Court of Arches: Act Books 1677-1682

The current project to catalogue the Act Books of the Court of Arches from 1677 to 1682 (Arches A 13-15) is well advanced and on course for completion by the end of 2022.

The diverse business of the Court during these years included suits concerning the dilapidation of parsonage houses and bishops’ palaces. The deaths of successive Bishops of Worcester, for instance, led to suits concerning the state of the palace at Worcester and Hartlebury Castle. The death of John Hacket, Bishop of Lichfield, whose efforts saved Lichfield Cathedral from ruin caused by the civil war, also led to a lengthy suit; his successor Thomas Wood, complained that Hacket had not lavished equal concern on his palace. The deeds and misdeeds of the clergy were also exposed in court, as in the case of Thomas Turner, Vicar of Milton-next-Sittingbourne (now Milton Regis, Kent), whose drinking and playing at cards and dice at the Three Hats, the Red Lion, the Crown, the White Hart and the Queen’s Head often ended in the gutter with the revelation ‘I am damned drunk’.

Suits concerning marriage and divorce were also to the fore. Lady Elizabeth Percy, the greatest heiress of her day, widowed at the age of thirteen, secretly married Thomas Thynne, known (on account of his wealth) as ‘Tom of Ten Thousand’. A suit followed, whereupon Thynne was murdered in 1682. Elizabeth then made a third marriage, at the age of 15, to the Duke of Somerset. Less fortunate was the life of Posthuma Bullocke, forced by her husband to wear a chastity belt, ‘an engine commonly called an Italian padlock’ for almost two years. No less remarkable were the marriages of Anne Pierrepont, daughter of the Marquess of Dorchester. Her marriage to Lord Roos, afterwards Duke of Rutland, was ended by a legal separation in the Court of Arches and then by a parliamentary divorce, the first in England. Anne went on to marry Henry Vaughan, only to return to the Arches in 1681 seeking yet another divorce on account of his cruelty. Marriage contracts were also disputed in court, as in the engagement of Donough O’Brien, Lord Ibrackan, to a daughter of Thomas Osborne, afterwards Duke of Leeds. In this instance the Dean of the Arches allowed himself a moment of candour, urging a speedy marriage to avoid ‘the distast and exasperation which judicial proceedings may begett’.

Other cases ranged from the violation of churchyards, the impersonation of the Vicar General at a visitation, and penances for adultery, to more mundane disputes over tithes, rates, institutions to benefices and rights to pews. Time and again the records reveal the unexpected. The elegant white marble monument to George and Judith Ayliffe in the church at Foxley, Wiltshire, celebrates their lives and five children. Few would guess the reality revealed in court, that Judith left her husband after having been cruelly beaten.

Ayliffe memorial, Foxley Church, Wiltshire. Photo: Sheona Beaumont, 2022.

Variations in the spelling of names in the seventeenth century present challenges to cataloguers. It was pleasing to rescue the poet John Dryden from the obscurity of ‘John Draydon’ and to identify ‘John Eveling’ as the virtuoso John Evelyn. Both were protagonists in Arches cases, as was another diarist, Samuel Pepys.

Richard Palmer

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