The equity side of the court of Chancery dealt with thousands of disputes over inheritance and wills, lands, enfeoffments to use, debts, marriage settlements, apprenticeships, etc., from the late fourteenth century. Most of its records are in English, and give more detailed information than do common law records. Before 1558, these records have been well listed, detailing both the parties and the subjects of dispute, in a collection known as the Early Chancery Proceedings (C 1).
Individual cases are identified in Discovery, our catalogue (and cited in publications) by bundle number and piece number (e.g. C 1/452/28).
2. The pleadings
Anyone wishing to start a suit in Chancery would get a lawyer to draw up a bill of complaint to submit to the Lord Chancellor. This would set out the offences of the defendant. It needed to claim that because of his or her lack of resources and power, or some other factor, the common law courts could not deliver justice to the plaintiff. An equitable solution was therefore asked of the Lord Chancellor. Bills are in English, although the earliest ones may be in French or Latin. The records in C 1 consist of bills only until the mid 15th century, but subsequently there are also answers. Some misplaced pleadings are known to be in C 3 and STAC 2: see J Guy: Court of Star Chamber Appendix C.
The petition, or bill of complaint, gives the plaintiff's name, occupation, rank and place of abode: the lawyer's name usually appears written by itself in a top corner. The defendant was required to make a similar written answer to all the points raised. The plaintiff could submit a replication, which might in turn produce a rejoinder from the defendant, and so on, 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.
When the pleadings were finished, and the issues in dispute defined, the court commissioned neutral men of substance to examine an agreed list of people (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, called depositions, provide information about the case and often about the parties involved in the dispute, not be included in the pleadings. They also give the deponent's name, place of abode, age and occupation, at the head of his or her deposition. Depositions do not survive before the mid 15th century. After that they are filed with the pleadings in C 1. Some are among a miscellaneous set of bills, answers and subsidiary documents in C 4. From 1534 you should also check the series of town depositions taken in London in C 24.
4. Decrees, orders and awards
Before 1544, decrees, orders and arbitration awards may sometimes be found endorsed on the back of the bill. After 1544, look in the Entry Books of Decrees and Orders in C 33. The Entry Books are in two sequences known as 'A' and 'B'. Both 'A' and 'B' books list suits (by plaintiff v defendant) from A to Z, so you may need to look in both. Decrees and order are usually in Latin. There are no indexes for 1544-1546: after that, there are 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.
5. Further reading
JA Guy The Court of Star Chamber and its records to the reign of Elizabeth I (HMSO, 1985)
WJ Jones, The Elizabethan Court of Chancery (1967)
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 the Second to that of Queen Elizabeth inclusive from the originals in the Tower (Record Commission, 1827, 1830), vols 1 and 2
WP Baildon (ed), Select Cases in Chancery, AD 1364-1471 (Selden Society, 1896)
Many local record societies have published transcripts for their own county. For a list of local record society publications, see EC Mullins, Texts and Calendars (2 vols, 1978, 1983). Most are available in The National Archives Library.
5.2 Published Finding Aids
Lists of Early Chancery Proceedings, Public Record Office Lists and Indexes volumes:
- 9 Ric.II-Edw.IV, vol. XII (1901)
- 1467-1485, vol. XVI (1903)
- 1485-1500, vol. XX (1906)
- 1500-1515, vol. XXIX (1908)
- 1515-1529, vol. XXXVIII (1912)
- 1529-1538, vol. XLVIII (1922)
- 1533-1538, vol. L (1927)
- 1538-1544, vol. li, (1929)
- 1544-1553, vol. liV (1933)
- 1553-1558, vol. LV, (1936)
All these are included in our catalogue, except for the date.
EA Lewis, An Inventory of the Early Chancery Proceedings Concerning Wales (1937)
CA Walmisley ed., Index Nominum of Early Chancery Proceedings, 1386-1467, (Harleian Society, vols. LXXVIII-LXXIX, 1927-1928) This may be useful for providing variant spellings for online searching.
6. Dating suits in C 1
Our catalogue does not give dates, although the documents in C 1 are in a rough date order, as follows:
|C 1 bundles||Date range|
The documents were sorted in the 19th century into bundles according to the name of the chancellor to whom they were addressed. In many cases, the chancellor was specifically named and suits can be dated to within a few years. In others, the address was such that more than one chancellor could be identified (for example, 'the bishop of London, Lord Chancellor', when several bishops of London have been Chancellor in their time). To narrow this down further, you will need to consult the tables given at the front of each of the published volumes mentioned in section 5. These are all on the open shelves at The National Archives.