The National Archives Logo
Guide reference: Legal Records Information 26
Last updated: 11 November 2010

1. Introduction

The High Court of Admiralty emerged as a separate entity probably after the battle of Sluys in 1340. It was established to deal primarily with questions of piracy or spoil (there is a glossary at the end of this leaflet) but later developed a jurisdiction in prize and a civil jurisdiction in such matters as salvage and collision, based on Roman or civil law. Actions could be taken against ships and goods as well as against persons. Soon after the restoration in 1660 the civil business of the court divided, with an instance court and a prize court. The criminal side passed to the Central Criminal Court in 1834, and when the Supreme Court of Judicature was established in 1875 the civil law business of the court joined the other civil law courts in the creation of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court of Justice. Until 1733, records of the proceedings in the court, as opposed to evidence gathered, are likely to be in Latin.

2. Pre 1535

An act of 1535/6 (27 Henry VIII) marks a significant change in the workings of the court (see below under Criminal) and documents prior to this date are considered here separately. One of the earliest and best known of these is the Black Book of the Admiralty, or 'Liber Niger Admiralitatis' of around 1450 (HCA 12/1). This was transcribed between 1871 and 1876 by Sir Travers Twiss. The Black Book was thought at the time to be lost, and Twiss worked from related manuscripts and transcripts. Of the four volumes of Twiss's work at The National Archives, only the first and fourth relate to the Black Book. Vol I pp 1-344 contains the transcripts, and Vol IV contains minor corrections made after the original was found. The languages used can be dual text (pages side by side) in Old French and contemporary English, Latin alone, French alone or English alone. Each volume is indexed by person, place and subject. Other records from before 1535 are not numerous, but include:

Dates Records Reference
1531-1541 Exemplar (draft) files HCA 14/1
1526-1535 Libels, allegations HCA 24/1
1530 Original patents for appointments HCA 30/489
Sixteenth century Little court book HCA 30/1035
1530 Prohibitions HCA 30/542
1524-1537 Act Books HCA 3/2
1515-1524 Warrants, monitions, decrees HCA 39/1

3. Criminal

The act referred to above (27 Hen VIII c 4, 5), 'An Act concerning Pirates and Robbers of the Sea', and the very similar act of the following year (28 Hen VIII c 15), 'An Act for Punishment of Pirates and Robbers of the Sea', attempted to correct the shortcomings of the civil law in the prosecution of piracy, 'treasons, felonies, robberies, murders and confederacies'.

Under civil law, the sentence of death could not be given unless the defendant confessed or there were witnesses, and witnesses were hard to assemble because by the nature of their calling, seamen were nearly always away at sea. The acts provided for such offences to be dealt with 'in such like manner and form as if such offences had been committed upon the land', in other words, under common law. Benefit of clergy was also withdrawn. The most common categories of offence are piracy, treason, murder, mutiny, desertion, sodomy, insurance fraud, rape, robbery (sometimes difficult to distinguish from piracy) and (after 1807) slaving.

The proceedings are to be found in HCA 1. Discovery, our cataloguea search tool with descriptions of tens of millions of documents from the UK central government, law courts, and other national bodies, like the paper list from which it derives, largely lists the documents by type, for example, Proclamations of Sessions, Jury Precepts and so on. A relatively modern calendar and index is available at The National Archives. A key at the front of the paper series list records which pieces are searchable by name of person, name of ship. This may be summarized as follows:

HCA 1 Methodology Index
HCA 1/1-32 By person and/or ship * Calendared and indexed
HCA 1/33-59 Volumes of examinations and so on Chronological only
HCA 1/60-64 By person and/or ship * Calendared and indexed
HCA 1/65-77 Internal HCA, warrants, commissions and so on   
HCA 1/78-84 Inquests and so on Indexed
HCA 1/85-98 Indictments, inquests and so on Mainly indexed
HCA 1/99-101 By person and/or ship * Calendared and indexed
HCA 1/102-109 Inquests. Chronological Name searchable on our catalogue (restrict search to HCA 1)
HCA 1/110-111 Old Bailey sessions Not calendared or indexed
HCA 1/112 Execution Dock papers Not calendared or indexed

Those marked with an asterisk represent the most straightforward way of finding a person or ship. The index and calendar to HCA 1/1-101 is available at The National Archives.

4. Prize

The business of the High Court of Admiralty, aside from the criminal cases above, was administered under civil law and divided into prize jurisdiction and instance jurisdiction (for the latter see below). The Prize Court ruled on disputed prize cases and either condemned the ship, cargo or both as lawful prize or found in favour of the owners of the prize as 'not lawful prize'.

Records of prize cases are found in these series:

Records
Series
Dates
Minute books HCA 28 1777 to 1842
Minute books, war of 1803 HCA 29 1802 to 1810
Monitions HCA 31 1664 to 1815
Prize papers HCA 32   1592 to 1855
Crimean war HCA 33 1854 to 1856
Sentences and interlocutories HCA 34 1643 to 1854
Royal warrants HCA 40    1760 to 1857
Minute books HCA 57 1914 to 1949
Miscellanea HCA 61 1914 to 1943

Of these, HCA 32 is by far the most useful and the easiest to access if you have the name of the ship and an approximate date.

