How to look for records of... Court of King’s Bench (Crown Side) and King’s/Queen’s Bench Division cases 1675-1988

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1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide if you are looking for records of a criminal case heard in the Court of King’s Bench from 1675 until 1875 and from 1876 to 1988, when the court became the King’s Bench Division of the High Court and sat as a Divisional court of appeal.

Examples of the sort of criminal cases heard at the Court of King’s Bench, Crown Side, include:

  • theft
  • perjury
  • murder
  • criminal libel

The Crown Side also heard some civil cases 1685-1875, such as:

  • custody disputes
  • disputes about appointments to local government office or other temporal or spiritual office, or about local taxes
  • cases involving an appeal from a county court

However most King’s Bench civil litigation cases are in the records of King’s Bench Plea Side. If you are searching for a civil litigation case (for example, Smith v Jones) that commenced in the Court of King’s Bench you should search within the records of the King’s Bench Plea Side. For advice on these records see our guide to Plea Side cases.

For guidance on how to look for Kings Bench records of a coroner’s inquest, read our guide on Coroners’ Inquests.

2. What is the Court of King’s Bench (Crown Side)?

The King’s Bench was the highest court of common law in England and Wales, with jurisdiction over both civil and criminal actions.

Criminal cases were dealt with on the ‘Crown Side’ which dealt mainly with serious offences, although its several jurisdictions enabled it to hear an extensive range of cases, from obstructing the highway to high treason.

The Crown Side had three separate jurisdictions:

1. Original jurisdiction over all matters of a criminal and public nature as the custos morum of all subjects of the realm.

2. Supervisory powers over inferior courts.

3. A local jurisdiction, in that its presence within any county extinguished the rights of all other courts to hear and try criminal cases. In practice, since the court had become fixed at Westminster by the 15th century, its local jurisdiction was over Middlesex and its subordinate jurisdictions (principally Westminster and the Tower Hamlets).

Until the 19th century very few cases in the King’s Bench actually went to trial as it was considered a socially unacceptable method of resolving a dispute. Accordingly there was heavy pressure on litigants to come to some agreement without trial.

The way in which a case was initiated was the principal factor in determining its course through the court and its records. The process in the King’s Bench was complex and so are the records.

3. Search tips

Some of these records are viewable online at the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website. To view records which are not online you will need to visit The National Archives at Kew or pay for research.

The way to start a search depends on the type of case. To trace the progress and outcome of a case you will need to use a variety of records such as indictments and plea rolls, often without any finding aids or means of reference.

The formal documents such as indictments, informations, writs and plea rolls are in Latin until 1733.

You will need to distinguish between the sorts of criminal or civil cases in order to search the records. They may have been prosecuted by:

  • information or indictment – in which case the key document will be the indictments files
  • prerogative writ – in which the key document will be in the recorda files

Writs of certiorari could be filed either in the indictments files or in the recorda files. See the sections on Indictments and recorda files respectively for more information.

4. Searching for named defendants in criminal cases 1675-1875

Many cases failed before information was exhibited but records could still have been created – for example through a preliminary hearing.

If you are looking for a named defendant and are sure that he or she was the subject of a successful indictment or information, first check to see if an index to defendants survives for the right period (section 3.1). If they do not appear in the indexes, you will need to search the records – see section 3.2.

4.1 Using indexes to locate records: indictment indexes

Please note, there may be occasional omissions in the indexes, especially in the London and Middlesex volumes.

Use the indexes:

Two further volumes index London and Middlesex defendants and some defendants in northern counties for 1682-1699. They are in IND 1/6678-6679.

These indexes are arranged alphabetically by the first letter of the surname, and then chronologically by legal term. Look for the number to the left of the surname which is the number of the indictment or information.

Once you have obtained the name of the accused and the indictment number you can browse the relevant indictment file by year within:

  • the London and Middlesex indictment files from 1675 to 1844 in KB 10
  • the out counties from 1675 to 1844 in KB 11

If you can not locate an entry in the index, see the section 3.2 below

4.2 Using indexes to locate records: other indexes to indictments and controlment files

The index series also includes:

The great docket books show the steps in the process, such as entries of pleas and writs, in chronological order.

