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

The Court of Arches III: Matrimonial Disputes

Post-restoration, the Court of Arches typically dealt with four types of case; matrimonial, testamentary, morals of clergy and laity, and parochial disputes. Of these, matrimonial and testamentary cases accounted for the vast majority of all suits heard in the Arches Court between 1660 and 1857, at which point they become the jurisdiction of the secular courts.[1] Unlike other cases bought before the Court of Arches, in matrimonial cases, there was a lot more circumstantial and background evidence discussed.[2]

For example, in the 1721 case of Paul v. Paul, Elizabeth Paul of St. James’, Westminster was obliged to publicly recount to the court how she met her future husband. They had married in secret, first meeting when they were both twelve years old at a dancing lesson. Daniel Paul had insisted on secrecy, knowing that his parents would never consent, particularly his mother who was assisting with his advancement in the military.[3] Obviously, by appearing in court the illusion of secrecy was somewhat shattered.

“Elizabeth P., alias Murray v. Daniel P., of St. James, Westminster, Middx.; suit to establish clandestine marriage, 1721”, (Arches/B/15/65A, Lambeth Palace Library, London).“Elizabeth P., alias Murray v. Daniel P., of St. James, Westminster, Middx.; suit to establish clandestine marriage, 1721”, (Arches/B/15/65A, Lambeth Palace Library, London).
“Elizabeth P., alias Murray v. Daniel P., of St. James, Westminster, Middx.; suit to establish clandestine marriage, 1721”, (Arches/B/15/65A, Lambeth Palace Library, London).

While the case of Elizabeth and Daniel Paul’s is one of young love and comparative innocence, frequently the evidence exhibited during marital disputes was shocking in its sordidness. During the case of Stamford v. Stamford, the court heard from Thomas Grey, the 2nd Earl of Stamford, that his wife was having sexual relations with numerous members of his household and had become a violent alcoholic, threatening at one point to cut his lordship’s throat. This claim was supported by witnesses who stated that Lady Stamford had wished for her husband’s execution after he’d been implicated in the Duke of Monmouth’s failed rebellion in 1686. Lord Stamford further claimed that because of his wife’s extravagant and reckless spending, she had racked up to £30,000 in debts. Lady Stamford insisted that these debts were as a result of his lordships fondness for fast women and slow ponies.[4] Their subsequent divorce seems to have been a sensible decision. The image here is Lady Stamford’s testimony in court. We can see her signature at the bottom of the page.

 “Thomas Grey, 2nd Earl of Stamford, politician, v. Elizabeth, Countess of Stamford; divorce (adultery), 1686”, (Arches/EE/6/108, Lambeth Palace Library, London).
“Thomas Grey, 2nd Earl of Stamford, politician, v. Elizabeth, Countess of Stamford; divorce (adultery), 1686”, (Arches/EE/6/108, Lambeth Palace Library, London).

In order to corroborate or contradict these claims, large numbers of witnesses were called to give evidence. Many witnesses were the servants of the couples appearing in court. We can only imagine the looks of ill-disguised satisfaction as they were asked to recount the scandalous behaviour of their masters and mistresses. These witnesses would often prove invaluable during a case. The evidence of Revd. Edmund Robert’s butler, Charles Cook, proved pivotal in his divorce proceedings. In court, the butler alleged that he had discovered that the door to the library had been locked and that the key hole had been bunged up. He further added that he believed the occupants of the locked room were his master’s wife and the young tutor.[5]

“Edward R., of St. Paul's Cray, Kent v. Elizabeth Ann R.; divorce (adultery), 1852”, (Arches/EEE/72, Lambeth Palace Library, London).
“Edward R., of St. Paul’s Cray, Kent v. Elizabeth Ann R.; divorce (adultery), 1852”, (Arches/EEE/72, Lambeth Palace Library, London).

While many cases would become topics of local gossip, some cases were so sensational that they became the talk of society. A particularly shocking and notorious example was the divorce case of Bowes v. Bowes. In 1776, the wealthy heiress, Mary Eleanor Bowes, met and married Andrew Robinson Stoney, a man of more modest means. High society buzzed with the rumour that Bowes had fallen pregnant before the marriage had taken place and that Stoney was not the father.

Whether Stoney was aware of the rumour or not, the marriage nevertheless deteriorated rapidly when he discovered that a trust had been set up that prevented him from controlling his wife’s fortune. Incensed, Stoney resorted to violence against his new wife to gain control of her wealth. Bowes appealed to the courts, citing domestic abuse and adultery. However, before the courts could intervene, Stoney abducted his wife and subjected her to further torment. Stoney was eventually apprehended and brought before the Court of Arches to answer for his crime which resulted in his imprisonment. Bowes was granted her separation and reclaimed control over her money.[6]

We know that this particular case captured the imagination of the public as a book was written in 1789 that gave extensive details of the case. An engraving depicting the “cruelty displayed” by Stoney towards his wife formed the frontispiece of the book and is seen here. In the engraving we can see Stoney threatening his wife with a knife while pulling at her hair.

The Trial of Andrew Robinson Bowes, Esq. For Adultery and Cruelty (London: R. Randall, 1789).
The Trial of Andrew Robinson Bowes, Esq. For Adultery and Cruelty (London: R. Randall, 1789).

Today, it would be unthinkable that a case such as this would be handled by anyone other than a criminal court, such are the severity of the charges. However, as marriage was a sacrament, the dissolution of a marriage would only ever be handled by those with an understanding of ecclesiastical law.


[1]M. Barber, “Records of the Court of Arches in the Lambeth Palace Library”, Ecclesiastical Law Journal: Vol. 2 (ed. Michael Goodman), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 14.



[4]Ibid., p. 15.


[6]R. Cosgave, “The Court of Arches”, Lambeth Palace Library: Treasures from the Collection of the Archbishop of Canterbury (ed. R. Palmer and M.P. Brown), (London: Scala Publishers, 2010), pp. 144-145.


With the support of the Friends of Lambeth Palace Library, a project to identify documents within the archive of the Court of Arches which were missing from the catalogue has been completed. The project focused on series E: libels, articles, allegations and interrogatories. In total 287 missing documents were identified and catalogued, comprising 95 parchments and 483 paper leaves. They range in date from 1662 to 1786 and 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. The newly catalogued items enhance the documentation on hundreds of cases before the Court, providing vivid glimpses into forgotten lives. Interesting cases to which the project has added new documentation concerned the wills of Archbishops Juxon and Sheldon, the dilapidation of the bishops’ palaces at Lichfield and Peterborough after the destruction of the Commonwealth era, the clandestine marriage of Frances Hyde, daughter of the Earl of Clarendon, and the divorces of political figures such as Thomas Grey, 2nd Earl of Stamford, John Vaughan, 2nd Viscount Lisburne, and Trevor Hill, 1st Viscount Hillsborough. A further divorce case concerned Sir John Reade who had the unusual distinction of being made a baronet by both Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. The project also brought to light an unexpected item amongst the libels, an original rate book for the parish of St. Paul, Deptford, 1768.

A guide to the archive of the Court of Arches, with information on its jurisdiction and procedure and extensive bibliography, has also been added to the Library’s online catalogue of archives and manuscripts.

Example of a case in the Court of Arches (MQ808.G7S8TP)