How to look for records of... Courts of law records from the medieval period: general eyres 1194-1348
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
1. Why use this guide?
This guide will help you find records at The National Archives of medieval lawsuits and legal cases heard before travelling (‘itinerant’) courts, known as general eyres.
Records of general eyres provide insights into various elements of medieval society in England, including the following:
- the evolution of English common law
- crime and criminality during the medieval period
- the administration of justice in the regions
- local lords and officials, the land they owned and the power they wielded
- specific people and places
The earliest surviving eyre roll dates from 1194 and the last eyre to produce any records was in Kent in 1348.
2. What were general eyres?
During the late 12th and 13th centuries, small groups of judges (often referred to as justices) were sent from the central courts at Westminster to all the counties of England, except Durham and Chester where the royal jurisdiction did not extend, to preside over local courts.
Counties were grouped into circuits, with a group of justices assigned to each one; and the circuits, as well as the courts themselves, were known as eyres. Evidence from the Pipe Rolls suggests that eyres were first held in the mid-1160s. Although general eyres were suspended in 1294, there were isolated eyres during the first half of the 14th century, and a failed attempt at a general revival in 1329-1330. Occasional eyres were summoned until 1374 but there are no known surviving records after 1348.
In theory the eyre justices travelled these circuits at seven-year intervals, although the intervals were in practice often much more varied.
They sat in judgment over various kinds of legal cases, referred to as pleas, that had occurred since the last eyre was conducted – see section 7.3. Among other things, they dealt with:
- lawsuits (known as civil pleas)
- criminal offences (known as crown pleas)
- offences against the King’s property rights (also known as crown pleas)
- after 1278, investigations into the land, property and rights held by local lords with a view to claiming them for the King (a process known as quo warranto)
The term ‘general eyre’ is modern; they were known to contemporaries as eyres ‘for common pleas’ or ‘for all pleas’.
3. How to search for an eyre roll and what they look like
Not all eyre rolls have survived but you can search for details of those that have using Discovery, our catalogue. None of the records described in this guide are available online, so to view any of the documents that you find references for in our catalogue, 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 general tips on searching the catalogue, see the Discovery help page.
3.1 All counties except Chester and Durham
Search for eyre rolls by clicking on the following series references, using the name of a county as your search term:
- up to 1216, before the death of King John, in KB 26 (they were mistakenly placed in this series in the late 19th century)
- from 1199 in JUST 1 (this series includes a few veredicta, or original lists of presentments, the earliest from 1238 – see section 7.4 for a definition of these)
3.2 Chester and Durham
The Palatinates of Durham and Chester were areas of special jurisdiction and had their own independent systems of justice.
In Durham, royal officials could only conduct an eyre after the death of the bishop and before the appointment of his successor.
Search using ‘Durham’ as your keyword to find the few surviving eyre rolls for the Palatinate of Durham in JUST 1.
3.3 What do the records look like and how were they written?
The records of the eyre courts are very formal, and are written almost entirely in Latin, much abbreviated and full of technical legal terminology.
They were kept on rolls of parchment. Each roll is made up of lengths of parchment, known as membranes, stitched together.
The early eyres, during the 13th century, produced one roll per county, but as business expanded and material was increasingly arranged into sections, it was necessary to use more than one roll per county.
4. How to search for related records
4.1 Cases adjourned from other courts
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.
4.2 Lawsuit agreements: feet of fines files
If the parties in a lawsuit came to an agreement in any of these courts, they frequently recorded this agreement in what is known as a final concord, often referred to as a foot of fine.
You can search for these feet of fines in CP 25/1. Many have been printed in regional record society volumes.
A writ was a sealed document conveying a formal command of the court.
Writ files from a small number of eyres survive in JUST 4.
Use the search box in JUST 4 and search using ‘eyre’ and the name of a county as your keywords.
4.4 Copies of eyre court records in Chancery files
Browse by date through C 260 in our catalogue for copies of eyres records that were used in Chancery cases. Most were taken from the earlier eyre rolls.