It is difficult to find all the entries relating to a single case. If you are able to locate entries, it will give direct references to the controlment rolls and indictment files.

The modern pye books are the successors to the indexes to indictments in section 3.2.1. They are of limited use in that they are arranged chronologically not alphabetically. They give:

  • names of defendants and attorneys
  • the county of jurisdiction
  • a summary of the proceedings

If you can not locate an entry in the index, see the section 3.2 below.

4.3 The records

If you think that a named defendant has been omitted from the indexes, try searching the controlment rolls in KB 29. They list:

  • all the prosecutions begun in each legal term
  • in the left hand margin, a direct numerical reference to the indictment or information in KB 10 (London and Middlesex until 1844), KB 11 (provincial or ‘out counties’ until 1844) or KB 12 (all counties after 1845)

In order to trace the outcome of the case, go to the second section of the term’s entries on the controlment rolls in KB 29. For cases that proceeded beyond the initial summons, the entries on this section (the ‘roll of entries’) show all the proceedings, from appearance to final judgment. You might need to check several successive terms. More guidance is in the section on controlment rolls.

If you still cannot find an entry, you can try searching all the relevant indictment files in KB 10, KB 11 or KB 12.

For London and Middlesex cases for 1737-1820, you may prefer to use the process books in KB 15/22-29.

They similarly record the proceedings in each case. They are easier to use than the controlment rolls, but are more likely to omit occasional cases. Be aware that the notes of process are placed above rather than below the relevant entries.

The annotations to items in the roll of entries in KB 29 or the process books in KB 15 can help you identify useful keywords for searching our catalogue. Use these keywords to search within:

4.4 Final judgments

As few cases reached trial until the 18th century, there are few judgments prior to 1800. Consequently, you rarely need to consult the final judgments, which may be found in the crown rolls or posteas.

Locate:

  • the crown rolls in KB 28 (for the period 1844 to 1859 only, search our catalogue within the crown rolls KB 28 by names of prosecutors, defendants, places and subject)
  • the posteas in KB 20

Both the crown roll and the postea recite all the process in each case.

The entry in the crown rolls will normally be found in the term in which judgment was given. The crown roll records the formal outcome of cases in which judgment was entered. It does not record the many cases that either failed or were withdrawn before judgment. Further details are in:

  • the rule books in KB 21 for details of the sentence
  • the depositions in KB 1 for statements of witnesses

If the case is concerned with sedition or treason, see the catalogue description for the Baga de Secretis in KB 8 which gives information relating to the prosecution case in trials that were of particular concern to the state.

The procedure for special verdicts changed in 1848 with the creation of the Court for the Consideration of Crown Cases Reserved. The records for this court include:

  • order books (which contain material similar to that previously contained in special verdicts) are in KB 30
  • pleadings for that court are in KB 31

More details are provided in the named sections on the types of records available here.

4.5 Published sources

Some cases may have established important points of case law and therefore may be reported and published in law reports or newspapers.

5. Searching for civil cases of named subjects (prerogative writs) 1675-1875

There are no indexes to these records. As the jurisdiction of the writs covered the whole of England and Wales, it is not possible to search by area.

Use the table below to locate the records:

Type of offence Type of writ issued Record series
Custody disputes such as a runaway wife, child, slave, apprentice or alleged ‘lunatic’ Writ of habeas corpus The annual recorda files in KB 145 until 1690 and in KB 16 thereafter, together with the rule books in KB 21 and depositions in KB 1
Disputes about appointments to local government office or other temporal or spiritual office, or about local taxes An information in the nature of a quo warranto or for a writ of mandamus Read section on searching for named defendants in criminal cases, on the controlment rolls in KB 29 – using the third or special writ section of the term’s entries
Cases which involves the review of administrative orders (especially one concerned with the removal of a pauper under the settlement laws) Writ of certiorari Reviews of summary convictions should be traced in the records of criminal cases

6. Articles of the peace 1675-1875

Original articles of peace do not generally survive.

The defendant was not permitted to dispute the articles except by means of an indictment or information for perjury.

Some examples survive in KB 32 and KB 33. Otherwise you can only trace them:

  • through the rule books in KB 21 and draft rule books in KB 36
  • occasionally by notices or affidavits relating to bail amongst the depositions in KB 1

Please note, no details of these cases can be reconstructed from these sources, unless there is a related indictment for assault.

