Court Depositions of South West England, 1500-1700

About the Resource

Welcome to Court Depositions of South West England, 1500-1700, a digital edition of 80 fully transcribed depositions relating to 20 cases heard in the church courts and Quarter Sessions between 1556 and 1694 across Devon, Hampshire, Somerset and Wiltshire. The original records are held in the Devon Heritage Centre, Hampshire Record Office, Somerset Heritage Centre and Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. These depositions or witness statements relate to a range of crimes and offences tried in these two types of courts, from defamation to theft and are rich in detail of social, economic, political and religious life in early modern England. As manuscript archival sources and written in secretary hand, few of these records are accessible to historians online or in published manuscript form. This digital edition is therefore an extremely valuable resource, providing access to a selection of depositions from the abundance of church court and Quarter Sessions material available in local records offices for the early modern period. It is an essential source for students of the early modern period, and for local and family historians, palaeographers and others with a general interest in early modern society.

The digital edition has been designed not only to improve access to church court and Quarter Sessions depositions, but also to exhibit the wealth of information that these records contain. The resource includes images of each document and for each case, a full verbatim transcription of the text has been produced alongside a transcription in which language has been standardized and modernized. Both versions have been annotated to aid users in exploring these records. Annotations relate to 1) the operation, procedure and record-keeping conventions of the courts; 2) noteworthy matters of interpretation of the evidence; and 3) definitions of key terminology. More information about the historical background to the courts, the collection and recording of depositions, and the types of cases heard in these courts is available below.

This digital edition has been prepared as part of the Leverhulme-funded project Women's Work in Rural England, 1500-1700 undertaken at the University of Exeter between 2013 and 2018. The resource has been made possible by the generous funding of the Leverhulme Trust and the kind permission of the Devon Heritage Centre, Hampshire Record Office, Somerset Heritage Centre and Wiltshire and Swindon Heritage Centre to reproduce the images of the documents. It is hosted by the University of Exeter.


Early Modern Courts

In early modern England, two overarching legal systems were in operation: secular (temporal) law and spiritual (ecclesiastical) law. Courts were numerous, each given a jurisdiction over a type of law and categories of offences, although in practice, the jurisdictions of these courts – both secular and ecclesiastical - often overlapped.

Civil Law: Quarter Sessions

Civil courts ranged in scale from manor and borough courts to Star Chamber and the Assizes. Accordingly, their purposes spanned from petty misdemeanours such as pulling down hedges to more serious personal crimes such as theft and murder and to political offences such as sedition. This resource is concerned with is the Quarter Sessions, a county-level court. Quarter Sessions operated as an administrative court: licensing alehouses, overseeing apprenticeship indentures and regulating wages were amongst its vast range of functions. However, criminal cases were also tried at the Quarter Sessions. These crimes were mainly misdemeanours such as low-value thefts and non-lethal assaults or acts of violence, although it was not beyond the court to sometimes deal with more serious crimes that were technically outside its remit and should have been referred to higher courts like the Assizes. The types of cases that the Quarter Sessions depositions in this digital edition relate to are: assault, sedition, rape, murder and theft (read more information on these crimes).

Statute required that Quarter Sessions were held four times a year at Epiphany (January), Easter, Midsummer and Michaelmas (Autumn). The Sessions were presided over by Justices of the Peace (JP), who sat as judges on the bench of magistrates. JPs were not legal professionals (though some may have had legal training). Serving as a JP was an unpaid role and was therefore often taken up by relatively wealthy local landowners. The proceedings of the court were recorded in court rolls, but witness, victim or perpetrator ‘informations’ or ‘examinations’ were also sometimes supplied by Justices as additional evidence. The survival of these depositions is patchy as they were sometimes discarded at the end of a trial. Not all cases proceeded from charge, court appearance and trial, to sentence. When a charge was made, punishments that could be doled out included jail sentences, time in the stocks, and fines.

