The Court of Arches: Saunders v. Davies

For over 700 years, the Court of Arches has been the Archbishop of Canterbury’s court of appeal. Established in the mid-13th century, the Court of Arches has remained part of the ecclesiastical court system ever since. Lambeth Palace Library has housed the records from the Court of Arches since 1865, save for a period during the Second World War when they were transferred to the Bodleian Library for safe keeping. It is a very rich scholarly resource, and recently, with the generous support of the Friends of Lambeth Palace Library a project to enhance records for two key series in the archive has been completed (see previous posts for details and for other scandalous stories).

The Court of Arches exercised jurisdiction over members of the clergy in matters of canon law, but also heard cases from the general populace. An ecclesiastical court didn’t deal with crimes in the modern sense, these were handled by civil courts. Instead, ecclesiastical courts dealt with matters relating to marriage, probate and testamentary cases, defamation, church property, and, in the case we will be discussing below, morality.

David Griffith Davies had been the curate of the parish of Charlbury, Oxfordshire since 1811 before supplementing this position with the curacy of Ascot under Wychwood in 1814. In addition to his curacies, Davies ran a small school from his house for university hopefuls. One of his students was a seventeen-year-old named Samuel Beale. For two years, Beale studied under Davies and was subsequently offered a place at Oxford University in 1816. On graduating, Beale returned to Charlbury and to the clergyman’s house. However, his return was “neither Davies’ wit nor wisdom”, nor was it to thank his former teacher for helping him secure a place at a prestigious university. Instead, his return was on account of Ann, the clergyman’s wife.[1]

We don’t know at what point Beale and Ann Davies began their affair, however, numerous chamber maids attested to the fact that they began to sleep together on a regular basis shortly after Beale’s return to the house. One servant testified that she found her mistresses’ nightgown more often in the lodger’s room than her own, while others claimed that they shared a bed most nights.[2]

But what of the cuckold clergyman? Was he so oblivious that he could not see this deception occurring under his very roof? Well, according to the court records, he knew exactly what was going on. “Servants attested that the curate was often seen conversing with the couple while they were in bed together and, indeed, was sometimes called in by Mrs Davies to lace up her stays, Beale presumably being too exhausted to do anything other than watch.”[3]

It appears that Davies was found more often in the Churchill Arms than he was in the marital bed. While Mrs Davies required help lacing up her stays, Mr Davies regularly needed assistance unlacing his boots due to the frequent visits to his local. This image of insobriety was compounded by allegations that Davies often frequented the kitchen of the Churchill Arms which was described by one witness as “one of the darkest [worst] places in the Country.”[4] In disreputable company, the curate was seen “drinking and singing bawdy songs, some of the grossest that could be heard.”[5]

In 1821, Davies, while on his way to conduct a funeral after a session in the Churchill Arms in the company of another regular, remarked of the parish clerk who was walking in the opposite direction, himself with a companion, “in a most irreverent, immoral and indecent manner”, “There’s a pretty pair, as the Devil said when he looked at his bollocks.”[6] According to numerous parishioners, Davies was frequently drunk at meetings of the vestry and his conduct of services left much to be desired.

However, despite these indiscretions, when complaints against Davies were bought before Dr. Cobb, the vicar of Charlbury, nothing happened. In fact, character witnesses stated that Davies was “a good-natured man” who “was generous, forgiving, [and] ready to assist anyone at any time.”[7] Including it seems, a young lodger with a taste for married women.

The image below lists people who vouched for Davies’ good character, and as we can see, it’s quite extensive.

List of character witnesses
2Samuel S. (office) v. David Griffith Davies of Ascot and Charlbury, Oxon.; indecent conduct, 1821”, (Arches/HHH/2/55, Lambeth Palace Library, London).

To those in authority however, Davies was an appalling candidate for the ministry, and in 1821 he was finally prosecuted for the many offences relating to his immoral behaviour. However, despite the overwhelming evidence laid against him, which included eye witness evidence from eighteen people, Sir John Nicholl, presiding judge and Dean of Arches, felt that he didn’t have the authority to deprive Davies of his benefice, which instead fell to his bishop.[8] Despite Davies exhibiting behaviour most unbecoming of a man in his position, it was felt that the most that could be done was to suspend him for three years and charge him for legal costs.

To legal reformers, this was evidence of a broken system. Here was a case of “drunkenness and profaneness, immorality and irregularity, and indecorum in the performance of divine office,” and despite being found guilty in the country’s highest ecclesiastical court, Davies could not be deprived of a benefice many felt he was unsuitable to occupy.[9]

Some, when reviewing this case with a 21st century perspective, might be forgiven for mistaking it for the sort of story featured in a tabloid newspaper or found in the kangaroo courts of daytime television, where self-righteous moral outrage goes hand in hand with poorly disguised voyeurism. However, to an ecclesiastical court, this was a most grievous matter. Davies got off rather lightly, all things considered.

These court papers remain a fascinating source of information, recording the lives of people that would otherwise have been lost to history. While it is safe to say that this case was chosen for its salacious content and colourful characters, the Court of Arches is a record of real people experiencing real life dramas. Each case reveals a different story, and there are thousands more stories to discover.



[1]R.B. Outhwaite, The Rise and Fall of the English Ecclesiastical Courts, 1500-1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 131.



[4]Ibid., p. 132.





[9]Ibid., pp. 132-133.

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