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The act of renouncing before witnesses an idea or association previously held. In ecclesiastical court records, defendants can be found 'abjuring' his or her offences, and the future company of persons with whom offences were committed.


A sworn statement made within a case.


Medieval canon law had a series of complicated regulations regarding who was allowed to marry who. Certain marriages were prohibited on the grounds that the parties were closely related by blood, marriage or, in the earlier period, by 'spiritual affinity' which imagined a family relationship with godparents. These regulations were replaced in 1563 by a much simplified Table of Kindred and Affinity, which appeared in the Book of Common Prayer and was exhibited in churches.


In a cause before an ecclesiastical court, the allegation is the answer by the defence, to the libel, or charge, bought on the part of the plaintiff. The contents of the allegation are presumed in the first instance to be true, being admitted in order to proceed to proof.


A fine imposed by a court. The term is used in ecclesiastical courts but also by manorial courts. The offence is said to be 'in mercy' and his if fines or 'amerced' in a certain sum.


An officer of the ecclesiastical courts who carries citations which summon the parties and witnesses to court, and generally executes the orders and decrees of the court. An apparitor was chosen by a judge. The apparitor is also known by the name of summoner.


A cause before an ecclesiastical court is begun with a libel. Each section or paragraph, is known as an article. The proctor declares that he is prepared to prove the articles and then the witnesses may be asked to give evidence on all or any parts of the articles.

Auditor causarum

The official title of a judge in an ecclesiastical court, or a judge acting as an assessor. In the complex of courts at York, one man could be employed as auditor in several courts at the same time, and in the 17th century there are examples where the Auditor Causarum of the Dean and Chapter Court wrote official documents to himself as Auditor Causarum of the Dean's Court.

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Canon law

The rules of the Church concerning organisation, administration, government and discipline of the Church. One of the most significant events in the evolution of Canon Law was the publication of Gratian's Decretum in 1140. This formed the basis of the Corpus Juris Canonici, which remained in force until the introduction of the Codex Juris Canonici of 1917.


Cases before an ecclesiastical  court. The proceedings were all required to be set down in writing, for the benefit of the judge. There was no jury.

Censures, ecclesiastical

The punishments imposed on offenders against the laws and observances of the Church. The form of censure was usually one or more of a) deposition from holy orders b) deprivation of benefice c) public penance d) excommunication. See also Penance.

Chancellor of the Diocese

An official appointed by the diocesan bishop, who exercised certain powers on behalf of the bishop, including sitting on behalf of the bishop in the courts. He had the same power of audience as his bishop so there was no appeal from him to the bishop. In the Church of England the chancellor is not usually a clergyman.

Chancellor of the Province

Like the Chancellor of the diocese, this official heard matters on appeal from subordinate dioceses in the court of chancery.

Chancery, court of

The personal court of the archbishop of York to which selected cases were referred from other courts, and to which certain matters were reserved for the bishop's personal attention. Such matters include heresy, perjury, usury, dilapidations, assault on nuns or clergy, and offences against the bishop's liberties and property. The court of audience was never a court which heard instance cases.

Church Rights, Case

These are widely varying cases. Tithe cases could be included as claiming tithes was one of the rights of the church but other sorts of disputes (e.g. over rights to sit in pews or over offerings owed to local churches) could also be included.


Parish officers, chosen by the incumbent or parishioners, who had the duty to care for and maintain the goods and fabric of a church. Before entering office they were admitted by the ordinary, usually the archdeacon, usually at his visitation, and made a declaration before him or the faithful discharge of their duties. As they were responsible for answering certain questions directed to them at visitation, they might be required to report instances of parochial misbehaviour which would then receive attention in ecclesiastical courts.


A summons to appear in an ecclesiastical court. The document is known as a citation mandate and was served by the apparitor of a court. The citation was usually the first document registered in a cause, after the appointment of the plaintiff's proctor.

Clandestine Marriage

Marriage without proper ecclesiastical authority or forms.