Ecclesiastical Law: Church Courts

Spiritual law was dispensed in ecclesiastical courts. Consistory courts, the ecclesiastical courts from which the records in this digital edition originate, were diocesan courts. Yet these courts did not always have jurisdiction over the entire diocese; peculiar and archdeaconry courts also dealt with matters of ecclesiastical law in particular localities, creating overlap and confusion in the administration of ecclesiastical law. Ecclesiastical dioceses varied in size: the diocese of Exeter covered a vast area stretching across the counties of Cornwall and Devon, while the diocese of Winchester was one of the smaller dioceses of the country, the activities of its church court relating to the county of Hampshire and some parts of Surrey.

In part, ecclesiastical law related to the business of the church. Church courts therefore sought to enforce against clerical offences, as well as issues relating to the fabric of the church. They also arbitrated disputes over the payment of tithes, which were traditionally a form of clerical income (although the dissolution of monasteries and sale of ecclesiastical land under Henry VIII resulted in tithes gradually falling into lay hands during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries).

However, ecclesiastical law also related to the spiritual and moral harmony of early modern society, and its jurisdiction extended beyond direct matters of the church. Churchwardens, bishops and other church officials were responsible for bringing morally transgressive individuals to heel: those who failed to attend church, worked on Sundays and holy days, or committed adultery were among those cited to appear before the ecclesiastical courts. These types of cases were known as ‘ex officio’ (office) cases, as they were produced by the office of the church. Church courts also dealt with inter-party disputes or ‘instance’ cases, including defamation, matrimonial disputes, testamentary cases and contention over church seating. These cases more frequently produced witnesses, and therefore generated depositions. The types of cases that the church court depositions in the digital edition relate to are adultery, defamation, matrimonial contracts and tithes (read more information on these offences).

The courts were presided over by diocesan bishops and their deputies. Proceedings were recorded in act books and witnesses depositions were submitted to the judge as evidence. Not all cases went to conclusion of sentence. In instance cases, which were usually financed by the litigant parties, money sometimes ran out or disputes were settled outside of court, usually by prominent or respected members of the community. Where a sentence was passed, punishments included public penance (often performed in church or at the market square or cross). In some cases, sentences of penance could be commuted to fines, although this was an option available largely to more affluent wrongdoers. In office suits where the accused failed to show up, or refused to perform penance, he or she could be excommunicated.

Collecting Evidence

Quarter Sessions

When a crime had taken place, the victim or his or her neighbours were to initially attempt to apprehend the perpetrator. The town or parish constable was responsible for further proceedings: this could involve searching the offender’s house (particularly in cases of theft where the stolen goods might be discovered and recovered) or negotiating settlements between neighbours, especially when only a minor offence had taken place. For more serious crimes, constables presented the perpetrator to the Justice of the Peace, who was then responsible for gathering evidence about the facts of the case, and information about the parties involved. This involved collecting depositions from the victim, the accused and witnesses. These statements were known as ‘informations’ or ‘examinations’. Quarter Sessions depositions are not verbatim transcripts of the statements given. Each deposition was compiled from notes taken by the Justice of the Peace after they had examined the witnesses and those involved in the crime. The depositions therefore summarise each individual’s narrative of events.

A Quarter Sessions deposition typically contains a heading that records the name of the individual whose testimony has been recorded, their place of residence and the date on which the evidence was collected. Occupations of men who testified were also often set down, as was the marital status of women. The name of the Justice of the Peace responsible for examining the individual was also recorded. The body of the individual’s testimony itself was in English and although largely contained information pertinent to the case, it also included incidental evidence of everyday life. These depositions read as summaries rather than as answers to specific questions (as in church court depositions). Each deposition was signed by the Justice of the Peace at the bottom of the page.

Church Courts

Instance suits most frequently produced witnesses and therefore most church court depositions found in this digital edition relate to inter-party disputes (users can see an example of an office suit in Case 1). In instance suits, plaintiffs and defendants summoned witnesses on their behalf to support their cases. In pursuing legal action in the church courts, litigant parties were aided by proctors, who set out a series of articles (questions or challenges). These were designed for the opposing party, or witnesses from either side of the case to answer.

