How to look for Court of Requests records 1485-1642

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1. Introduction

The Court of Requests was an offshoot of the King’s Council, intended to provide easy access for poor men and women to Royal justice and equity. It was established in 1483, when the Chancery official responsible for sorting petitions from the poor became clerk of the Council of Requests. A cheap and simple procedure attracted many suitors (not all of them poor but a significant number of them women), but also the enmity of some common lawyers. The records of the court cease in 1642. Its privy seal was removed during the Civil War. Although the court was never formally abolished, much of its caseload eventually passed to local small claims courts. Types of case heard included title to property, annuities, matters of villeinage, watercourses, highways, wilful escape, forgery, perjury, forfeitures to the King by recognisance and dower, jointure and marriage contracts.

2. Finding cases in the Court of Requests

Most of the proceedings (individual case papers) are in REQ 2: cases relating to Shakespeare are in REQ 4. Unfortunately, less than half of the cases in REQ 2 have been listed. About half the cases from James I, and all from Charles I, are not listed in any detail at all. It may be possible to find out information about these cases from the administrative and judicial records of the court (see below), but going on to find the pleadings may involve a search through 405 bundles each containing about 100 cases. For Henry VII to Elizabeth I, and for the random half of the James I proceedings that have been listed, the situation is much easier, though complicated by the existence of a number of different finding aids of various vintages. These lists of REQ 2 are not searchable online.

Monarch Date Range Catalogue ref Finding aids
Henry VII – early Edward VI 1485-1547 REQ 2/1-15 Searchable by keyword using advanced search within Discovery, our catalogue
Edward VI 1547-1553 REQ 2/16-19 Listed in List and Index, XXI, Proceedings in the Court of Requests, (gives parties, subject and place): 1-40 also listed with a little more detail, and some dates, in the lists marked ‘Hunt’s series’. Indexed in List and Index Supplementary, VII, vol 1
Mary I 1553-1558 REQ 2/20-25 As above
Elizabeth I 1558-1603 REQ 2/26-136 As above
REQ 2/137-156 Listed in the manuscript ‘Atkin’s Calendar’, and indexed in List and Index Supplementary, VII, vol 1
REQ 2/157-294 Listed in a further unnamed manuscript list, and indexed by person, subject and location in:
bundles 157-203 in List and Index Supplementary, VII, vol 2
bundles 204-294 in List and Index Supplementary, VII, vol 3
369-386 None
James I 1603-1625 REQ 2/295-311 Listed in a further unnamed manuscript list, and indexed by person, subject and location in List and Index Supplementary, VII, vol 4
REQ 2/387-424 Bundles 387-409 are listed in a further unnamed manuscript list, indexed by person, subject and location in List and Index Supplementary, VII, vol 4
REQ 2/425-485 None
Charles I 1625-1649 REQ 2/486-806 None
various dates REQ 2/807-829 None

Cases followed chancery procedure, using English for the proceedings, with some Latin in the administrative records. A case would start with an English petition or bill, requesting the King or his Council (not the Chancellor, as in chancery) to give equitable justice to the plaintiff. It then continued by answer, replication, rejoinder, interrogatories and depositions. Initially, judges of the court were Royal Councillors, under the authority of the King’s Almoner and the Dean of the Chapel Royal. But 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 after the defendant’s answer was filed, and Masters of Requests based their decrees, orders and judgements on returned commissioners’ reports.

4. Judicial and administrative records of the Court of Requests

Unlike the Star Chamber, the judicial and administrative records (in English and Latin) of the Court of Requests have survived fairly well: most are in REQ 1, but there may be some unsuspected material in REQ 2/369-386. REQ 1 includes:

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

There are also 44 boxes of requests miscellanea, and material from other English bill courts, in REQ 3, which contains documents properly belonging to REQ 1 and REQ 2, as well as material from the courts of Chancery, Star Chamber, and Wards and Liveries, which was stored with Court of Requests documents in the Treasury of the receipt of the Exchequer after 1641. This has not been listed fully as yet, but a list of sorts is available. Strays from Requests may also be found in the records of the Star Chamber.

5. 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.