How to look for records of... Chancery equity suits after 1558

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1. Introduction

Since the late 14th century, hundreds of thousands of disputes over inheritance and wills, lands, trusts, debts, marriage settlements, apprenticeships, and other parts of the fabric of daily life, were heard by the Lord Chancellor or his deputies. People turned to his court of Chancery because it was an equity court, promising a merciful justice not bound by the strict rules of the common law courts.

The procedure was quite different, and involved the gathering of written pleadings and evidence. These still exist in such quantity that today the equity records of the court of Chancery (from 1873 the Chancery Division of the Supreme Court of Judicature) are one of the treasures of The National Archives, and a major resource for social and economic history.

Most of its records are in English: many appear (misleadingly) to be written speech. The initial pleadings are the best known, but behind them is a huge hinterland of investigation (and administration of properties in dispute) by the court.

Suits from the 15th and early 16th century are well catalogued but after 1558 the various series of initial pleadings are not catalogued in so much detail. Several series of pleadings have no searchable list online. Later stages of the suits require use of contemporary ‘indexes’ or ‘alphabets’ available at The National Archives only. Subject or place searching is almost impossible, as all reference is by the titles of suits.

1.1 Titles of suits

The records of any one equity suit heard in Chancery were not kept together. Instead of being filed by the suit, they were filed by the type of document. This makes it difficult to trace all the documents in a suit, and at each point you will have to search for relevant records. To track a case in Chancery, you must have some idea of the title of the suit. Unfortunately, short titles were given to records as the clerks sent them to the archives – not based on who all the parties were, but instead on what the clerk could easily read and identify. In many cases, this means that a single lawsuit may have been given many differing short titles.

The short title (which is all that many series lists give) is something like Smith v Jones, after the first named plaintiff and one of the defendants. In Discovery, our catalogue, searching for the first defendant is easy if the title of the suit is given. It is very time consuming to search by defendant in the paper lists and alphabets.

This short title, Smith v Jones, was used even when the parties were Achitophel Smith, Methuselah Brown and the other copyholders of Camberwick Green (all 50 named in the bill) versus Zebediah Jones and the inhabitants of the parish of Trumpton (all 100 named in the bill or answer). This means that Smith v Jones will be found in the various lists and alphabets under S for Smith, but not under J for Jones. Brown and the others will not be mentioned at all, unless they returned separate answers. An exception to this is when archivists have relisted the series to give more historical detail. Even then, ‘others’ is sometimes used for large numbers of people.

Another problem is that the court could alter the principal plaintiff, and thus the name of the suit, so Smith v Jones became Brown v Jones. It was not at all unusual for a trial to be opened under one title, and to end with a completely different title, especially if parties had died or married along the way. Consider looking under the names of secondary plaintiffs or defendants, picked up from the documents already consulted. And again, large numbers of suits were just not proceeded with.

Suits are sometimes named In, re or in the matter of: these tend to be where the court is acting on behalf of someone incapable of acting for themselves: a testator minor, or a ‘lunatic’ perhaps.

2. The records

The records fall into five main categories:

  • Pleadings: statements made by the parties to a case. These bills, answers, replications and rejoinders are collectively known as Chancery Proceedings
  • Evidence: depositions (sworn examinations of persons chosen by the parties), affidavits (voluntary statements on oath) and exhibits brought into court
  • Decrees and orders: in the course of a suit
  • Chancery Masters’ reports: on evidence and subjects remitted for investigation
  • Final decrees – and appeals against them

Spoken activity before the court is not recorded.

2.1 The pleadings

Anyone wishing to start a suit in Chancery would get a lawyer to draw up a bill of complaint to submit to the Lord Chancellor. This would set out the offences of the defendant. It needed to claim that because of his or her lack of resources and power, or some other factor, the common law courts could not deliver justice. An equitable solution was therefore asked of the Lord Chancellor. The name of the Lord Chancellor can sometimes be the best clue to the date of the bill.

Bills (apart from the earliest ones) are in English, and give the plaintiff’s name, occupation, rank and place of abode: the lawyer’s name usually appears written by itself in a top corner. The defendant was required to make a similar written answer to all the points raised. The plaintiff could submit a replication, which might in turn produce a rejoinder from the defendant, and so on, until the allegations of the bill had been whittled or ‘pleaded’ down to a set of agreed points at issue. These were then used for the next stage, the gathering of evidence (see below, 2.4).