The depositions can appear relatively formulaic. Like Quarter Sessions depositions, they are not verbatim transcripts of the words the witnesses spoke. Testimonies were typically taken at or near the Cathedral of the diocesan capital (for example, Wells Cathedral in the dioceses of Bath and Wells) or in a nearby private house of one of the court officials. It is likely that the court clerk took notes during the witness’ testimony and later wrote them up in the more formal, uniform style recorded in the depositions we see today.

At the top of each deposition, information about the suit is contained in a heading. This provides information about the plaintiff and defendant (their names and sometimes place of residence) as well as the date on which the witnesses were examined. At the beginning of each witness’ statement, a short biography of the witness was compiled. This was often more detailed than that provided in the Quarter Sessions depositions. Name and place of residence was recorded for all witnesses. In most cases, the length of time they had lived in their parish or town was set down, as well as details of former parishes in which they had lived and their place of birth. The age of the witness was also typically given, and while occupations were recorded for male witnesses, a female witness’ marital status was more usually stated instead. The length of time that the witness had known the plaintiff(s) and defendant(s) was also sometimes recorded.

The body of the deposition contained the witness’ response to the articles or questions asked of them by the plaintiff or defendant’s proctor. The original questions were not recorded in the same documents as the responses and although some of the articles that witnesses were asked to respond to exist, the survival rate is poor. As such, it is not always possible to know what question was asked of the witness as only the response survives. The responses are recorded in a mixture of Latin and English. Over time, Latin gradually disappeared from the records.

In some cases, witnesses were further interrogated by the defendant via their proctor in a set of interrogatory questions. In addition to establishing further details about the case, a witness’ credibility was also interrogated: they were asked about their relationship to the producing party (as kin and others of close affinity were seen as objectionable) as well as their credit or worth.

Finally, witnesses in the church courts were asked to sign their depositions: some provided their full names, while other drew images (often related to their trade or occupation), and some simply made a mark.

Notes on the depositions

Depositions, both from the Quarter Sessions and church courts, are not unmediated accounts given by witnesses. In the case of the Quarter Sessions, they are a collaborative account compiled by the Justice of the Peace but recording the statement of the witness. Church court depositions were similarly collaborative, produced by the witness, the court clerk and (to an unknown extent) the litigant parties and their representatives. Testimonies were shaped by the questions asked as well as by those mediating the process of giving evidence. These records therefore do not provide ‘factual’ accounts of events but offer an insight into the beliefs and cultural values of early modern society, as Natalie Zemon Davis has shown. The incidental information provided in their testimonies is an important contribution to our understanding of these people and their lives.

These sources relate to the lives of a broad cross-section of society. Anybody could be presented to the Quarter Sessions by a Justice of the Peace and equally, witnesses were drawn from most levels of society. Most of the church court litigation in this digital edition relates to instance (party-produced) suits and there was a cost to seeking retribution against one’s neighbours. However, while pursuing a case in the church courts was costly, it was not prohibitively so. Wealthier members of society were more likely to pursue legal action against those who had wronged them; however, the cost of litigation did not impede the relatively poor from suing in the church courts. Likewise, witnesses were drawn from across the social spectrum. As they were required to be trustworthy and of good ‘credit’ (a trait which was linked to one’s ability to pay debts and their engagement in community networks of borrowing and lending), the poorest members of society were only occasionally called upon to testify. Witnesses nonetheless engaged in a variety of economic activities from husbandry to clothwork to day labouring, and were of married and unmarried status.

Crimes and Offences

Both church courts and Quarter Sessions heard a range of cases between 1500 and 1700. Descriptions of the types of cases that appear within this digital edition are listed below:

Church Courts


In the church courts, witnesses testified against their neighbours, recounting tales of illicit encounters behind locked doors. They reveal a level of community policing as they spied on those suspected of fornication through chinks in walls and keyholes. Others told of how they had been solicited by others, as in the case of Wilmota Rogers (Case 1).

