How to look for Court of Requests records 1485-1642

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1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide for advice on how to find records of the Court of Requests spanning almost the entire life of the court, from 1485 to 1642. The court, known initially as the Court of Poor Men’s Causes, dealt primarily with small-scale civil cases, but occasionally select criminal offences too, including cases regarding the following:

  • ownership of property
  • inheritance of land and other land disputes
  • claims for annuities or other payments (for example, following a will)
  • marriage contracts and settlements
  • matters of villeinage
  • escaped prisoners or people fleeing justice
  • forgery and perjury
  • riots

These records are a useful resource for studying the social and economic conditions of the time and provide some significant insights into ordinary people’s lives during this period.

2. What was the Court of Requests?

The Court of Requests was established in 1483 to provide easy access for poor men and women to Royal justice and equity. A cheap and simple procedure attracted many suitors, not all of them poor but a significant number of them women.

An offshoot of the King’s Council, the court was set up when the Chancery official responsible for sorting petitions from the poor became clerk of the Council of Requests.

It was attacked by the common law courts whose lawyers resented the loss of business they endured as a result of its popularity.

The records of the court cease in 1642. Although the court was never formally abolished, much of its caseload eventually passed to local small claims courts.

3. How the court worked and the records it produced

Cases heard by the court followed the same procedure as was used in the Court of Chancery. The records can be divided into three broad and sometimes overlapping groups.

3.1 Proceedings

The proceedings, recorded in English, gathered together the details of a case as presented by plaintiff and defendant. Each of the following stages in the proceedings was officially recorded, usually on rolls of parchment:

  • A petition or bill (also known as a pleading) from the plaintiff would be submitted to the court laying out their grievance
  • A response from the defendant, known as an ‘answer’
  • A response from the plaintiff, known as a ‘replication’
  • A further response from the defendant, known as a ‘rejoinder’
  • Interrogatories – a set of questions that could be put to the witnesses of either party
  • Sworn testimony, known as ‘depositions’, in answer to the questions in the interrogatories

3.2 Judgements and other orders

Most cases were either settled out of court or were abandoned because of the cost of litigation. However, for some cases the court would pass judgement called a Decree or Final Order. There are records of these and other orders issued by the court, in both Latin and English, and they usually appear in the records as:

  • Orders – court directions and decisions made throughout the life of a case
  • Decrees – final judgements, the final verdict of the court

3.3 Other administrative records created during a case

These records are in English and Latin and include:

  • Appearance books – records of the appearance of defendants, often through an attorney rather than in person, before the court
  • Affidavit books – records of sworn statements made by defendants, plaintiffs and witnesses
  • Process books – these contain instructions issued by the court including those compelling witnesses to give evidence and for arrests to be made

3.4 Who were the judges and other members of the court?

Initially, judges of the court were Royal Councillors, under the authority of the King’s Almoner and the Dean of the Chapel Royal. After 1519, when the court began to meet regularly in the Whitehall at Westminster, the Lord Privy Seal, assisted by Masters and (after 1562), Extraordinary Masters of Requests, headed the court, specifically to determine poor men’s causes by equitable means.

Local commissions often dealt with much of the business of the court after the defendant’s answer was filed, and Masters of Requests based their decrees, orders and judgements on returned commissioners’ reports.

4. How to find records of proceedings

Most of the surviving records of proceedings in individual cases are in REQ 2 (case papers relating to Shakespeare are in REQ 4). You cannot view these records online.

Unfortunately, unless you are prepared to search through hundreds of document bundles each containing about 100 cases, you have little chance of finding over half of the cases in REQ 2 (including half of those dating from the reign of James I and all from Charles I) as they have not been indexed or catalogued in any way.

However, using the various indexes and other finding aids listed in the table below you have a much better chance of finding records of proceedings created during and between the reigns of Henry VII and Elizabeth I, and around half the proceedings from the reign of James I.

Use the table to determine which sections of REQ 2 you need to search within and the corresponding index or finding aid.