Chancery clerks filed the proceedings in a complicated system. As a result, you may need to look in several series. Some series have contemporary ‘alphabets’ of suit titles – very rough indexes – that need to be keyed up with the series list. Advice is available at The National Archives. The filing system is described in detail in the Guide to the contents of the Public Record Office (HMSO 1963) vol 1, pp 32-33.

It is exceptional to find bills and answers filed together under the same reference: carry on looking – but remember that if the dispute was settled out of court, you will find no further record.

All the catalogues and other material mentioned below can be seen at The National Archives, except for the Bernau Index which is seen on microfilm at the Society of Genealogists. Some series have published catalogues, which can be accessed through public and other libraries: see Further reading for details.

2.2 Pleadings 1558-1714

Date Range Catalogue reference Description Additional information
1558 – c1649 C 2 Chancery Proceedings: Series I. Several sequences of paper finding aids, including name and place indexes, at The National Archives. * Some published catalogues: see Further reading Not all are searchable online. Some but not all are included in the Bernau Index. Some published catalogues: see Further reading
1558 – c1660 C 3 Chancery Proceedings: Series II * Searchable online
1570-1714 C 8 Six Clerks Series: Mitford ** Not searchable online
1613-1714 C 5 Six Clerks Series: Bridges Searchable online
1620-1714 C 7 Six Clerks Series: Hamilton ** Searchable online
1625-1714 C 6 Six Clerks Series: Collins ** Searchable online
1640-1714 C 10 Six Clerks Series: Whittington. Miscellaneous pleadings are listed at the end of the Whittington volume ** Searchable online for 1st plaintiff, 1st defendant and county for about half the series
1649-1714 C 9 Six Clerks Series: Reynardson Searchable online for 1st plaintiff and 1st defendant
* A miscellaneous set of answers and subsidiary documents are in C 4, which is searchable
** For C 7, C 8 and C 10, there are indexes to disputed wills (by the name of the testator, not of the plaintiff) available at The National Archives. PW Coldham compiled these indexes

2.3 Pleadings after 1714

Date Range Catalogue reference Description Additional information
1715-1758 C 11 Various Six Clerks, Series I Searchable online
1758-1800 C 12 Various Six Clerks, Series II Searchable online for surname only of 1st plaintiff and one defendant
1800-1842 C 13 Various Six Clerks, Series III Searchable online for surname only of 1st plaintiff and one defendant: work is taking place on this series to make it searchable by full name of all defendants
1842-1852 C 14 Modern Series: Pleadings Searchable online
1844-1864 C 18 Miscellaneous Pleadings. Contains a very few 17th and 18th century pleadings Searchable online for 1st plaintiff and 1st defendant. Gives forename as well
1853-1860 C 15 Modern Series: Pleadings Searchable online for surname of 1st plaintiff and 1st defendant. To check that a suit is the right one, order up the relevant volume from C 32
1861-1875 C 16 Modern Series: Pleadings Searchable online
1876 onwards J 54 Chancery Division: Pleadings, Common Law Orders and so on Not searchable online. Index for 1876-1880 only in IND 1/2218-2226

2.4 Depositions and affidavits

When the pleadings were finished, and the issues in dispute defined, the court commissioned neutral men of substance to examine an agreed list of people (deponents), and report back in writing (in English, with commissions and some small amount of material in Latin before 1733). Both sides drew up separate lists of numbered questions, called interrogatories, to be put to the deponents under oath. The answers, called depositions, provide information about the case and often about the parties involved in the dispute, not be included in the pleadings. They also give the deponent’s name, place of abode, age and occupation, at the head of his or her deposition.

Affidavits were voluntary statements made upon oath during the progress of a suit.

Indexes at The National Archives are to the title of the suit, not to the person giving the deposition or affidavit. For these, try the Bernau Index at the Society of Genealogists.

The depositions fall into two groups: town depositions taken in London, and country depositions taken elsewhere.