There is a comprehensive guide to the series in the introductory note preceding the paper catalogue. The papers relating to each ship are often separated into two folders: Court Papers, being those actually produced at the trial, and Ship's Papers, those impounded at the ship's capture, but not actually used in court. Together, these can often form a vivid snapshot of the lives of the officers and men at the moment of capture. By their nature, the documents are usually in foreign languages, predominantly French, Spanish and Dutch.

Note that The Nationaal Archief have made available online an index to the contents of several hundred boxes of Prize Papers in HCA 32. The website is in Dutch and it includes some digitised images of the documents.

The following table shows the arrangement of the series HCA 32:

HCA 32/ Dates Document type How sorted
HCA 32/1-45 pre 1700 Examinations and ships' papers Alphabetical by first letter of ship's name
HCA 32/46-86 1702-1733
Spanish Succession
Examinations and ships' papers Alphabetical by first letter of ship's name
HCA 32/87-91 1702-1733
Spanish Succession
Ships' papers Alphabetical by first letter of ship's name
HCA 32/92-93 1702-1733
Spanish Succession
Ships' papers Full name of ship
HCA 32/94-160 1739-1748
Austrian Succession
Ships' papers Full name of ship
HCA 32/161-259 1756-1763
Seven Years
Ships' papers Full name of ship
HCA 32/260-493 1775-1783
American
Court papers and ships' papers Full name of ship
HCA 32/494-1240 1793-1817
French Revolutionary, Napoleonic, American
Prize papers Alphabetical by first letter of ship's name with ships' numbers
HCA 32/1241-1345 1809-1817
Napoleonic, American
Common condemnation Ships' numbers
HCA 32/1346-1820 1803-1810
French Revolutionary, Napoleonic
Contested prize causes Ships' numbers

5. Instance

Instance jurisdiction, as opposed to prize jurisdiction (see above), covers commercial disputes, disputes over wages, collisions, pilotage, salvage and droits. Droits of Admiralty are rights or perquisites, such as the proceeds arising from the seizure of enemies' ships, wrecks, flotsam, jetsam etc. Instance records and their means of reference are as follows:

HCA Reference Series Date Paper nos. Indexed by: IND 1
HCA 15 Early (includes some prize) 1586-1788   Letters IND 1/9458
HCA 16 I 1772-1806 1-4254 Names IND 1/9458
HCA 17 II 1807-1839 1-3062 Names IND 1/9458 
HCA 18 III 1840-1859 1-5319 Names IND 1/9459
HCA 19 IV 1860-1874 1-7436 Names IND 1/9460   
HCA 20 V 1875-1963 Mainly arranged by year Names IND 1/9460

These IND 1 volumes are available at The National Archives.

6. Vice Admiralty

Until 1835 there were local courts of admiralty in the maritime counties, and records relating to these are to be found in ADM 1 and HCA 49. However, the majority of vice-admiralty records relate to courts in colonial possessions, the proceedings of which are to be found in HCA 49. The arrangement is by colony - Cape of Good Hope, Santo Domingo, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Minorca, New York, Sierra Leone and Various -  beneath which the arrangement is usually roughly chronological. Other records relating to vice-admiralty courts are in:

By no means were all the records generated by these courts forwarded to the Admiralty in London and so many were never transferred to The National Archives.

7. Slave trade

In 1807 the slave trade was abolished in all British possessions and after that date many examples of the navy's enforcement of this are to be found, especially in HCA 49/97, cases adjudicated in the court of vice-admiralty for Sierra Leone.

In 1821 William Rothery was appointed by the treasury to report on all cases involving slavery in admiralty, vice-admiralty and mixed commission (held jointly with representatives of the other country involved) courts. In 1860 he was succeeded by his son Henry, who remained in the post until 1888, by which time the work was greatly diminished. Their reports are to be found in HCA 35, 1821-1891.

8. Appeals

Appeals in prize cases went to the Commission of Appeals in Prize, also known as the High Court of Appeal for Prizes. (But there are some prize papers in DEL 2). The documents can be found in:

Appeals (Prize) Location
HCA 41 Act books, minutes and drafts
HCA 42 Papers (arranged by initial letter of ships' names)
HCA 43 Assignation books Series I (arranged by nationality of prize)
HCA 44 Assignation books Series II (Dutch prizes separate)
HCA 45 Case books (printed)
HCA 46 Interlocutories
HCA 47 Miscellanea

Appeals in instance cases, together with those from ecclesiastical and other civilian courts, went to the Court of Delegates until 1834. The documents can be found in:

Appeals Location
DEL 1 Processes (partially searchable in our catalogue)
DEL 2 Cause and miscellaneous papers (partially searchable in our catalogue)
DEL 3 Personal answers and depositions
DEL 4 Act books and files of original acts
DEL 5 Sentences
DEL 6 Assignation books
DEL 7 Bound volumes of printed appeal cases
DEL 8 Miscellanea (partially searchable in our catalogue)
DEL 9 Muniment books
DEL 10 Testamentary exhibits (partially searchable in our catalogue)
DEL 11 Miscellaneous lists and indexes (indexes to the other DEL series)

From 1834 onwards appeals were heard by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and are to be found in the PCAP series.