By 1550, concern about marriage and sexuality had intensified, especially among puritan reformers who argued for harsher punishment for the act of unlawful copulation. Of those cited to appear before the church courts, those accused of engaging in extra- and pre-marital sex loom large in the records. These were typically office cases: charges of fornication were sometimes the result of parish visitations, as bishops and their deputies rooted out those suspected of having sexual relations outside marriage. Other clergy members, such as parish priests and churchwardens, also presented to the courts those amongst their flock of questionable sexual morality. In cases against long-standing offenders, these presentments often had the support of the local communities.


Defamation was one of the types of cases most frequently brought before the church courts. Laura Gowing has noted that in London, increased numbers of women cited one another for defamation over the period, and this was also true (though a less pronounced trend) in the more rural diocesan courts of Bath and Wells, Exeter, Salisbury and Winchester. Defamation cases were instance suits (disputes between parties). To successfully file a defamation suit against one’s neighbour or another individual, a plaintiff was required to produce witnesses who could testify that the words spoken were ‘actionable’ (that is, considered defamatory or harmful to one’s reputation); that the words had been spoken publicly (in the presence of others); and that the plaintiff’s reputation or credit had been diminished as a result. ‘Actionable’ words included: whore, quean, bawd, cuckold, knave and rogue. Witnesses therefore provided colourful testimonies of their neighbour’s quarrels, spats and disagreements that flared up in the heat of the moment upon the grievous actions of a neighbour (as in Case 2 and Case 4) or boiled over between rival parties in more long-standing feuds (as in Case 20.1 and Case 20.2).


Matrimonial litigation heard in the church courts most typically related to the formation of marriage and concerned the proof of alleged matrimonial contracts. The courts also heard cases of separation of married couples, although these were less frequently recorded. While canon law set out the criteria of a legally binding marriage - establishing these criteria was less straightforward. The words of consent that were spoken and the freedom of the man and woman from existing contracts were amongst a plethora of issues that surrounded these cases (as Case 16 shows). Church court witnesses attempted to prove and disprove that a legitimate betrothal had taken place based on their knowledge of the couple’s courtship and their presence at any discussions of marriage that had taken place. For a full exploration of matrimonial disputes using church court depositions, see D. O’Hara, Courtship and Constraint: Rethinking the Making of Marriage in Tudor England, (Manchester University Press, 2000).


Tithe cases typically related to the non-payment or incorrect payment of tithes, which were a form of clerical income. They were collected as a form of tax on parishioners to the value of one-tenth of income produced by the land and from the produce of livestock grazing on the land. Great tithes included cereals and pulses, such as wheat, barley, beans and oaths. Cheese, wool, milk and bees were generally counted among the small tithes. For centuries past, tithing rights had been granted to clergy over an ecclesiastical area, usually the parish, but following the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, and subsequent sale of church lands, tithes became private property, as laymen purchased tithing rights from the crown or nobility.

The process of tithing varied from parish to parish and in the depositions of witnesses who came before the church courts, customs and traditional practices of tithing are outlined. Witnesses in these cases tended to be male (although as Case 11 shows, some women were cited to testify). Often, they were drawn from amongst the parish’s older inhabitants, whose memories of tithing served as evidence to the established practices in that parish, as well as the tithing boundaries. Witnesses were also drawn from the younger men of the parish, often those who had been employed as servants or hired hands and could testify that the crop had been correctly or ‘justly’ tithed, as they had been involved.

Quarter Sessions


Although illegitimacy rates were low in early modern England, bastardy was an issue in which jurisdiction of the church courts and Quarter Sessions overlapped. In theory, church courts were concerned with rooting out immorality and regulating illicit sex, while the secular court’s aim was to determine who should pay maintenance for an illegitimate child. In practice, church courts were also concerned with establishing parenthood for economic reasons. It was important that the father of an illegitimate child was identified to ensure that responsibility for its maintenance was placed on him and not the parish. This places bastardy as a central concern for early modern society. Parish inhabitants had the right to claim poor relief and poor single women with illegitimate children could become a financial burden on the parish if a father could not be identified. Bastardy examinations took place before the Justice of the Peace and women were questioned about the circumstances in which the child was conceived (see Case 19).


