CHANCERY COURT RECORDS
Susan Moore, who appeared in Sir Derek Jacobi’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, reveals how you too can uncover your ancestors’ secrets through Chancery Court records
There are few better sources for providing detailed genealogical information than the Chancery Court
Looking at Chancery Court proceedings is like shining a torch onto people’s lives in past centuries. No other source gives such a personal insight, except perhaps letters. Likewise, no other source can provide so much genealogical information – often several generations in one document – with names, relationships and sometimes even exact dates. The rich and the poor used the Chancery Court, although as a rule of thumb it is generally the type of family who might leave a will who tended to use it.
The Chancery Court was one of the courts of equity that came into being in the late 14th century. The courts of equity were used by ordinary people to bring a case against another citizen. They were courts where “the first object in enquiry in Equity is the defendant’s conscience rather than the plaintiff ’s right”.
The judgements aimed to be what a good and moral person would do, which, as today, is not necessarily the same as what is ‘right’ in a strict legal sense.
In addition to the Chancery Court, there were three main other courts of equity. Cases brought in the Court of the Star Chamber (1485-1641), which included cases alleging
acts of violence, which although often fictitious, make for gripping reading; the Court of Requests (1483-1642) was known as ‘the poor man’s court’ and involved cases worth less than £10 or land worth less than 40 shillings a year; the Court of the Exchequer involved cases where there was a debt (real or fictitious) to the Crown. The palatinate courts of Chester, Durham, Lancaster and Durham also each had equity jurisdictions.
Although there are Chancery Court records from the late 14th century, the period for which they are a goldmine is from the mid-16th to the mid-19th centuries. The joy of these records for family historians is that, unlike those of most other legal courts, the records of the courts of equity are written in English.
Disputes tend to fall into two very broad categories: unpaid debts and the possession of property, the latter generally being more informative and interesting particularly when there is a dispute over a will or a marriage settlement. The case starts with the plaintiff setting out his grievance, usually with a long background history that will include a great deal of information that can help a family historian. Different people of the same name are described so that you can be sure that one John Smith is the uncle/father/cousin of another one, thus helping with one of the greatest problems that genealogists face.
In some cases there may even be five generations described, with numerous children listed at each level, names of wives, dates of marriage and death, and often with the same name occurring many times for different people.
Once the background has been established, the body of the case is introduced with the words “Now so it is may it please your lordship...” leading at the end of the document to the names of the defendants with the words “May it therefore please your lordship the premises considered to grant unto your orator his Majesty’s most gracious writ of subpoena to be directed unto...”
When reading the Bill of Complaint it is easy to be very sympathetic to the plaintiff, believing that they have been seriously wronged by the defendant. The next document is the Answer by the defendant and this often brings a feeling to the reader that there is more to the case than first meets the eye. In the Answer, the defendant will work through the points raised by the plaintiff, often adding new information about the family and its background. The language in the Bill and Answer is not quite colloquial as it is written by lawyers, but there is a real feeling of hearing the parties speaking, and indeed in many cases they will quote actual words of who said what and when.
The plaintiff and defendant can then each compile a list of questions, known as ‘interrogatories’, to be put to chosen witnesses. The witnesses, known as deponents, then give their answers or depositions to the questions that are relevant to them. For those outside London, the answers to these questions are usually taken down in the local pub and written out almost verbatim. The value of these records is that each witness is named with his or her occupation
Disputes at Chancery Courts tend to fall into two very broad categories: unpaid debts and the possession of property
and age. Whereas the parties in a case usually are of a certain social standing, witnesses can often be agricultural labourers. The first question they are usually asked is how long they have known the parties. An answer such as “10 years when I moved to this parish from the parish of...” can be an invaluable indication as to where people came from and how long they have lived in an area.
With Chancery records there is no verbal hearing in court, no cross-examination, no verbal judgement – all the records
are written down, and most survive for us to look at now. Written judgement is given by the Lord Chancellor, after reading the summary of the case prepared by the Master.
Having said this, it must be pointed out that many cases do not get this far. The majority do not get beyond the Bill and Answer stage, leading no doubt to a settlement out of court.
The Master could also ask for exhibits such as deeds, marriage settlements, wills and accounts, to be brought to court, and occasionally these were left behind after the end of the case and now form the wonderful collection of Masters’ Exhibits.
In addition to the basic genealogical help given by these documents, they give a fascinating insight into the way of life of your ancestors. The cases involving debt often refer to merchants and tradesmen and can show how far afield they traded, in some cases overseas, including America. All the cases show how friendship and trust can soon deteriorate into conflict and enmity.
A Chancery Court in session at Lincoln’s Inn, Holborn, London, in 1808
Sir Derek Jacobi discusses
Chancery Court records concerning his ancestor Joseph de la Plaigne with Susan Moore during his episode of WDYTYA?
Lord Chancellor Macclesfield presides over a Chancery Court in London during the reign of George I