2.5 Town depositions

Date Range Catalogue reference Description Additional information
1534-1853 C 24 Town depositions
Deponents indexed in Bernau Index
Mostly listed by term: use IND 1/16759 and IND 1/9115 – 9121. C 24/2450 to C 24/2508 are searchable online
1854- 1880 March C 15, C 16, J 54 Town depositions are filed with the pleadings See 2.1 above
1880 April See Country depositions

2.6 Country depositions

Date Range Catalogue reference Description Additional information
1558-1649 C 21 Country depositions Deponents indexed in Bernau Index Searchable online for 1st plaintiff and 1st defendant
1649-1714 C 22 Country depositions Deponents indexed in Bernau Index for C 22, and for all cases where the plaintiff’s name began with A: about 8% of total Searchable online for 1st plaintiff and 1st defendant
1715- 1880 March C 11, C 12, C 13, C 14 Country depositions are filed with the pleadings See 2.1 above
1880 April-1925. J 17 Town and Country depositions Use IND 1/16748-16752

If you cannot find the interrogatories, try the annual bundles of Detached Interrogatories, 1598-1852, in C 25. In addition, there are the Sealed, or Unpublished Depositions, taken for use in contingencies which never arose. These are in C 23, but they are not listed.

2.7 Affidavits

Date Range Catalogue reference Description Additional information
1611-1875 C 31, C 41 Affidavits 1611-1800: indexes are in IND 1/14545-14567. Entry marked with a cross: the original affidavit is in C 31. If no cross: try the copies in C 41, for 1615-1747 only 1801-1875: indexes are in IND 1/14575 -14684. The name listed after the plaintiff and defendant is that of the solicitor, initiating the affidavit
1876 onwards J 4 Affidavits There are indexes in IND 1: check the IND 1 list at The National Archives

2.8 Decrees and Orders in the course of a suit

Any orders made during the course of a case, and the final judgement, are recorded in the Entry Books of Decrees and Orders. These also give the date for the recording of the depositions and affidavits, the hearing and the final decree. Decrees and order before 1733 may be in Latin.

Sometimes, of course, the case did not proceed after the bill and answer had been filed and thus no orders will be found.

Date Range Catalogue reference Description
1544-1875 C 33 Entry Books of Decrees and Orders: accessed by over 600 contemporary annual indexes at The National Archives. No indexes for 1544-1546
1876 onwards J 15 Entry Books of Decrees and Orders: accessed by contemporary annual indexes at The National Archives1955-1966 destroyed: from 1966 samples only kept

The Entry Books are in two sequences known as ‘A’ and ‘B’. Until Trinity term 1629, both ‘A’ and ‘B’ books list suits (by plaintiff v defendant) from A to Z. From 1629, entries for plaintiffs A-K are in the ‘A’ books, and entries for plaintiffs L-Z are in the ‘B’ books. In 1932 the ‘A’ and ‘B’ books were amalgamated.

The annual indexes (which are nearly all on the open shelves) start their year from the Michaelmas term. This means the dates on the spines are out by one year for the other three law terms. For example the index listed as 1849 covers Michaelmas 1849 and Hilary, Easter and Trinity terms 1850. From 1860 each index covers a calendar year, not a ‘legal’ year. The reference found in the index has to be matched up to the C 33 or J 15 series list: make sure the IND volume number matches as well, to ensure that you have the right year.

2.9 Abbreviations found in the decrees and orders

Abbreviations and their meanings
accott accountant affdt affidavit appot appointment
Bequed bequeathed Col Counsel Cot Court
Conson consideration declon declaration Excepons Exceptions
exor executor furr further hrinbefe hereinbefore
hrs heirs incon or inion injunction indre indenture
L C Lord Chancellor M R Master of the Rolls Mr Master
mre matter Orar Orator (plaintiff) Ors others
ppr paper revr revivor suppl supplement
testor testator tree(s) trustee(s) wo widow

2.10 Involvement of the Masters

In many Chancery suits, the judge referred matters for investigation or action to one or more of the Chancery Masters in Ordinary. The Masters’ investigated the evidence (including depositions, affidavits and exhibits), administered the estates that were in Chancery care during the (often very lengthy) course of a suit, and reported to the court.

2.10.1 Reports and certificates

The Master’s report back to the court often formed the basis for the court’s final decrees. The Masters also sometimes acted as arbitrators, and the reports are therefore full of arbitrations and awards of various sorts: see 2.5. Until 1842, the reports include dealings with the infant and lunatic wards of court. The draft reports were submitted to both parties who were allowed to review the reports and to submit their response in the way of ‘exceptions’. Longer reports can include detailed material taken from the pleadings and other papers being examined by the Master, and can provide a very useful summary or overview of a case. The Masters also returned short certificates into court, for example, authorising the delivery of money. Masters were also responsible for assessing costs. From 1842 taxing masters did this instead. In 1852 the Masters’ other functions were transferred to the judges. The judges then started referring many matters to their chief clerks (who soon took on the title of Master). The clerks’ and taxing masters’ reports were filed in the same series as the earlier Masters’ reports. To find specific reports and certificates, you will need to use the contemporary ‘indexes’ in IND 1 at The National Archives.

