about this project
- The Consistory Court of the Diocese of London
- Medieval Canon Law and Consistory Court Litigation
- Late Medieval London and its Hinterland
- Editorial and Translation Conventions
- Further Reading
- Credits and Acknowledgements
The Consistory was the bishop's highest court.1 Its judge was called the bishop's official, who was a man university trained in canon and civil law, and most of its business involved "instance" litigation (people suing one another) rather than "office" cases (ecclesiastical authorities prosecuting wrongdoers). London's Consistory court served the diocese of London, which was comprised of Middlesex, Essex, and parts of Hertfordshire as well as the City of London itself.
During the medieval period, of course, adherence to the Roman Catholic church was compulsory in England, and thus theoretically all inhabitants of England were subject to the church's authority. Although in practice some who lived within the diocese's boundaries were outside the bishop's jurisdiction, as monasteries and other religious houses often had independent jurisdictions, the vast majority were subject to the authority of the bishop of London and his courts.
Litigants from the city made up roughly half the number pursuing suits at the London Consistory court. An even higher number of Londoners served as witnesses, as litigants from out of town, who often paid the travel expenses of their witnesses, probably sought to cut costs by choosing Londoners as witnesses if they had a choice.
Although the London Consistory heard cases related to the many different issues under ecclesiastical jurisdiction in late medieval England, suits related to marriage were the most common, making up more than half of the fifteenth-century cases for which testimony was recorded in the surviving London deposition books. Men and women sued one another in the Consistory to enforce or, less frequently, to dissolve a contract of marriage. Testimony offered in marriage suits, along with the defamation, tithe, debt, testamentary, and clerical discipline cases, reveal fascinating details about life in fifteenth-century London and the smaller towns and rural areas that made up the diocese of London.
Litigants were assisted through the legal intricacies of the court by lawyers who were called advocates, usually university graduates in law, or proctors, often not formally trained. The plaintiff, the person suing, or the defendant, the person being sued, asked witnesses to support their cases, and the sources found on this site are the records of that testimony. The witnesses were usually examined by the presiding judge individually, in a room in St. Paul's Cathedral or in a private house (the houses of the official himself or the court's registrar or scribe were frequently used) or elsewhere.
As Charles Donahue has pointed out, although procedures in episcopal courts had become more formalized by the fifteenth century, these courts still "tended to be ad hoc bodies."2 In each case the official questioned the witnesses according to series of articles, questions, charges, and challenges that were set out by the lawyers of the parties involved in the suit to the court. A plaintiff or defendant in a case could also appear (or be summoned) to answer the allegations of his or her opponent. After the official had heard the various witnesses and considered the written submissions, including the recording of the depositions, he rendered a judgment. Unfortunately the judgments were only rarely recorded in the deposition books, instead being written in separate books, none of which survive for the period in question. Should a party be unhappy with the judgment, he or she could appeal the decision to the archbishop of Canterbury, or to the highest earthly authority, the pope.
While the records of appeal to the archbishop have not survived, the records of some cases that were appealed beyond the Consistory court of London to the papacy have survived in Rome and are helpfully summarized in a modern printed edition which has recently been digitized by British History Online.
At the Consistory itself, a registrar or scribe recorded depositions in a book. Two such books survive for the years 1467-76 (London Metropolitan Archives, MS DL/C/205) and 1487-96 (London, Guildhall Library, MSS 9065 and 9065B); this database presents transcriptions and translations of the latter. p>
The relationship of the surviving record to the actual hearing is indirect. At the actual hearing, the registrar probably took notes which he later wrote in a more formal style in the books we now have. He did not record the actual article or question to which the witness responded in his or her testimony; presumably anyone wishing to refer to the deposition was assumed to have a copy of those documents as well (although they have not survived). The clerk translated the depositions, which the witnesses gave in English, into Latin. During the period under study here, the second half of the fifteenth century, ecclesiastical court clerks all over England began more frequently to insert English words into their records, especially in quotations, reflecting the legal importance of knowing the exact words spoken in marriage contracts, defamations, and other transactions.
The questions witnesses were asked centred around points essential to the case and the canon law, but in some instances the court gave witnesses room to tell fairly lengthy stories. In most marriage cases, the most important issue for the court was usually whether or not the principals had properly exchanged consent. Sometimes priority was the matter at hand: which exchange of consent came first? At other times, the exact words spoken and whether they constituted free and unconditional consent were in question. The court was also interested, however, in the events that surrounded the particular issue at hand, as other factors could influence the court's finding. Defamation suits, for instance, usually revolved around both the actual words of defamation, the context in which the damaging words were allegedly spoken, and their effect on the fame of the plaintiff; cases regarding tithes explored local practices regarding the payment of tithes.
Litigants in Consistory court suits came from a fairly broad cross-section of society, as far as we can tell, although all too frequently there is little evidence about a litigant's or a deponent's socioeconomic status. Some cases involve London aldermen and gentlefolk; other cases involve very poor people living on the margins of society. It seems probable, however, that more substantial inhabitants of the kingdom are more frequently represented than other social groups: litigants and witnesses, or their families, turn up often ( either through internal evidence or through other records) as urban or rural elites. Others probably came from the socioeconomic groups below that level but still in the upper half of the social ladder. Both the financial means and the legal know-how required to pursue litigation were much easier to access if one belonged to a wealthier and better-connected social group. At the same time, relatively poorer people could and did bring cases to the Consistory.
The testimony was given, as the records indicate, in response to prepared statements (called libels, with individual numbered articles), questions or challenges from the defendant's statement (interrogatories), and other legal submissions. We do not have any of those submissions on which the questioning was based; indeed in some cases we know only that the witness denied a particular statement, or agreed with it, but we do not know what the statement was. The best we can do is infer the statements or questions from the answers. Similarly, only rarely is a sentence or decision recorded in the deposition books: those, too, were recorded separately, and they do not survive for the years that this deposition book covers.
1 The best guides for all issues relating to the ecclesiastical courts and the canon law in medieval England are R. H. Helmholz, The Canon Law and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction from 597 to the 1640s ( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); and Charles Donahue Jr., Law, Marriage, and Society in the Later Middle Ages: Arguments about Marriage in Five Courts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). For Consistory courts, see Helmholz, Canon Law, pp. 213-16. Specifically on the London courts, see Richard M. Wunderli, London Church Courts and Society on the Eve of the Reformation (Cambridge, Mass.: Medieval Academy of America, 1981). This section is adapted from Shannon McSheffrey, Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture in Late Medieval London (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 195-97.
2 Donahue, Law, Marriage, and Society, 34.