Clergy, cases

These cases involving clergy not fulfilling their duties properly and could include absentee clergymen, drunk clergymen, adulterous or fornicating clergymen. Those who defected from one branch of the Church to another tend to appear in the High Commission.

Commission, High, see High Commission

Commutation of Penance

The alteration of an act of penance into a money payment. Although it was generally forbidden, it is clear that commutation was far from uncommon.

Compurgation, see Purgation


A document by which a witness was summoned to the court.

Consistory Court

The bishop's general court for the administration of ecclesiastical law. The bishop did not usually appear in person as judge but commissions a judge, usually his chancellor (or at Canterbury his Commissary general). Appeal from a diocesan Consistory court was to a provincial court.


Refusal of one of the parties or one of the witnesses to appear before an ecclesiastical court. Also used to describe the refusal of an excommunicated person to submit to ecclesiastical correction.

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Defamation , Case

Accusations against an individual's good name made publically and on more than one occasion. This was a very common type of case. Defamation could be verbal or written but it did not have to be untrue (at least in theory, although in practice this did seem to be a guiding rule for much of the period).

Delegates, Court of

A court of appeal constituted by Henry VIII in 1534 to deal with appeals from archbishops' courts which would have previously gone to Rome. It was abolished in 1832 and replaced in 1833 by the judicial committee of the Privy Council.


In early English law, if a piece of property or an inanimate object was found to have caused the death of a person, it became forfeit to the Crown and its use was to be applied to pious purposes. It was said to be 'given to God' and it was valued or assessed so that the value might be applied to those pious uses.


The written evidence of a witness in an ecclesiastical cause.


A witness giving evidence, or a deposition, in an ecclesiastical cause.


An act of ecclesiastical censure in which as clergyman was removed from his office or benefice. Reasons for deprivation include the following: not being ordained, illiteracy, being under age, simony, plurality, conviction in a secular court of a serious offence, refusal to abide by the liturgy of the Church, infidelity, drunkeness, non payment of tenths, non-residence, violating a sanctuary, marriage, disclosure confessions.


All waste of Church property is called dilapidation. It might include pulling down or destroying houses or buildings belonging to a Church living, or allowing them to fall into disrepair. The term is most commonly applied to parsonage houses. In practice, a new incumbent was often forced to bring a case in the ecclesiastical courts against the widow or executors of his predecessor, in order to money for repairs should come from the estate of the person under which the dilapidations had occurred.

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Reasons produced in court for the delay or dismissal of a case.


An ecclesiastical censure. There were two types of excommunication. The first was entirely spiritual and prohibited as person from enjoying the communion of the Church until his offence was purged and excommunication is relaxed. This 'lesser' excommunication meant that a person could not take the sacrament at communion, could not attend divine worship, and could not receive Christian burial. It usually resulted from a sentence in an ecclesiastical court for refusal to appear after being cited, or for not submitting to the orders of the court. The second 'greater' type of excommunication went further by cutting off the excommunicated from all society of fellow Christians.

If a person remained excommunicated for 40 days, the bishop might present a certificate, called a significavit, to his Court of Chancery, showing that the person remained unabsolved. This allowed the court to request that the sheriff arrest and imprison the offender.

On submission, the offender might be absolved on a caution, a bond, pledge or oath.

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Faculty Court of Canterbury

A court of the archbishop of Canterbury established after the Act of 1534 which forbade appeals to Rome for dispensations. Its business was almost exclusively granting faculties previously granted by the Pope, the judge being known as the 'Master of Faculties', who was also usually Dean of the Arches. An important branch of business was the granting of licences to notaries public.


In general terms this means a licence, permission or dispensation from the ordinary permitting a person to do something which could not be lawfully be done otherwise. Since Henry VIII abolished and appeals to Rome, faculties of the nature of dispensations (for instance to be ordained deacon under canonical age) were issued by the Court of Faculties.

The term faculty has become especially associated with the granting of permission to make alterations or additions to church fabric and churchyards.

