Court of Arches : Act books 1660-1666

The project to produce new catalogue descriptions of the act books of the Court of Arches from 1660 to 1666 has been successfully completed, including the final volume, compiled during the interlude between the Plague and Fire of London. This, and all the volumes in this project, were salvaged amid chaos in the city as the fire advanced, in contrast to their recent orderly transition to the new Lambeth Palace Library.

Cases from this period in the Court of Arches include Kirkham v Lovell and Sydes, relating to church rates in Northamptonshire. The case papers include not only entries in the act books, but also this early 14th-century cartulary of Fineshade Abbey, containing an abstract of the priory’s charters, which was used as evidence in the dispute and hence retained in the archive of the court.
[Arches Ff291.58v-59r]

Documents in the Court of Arches were filed in separate series according to their character (libels, witness statements and so on). The act books are the central record which links them all, introducing each case and tracing its progress through session after session of the Court. The project has recorded and dated, for the first time, each act of court, with identifications of people and places, cross-references between cases, and pointers to related material. The catalogue now includes almost 6,000 references to related documents in the National Archives (mainly PCC wills, Chancery suits and Court of Delegates appeals), enhancing the Arches data and supplying alternative spellings of names without which searching would be fruitless.

The Court was at its busiest following the Restoration as it dealt with a backlog of disputes concerning  marriage and divorce, wills, the institution of clergy to benefices , the dilapidation of parsonage houses and bishops’ palaces, rights to pews,  tithes, church rates, defamation and the enforcement of morals. Typical of those brought to books was John Everett, who in 1640, while a churchwarden of St. Botolph Bishopsgate, London, had removed a table of church rates and replaced it with one which gave less income to the Rector. Another was Nathaniel Swan, Vicar of Alderminster, accused of ‘negligence, drunkenness and boasting of friendship with Oliver Cromwell’.

Arches cases often yield vivid insights, as in a case concerning Richard Burt, who died at the height of the plague in August 1665. For two days and a night he was nursed by his mother , ‘all that time looking to him and binding him keeping him in bed’. During this ordeal his mother was called away to a sister, also dying of the plague, returning to lay out her son, wrapping him in a winding sheet for burial in the churchyard of St. Sepulchre. The movement from house to house of his mother reveals that obedience to the plague orders by no means universal.  Court proceedings resumed after the plague but were ended again by the Fire of London.  Reading a witness statement given some months before the Fire by Thomas Knight, a glazier in Pudding Lane, one almost wants to shout a warning.

Richard Palmer

December 2020