Monarch Date Range Catalogue ref How to search
Henry VII – early Edward VI 1485-1547 REQ 2/1-15 Search by keyword using the REQ 2 search in our catalogue
Edward VI 1547-1553 REQ 2/16-19 Use the List of Proceedings in the Court of Requests preserved in the Public Record Office and the Supplementary series of lists and indexes of Proceedings in the Court of Requests, Vol 1, available at our building in Kew, to search by parties, subject and/or place.

The lists marked ‘Hunt’s series’ list records in REQ 2/1-40 with a little more detail, including some dates.

Mary I 1553-1558 REQ 2/20-25 As above
Elizabeth I 1558-1603 REQ 2/26-136 As above
REQ 2/137-156 Consult the manuscript ‘Atkin’s Calendar’, and search by person, subject and/or location using Supplementary series of lists and indexes of Proceedings in the Court of Requests, Vol 1
REQ 2/157-294 Search by person, subject and/or location using the Supplementary series of lists and indexes of Proceedings in the Court of Requests, Vol 2 for bundles 157-203 and Vol 3 for bundles 204-294. Also listed in a further unnamed manuscript list.
369-386 None
James I 1603-1625 REQ 2/295-311 Search by person, subject and/or location using the Supplementary series of lists and indexes of Proceedings in the Court of Requests, Vol 4. Also listed in a further unnamed manuscript list.
REQ 2/387-424 Search within bundles 387-409 by person, subject and/or location using the Supplementary series of lists and indexes of Proceedings in the Court of Requests, Vol 4. Also listed in a further unnamed manuscript list.
REQ 2/425-485 None
Charles I 1625-1649 REQ 2/486-806 None
various dates REQ 2/807-829 None

5. How to find records of judgements, court orders and administrative records

Records as old as these rarely survive in their entirety but, relatively speaking, the judicial and administrative records of the Court of Requests have survived fairly well, unlike, for example, the records of the Court of Star Chamber, a contemporary of the Court of Requests.

However, of those records that have survived, some have not yet been sorted or properly identified and are therefore very hard to find and make use of.

Some of these records are in English, others are in Latin.

5.1 Identified records

The closest you can get to identifying records for a particular case in our online catalogue is to use the table below to help you narrow down the record by type and range of years. These records are held in series REQ 1.

Records Monarch Catalogue Ref Description
Order and decree books Henry VII-Charles I REQ 1/1-38, REQ 1/209 Orders, decrees, final judgements and, before 1520, appearances
Order books Elizabeth I-Charles I REQ 1/39-103 Draft orders, decrees and memoranda
Appearance books Henry VIII-Charles I REQ 1/104-117 Records of appearance by defendants, usually by attorney
Contemporary indexes to affidavits 1637-1641 REQ 1/118, REQ 1/150 Incomplete
Affidavit books 1591-1641 REQ 1/119-149 Signed affidavits (by servers) that process, especially writs of summons, had been served
Note books 1594-1642 REQ 1/151-170 Outline records of the progress of suits
Process books 1567-1642 REQ 1/171-197 Recording the issue of writs of privy seal, attachments for arrest, appointment of commissions, injunctions, and orders for appearances
Witness books Elizabeth I-Charles I REQ 1/198-206
Register of replications 1632-1636 REQ 1/207
Commission book 1603-1619 REQ 1/208 Recording return dates of depositions by commission

5.2 Unidentified records

Some records of the Court of Requests were stored, after 1641, together with records from the courts of Wards and Liveries, Chancery and Star Chamber, at the Treasury of the Receipt of the Exchequer. Forty-four boxes of this material are today held at The National Archives, in record series REQ 3, but remain unsorted. For more details see the REQ 3 series description.

Similarly, records from the Court of Requests may have strayed into the records of the Court of Star Chamber and may therefore be found within the STAC department at The National Archives.

There may also be material, as yet unidentified, in REQ 2/369-386.

6. Further reading

IS Leadam, Select cases in the Court of Requests (Selden Society, XII, 1898)

Sir Julius Caesar, The ancient state, authority and proceedings of the Court of Requests, ed, LM Hill (London, 1975)

Tim Stretton (ed), Marital litigation in the Court of Requests 1542-1642, Camden Fifth Series volume 32 (London, Cambridge University Press for the Royal Historical Society, 2008)

 

Guide reference: Legal Records Information 4.