Fidei Lesio, Case

Breach of faith, perjury, in matters in a church court. Especially by failure to observe the obligations of a bond or oath. These cases were brought to make people fulfil sworn promises – they were particularly common in the fifteenth century and then all but disappear in the sixteenth century, when they became more regularly heard in the secular courts. All sorts of oaths were included but most concerned money and the court was being used to deal with petty debt legislation. The church could order the 'unbreaching of the faith' so that the debt was fulfilled, or if this was inappropriate (usually if there wasn't money involved where a settlement could be reached) they could order public penance to be performed.

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High Commission

A  number of separate commissions had been issued by Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary to deal with specific problems relating to the Church of England and heresy or recusancy. Under Elizabeth these became two separate and virtually permanent courts, for Canterbury 1559 and York in 1561.

The records for York survive to a great extent for the whole life of the Commission, 1562-1641, and are valuable for an understanding of the High Commission, its functions and relations to such bodies as the Council of the North, the Privy Council and various courts and commissions in the northern province.

At York the Commission acted in some senses like a visitatorial court, gathering resentments from local juries. It was also extensively used as a court of appeal, and sometime used in the manner of the consistory court.

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An order by a bishop or other ordinary, suspending an incumbent from performance of his office by reason of irregular of scandalous acts.

Instance, cause of

A Cause in an ecclesiastical court where there is a definite prosecutor against a definite defendant, each represented by his proctor.

See also Office, cause of


A set of questions set by one of the parties to be asked of a witness.

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Letters Missive

A strong form of citation mandate issued by the judge of a court when an initial citation has proved unsuccessful at bringing a party of witnesses to court.


A declaration or charge drawn up by the plaintiff in an ecclesiastical cause, representing matters which the plaintiff's proctor is prepared to prove as fact by the evidence of witnesses. Before 2 Hen V it was not necessary for the prosecution to supply a copy of the libel to the party of the defence.

See also Allegation

Litis Contestation ('the issue of a lawsuit')

When in an ecclesiastical cause the plaintiff, through his proctor, asked that a day should be assigned for the defendant's answer to the libel, and on that day the defendant or his proctor gave an answer, the 'litis contestio' was created. If the defendant admitted the charges, the case was ended. If he denied them, the case proceeded to the next stage.

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Matrimonial, Case

Until 1857 the Church had legal jurisdiction over marriage. These cases included people trying to stay in marriages, included those trying to prove that they were an individual's first wife or husband and that they were therefore married, or trying to get restitution of conjugal rights (usually wives trying to get access to the marital home and to their husband's income). They also included those seeking annulments, proving they were never canonically married – perhaps they were forced into marriage, they were too young to marry, they married without parental consent, they were too closely related to marry or were barred by the marriage of close relatives, that their partner was previously married, and those trying to get legal separations (by proving divorce or cruelty on the part of their spouse). Courts could make orders for couples to reunite or separate and in the case of separation could award a monetary settlement.


A gift by a person at death to the parish church for personal tithes unpaid during life. After 21 Hen VIII this was commuted to a money payment, according to the value of the deceased's property.

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A scribe or secretary who affirmed and attested the truth and accuracy of deeds and documents in writing, and of the documents which he himself had written or registered. In the Middle Ages notaries were appointed by the Pope or his legate or by the emperer and were an international body. By an Act of 25 Hen VIII, the archbishop of Canterbury, as formal papal legate, was given the right to appoint future notaries public. The Master of Faculties discharged this function. By canon law, one notary was equal to two witnesses, and therefore a statement signed by a notary could not be challenged in a court of law.

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Oath of Calumny

Oath taken by both parties at the start of a case asserting that they thought their cause was just , that they would tell the truth and not introduce false witnesses or evidence..

Office, cause of

Case in which the court (or office) acted as plaintiff, often a case involving immorality. Such cases were often promoted by an individual who may be mentioned in the records.

