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‘In Love and Charity with your Neighbours …’: Ecclesiastical Courts and Justices of the Peace in England in the Eighteenth Century

  • W. M. Jacob (a1)


The aim of this paper is to account for the busyness of the ecclesiastical courts in England during the first half of the eighteenth century, and to suggest why, apart from matters of strictly ecclesiastical business, and defamation, matrimonial and probate causes, their business declined during the second half of the century.

The ecclesiastical courts in the first part of the century were a popular part of the lowest level of judicial activity in England. That the churchwardens of St Mary’s Beverley paid the ringers 2s. 6d in 1721 for ringing when ‘the Spiritual Court Men came’ suggests the arrival of the consistory court to conduct business in a town was an occasion of note. Archdeacons’ and consistory courts show evidence of considerable activity in almost every diocese in which research has been undertaken about eighteenth-century church life. The diocese of Ely seems to be the exception, where the evidence for much activity in the courts peters out in 1704.



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1 East Riding of Yorkshire County Record Office, PE1/1111; St Mary’s Beverley Churchwardens’ Accounts, 1721–2.

2 For a summary of recent research and an account of the church courts in the eighteenth century, see Jacob, W. M., Lay People and Religion in the Early Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1996), 13554 .

3 See Cross, M., ‘The Church and Local Society in the Diocese of Ely c.1630-c.1730’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 1991, 288302 .

4 See Claydon, Tony, William III and the Godly Revolution (Cambridge, 1996), 168 , and Bennett, G. V., ‘The Convocation of 1710: an Anglican Attempt at Counter-Revolution’, in Cuming, G. J. and Baker, Derek, eds, Councils and Assemblies, SCH 7 (Cambridge, 1971), 31119 .

5 See Sharpe, J. A., Crime in Early Modern England 1550–1750 (London, 1984), 8193 .

6 Hunt, Alan, Governing Morals: a Social History of Moral Regulation (Cambridge, 1999), 12 .

7 The best recent introduction to church courts and their procedures is Tarver, Anne, Church Court Records: an Introduction/or Family and Local Historians (Chichester, 1995).

8 Norfolk Record Office [hereafter NRO], NDR ACT 102 and 103, Consistory Court Act Books, 1778–86 and 1786–98.

9 Mary Kinnear, ‘The Correction Court in the Diocese of Carlisle 1704–1756’, Church History 59 (1990), 191–206.

10 See NRO, NDR ACT 92–99; Warne, Arthur, ‘Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century Devon’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Leeds, 1963, 11639 ; idem, Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century Devon (Newton Abbot and New York, 1969), 74–86 (the published version is less detailed than the thesis); Albers, Jan Maria, ‘Seeds of Contention: Society, Politics and the Church of England in Lancashire 1689–1790’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Yale University, 1988, 222 .

11 Ingram, Martin, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England 1570–1640 (Cambridge, 1987), 292ff .

12 Sharpe, J. A., Defamation and Sexual Slander in Early Modern England: the Church Courts at York, Bortliwick Papers 58 (York, 1980), 9 .

13 Meldrum, Tim, ‘A Women’s Court in London: the Bishop of London’s Consistory Court’, The London Journal 19 (1994), 120, 2 .

14 See Waddams, S. M., Sexual Slander in Nineteenth-Century England: Defamation in the Ecclesiastical Courts 1815–1855 (Toronto, 2000).

15 See Meldrum, ‘A Women’s Court’, 3.

16 NRO, NDR ACT 104.

17 London Metropolitan Archives [hereafter LMA], DL/C166 Allegations, Libels and Sentence Book 1734–36.

18 NRCNDRANF/10/3.

19 The Diary of Henry Prescott, LL.B., de Puty Registrar of Chester Diocese, Vol. 1, 28 March 1704–24 March 1711, ed. John Addy, The Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 127 (Gloucester, 1987), 79.

20 The Deserted Village: the Diary of an Oxfordshire Rector, James Newton of Nuneham Courtenay 1736–1786, ed. Gavin Hannah (Stroud, 1992), 131 and 135, n. 8.

21 ‘the Diary of Henry Prescott, LL.B., de Puty Registrar of Chester Diocese, Vol. 2, 25 March 1711–24 May 1719, ed. John Addy and Peter McNiven, The Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 132 (Stroud, 1994), 350. The three volumes of Prescott’s diary provide excellent evidence of the activities of an official of the church courts.