4.5 Revenues from fines
Eyres generated a large amount of revenue for the crown. Amercements and fines were paid into the Exchequer and recorded on the Pipe Rolls.
4.6 Gaol delivery sessions outside eyres
Gaol delivery sessions (see section 7.5 for more on these) can provide evidence of legal process and court hearings during periods when the eyre was not conducted. They record the clearance of gaols and the delivery of prisoners awaiting trial into court.
Search JUST 3 for gaol delivery rolls for separate court sessions outside eyres.
5. Interpreting and understanding the records: general
The courts employed clerks to record the details which appear on the eyre rolls. There would usually have been a panel of two or three judges, sometimes more, hearing cases together, each with their own clerk or clerks to make notes and record judgments. Usually each justice had a roll of his own but a roll may consist of the writing of as many as ten different clerks as notes were added during the course of proceedings. Furthermore, as they moved from town to town, the rolls might be amended as they went – and could be further annotated retrospectively if the case was transferred to Westminster, or the plaintiff failed to appear, or a subsequent hearing was requested.
From around 1280 often all the rolls of the various justices that presided over the same eyre have survived. Although there are usually minor discrepancies – spelling, form of words – between them, the salient points of the case, and its verdict, should be consistent. Where discrepancies do occur, historians tend to give precedence to the records of the named leading judge who had been appointed to lead the commission.
Eyre rolls before 1278 generally consist of two main sections: civil pleas and crown pleas.
6. Interpreting and understanding the records: civil pleas
Most eyre rolls have a separate section for 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.
The civil pleas section is usually divided into the following sub-sections:
6.1 The pleas
Until 1247, civil pleas both from the county in which the eyre was being held and from other counties (known as foreign pleas) were recorded in the same sub-section.
After 1247, foreign pleas were entered in a separate section and were later often filed as separate rolls.
Essoins were excuses for non attendance at the court. They are recorded on a separate section of the roll, usually at the end of the civil pleas.
From 1247, there is a separate roll 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.
7. Interpreting and understanding the records: crown pleas
Most eyre rolls have a separate section for crown pleas.
7.1 Establishing the place
There are usually separate sub-headings for all the court cases that take place in the following:
- a single hundred or wapentake
- major towns – usually appearing at the end of the crown pleas section (Oxford, for example, has its own heading)
- some minor towns (vills) or even manors (especially in Herefordshire and Shropshire)
7.2 Lists of jurors: the kalendars
In each hundred, vill or town ‘jurors’ were appointed. These men were freeholders and were usually the leading men in the district.
There is usually a separate roll on which the jurors, sometimes referred to as the ‘presenting jurors’, for each hundred, vill or town were listed. This roll is known as the Calendar or Kalendar. The place names on the Kalendar follow the same order as on the main crown pleas roll.
There were twelve men appointed as jurors (including two electors, who usually appointed the other ten men) and a bailiff.
The earliest surviving kalendar is from 1238.
In the months or years in between visits from the eyres justices, jurors kept records of crown pleas which were then presented to the justices the next time they arrived to hold court. These records of crown pleas were known as ‘articles of the eyre’.
The official responses to the articles of the eyre are known as veredicta or lists of presentments.
When all the prisoners awaiting trial in a particular gaol were tried at once, it was known as a gaol delivery session.
Gaol delivery sessions were regularly held in eyres courts and have their own separate sections in the rolls from 1279.
8. Interpreting and understanding the records: new sections after 1278
8.1 Private civil lawsuits
After 1278 the eyre justices also dealt with pleas brought using a bill of complaint, privately drawn up, rather than a royal writ. A bill of complaint was drawn up by a potential litigant seeking justice in the royal court against another private individual. A royal writ, on the other hand, was used to instigate proceedings against an individual on behalf of the Crown. There were sections in the rolls for private civil lawsuits after 1278 but they are rather small.
8.2 Quo warranto
There are often quite large sections, or sometimes whole rolls, devoted to pleas of quo warranto. These were lawsuits brought against local lords who were suspected of holding land, property and rights previously belonging to the crown with a view to claiming them back for the King. Many of these were published in Placita de Quo Warranto – see Further reading below.
9. 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