Indictments of petty (non-fatal) violence were heard at the Quarter Sessions, while more serious assaults, including murder, were tried at the Assizes. Violence was more frequently committed by men rather than women; although Case 17 shows that this was not always the case. Married women in particular did not always rely on their husbands to settle their quarrels for them; Garthine Walker found that married women made up around fifty per cent of women charged with assault in early modern Cheshire. Violence was usually committed against someone of the same sex (e.g. men committed violence against other men, and women against other women).


While personal cases of insult were brought to the church courts as defamation suits, some were also brought to the civil courts. Tudor legislation introduced the crime of sedition which encompassed the speaking of words against the monarch or parliament. The line between defamation and sedition, and private injury and public offence was not always clear-cut, and few cases were classified as seditious. Serious cases were pursued in the Star Chamber, but as in Case 14, some offences were heard by Justices of the Peace in the Quarter Sessions.


Rape, as a serious felony that carried the death penalty, should have been tried at the Assizes, the higher criminal court. However, rape cases were tried in other courts, including the Quarter Session (as in Case 6) and occasionally they even found their way into the church courts. Accusations of rape were rarely brought to court in early modern England: as sexual morality was so important within early modern society, women may have decided not to report being raped due to fear of loss of reputation. Where such cases were tried, rates of conviction were low. This was not least in part due to the difficulty of providing proof that rape had occurred to the satisfaction of the judge and jury.

Suspicious Death

As a capital offence that carried the death penalty, homicide was usually tried in the Assizes, the higher criminal court. However, jurisdictions of the secular courts often overlapped; at times, cases appeared before the Quarter Sessions but were later referred up to the Assizes. Cases where the death of an individual appeared suspicious could be tried first in the Quarter Sessions. In such cases, witnesses were asked to recount what they had seen at the time and in the lead up to the victim’s death to establish whether the circumstances were at all suspicious: Case 15, relating to the drowning of Henry Abbott, is an example of this.


All charges of theft were heard at the Quarter Sessions, including petty larceny and the theft of goods of a higher value (classified as a felony). Grand larceny and multiple thefts could lead to the death penalty; however, the theft of low-value goods most frequently resulted in whipping (typically for women) or branding (for men). The selection of depositions in this digital edition represent numerous types of theft cases: from stolen sheep (Case 9), the pulling of wool from sheep (Case 10 and Case 13) and stolen items of clothing (Case 8). In many cases, parish constables procured search warrants to recover the stolen goods from suspected thieves’ houses.

Credits and Copyright

Principle Investigator: Professor Jane Whittle

Transcription, editing and encoding: Dr Charmian Mansell

Transcription and editing: Dr Mark Hailwood

Encoding development and resource creation: Dr Elizabeth Williamson, Digital Humanities Lab, University of Exeter

Resource creation: Richard Holding, Digital Humanities Lab, University of Exeter

To cite the resource, you may use the following structure (based on Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition): Charmian Mansell and Mark Hailwood, editors. Court Depositions of South West England, 1500-1700, University of Exeter, Accessed XXXX.

All transcriptions are licensed under a CC-BY licence, meaning that they are free to be shared, re-used, and built upon, providing due credit is given. The copyright for the manuscript images remains with the holding archives: please contact the archive for permission to re-use. Banner image credit: Johann Amos Comenius and Charles Hoole, Joh. Amos Commenii Orbis sensualium pictus: : hoc est, Omnium principalium in mundo rerum, & in vita actionum, pictura & nomenclatura. (London, 1705). Digitized by the Boston Public Library and made available on the Internet Archive at, Accessed 3rd Sept 2018.

You may download the XML of the transcriptions (zip file).