Cataloguing Exchequer Equity

In his presentation for Catalogue Week 2022, Dr Daniel Gosling, Principal Legal Records Specialist, gives an overview of the cataloguing work that has recently been completed on series relating to the Equity Court of Exchequer (E 112, E 133, and E 134), and what cataloguing is planned for these research-rich series.

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Hello, I’m Dan Gosling, a Principal Legal Records Specialist here at The National Archives, with a focus on pre-modern legal records.

In this presentation I’ll be talking about some of the series relating to the Equity Court of Exchequer, and the work we’re currently doing to better list these research rich series.

The Court of Exchequer was one of the oldest central law courts, with cases heard in a room adjoining Westminster Hall, where the courts of King’s Bench, Common Pleas, and Chancery sat.

In the 16th Century, the court developed an equity side, and it was the second largest of these equity courts (the largest being Chancery).

It existed as an equity court from 1558 until 1841, after which any remaining business was transferred to the Chancery.

Initially, this court only heard cases pertaining to Crown land or finance. The Exchequer was the financial office of the Crown, so this was to be expected. However, business in the court later opened up to include disputes over titles of land, manorial rights, tithes, mineral rights, ex-monastic land, debts, and wills.

In short, these records contain a huge amount of information of interest to a wide range of researchers.

Like all equity courts, the Court of Exchequer followed what was known as process by bill. They began with a bill of Complaint, a document in which the plaintiff outlines their grievance, and requests relief. This started the pleadings stage of the case, which included the defendant’s answer to this bill, and any additional responses from the parties, in order for the court to ascertain exactly what offence was alleged.

Following the pleadings came the proofs, the statements made by the defendants and any witnesses pertaining to the case. This stage also included the production of any deeds or evidences in support of a party’s claim.

Finally, the court would issue a judgment.

In almost all instances, these different parts of the court case are kept in separate series at The National Archives, so in order to find all the documents relating to a single case, you will need to know the different parts of the case, and in which series that type of document is held.

The Equity Court of Exchequer is no different, and you’ll have to look in several record series to find all parts of the case. But, we do have a Court of Exchequer Research Guide which lays out these different series in more detail.

Today I’ll be talking about the work we’ve been doing on the pleadings and proofs series of the Court of Exchequer, to make it easier for researchers to connect these records and piece together cases from this wide-ranging and fascinating court.

The most ambitious cataloguing project relating to the records of the Court of Exchequer pertains to the bills and answers of the court, collected in E 112.

These record the first stage of the Exchequer case, and so can provide the researcher with the initial complaint, and the main parties involved.

E 112 contains pleadings for the duration of the equity side’s existence, from 1558 all the way up 1841.

There are over 100,000 items in this series, arranged by reign then sorted by county.

Presently, though, these are only described to piece level on Discovery.

So this is what E 112 currently looks like on Discovery, with subseries for each reign, starting at Elizabeth I and running all the way through to the first few years of Victoria.

And this is how the pieces are arranged within these subseries. The piece numbering is continuous throughout the series, so piece number one is for Elizabeth’s reign and the pieces on the slide here are for the Commonwealth period.

As you can see, for counties which have more than around 100 entries – the maximum number of items a piece can hold – multiple pieces are used.

One item doesn’t necessarily mean one document, and a single item can contain as many as a dozen different pleadings from the same case, and can also include inventories or lists of names (for example in tithe disputes a list of those parishioners that owe tithes to the vicar of a church).

But, presently, because these items are not described in Discovery it can be difficult to find these records. The only way to currently do so is to visit the Map and Large Document Room at Kew where there are manuscript indexes for the bills and answers in E 112, which provide the item number, the county, and the reign.

Here’s what these index entries look like. They actually give a surprising amount of information, including the item number, the names of the parties involved in the case, the subject of the dispute (for the earlier reigns at least) and, in some cases, the law term in which the pleadings were received.

Though the records in E 112 are in English, these indexes, created by the court clerks, are sometimes in Latin. Here are two examples, one of an English entry and the other of a Latin one, both of which give the details of their respective cases.