Official principal

The person to whom the archbishop or bishop entrusted his coercive jurisdiction, as a judge of the consistory court, and he was described in the court's act books as 'officium domini' – the lord's (bishop's) office. In the eighteenth century this became 'The Office of the Judge'. His power was limited to hearing of causes and the pronouncement of sentence.

The title of the bishop's judge does vary between courts. In York he is the official principal. In other diocese he may be termed the commissary general.

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The public confession of, and expression of regret for, a fault.

Personal Answer

Answers of the defendant to the positions presented by the prosecution. The answers were written in clear terms and given upon oath.

Prerogative Court

The court in which wills were proved and administrations granted when jurisdiction belonged to the archbishop by reason of the prerogative, that is where the deceased person, although dying outside the archbishops diocese, had property of value five pounds and above within the province('bona notabilia'). All causes for accounts or legacies arising from such wills were also heard in this court. Appeal from this court was to the King in Chancery, who passed the case to appointed delegates.


A parochial report given by the incumbent or church wardens of a parish to a set of articles issued at visitation.


The proof that a last will and testament of a deceased person is his or her own act. A will was proved in either an exchequer or prerogative court by the executor or executors named in the will. Probate could also be granted during visitation by a bishop or his commissary.


An official able to act in legal or financial affairs on behalf of his master and in a legal sense as counsel for a client. One of the earliest types of document drawn up at the beginning of a legal case in the church courts was a letter of proxy, in which a party appointed and empowered their proctor.


A writ of the Crown removing a cause from an ecclesiastical court to a royal court, and forbidding the ecclesiastical court to proceed.

Propound all Acts

The term at the end of a case set by the judge to bring together all final evidence.


A legal process whereby an accused person was required to make a sworn declaration of innocence before the judge of an ecclesiastical court. In support of his oath he also had to provide a certain number of compurgators (between six and twelve) who had to declare their belief in his good character. Although the system was subject to grave abuse it did not fall into complete disuse until the second half of the eighteenth century.

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In England this means a member of clergy or laity who refused to accept the religious changes at the Reformation. The term was often used in Tudor times indiscriminately for adherents of Rome and for extreme Puritans, which can be confusing, by there was a tendency to apply it especially to Romanists after 1570. Recusants were discouraged first by imprisonment and later by fines.


Answer to exceptions.

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Sentence, definitive

The sentence which put an end to a law suit, and had reference to the chief matters in dispute.

Sentence, interlocutory

A sentence which determined a matter which had arisen incidentally in the course of a cause and needed a decision before the main matter might be decided.


The taking of the profits of a benefice into the hands of an ecclesiastical superior, usually the diocesan bishop. This might happen because a benefice was vacant by death, resignation, unlawful absence or improper conduct of the incumbent. During a sequestration a sequestrator was appointed by the bishop to manage the affairs of the parish.


If a person excommunicated by an ecclesiastical court remained excommunicate for forty days or more, the court could send a certificate or significavit detailing the nature of the offence, to the Royal Chancery. A writ was then issued by Chancery ordering the imprisonment of the offender until he submitted to the authority of the Church.

Summoner, see Apparitor

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Term probatory

Period of time in which witnesses were to be brought to court and evidence of a case collected: there could be three such terms for a party in a case.

Testamentary, Case

Concerning disputes about probate, including the validity of wills, the proper administration of estates or questions arising from such administration (was the guardianship of minors being properly established for example).

Tithe, Case

These were disputes over the payment of tithes (that is a tenth of certain forms of income to support the clergy). Tithe cases became particularly common in the sixteenth century

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Vicar General

Much of a medieval bishop's work was done by a deputy because bishops were often absent from their diocese on royal business. Up to the late 14th century, a vicar general was appointed for periods when the bishop was out of the diocese, and dealt with all official acts of the bishop for which episcopal authority was not required. By the beginning of the 15th century, the greater part of a bishops work was delegated to the vicar general who was more or less permanent. Often a member of the Cathedral chapter was chosen. There was some overlap with the areas of jurisdiction of the bishop's official principal which means that the two offices, although distinct with separate commissions, were often united in the hands of one man.

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