How to look for records of... Civil court cases: Chancery equity suits before 1558
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1. Why use this guide?
This guide will help you to find, understand and interpret records of civil disputes heard by the court of Chancery from the late 14th century to 1558. These disputes are known as equity suits. Cases dealt with by the court are wide ranging and include disputes, among many others, over:
- inheritance and wills
- trusts and uses
- marriage settlements
The records are a rich resource for studying the social and economic conditions of the time. They can provide some of the most detailed insights into people’s lives that we have for this period, generally providing more detailed information than common law records.
Unlike common law records, most of these records are in English.
2. How to search for records
2.1 General search tips
The principal record series for Chancery equity suits before 1558 is C 1, a collection known as the Early Chancery Proceedings.
Most of these records are available online through the Chancery Proceedings pages of the University of Houston’s Anglo-American Legal Tradition website.
To view documents in the other record series that appear in this guide you will need to either visit The National Archives at Kew or pay for copies to be sent to you. Alternatively, you can pay for research.
For tips on searching the catalogue, use the Discovery help pages.
2.2 Searching in the Early Chancery Proceedings
To locate an individual case within C 1, the Early Chancery Proceedings, search by name or subject in the following way:
Step 1: Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search within C 1 by names of plaintiffs or names of defendants (allow for variant spellings, common to these records).
Alternatively, use keywords to search by subject. The kinds of keywords that may find a record by subject include:
- the issue in dispute (for example, money, land, rent)
- the place of the dispute (allow for variant spellings, common to these records)
- the place of abode of either the defendants or plaintiffs, often given as a county or town
You can supplement or replace your search by name or subject with a search by types of plaintiffs, using the following codes in the keyword field:
For female plaintiffs acting without any male plaintiff:
- SFP (single female plaintiff), indicating one woman submitting a pleading alone
- JFP (joint female plaintiff), indicating more than one woman submitting a pleading, though not groups of women, such as abbesses, representing institutions – these are treated as corporate body plaintiffs (see below)
For group plaintiffs:
- CBP (corporate body plaintiff), covering abbeys, colleges, companies and other institutions
- UBP (unincorporate body plaintiff), covering churchwardens, overseers of the poor and representatives of tenants or copyholders
A successful search will locate a C 1 item number, for example C 1/20/35. This will form part of a larger document referred to at The National Archives as a piece, though with these kinds of records a piece is more commonly referred to as a bundle. The piece or bundle number for the item referred to above is C 1/20.
Step 2: Once you have your item number, go to the University of Houston website, select the relevant bundle number and browse through the individual images numbers on that website do not correspond exactly with The National Archives’ item numbers so you may have to scroll through several pages before you find the right image).
2.3 Alternative searches for pleadings
For further records of pleadings not in C 1, use the advanced search in our catalogue to search by name, place or subject within C 3. Or search by the same criteria, plus the keyword ‘chancery’, within STAC 2.
2.4 Alternative searches for depositions
Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search by names of plaintiffs or names of defendants in C 4, as an alternative to C 1, for the mid 15th century to 1558. It may help to include the word ‘deposition’ as one of the keywords in your search.
From 1534 you should also check the series of town depositions taken in London in C 24.
2.5 Alternative searches for decrees, orders and awards
See section 6.
3. Understanding and interpreting the records: dates
As dates often do not appear on these records, and are therefore absent from our catalogue, establishing a precise date can be tricky and sometimes impossible – you may only be able to establish a date range.
As shown in the table below, the bundle number relates to the name of the Lord Chancellor to whom the documents were addressed and can therefore be dated to the years of his chancellorship.
In some cases, however, the Lord Chancellor is not named and instead the document is addressed to, for example, ‘the bishop of London, Lord Chancellor’ which could mean any one of the several bishops of London who had been Lord Chancellor in this era.
|C 1 bundles||Date range|
You may be able to narrow the date down further by consulting the tables given at the front of the Lists of Early Chancery Proceedings preserved in the Public Record Office, available in the reading rooms at The National Archives at Kew.