Date Range Document Catalogue reference Indexes
1544-1605 Reports: main series C 38 No indexes
1606-1759 Reports: main series C 38 IND 1/1878-2028
1760-1800 Reports: main series C 38 IND 1/10700/1
1801-1875 Reports: main series C 38 IND 1/14919-14993
1756-1859 Oversize documents C 39 No indexes
1756-1859 Exceptions to the reports: appeals by either party C 40 IND 1/30785-30786 for 1836-1840 only
1875-1962 Reports: main series J 57 IND 1: many sequences

2.10.2 Masters’ documents

These contain the affidavits, examinations of witnesses, estate accounts, wills and other documents on which the Masters founded their reports, together with the drafts of reports. As such, they can be a treasure chest of information – but they are not always easy to find.

You will need to know the name of the Master dealing with the suit. The various C series are named for the last Master to occupy the office on its abolition in 1852. Look at the succession lists of Masters filed with C 103 list, at The National Archives only, to see where the papers of your Master will be. There are contemporary indexes to these records, available at The National Archives only.

Masters’ name Catalogue reference Index
Master Blunt C 124 IND 1/6616
Master Brougham C 117 IND 1/6625
Master Farrar C 122 IND 1/6624
Master Horne C 118 IND 1/6620-6621
Master Humphrey C 123 IND 1/6618
Master Kindersley C 126 IND 1/6622
Master Lynch (no separate collection) C 123; C 124 IND 1/6618
IND 1/6616
Master Richards C 121 IND 1/6626-6627
Master Rose C 119 IND 1/6619
Master Senior C 125 IND 1/6623
Master Tinney C 120 IND 1/6617

Similar documents after 1852 will be found in the various J series of Masters’ records, in J 23-47, J 63– 64, and J 66– 68. A succession list for these to show where records of a particular master will be found is available at The National Archives.

2.10.3 Masters’ Accounts

The Masters’ Accounts concern the estates they administered while the ownership was in dispute in Chancery, or while the owner was a ward of the court. The administration was remitted to trustees, who were supposed to provide annual accounts to the Master. The accounts for c1750-c1850 are in C 101: this is searchable online. They are a very under-used source, but are not as yet accessible for local or business history. Other records of estates administered by Chancery are still held by the Supreme Court of Justice. For accounts after 1852, see the various J series noted in 2.10.2.

2.10.4 Masters’ exhibits

At the end of a suit, the parties normally reclaimed any exhibits produced in court. The minority that remained unclaimed forms the collection of private papers known as Masters’ Exhibits. They are all searchable online, but the quality of the description is not always adequate, and one brief description can cover several boxes of documents.

Catalogue reference Masters’ name Date range
C 103 Master Blunt c1200-1859
C 104 Master Tinney 13th century-1856
C 105 Master Lynch 1481-1829
C 106 Master Richards 13th century-1853
C 107 Master Senior c1250-1851
C 108 Master Farrar c1220-1847
C 109 Master Humphrey c1180-1857
C 110 Master Horne 1306-1853
C 111 Master Brougham 13th century-1857
C 112 Master Rose 1270-1857
C 113 Master Kindersley 1235-1837
C 114 Unknown Masters 1566-1841
C 115 Duchess of Norfolk Deeds 1085-1842
C 116 Court Rolls(extracted from the other series) 1295-1808
C 171 Six Clerks’ Office c1350-c1850
J 90 Chancery Masters’ Exhibits
These need to be ordered 3 days in advance

2.11 Final decrees, arbitrations, and appeals

Decrees (and orders) could be enrolled in the Decree Rolls, at an extra cost.