7. Indictment files 1675-1875

Indictments may contain the following items:

1. Informations ex officio – procedurally, informations ex officio were quite distinct from informations exhibited by the master of the crown office (see below), in that it was not necessary for the attorney general to establish any kind of prima facie case against the accused.

2. Ordinary criminal informations were exhibited by the king’s coroner and attorney (usually known as the master of the crown office) on the complaint of a private individual.

After 1692, as a result of the malicious information in the Court of King’s Bench Act, complainants had to establish a prima facie case against the defendant. The defendant was given an opportunity to rebut the accusations. Written affidavits for these are in KB 1.

Ordinary criminal informations were concerned with cases of criminal libel, but they were also used to prosecute forgery, perjury and riot. The evidence copy of an alleged criminal libel may also be in KB 1.

3. Informations quo warranto. They are extremely rare after 1688, having in effect been superseded by informations in the nature of a quo warranto.

The preliminary procedure was similar to that required for ordinary criminal information in respect that they both needed permission of the judge to proceed. Applications therefore generated affidavits from both the prosecution and the defence setting out the material circumstances of the case, even if no information were granted. These affidavits are now in KB 1.

4. Information qui tam. A variety of offences were punishable by information qui tam, but its use was most often associated with offences against the game laws.

The proceedings required an initial affidavit of the facts but they were filed separately from the main class of depositions and do not survive.

5. Indictments removed by certiorari. An indictment , at this time, was an accusation or bill of complaint drawn up in form of law and submitted to a grand jury.

If the grand jury found the accusation to be true the complaint was endorsed ‘a true bill’ and forwarded for trial by a petty (trial) jury.

Until almost the mid 19th century indictments removed by certiorari were mainly for relatively trivial offences.

Depositions made in support of a term-time application for certiorari on indictment are in KB 1 and those made for applications in vacation do not survive.

Summary convictions removed by certiorari. In order to remove a summary conviction, it was necessary to serve notice both on the convicting magistrate and on the informer.

The writ was a discretionary one if the applicant was the party convicted, and by the early 19th century an affidavit of the facts stating the objections to the conviction(s) was also required. Such affidavits and notices, if made in term time, are in KB 1.

6. Special verdicts. These were also removed by certiorari. Special verdicts were returned in cases in which neither judge nor jury knew how to apply the law in particularly difficult cases, nor did they consist of a resume of the facts as found by the jury.

For special verdicts after 1848, see Court for the Consideration of Crown Cases Reserved. See section 3.2.2.

7. Indictments of the first instance. These arise from the local jurisdiction of the King’s Bench in Middlesex, and are therefore only in the London and Middlesex indictments files (KB 10 until 1844 and KB 12 thereafter).

For fuller details of indictments see the catalogue description to ASSI 5.

8. Recorda or writ files 1675-1875

The recorda files contain returned writs, including:

1. Habeas corpus. It was rarely used in connection with people imprisoned for alleged crimes, except (for technical reasons) in Middlesex before 1785.

It was more commonly used to test the legality of a detention by a person or group, such as a press gang, spouse, parent or keeper of a lunatic asylum.

Applications were often supported, or contested, by means of depositions in KB 1. These are usually full and informative.

No depositions survive in the case of writs of habeas corpus issued by, or returned to, a judge in chambers during vacation.

2. Mandamus. This was used to compel the admission or restoration of people to office (whether spiritual or temporal), to university degrees, meeting houses, and so on.

It could also be used to order the production, inspection or delivery of books and papers (including rate books), and to compel the holding of inferior courts.

3. Orders of lower courts were removed by certiorari (usually by the consent of both parties) in order to obtain the opinion of the court on a difficult point of law.

They relate mainly to orders removing paupers under the settlement laws and a high proportion appear in the printed law reports.

9. The controlment rolls 1675-1875

The controlment rolls in KB 29 are very useful for helping you trace a case. Digital copies of the rolls up to the year 1691 are available at the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website.

Original returned writs are in the recorda files in KB 145 or KB 16.

What do the records contain?

