment.
The practice of holding Quarter Sessions lasted until the early 1970s, but there are records that survive from as far back as the medieval period. For this month’s Gem from the Archive, Lynn Crowther Francis from Gwynedd Archives Service provides an example from the 16th century that reveals how pirates operated off the coast of North Wales – long before Blackbeard and Anne Bonny were sailing the high seas.
Which document have you chosen?
I have chosen a document from the Quarter Sessions Collection at Caernarfon Record Office. Dated 1566, it is an article of enquiry concerning the taking by English pirates of a Dutch ship laden with sugar, goatskins and other wares on her voyage from Barbary to Antwerp.
Jeven ap Meredeth and Richard ap Meredeth are accused of receiving, aiding and assisting the pirates when they arrived at St Tudwal’s, an island situated off the coast of the Llynˆ Peninsula.
What does it reveal about the lives of our ancestors?
The document provides an insight into what was going on locally and beyond, as well as the part that our ancestors played in these events.
Written on four pages of parchment, the document firstly accuses Jeven ap Meredeth and Richard ap Meredeth of helping the pirates, before going on to list a series of questions that the Justices of the Peace for the County of Caernarfon will put to the pair.
The first question asks what the pirates were called, and if they brought the ship to St Tudwal’s. They also want to know if any of the pirates have left the ship, and if so, whether they remain in the area – including a specific man who was named Morgan.
Following this, it asks if any of the pirates were familiar to Jeven, Richard, their family, servants or any other inhabitants of St Tudwal’s. The nature of the questions seems to suggest that there were local links to the pirates, and that they didn’t randomly arrive there.
The document then questions in detail the meetings both men had with the pirates. It asks if any of their neighbours requested their help or their boat to entrap the pirates, and why they didn’t apprehend them. It asks if they have helped pirates in the past, what goods they received from them, where they distributed the goods and to whom, and for what price.
There are no further documents in the collection that enable us to follow the story but, nevertheless, the record indicates both the willingness of people to aid pirates and th hat th he authorities were worried about the threat of foreign invasion. . Clea arly, any misdemeano ours along the coast wouldw raise questions ab bout thet safety of the borders.
Why did you u choose this document?
I chose this document to highlight the Quarter Sessions Collection at Caernarfon Record Office, which I believe is an underused resource.
Dating from 1541 to the 1970s, it iss a mine of informattion about the history of the county and gives an insight into the lives of individuals and theirt communities across the centuries. This inncludes one family who were accused of conducting a drama at their property duringuring the Commonwealth period, the woman who was nailed by her ear and whipped for stealing a piece of cheese, plus countless people who were bound over to keep the peace.
Prior to the formation of
county councils in 1889 the Quarter Sessions were responsible for administering the counties, which made them responsible for all sorts of activities. Therefore Quarter Sessions collections not only includeld documents relating to the prosecution of individuals, but administrative records that are name-rich and therefore of value to the family historian.
These records can also provide researchers with a more rounded view of their ancestors and the communities theyy inhabited while also enabling them to view the effect the wider world had on their forefathers.
I therefore urge family historians to delve into the Quarter Sessions holdings at their local record office.
Tell us more about your collections…
Gwynedd Archives Service has two record offices, one in Caernarfon and the other at Dolgellau, both containing a wealth of information. The collections date back to the 12th century and include the records of Gwynedd Council and its predecessor authorities, court and coroners’ records, parish registers and also the collections of individuals.
Both record offices hold material relating to the industry of the area, such as the records for all the major slate quarries, and a variety of maritime records. All the collections reflect the rich history of the communities of Gwynedd.
LYNN CROWTHERWTHHER FRANCIS