Date range Catalogue reference Description Indexes Online access
1534- 1903 C 78 Decree Rolls IND 1/16950 -16961B Limited but accruing index data in our catalogue and on the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website
1534-1903 C 79 Supplementary Series IND 1/16960B (searchable by short title) Index data on the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website

Any appeal against such enrolled decrees or orders would have to be made to the House of Lords. Search the Parliamentary Archives for these appeals using the advanced search as follows (the records themselves are viewable only at the Parliamentary Archives):

  • Enter the names of the parties in the suit as your keywords in the Search section
  • Select ‘Search other archives’ in the Held by section
  • Enter the word ‘Parliamentary’ in the archive name box which appears once ‘Search other archives’ is selected
  • Select ‘Parliamentary Archives’ when it pops up
  • Click ‘Search’

There is a place name index for enrolled decrees, Henry VIII to George III, in IND 1/16960A. There is a detailed list and index of C 78/1 -130 at The National Archives; for C 78/131-750 there is a detailed list with no index at The National Archives. After this, rolls every fifth roll was listed, covering C 78/755 to C 78/1250. These rolls appear to cover about 1534 to 1700, but the enrolling system was not by date, so it is difficult to be sure if they include all decrees of that period.

If final decrees were not enrolled, they will be found in the Decree and Order Books (see 2.8). Not enrolling had advantages in some cases, as appeals were made back to the Lord Chancellor, and cases could be reopened more easily.

Appeals against unenrolled decrees (and orders) are among the Petitions. These also include ‘ordinary’ petitions, for example for winding up associations or for the appointment of new trustees to administer an estate.

Date range Catalogue reference Description Indexes
1774-1875 C 36 Ordinary and Appeal Petitions IND 1/15029-15047
1876-1925 J 53 Chancery Division Petitions IND 1/15048-15282

Many suits were ended by arbitrations, mediations, compositions and awards of various sorts, made by commissioners appointed by Chancery. Quite frequently these were the Chancery Masters.

Date range Catalogue reference Description Additional information
1544-1844 C 38 Reports on arbitrations by Masters See 2.4
1544-1694 C 33 Awards enrolled See 2.8
1694-1844 C 42 Awards not enrolled No indexes

Cause Books, 1842-1880

For 1842-April 1880 only, Cause Books survive in C 32. These bring together for convenience all references to decrees and orders, reports and certificates made during the course of a case, together with the names of all the parties to it and their solicitors and the dates of all their appearances. Indexes for 1860 to 1880 are in IND 1/16727-16747.

Cause Books from April 1880 onwards were destroyed on the recommendations of the Committee on Legal Records chaired by Lord Denning, leaving no primary means of access to the records after 1880. Specimens only are preserved in J 89 for April-December 1880, 1890, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940.

3. Money ‘in Chancery’

Many families have stories about money ‘in Chancery’. See Looking for records of a civil litigant and the guide Funds in Court.

4. Further reading

  • PW Coldham, ‘Genealogical Resources in Chancery Records’, in Genealogists’ Magazine, vol XIX, pp 345-347 and vol XX, pp 257-260
  • D Gerhold, Courts of Equity… A Guide to Chancery and other Legal Records (Pinhorn, 1994)
  • Henry Horwitz, Chancery Equity Records and Proceedings 1600-1800 (PRO, 1998)
  • Henry Horwitz, Samples of Chancery Pleadings and Suits: 1627, 1685, 1735 and 1785 (List and Index Society, vol 257, 1995)
  • WJ Jones, The Elizabethan Court of Chancery (1967)
  • Susan Moore, Family Feuds: An Introduction to Chancery Proceedings (Federation of Family History Societies, 2002)
  • GV Sanders, Orders of the Court of Chancery (1845)
  • H Sharp, How to Use the Bernau Index (Society of Genealogists, 1996)

5. Published finding aids

The level of detail given in these published catalogues is not yet included in our online catalogue.

Catalogue reference Description
C 2 Calendar of Proceedings in Chancery in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I, eds J Caley and J Bayler (Record Commission, 1827-1832)
Index of Chancery Proceedings, James I, A-K only, PRO Lists and Indexes, vol. XLVII (1922)
Index of Chancery Proceedings, 1603-1625, A-L only, ed R Topham, in The Genealogist, ns vols IV, VI-IX (1887, 1889-1892)
Calendar of Chancery Proceedings, Bills and Answers filed in the reign of Charles I, vols 1-3, ed WPW Phillimore, vol 4, ed EA Fry (British Record Society Index Library, 1903-1904)

Many local record societies have published catalogues of Chancery Proceedings for their own county. For a list of local record society publications, see EC Mullins, Texts and Calendars 2 vols (1978, 1983). Most are available in The National Archives’ Library.

Guide reference: Legal Records Information 22