The first section (the bag roll) simply lists each prosecution begun in that term, with (in the left hand margin) direct numerical references to the indictment or information in KB 10, KB 11 and KB 12. The left margin also includes the geographical jurisdiction of the prosecution, so that it is easy to pick out indictments relevant to a particular city or county.

The second section (the roll of entries) notes all the proceedings, from appearance to final judgement, in each case that proceeded further than the initial summons. As with other legal records of this period, the notes of process are placed above rather than below the relevant entries.

The third section (the special writ roll) contains copies of special writs that had been issued that term, together with any return. Such writs, if returned, are also enrolled on the crown roll in KB 28.

10. Depositions 1675-1875

Perhaps the most rewarding source for researchers are the depositions and related documents in KB 1. The affidavits are usually very informative both about the subject matter of the case and about pre-existing disputes between the parties.

They also include a mass of incidental detail, which is often extremely valuable in itself. Detailed accounts of costs sometimes also survive, particularly during the later 18th century.

The relationship between the affidavits in KB 1 and KB 2 is not entirely clear. Some of the KB 2 affidavits arise from references to the master and may duplicate those in KB 1.

A separate series of affidavits concerning offences against customs and excise, 1727-1829, is in KB 32/1-4.

Using indexes to locate depositions in KB 1

A contemporary index to the depositions in KB 1 is in KB 39. Its usefulness is somewhat limited.

They probably do not include affidavits filed in failed attempts to exhibit informations.

They do not index the many other documents found with the depositions such as general releases (the formal document recording the settlement of a case before trial).

The volumes after 1768 are more useful as indexes. Even so, they do not normally list affidavits individually but by case, for example ‘6 affidavits to show cause against X’.

11. Rule books 1675-1875

There are no indexes to the rule books.

Rule books record the orders of court. The entries, which are chronological, relate mainly to rules granted in order to enable a case to proceed to the next stage. Digital copies of the Rule Books are available at the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website.

Browse the rule books by date in

The draft rule books sometimes contain material that was omitted from the fair copy.

12. How to find cases from 1876-1988

Separate sets of records exist for cases from 1876, when the court became the King’s Bench Division of the High Court.

12.1 Appeals from lower courts

Motions on appeal from lower courts, especially county courts and magistrates’ courts, are in record series KB 3 for the years 1876 to 1981. For years 1939 to 1978 there are indexes within KB 3, giving case numbers. To find the corresponding orders of the court, browse J 74 for the years 1875 to 1920 and J 95 for the years 1920 to 1987 by date in the catalogue.

12.2 Writs and orders

There are also writs and orders in KB 16 which continue for the years 1876 to 1912. These are mostly writs of certiorari for cases brought from the lower local courts to the King’s Bench Division, mainly by justices of the peace sitting at Petty or Quarter Sessions.

There are selected case files for writs of Habeas Corpus, which concern individuals who are seeking to be released from prison, in J 167 for the years 1951 to 1982. Search J 167 by name.

12.3 Writ books

Writ books record the issue of writs for each case. There are writ books running from 1854 to 1912, referencing the writs in KB 16 (see above), in KB 15.

12.4 Writs and returns

Writs and returns are in J 125 for the years 1913 to 1972. They consist of writs relating to orders removing cases from lower courts and tribunals to the King’s Bench for review.

12.5 Register of Appeals 1905-1910

There is a Register of Appeals covering the years 1905 to 1910 only, in KB 174. These consist of one line entries for cases commenced by private individuals and those by the State.

12.6 Affidavits

The affidavits in KB 1 extend to the year 1985 and the indexes in KB 39 to 1984 both of which are described in section 9 above.

12.7 Case files 1975-1985

For cases from 1975 to 1985 the different types of documents, including judicial reviews, were brought together in a case file system. Search for case files in J 160 by the names of the parties.

13. Further reading

All of the publications below are available at The National Archives’ library in Kew. You can also browse titles and subject areas at The National Archives’ bookshop.

John Hamilton Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History (Oxford Press, 2007)

Richard Gude, The practice of the Crown Side of the Court of King’s Bench and the practice of sessions (London, 1828)

Douglas Hay, Criminal cases on the Crown Side of King’s Bench: Staffordshire 1740-1800 (Staffordshire Record Society, 2007)