Court of Arches Project 4

With the generous support of the Friends of Lambeth Palace Library, a project to enhance access to two key series in the archive of the Court of Arches has been successfully completed. The two series are Ee (personal answers by plaintiffs and defendants to allegations), and Eee (testimony from witnesses), spanning the years 1661-1798. They reflect the variety of the Court’s jurisdiction in areas such as marriage, divorce, wills and probate, defamation, clergy morals and conduct, tithes and church buildings. They are a treasure trove for myriad aspects of history, reporting word for word the lives and experience of thousands of English men and women.

The project has provided enhanced descriptions of the contents of fifty volumes of Court records (10,582 ff.), including new identifications of persons and places. Significant individuals have come to light, often adding new and surprising information missing from their biographies in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Amongst the private lives laid bare are those of John Lacy and Henry Harris, two of the leading actors of the Restoration stage, Sarah Fyge Egerton, poet and champion of women’s rights, Alexander Johnston, son of the executed Lord Wariston, Holcroft Blood, chief of artillery under Marlborough, and a galaxy of politicians, clergyman, peers, and landowners. Amongst the latter is Joshua Edisbury, who built Erddig Hall, near Wrexham. The domestic staff at Erddig is a focus of interest to its visitors and the Edisbury case adds the testimony of the Hall’s very first steward and butler. In another suit we meet Benjamin Overton (c.1647-1711), political pamphleteer, enticing a young heiress (deaf, mute and aged only seventeen) into marriage. We discover the reason why Morgan Godwin (1640-1685), advocate of the evangelisation of black slaves in America, first went to Virginia: to escape a disastrous marriage to the adulterous daughter of a Buckinghamshire innkeeper. Another case features Richard Atkyns (1615-1677), who muddied the waters of English bibliography by announcing that printing was introduced into England long before Caxton, his evidence being a book allegedly found at Lambeth. Robert “Beau” Fielding, rake and M.P., appears in two cases, first through his bigamous marriage to Barbara, Lady Castlemaine, once the mistress of Charles II, and second through his simultaneous affair with her granddaughter.

The project has also drawn attention to the importance for architectural history of suits concerning dilapidations. The palaces of bishops and archbishops, and the work required to restore them, are extensively documented, especially following their devastation in the era of the Commonwealth. Included is a case brought against the executor of the will of John Hacket, Bishop of Lichfield, whose heroic achievement in restoring his cathedral led only to accusations from his successor that he had neglected his palace. Such suits often provide significant documentation on bishops’ income and expenditure, and, in a suit brought against the executor of the will of Archbishop Juxon, there is a detail concerning his private library: that his books were worth no more than fifty pounds.

Book with the ownership inscription of Archbishop Juxon (ref: SA442.C7)


Parsonage houses are another prime subject of dilapidation suits, while cases arising from churchwardens’ accounts often document the fabric of churches, as in the case of Ware, Hertfordshire, which needed extensive repair after the Great Storm of November 1703.

The depositions of witnesses before the Court of Arches provide vivid glimpses of the lives of rich and poor alike.  4,268 depositions have been recorded in the Library’s online catalogue for the first time, with the names, ages, occupations and residences of witnesses and usually their place of birth. One of the rewarding aspects of  the project has been to identify signed witness statements not only by bishops and leading churchmen but also laymen as various as John Evelyn, Sir Roger L’Estrange, Walter Charleton, physician to Charles II,  Streynsham Master, pioneer of the East India Company, John Pordage, priest, astrologer and alchemist, Claude Sourceau, tailor to Charles II, Cave Underhill, comic actor, Sir Samuel Garth, physician and poet, and the anatomist William Cowper. No less vivid are the testimonies of more ordinary folk, literate and illiterate. Their occupations are now recorded in the online catalogue, opening windows into innumerable trades and professions. In the case of Hubbard versus Hubbard, for instance, we are taken into the world of a London peruque maker, while in the case brought by Lady Ashe against Sir James Ashe we find the testimony of physicians, surgeons and apothecaries concerning the transmission of two diseases which frequently break out in Arches cases, the clap and the French pox.

In addition the project has catalogued 164 documents which were missing from the published index (and hence from the online catalogue), completing the documentation in almost as many cases before the Court.

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