1. What was the general eyre?
During the later twelfth and thirteenth centuries, justices mainly from the central courts at Westminster were sent to hold courts for all types of pleas in all the counties of England, except the liberties of Durham and Chester. The term 'general eyre' is modern; they were known to contemporaries as eyres 'for common pleas' or 'for all pleas'. The counties were grouped into circuits, each of which was ridden by a small group of justices in eyre. Eyre justices had, among other things, to hear all the crown pleas (criminal offences or those against the king's proprietary rights) in a county which had arisen since the last eyre in it, reported by panels of jurors in answer to questions brought by the justices, and called the 'articles of the eyre'. The articles later also covered offences by local officials. After 1278, eyres also deal with quo warranto enquiries into liberties held by local lords. It was regarded as customary for eyres to visit the shires at seven-year intervals, although the intervals were in practice often much more varied. Although general eyres were suspended in 1294, there were isolated eyres during the first half of the fourteenth century, and a failed attempt at a general revival in 1329-30. Occasional eyres were summoned until 1374, but the last to produce any records was in Kent in 1348.
2. How to find an eyre roll
The earliest surviving eyre roll dates from 1194, although evidence from the Pipe Rolls suggests that they were first held in the mid-1160s. Nearly all the surviving rolls for the period before the death of King John in 1216 are in KB 26, where they were mistakenly placed in the late ninetenth century; the later ones are in JUST 1. During the thirteenth century the rolls increased in size: for example, the Wiltshire eyre roll of 1194 had only 6 membranes while the main roll (one of eight) for the 1289 Wiltshire eyre had 69.
Although most counties were covered by eyres, there were areas of special jurisdiction. The surviving eyre rolls for the Palatinate of Chester are in CHES 17. The earliest dates from 1285, and also includes forest proceedings; there are also rolls from some of the eyres conducted after 1294. The Bishopric of Durham also had independent jurisdiction. Royal officials could only conduct an eyre there after the death of the bishop and before the appointment of his successor. The few surviving eyre rolls for the Palatinate are mainly in JUST 1, as are the surviving rolls from City of London eyres.
3. Understanding eyre records
The records of the eyre courts are very formal, and are written almost entirely in Latin, much abbreviated and full of technical legal terminology. More than one clerk was often responsible for a roll; in some, the hands of up to 10 clerks can be identified. Usually each justice had a roll of his own, and after about 1280 it often happens that all the justices' rolls survive from the same eyre. Although there are usually minor discrepancies between them, the roll made for the senior justice is taken to be the most accurate.
Eyre rolls before 1278 can be divided into two main sections; civil pleas and crown pleas.
4. Civil pleas
The order of the civil pleas in their section of the roll probably reflects the order in which the justices heard them; there is no geographical pattern. Until 1247, the civil pleas section often contained pleas both from the county in which the eyre was being held and from other counties (foreign pleas). After 1247, these foreign pleas were entered in a separate section and were later often filed as separate rolls. Often two further sub-sections can be found within the civil pleas: essoins and attorneys. The essoins (excuses for non attendance) are recorded on a separate rotulus, usually at the end of the civil pleas. From 1247, there is a distinct roll of attorneys, listing attorneys appointed by either plaintiff or defendant. This is often filed at the end of the civil pleas, although occasionally it is at the beginning.
5. Crown pleas
Within the crown pleas section, there is a basic structure. All the cases relating to a single hundred or wapentake appear under a separate sub-heading. If there is a major town in the county, e.g. Oxford, it has its own heading and section at the end of the crown pleas. Some minor towns (vills) or even manors (especially in Herefordshire and Shropshire) have their own group of entries. A rotulus including the lists of presenting jurors for the different divisions was known as the Calendar or Kalendar, the earliest surviving being from 1238, this is a list of all the presenting jurors. Each hundred, vill or town has a presenting jury consisting of 12 men (including the 2 electors) and a bailiff. A few veredicta, or original lists of presentments in answer to the articles of the eyre, are also in JUST 1, the earliest from 1238. Within the Kalendar, the arrangement follows the same order as that in the main crown pleas entries. The Kalendar can be useful for social historians; those who were elected to the juries were freeholders and were the leading men in the hundred. Gaol delivery sessions, to try all the prisoners held in a particular gaol to await trial, were also regularly held in eyres, and regularly have their own separate sections in the rolls from 1279. Gaol delivery rolls for separate sessions out side eyres are in JUST 3.
6. Additional sections
After 1278 the eyre justices also dealt with pleas brought using a bill of complaint, privately drawn up, rather than a royal writ. These sections are rather small. Much larger are the sections, or sometimes whole rolls, devoted to pleas of quo warranto brought against the holders of liberties by crown attorneys, trying to verify the legality of jurisdictional privileges enjoyed by local lords. These pleas are particularly valuable for jurisdictional aspects of local history, and many of them were published by the Record Commissioners in Placita de Quo Warranto (1818).
7. Related records
Some of the civil cases which were heard in the eyre courts had been adjourned from the Westminster courts, especially the Bench or Common Bench, later the Court of Common Pleas. Often these cases can be traced in the appropriate plea rolls of theose courts, in KB 26, CP 40 and KB 27). If the parties came to an agreement in any of these courts, they often made a final concord. Most of these survive in the form of feet of fines, the copies of each agreement filed by the court (CP 25/1). Writ files from a small number of eyres survive in JUST 4, while there are numerous records of cases taken from earlier eyre rolls in C 260. Eyres also generated a large amount of revenue for the crown. Issues and fines were paid into the Exchequer and recorded on the Pipe Rolls (E 372).
8. Further reading
David Crook, Records of the General Eyre (PRO Handbook No. 20), (HMSO, 1982)
C. A. F. Meekings, Crown Pleas of the Wiltshire Eyre 1249 (Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, Record Branch, 1960)
Michael Clanchy, The Roll and Writ File of the Berkshire Eyre of 1248 (Selden Society, 1973)
C. A. F. Meekings and D. Crook, The 1235 Surrey Eyre (Surrey Record Society, 1979)
Alan Harding, The Roll of the Shropshire Eyre of 1256 (Selden Society, 1981)
Placita de Quo Warranto (Record Commission, 1818)
D Crook, 'The later eyres', English Historical Review, XCVII (1982), pp. 241-268