22 Diary of Henry Prescott, I: 253, 257.

23 Kinnear, ‘Correction Courts’, 199.

24 Richard Clark, ‘Anglicanism, Recusancy and Dissent in Derbyshire 1603–1703’, unpublished D.Phil. thesis, University of Oxford, 1979, 225.

25 NRO, NDR ACT 100.

26 NRO, NDR Norwich Archdeaconry General Visitation Books, Book 9.

27 NRO, NDR ACT 96.

28 Cf. similar methodological considerations in this volume in the article by Graeme Murdock, ‘Did Early Modern Calvinists Have a Guilt Complex?’, 138–58 and n. 16.

29 Articles of Enquiry Addressed to the Clergy of the Diocese of Oxford at the Primary Visitation of Dr Thomas Seeker, 1738, ed. H. A. Lloyd Jukes, Oxfordshire Record Society Series 3 8 (Oxford, 1957), 165.

30 NRO, NDR Norfolk Archdeaconry ANF/10/2.

31 NRO, NDR VIS/20.

32 Albers, ‘Seeds of Contention’, 248.

33 James Woodforde (1740–1803), Diary of a Country Parson, ed. John Beresford, 5 vols (London, 1924–31), IV (1793–96): 15s.

34 Sharpe, J. A., ‘“Such Disagreements betwyx Neighbours”: Litigation and Human Relations in Early Modern England’, in Bossy, John, ed., Disputes and Settlements: Law and Human Relations in the West (Cambridge, 1983), 16787, 1789 .

35 Shoemaker, Robert B., Prosecution and Punishment: Petty Crime and the Law in London and Rural Middlesex c.1660–1725 (Cambridge, 1991), 237 and 8293 .

36 The Justicing Notebook of William Hunt, 1744–1749, ed. Elizabeth Crittall, Wiltshire Record Society 37 (Devizes, 1982); The Deposition Book of Richard Wyatt, JP, 1767–1776, ed. Elizabeth Silverthorne, Surrey Record Society 30 (Guildford, 1978); Justice in Eighteenth Century Hackney: thejusticing Notebook of Henry Norris and the Hackney Petty Sessions Book, ed. Ruth Paley, London Record Society 28 (London, 1991); The justicing Notebook (1750–64) of Edmund Tew, Rector of Boldon, ed. Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton, Surtees Society 205 (Woodbridge, 2000).

37 Oberwittler, Dietrich, ‘Crime and Authority in Eighteenth-Century England: Law Enforcement on the Local Level’, Historical Social Research 15 (1990), 334, 11 .

38 Oberwittler, ‘Crime and Authority’, 15.

39 Shoemaker, Prosecution and Punishment, 207.

40 Oberwittler, ‘Crime and Authority’, 19.

41 See Landau, Norma, The Justices of the Peace 1679–1760 (Berkeley, CA, and London, 1984), 12540 .

42 For the absenteeism of the county gentry, see Rosenheim, James M., The Emergence of a Ruling Order: English Landed Society 1650–1750 (London and New York, 1998), 10223 .

43 NRO, NDR VIS 29.

44 Langford, Paul, Public Life and the Propertied Englishman 1689–1798 (Oxford, 1991), 41r .

45 Spaeth, Donald A., The Church in an Age of Danger: Parsons and Parishioners 1660–1740 (Cambridge, 2000), 49 .

46 Evans, Eric J., The Contentious Tithe: the Tithe Problem and English Agriculture, 1750–1850 (London, 1976), 11 .

47 Jacob, W. M., ‘Clergy and Society in Norfolk 1707–1806’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Exeter, 1982, 429 .

48 King, Peter, Crime, Justice and Discretion in England, 1740–1820 (Oxford, 2000), 11718 .

49 Chalklin, Christopher, ‘County Building in Leicestershire 1680–1830’, Georgian Group Journal 9 (1999), 6985 .

50 Virgin, Peter, The Church in an Age of Negligence: Ecclesiastical Structure and Problems of Church Reform 1700–1840 (Cambridge, 1989), 118 .

51 For example by Evans, E.J., ‘Some Reasons for the Growth of English Anti-Clericalism C.1750-C.1830’, Past & Present 66 (1975), 84109 .

52 For the various hypotheses advanced for the decline of the church courts, see Jacob, Lay People and Religion, 151–4.

‘In Love and Charity with your Neighbours …’: Ecclesiastical Courts and Justices of the Peace in England in the Eighteenth Century

  • W. M. Jacob (a1)


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