Appeals (1834+) Location
PCAP 1 (Processes) succeeds DEL 1 and is searchable in our catalogue
PCAP 2 (Appeals Assignation Books) succeeds DEL 6 and cases are indexed by name of party
PCAP 3 (Printed Appeal cases) succeeds DEL 78 and is partly searchable in our catalogue
PCAP 5 (Appeals miscellanea) is not searchable in our catalogue and is not indexed

9. General

An index of cases (prize and instance together) for the limited period 1515-1551 relates to and cross-refers:

Warrant books
Original warrants
Libels
Act books
Examination books
HCA 38 HCA 39   HCA 24 HCA 3 HCA 13

Falling into several of the categories discussed above is HCA 30, a very large series of Admiralty Miscellanea, which is partially searchable on our catalogue.

Select Pleas in the Court of Admiralty, Reginald Marsden, Selden Society Vol. XI gives selected pleadings in the HCA from 1390-1602. In this volume the file number translates to the piece number in HCA 24.

HCA is a large and complex collection of documents, and this leaflet does not attempt to be comprehensive. Both the finding aids and secondary reading can be found at The National Archives.

10. Select glossary

Term Meaning
Acts, Acts of Session,
Act Books
Records of the transactions and decrees of the court
Advocate
Equivalent of barrister
Affidavit
A statement made in writing, confirmed by the maker's oath, and intended to be used as judicial proof. (In legal phrase the deponent swears an affidavit, the judge takes it; but in popular usage the deponent makes or takes it.)
Allegation
Response of the defendant to a libel. The equivalent of an answer in Chancery, etc.
Answer
As allegation - Response of the defendant to a libel. The equivalent of an answer in Chancery, etc.
Appraisement
Valuation of a ship or cargo by an official or authorized appraiser
Artefacts
All in HCA 65: playing cards, fabric samples etc.
Assignations,
Assignation books
1. In Prize and Instance cases, brief notes on proceedings in court (or chambers), forming the basis for Acts, Act Books. 2. In oyer and terminer sittings, adjournments to another date
Bail
Security given for the release of a prisoner from imprisonment, pending his trail
Benefit of clergy
Originally, the right of the clergy to be tried in church courts rather than the secular courts. Because to qualify one had to demonstrate one's ability to read, the right was later sometimes extended to all literate persons
Case books
Printed copies of prize cases which subsequently went to appeal
Commission or decree
to appraise
Commission or decree by the HCA to appraise the value of the ship and its goods
Commission or decree
to sell
Commission or decree by the HCA to sell the ship by public sale to the highest bidder
Decree
The judgment of the court. In the HCA the plaintiff and defendant would sometimes draw up their own versions of the decree, and the court would select its preference
Deposition
The giving of testimony upon oath in a court of law, or the testimony so given; spec. a statement in answer to interrogatories, constituting evidence, taken down in writing to be read in court as a substitute for the production of the witness
Exemplar
A matter which is likely to become an example or precedent
Interlocutory
A decree given during the course of a case but not final, being provisional on some other event or condition
Interrogatory
Question or questions in writing to be put to the defendant or a witness
Inventory
In this context, a list of a ship's stores, tackle, armaments etc. and/or cargo. Sometimes with prices
Jury panel
List of names of members of a jury
Jury precept
Written summons requiring the attendance of a jury
King's/Queen's advocate-general
Equivalent of Attorney General
King's/Queen's proctor
Equivalent of Treasury Solicitor
Letter of marque
Accreditation for a private warship to attack the shipping of an enemy power
Libel
The original complaint of the plaintiff, originating the action. Equivalent to a bill of complaint in Chancery etc.
Monition
Notice of the seizure of a ship as prize, requiring all interested parties to appear in a given period and show why it should not be condemned as prize
Muniment books
entry books containing copies of commissions, letters patent and warrants relating to the appointments of Lords High Admiral, Vice-Admirals, Judges, Registrars, Marshals and other officers in the High Court of Admiralty
Petition for desertion
Request, usually by the defendant, that the action be abandoned
Prize
A ship or goods legally captured in time of war
Proctor
Equivalent of solicitor
Prohibition
Decree from a usually superior court to prevent another court from trying an action, as being outside its jurisdiction
Spoil
Goods taken from an enemy in time of war
Guide reference: Legal Records Information 26

Our catalogue

Search descriptions of 20 million documents from the UK central government, law courts and other national bodies.