Curators Present: Using the records of the Court of Great Sessions (Part 1)

Collections - Posted 16-07-2020

The records of the Court of Great Sessions are an exceptionally valuable resource for the social, economic and legal history of Wales from 1542 to 1830, and they are more complete than comparable records in England. They are one of the Library’s most important archives, but they have been underused by researchers. This is partly because court records can be difficult to use, but this blog will attempt to help readers find their way into the records. Part 1 will give a brief overview of what the Great Sessions did and what secondary finding aids are available, and Part 2 will look in more detail at the court records themselves, what they contain, and how they can help you to search the archive.

The court and its work

The Court of Great Sessions in Wales was established in 1542 as part of the ‘Acts of Union’, which applied English common law to the whole of Wales for the first time. The new court was empowered to hear the most serious cases, and twelve of the county courts in Wales were arranged into four circuits of three counties each, namely Chester (Denbighshire, Flintshire and Montgomeryshire), North Wales (Anglesey, Caernarfonshire and Merionethshire), Brecon (Breconshire, Glamorgan and Radnorshire) and Carmarthen (Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire). Itinerant justices were to visit each circuit twice a year, sitting in sessions of six days in the spring and late summer, and they were to hear civil, Crown and equity cases.

  • Civil cases were those between subjects in which the Crown had no interest. They were the backbone of the court’s business, and mostly concerned disputes over property (including real estate, goods and chattels) and debt, as well as breaches of contract, slander, trespass, payments of fines, common recoveries, some damages arising from physical assaults, and other matters. The competence of the Great Sessions in civil cases was comparable to that of the Court of Common Pleas at Westminster.
  • Crown cases were those that touched the interests of the Crown. They mostly consisted of criminal cases, and the records are particularly rich. They ranged from felonies (capital crimes) – murder, manslaughter, treason, arson, rape, burglary, theft of goods worth more than one shilling (grand larceny), witchcraft and other serious offences – to misdemeanours such as trespass, riot, affray, illegal assembly, entries, ejectment, extortion, contempts, recusancy, and theft of goods worth less than one shilling (petty larceny), which could be punished by fines, imprisonment, whipping, the stocks or mutilation. Some non-criminal matters were also dealt with, including highway maintenance and Coroner’s inquests, although not all of these were strictly part of the court’s business. The competence of the Great Sessions in Crown cases was comparable to that of English assize courts and the Court of King’s/Queen’s Bench at Westminster.
  • Equity cases were those that could not be answered by a common law court, either because the common law did not recognise the issue at hand (such as equitable interests in land), or because the court had no jurisdiction (in disputes that arose at sea, for example), or because no precedent was available. The principles of equity and conscience were followed, therefore, rather than the usual strict rules. This was the least important part of the work of the Great Sessions, but the records are valuable for genealogists because most equity cases involved matters of trust and agreement, such as marriage settlements, oral agreements, wills, mortgages and trusts, many of which arose from family arrangements. The competence of the Great Sessions in equity cases was comparable to that of the Court of Chancery at Westminster; this seems to have been the case throughout its existence, even though equity was not specified in the 1542 statute.

These arrangements continued until the court was abolished in 1830, and they are reflected in the records and the structure of the Library’s catalogue. Monmouthshire was allocated to the Oxford assize circuit, and its records are in The National Archives.

Minor cases were heard at county Quarter Sessions, and also at manor courts, as well as at Petty Sessions from the eighteenth century. Nor did the Great Sessions enjoy a monopoly over more serious cases. It co-existed with a number of other courts with similar jurisdictions, notably the court of the Council of Wales and the Marches (a prerogative court sitting at Ludlow until 1689), as well as ecclesiastical courts, King’s Bench, Chancery, English assize courts, and others; most Welsh cases in equity, for example, never came before the Great Sessions. Over time, precedents were established for hearing more cases in English courts, and the Great Sessions was gradually undermined. The complexities, anomalies and limitations of the court were widely criticised, as was the quality of its judges, and by 1830 it was considered outdated and unnecessary, although it had become a Welsh national institution.

Starting research in the Great Sessions records – secondary finding aids

A simple and rewarding way into the Great Sessions is the Library’s searchable Crime and Punishment database of criminal records for 1730-1830.

In addition, Murray Chapman has calendared and indexed the early Montgomeryshire Gaol Files, providing researchers with a much easier route into these records. Eight volumes have been published by the Library to date, covering the periods 1541-1613 and 1650-1660.

Readers who would like to discover more will need to make their own searches. To help with this, the Library has produced several finding aids, including:

  • a full and easily browsable online catalogue of the Great Sessions records
  • Glyn Parry’s A guide to the records of Great Sessions in Wales, which is the most comprehensive single work on the court’s records, procedures and development; it also contains extensive bibliographic notes
  • A leaflet for readers entitled ‘Records of the Court of Great Sessions’, available in the Reading Room

Part 2 of this blog will look at how the court records themselves can help your research.

Dr David Moore
Assistant Archivist

This post is also available in: Welsh

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A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.

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