You might also notice that these indexes contain more than enough detail to create meaningful item descriptions for these records.

So the item data for E 112 does exist, it’ll just take a huge amount of time and resources to convert this into catalogue data.

However, we have made small steps towards this goal.

This project started early in 2020, when we took images of a few of these index volumes, initially covering Charles I but then adding Elizabeth I, so that any transcriptions could be completed remotely. We’ve since added to these images, so that all the volumes from Elizabeth I through to the Commonwealth, 1558-1660, have been photographed, covering a little over 27,000 individual items.

During the site closures in 2020 and 2021, we were able – with the assistance of volunteers – to collect transcriptions of these indexes. This stage of the project ended in 2021, once our Kew site reopened, but we managed to collect over 11,000 item descriptions before it ended.

The next stage, currently in progress, sorts this index data so that we can create meaningful item descriptions for records in E 112. Here’s an example for Yorkshire cases from the reign of Charles I. A new item number also indicates which county the records are for, for pieces which contain multiple counties.

This project is ongoing, and we hope to have some of these item descriptions on the catalogue in the not too distant future.

But, as I said at the outset, the pleadings only form one part of the Exchequer case. In order for researchers to identify all the different parts of a case, we also needed to consider other Exchequer series.

One of the most obvious series to focus on were the Barons’ Depositions in E 133. These were called Barons’ Depositions because they were taken before the Barons of the Exchequer at Westminster and around London (within 10 miles of the City). They’re therefore akin to the so-called Town Depositions for Chancery in C 24, which were similarly depositions taken in Chancery or around London.

For E 133, there was some description on Discovery. For most of the series, namely E 133/11-156, items were described and arranged by short title, so if you knew the parties involved in the case you could potentially identify relevant records.

The catalogue issue for E 133 came from the date field. The records have been rearranged alphabetically by plaintiff, with pieces potentially containing cases from the entire period of the court’s existence. The date field wasn’t particularly helpful, as it only gave the date range “Elizabeth – Victoria” (even less helpful as that automatically converted the end date to 1901, the end of Victoria’s reign, even though the court ceased all business in 1841.

The E 133 cataloguing project was therefore set up to provide more accurate dates for over 10,000 items in this series. When we ordered up the documents themselves, we realised that in most cases the documents were provided with a date, so it was just the simple (but fairly time-consuming) matter of order up these pieces and adding dates for these records.

And I’m pleased to say that as of the end of 2021, dates for the 10,190 items in E 133/11-156 have been added to the catalogue.

In addition to this, 259 items have been created for miscellaneous pieces in E 133/161-164. These went live on Discovery earlier this year.

All that remains for E 133 are some descriptions for fragmentary and incomplete depositions in E 133/157-160, which will hopefully be completed at some point in 2023.

The final series I’ll be looking at in this presentation is E 134, the country depositions for the court of Exchequer. These are the same types of documents as those in E 133, the only difference being they were taken in the counties where the alleged offence occurred.

Unlike E 112 and E 133, much of the series is well described on the catalogue, giving the main parties involved, the subject of the case, and the place where the offence took place.

This means that for most researchers, the first point of reference for Exchequer cases is these country depositions. But, because these commissions were only issued for offences which occurred more than 10 miles from London, this series isn’t especially useful for London Exchequer cases.

But, even E 134 needs some work, and there are currently no descriptions for items from the late 18th century onwards, around 5,500 in total.

Again, these items are described in finding aids held in the Map Room at Kew.

At present, there is no active project to fill in these gaps in E 134, but it is on our radar as a problem that needs solving, and is included with all these different Exchequer catalogue projects.

So there is a still a lot to do with regard to this Exchequer collection of legal records, but a lot has also been done in the past two years.

It’s a good example of how in many instances we need to consider multiple series when working on catalogue improvement projects, as these series connect with each other.

So, watch this space, and I hope that there’ll be further catalogue improvements to the records of the Equity Court of Exchequer in the not too distant future.

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