Court of Arches : Act books 1671-1677

With the support of the Friends of Lambeth Palace Library, a further phase of the project to catalogue the acts of court of the Court of Arches has been completed, focusing on the act books from 1671 to 1677. 8,502 acts of court have been catalogued, raising the total in the online catalogue to 24,891. Each of these has been recorded and dated for the first time, with identifications of people and places and pointers to related material elsewhere. The catalogue now includes over 10,000 references to related documents, mainly in the National Archives. These have assisted the identification of protagonists in cases before the Court as well as providing further information concerning them.

In this period the Court was at its busiest, requiring extra sessions to be fitted into the legal calendar. Over a hundred cases were in progress at any one time, advancing in session after session, often over a period of years. The will of Nicholas Love, Warden of Winchester College, for instance, came before the Court 37 times over four years, complicated by the fact that his son was one of the regicides. A suit for dilapidations against the executors of Matthew Wren, Bishop of Ely, was before the Court for six years, delayed by the misfortune of his son and namesake. Hopelessly out of his element while attending the Duke of York on his flagship, and seasick too, Matthew Wren junior made his will as the Dutch fleet came into view and was mortally wounded not long after.

The Court concerned itself with the institution of clergy to benefices , the dilapidation of parsonage houses and bishops’ palaces, rights to pews, faculties for church buildings, tithes, rates, wills, marriage and divorce and the enforcement of morals. There were also numerous suits for defamation, as in the case of Kate Lingley, of St. Sepulchre, London, who was called ‘a whore, a hackney whore, everyone’s whore’. The Court was also active in the repression of nonconformity and clandestine marriages. Amongst errant clergy was John Cull, curate of Knightsbridge, who was rash enough to solemnise the clandestine marriage of Frances Hyde, daughter of the Earl of Clarendon. Edward Northmore, Vicar of Newton St. Cyres, Devon, was himself married in secret in a private room in Oxford, although in this case the Court found for the validity of the marriage, thwarting his efforts to rid himself of an unwanted wife. Conversely, when George Rodney Bridges MP sought to ditch his long-term partner Ann Smith, a shopkeeper in the New Exchange in the Strand, the Court dismissed Ann’s claim to be his wife and exposed her tampering with the parish register of Holy Trinity Minories.

That the past is a foreign country is vividly illustrated by child marriage. The abduction and forced marriage of children, as in the case of Hannah Hunt, below the age of twelve, carried off from Little Marlow and married in a private house in Southwark, was as unacceptable in Stuart England as it is today. However, marriages with consent (above all the consent of parents or guardians) were viewed quite differently, as in the marriage of John Power, Viscount Decies, aged seven, and Catherine Fitzgerald, aged about twelve, performed by Archbishop Gilbert Sheldon in Lambeth Palace Chapel in 1673. Mary Damerill, who came before the Court in 1677, was already into her second marriage at the age of fifteen, having been married first at the age of eleven. Bridget Hyde had also to shake off an early marriage in order to emerge (eventually) as Duchess of Leeds. In 1674, at the age of twelve, she had married her cousin, John Emerton. The courts upheld the marriage and it was only after 1682, when Bridget forced the issue by marrying (bigamously) the future Duke of Leeds, and only after the future Duke had paid 20,000 guineas to Emerton, that an annulment of her first marriage was achieved.

Richard Palmer