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.