Court of Arches Records

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The Court of Arches, the court of appeal of the archbishop of Canterbury, dates back to the 13th century, but with the exception of a dozen volumes, the very extensive archive dates from the Restoration.In its heyday the court exercised a wide-ranging jurisdiction over marriage, probate and testamentary disputes, defamation, church property (rates, tithes, fabric of churches), and morals of the clergy and laity. Jurisdiction over marriage and probate was transferred to the civil courts following the Court of Probate Act and the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. During the second half of the 19th century the court was the venue for disputes over ritualist practices.The archive includes over 2250 process books (transcripts of proceedings in the lower court sent up on appeal), over 150 volumes of act books, depositions, personal answers, sentences, muniment books, and over 1000 19th century files. Also includes a variety of exhibits, comprising mediaeval title deeds (Fineshade cartulary), court books, probate accounts, churchwardens' accounts, rate books, letters, plans, etc.List of series: Act books, 1635-1773 (A 1-41), Acts of Court, 1670-1818 ( Aa 1-99), Assignation Books, 1663-1875 (Aaa 1-51), Sentences, 1560-1797 (B1-19), Decrees, 1634-1799 (Bb 1-106), Commissions in partibus, 1662-1805 (Bbb 1-1605), Appeals, 1661-1803 (C1-6), Process Books, 1660-1893 (D 1-2369), Pleas: libels, articles, allegations and interrogatories, 1660-1799 (E0-E48), Personal Answers, 1661-1798 (Ee 1-11), Depositions, 1661-1855 (Eee 1-61), Muniment Books, 1554-1815 (F 1-12), Exhibits, 1310 -1915 (Ff 1-299), Small exhibits, 1660-1799 (G 1-179), Case Papers, 1800-1913 (H1-998; Hh 1-51), Administrative papers, 1800-1960 (Hhh1-14), Financial records (J, Jj, Jjj), Records of proctors and advocates, 18th-19th century (K,Kk, Kkk), Case Papers, 1914- (M-), Precedents and legal treatises, including Black Book of the Arches (N1-7).

Administrative / Biographical History

The Court of Arches is the court of appeal for the province of Canterbury. A precise date for the establishment of the court cannot be established, but by the time of Archbishop Pecham (1279) it appears to be well established as a court of appeal for the province from diocesan and lower courts (See I.J.Churchill 'Canterbury Administration' (London: SPCK 1933) vol. 1 pp.424ff for a discussion of the origins and early history of the court). Cases might come before it by way of a direct appeal from a definitive sentence, or by devolution through defect of justic either suffered or feared in a lower court, or by appeal for protection of the court of Canterbury.

After the Restoration the jurisdiction of the court of Arches was in all matters pertaining to the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts in general. The cases are divided into two categories: the 'instance' cases between two parties, which include cases of defamation of character and of matrimonial and testamentary cases (until 1858), and 'ex officio' cases prosecuted by or on behalf of the judge. The latter include cases of lay and clerical discipline or 'correction', and parish affairs (ie church fabric, faculties, church rates, tithes etc). There are also a few cases of officials of inferior courts being sued for illegal practices, and proctors suing for the payment of their fees.

In comparing the types of cases heard between 1660 and 1800 with those heard after that date, it can be clearly seen that the range of ecclesiastical jurisdiction declined, especially during the 19th century. The incidence of some types of case, such as defamation of character and correction for immoral behaviour, declined of their own accord as public attitudes changes and they were no longer thought to be a fit area for interference. On the other hand, the establishment of the court of Divorce, Probate and Admiralty in 1858 removed at once two of the most important fields of ecclesiastical jurisdiction: matrimonial and testamentary cases. This caused a dramatic fall in the number of cases heard; between 1800 and 1858 some 860 cases were heard before the court of Arches; between 1859 and 1900 only 136 cases were heard. The compulsory payment of church rates was abolished in 1868, and the payment of tithes in 1936, which also affected the numbers of cases. The increased use of letters of request illustrates the decline in the practice of ecclesiastical law.

The majority of cases remaining within the court's jurisdiction thereafter were cases of disputed faculties, which had previously been a very small proportion of the cases heard, and cases of clerical discipline. The procedure for dealing with such cases was defined and elaborated by the Church Discipline Act 1843 and the Clergy Discipline Act 1892, which defined the procedure of appeal from local courts to the court of Arches; the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874 established a new system for the trial of cases of ritualism; but the judge appointed under the Act was the Dean of Arches.

If a case were not finally decided an interlocutory decree (temporary sentence) might be issued, or the case might be referred to the Court of Delegates or to the Privy Council, or it might be stopped by a royal inhibition.Since the reorganisation of ecclesiastical courts by the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963, the court of Arches has no original jurisdiction but hears appeals from the diocesan consistory courts within the province of Canterbury in cases not involving doctrine, ritual or ceremonial.

Conditions Governing Access

A full readers ticket is required for access to this collection. Some of the records, not yet available in microformat, are too fragile to be made available for consultation. Individual records will be appraised when they are ordered by a reader.

Other Finding Aids

Houston, J. (ed.) Index of cases in the records of the Court of Arches at Lambeth Palace Library 1660-1913, (Index Library, vol. 85, 1972). (NB. This index does not index certain categories of records, such as acts of court, assignation books, decrees, where the information is available in the act books. Nor does it index all appointments of guardians ad litem for minors in receipt of legacies in will proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. ?) Provisional catalogue of the records of the Court of Arches (typescript). Supplementary card index to Court of Arches records, [covering the assignation books, 1763-1875, and excommunication schedules, 1666-1725 (Aaa 33-50, G1-4)]. Card index of proctors and advocates, 1700-1862, in series Kkk 1-20. Barber, M. Process books of the Court of Arches. Supplementary list for use with the microfiche and the printed index, (typescript).

Conditions Governing Use

Subject to the preservation requirements of the material, as outlined in conditions governing access. See

Custodial History

The Archives of the Court of Arches were originally stored in Doctors' Commons, London, where the Court met from 1674 onwards. On the closure of Doctors' Commons under the Court of Probate Act of 1857, the records were stored temporarily in a well in St. Paul's Churchyard; Transferred to the custody of the Dean of Arches in Morton's Tower. Lambeth Palace, in 1865. Transferred for safe keeping during the War, 1939-45, to the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Finally deposited in Lambeth Palace Library in 1953. Later deposits up to the 1980s.




Micropublications: The following categories of records are available on microfilm or microfiches at the Center for Research Libraries, 6050 South Kenwood Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60637, USA: the act book (A), acts of court (Aa), assignation books (Aaa), appeals (C), muniment books (F), personal answers and depositions (Ee, Eee), 2000 process books (D), sentences (B), and Black Book of the Arches (N1). The fiches of the process books are available for loan from the British Library Document Supply Centre, Boston Spa. The fiches are also available in the National Library of Australia, Canberra. Copies of the films and fiches may be purchased from Chadwyck Healey, Cambridge.