4. Understanding and interpreting the records: pleadings
4.1 What are pleadings?
Pleadings mark the beginning of a law suit. Anyone wishing to start a suit in Chancery would get a lawyer to draw up a formal ‘bill of complaint’ to submit to the Lord Chancellor – this was also known as a ‘pleading’ and is sometimes referred to as a ‘petition’. It would set out the offences of the defendant. It needed to claim that because of the plaintiff’s lack of resources and power, or some other factor, the common law courts could not deliver them justice. An equitable solution was therefore asked of the Lord Chancellor.
The defendant was required to make a similar written answer to all the points raised. The plaintiff could submit their own response to this answer, known as a replication, which might in turn produce a further response from the defendant, known as a rejoinder. This would continue 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.
4.2 What do pleadings tell us?
Pleadings, or bills of complaint, provide the following information about the plaintiff:
- rank or status
- place of abode
The lawyer’s name usually appears written by itself in a top corner.
Records of pleadings are usually in English, although the earliest ones may be in French or Latin.
Records in C 1 up until the mid 15th century consist only of the original bill of complaint, with no answer from the defendant. From the mid 15th century onwards they include defendants’ answers.
5. Understanding and interpreting the records: depositions
5.1 What are depositions?
When the pleadings were finished, and the issues in dispute defined, the court commissioned neutral men of substance to gather evidence from an agreed list of people, known as deponents, and report back in writing. Both sides drew up separate lists of numbered questions, called interrogatories, to be put to the deponents under oath. The answers are called depositions.
Depositions do not survive before the mid 15th century.
5.2 What do depositions tell us?
- information about the case
- information about the parties involved in the dispute not included in the pleadings
- name, place of abode, age and occupation of each deponent, at the head of his or her deposition
6. Decrees, orders and awards
The final judgment in a case, known as a decree, along with any interim judgements or orders were usually recorded, often in Latin, in Entry books.
Before 1544 there is less likely to be a record but for those decrees, orders and arbitration awards that do exist you will need to look at the back of the bill of complaint (see section 3) for that case.
After 1544, browse our catalogue entries for Entry Books of Decrees and Orders in C 33. The Entry Books list suits by plaintiff v defendant, from A to Z, and are in two sets known as ‘A’ and ‘B’. You may need to look in both to find a case but you should consult the indexes, which are available at The National Archives in Kew:
- 1544-1546 – no indexes
- 1547-1558 – indexes in IND 1/1388-1400
The Chancery Master’s report back to the court often formed the basis for the court’s final decrees. The Masters also sometimes acted as arbitrators. There are a few reports from 1544-1558 in C 38; these are not indexed.
7. Further reading
Visit the National Archives’ bookshop for a range of publications relating to courts and the legal profession.
All of the following publications and transcripts are available in The National Archives Library at Kew.
Many local record societies have published transcripts for their own county. For a list of local record society publications, see Edward L C Mullins, Texts and Calendars: An Analytical Guide to Serial Publications (1978). There is a second volume of the same publication (1983).
C1/1 and C1/2 are printed in full in the Calendars of the Proceedings in Chancery in the reign of Queen Elizabeth to which are prefixed examples of earlier proceedings in that court, namely from the reign of Richard II to that of Queen Elizabeth (Record Commission, 1827, 1830), volumes 1 and 2.
W P Baildon (ed), Select Cases in Chancery, AD 1364-1471 (Selden Society, 1896)
E A Lewis, An Inventory of the Early Chancery Proceedings Concerning Wales (1937)
J A Guy, The Court of Star Chamber and its records to the reign of Elizabeth I (HMSO, 1985) – see Appendix C for a list of Chancery documents that were misplaced in this series.
W J Jones, The Elizabethan Court of Chancery (1967)
C A Walmisley (ed), An Index of Persons Named in Early Chancery Proceedings, 1385-1467 (Harleian Society, vols. LXXVIII-LXXIX, 1927-1928). This may be useful for providing variant spellings for online searching.
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