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

The Court of Arches II: Oxford v. Henly

Today’s visit to the Court of Arches concerns a matter that we would probably expect to find in an ecclesiastical court as ecclesiastical courts have jurisdiction over matters concerning clergy behaviour and  how they conducted services. The case in question was bought before the Court of Arches by the Bishop of Oxford, Francis Paget, against one of his clergy, the Revd. Oliver Partridge Henly, vicar of Wolverton St. Mary, Buckinghamshire. Henly stood accused of the rather serious ecclesiastical offence of “reservation of the Blessed Sacrament.”[1]

Rubrics set out in the book of Common Prayer stated that enough bread and wine for each member of the congregation should be placed upon the altar to be consecrated. If the sacrament should be totally consumed before everyone has had the chance to receive, then more bread and wine must be consecrated. If any of the sacrament remains, then it should not leave the church but must be consumed by those present, in most cases by the priest.[2]

Modern, as well as, medieval practice allowed priests to reserve the sacrament for the purposes of preforming Holy Communion for the infirm in hospitals and in their homes. However, in the early 20th century, when this case takes place, the Church of England generally adhered to a strict interpretation of Article XXV which states that “The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them”.

Unfortunately for Revd. Henly, the Bishop of Oxford was very particular in this matter. Even worse, while conducting a funeral, Henly had been seen by the Bishop of Reading reserving the sacrament. Reading is a suffragan bishopric in the Diocese of Oxford, so naturally, the Bishop of Reading went straight to his superior with the news.

Perhaps if this episode had been a one off occurrence, Henly may have escaped with just a flea in his ear. However, the Bishop of Reading gave the following evidence which suggested the contrary, “I was going to take part in the funeral service; when I was in the vestry Mr. Henly said, “I wish you to understand that the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the church, and therefore it will be necessary to genuflect before it.” I went straight into the church without waiting for the choir. There I saw the lamp hanging near the altar, in front of and above it. Then I went to my place and waited there, and in due time the choir came in and they made their genuflexion quietly and reverently so much so that it was certain to me that they had been properly trained.”[4] To compound matters further, the Bishop of Reading claimed not to have seen a tabernacle or ambry where the eucharist may have been stored.

Upon hearing the news, the Bishop of Oxford wrote a letter to Henly asking him to confirm or deny Reading’s version of events. Henly replied confirming what Reading had said, but stated that “the choir was trained to genuflect before it [and] the only person occupying a position in the choir who on that occasion neglected this act of reverence [was] the Bishop of Reading himself.”[5] The Bishop of Oxford responded, asking Henly to abandon the practice immediately, to which Henly retorted saying that the bishop had no right to make such a demand and that he had never disobeyed the rubrics, which in his opinion did not affect the practice of reserving the sacrament for the sick.

Letter between the parties
“Francis, Bishop of Oxford v. Partridge H., V. of Wolverton St. Mary, Bucks.; leaving consecrated bread and wine unconsumed, 1905”, (Arches/HH/47, Lambeth Palace Library, London).

During the Arches Court sessions, these letters would provide the basis for the prosecution’s case, as Henly freely admitted to reserving the sacrament and to disagreeing with the Bishop of Oxford’s stance on the matter. However, as reported in the Times, the problem for the prosecution was the date of the offence. Had Henly reserved the sacrament before or after the Bishop of Oxford’s ruling? Had Henly directly disobeyed his bishop or merely disagreed with his theology?

In his letters, its clear that Henly disagrees with the church’s stance, however, even with the Bishop of Reading’s evidence, it was difficult to prove that Henly had wilfully committed an ecclesiastical offence. The prosecution’s case wasn’t helped by the fact that no witnesses had been summoned to give evidence. When the reporter from the Times had asked why the churchwardens for example hadn’t been called to testify, the Bishop of Oxford had admitted that “he had felt unable, under all the circumstances, to proffer any evidence except that of the letters”.[6]

This left the court in a remarkable position. Here was a charge being pleaded without any real evidence to support it. Ecclesiastical courts, just as in any criminal court, required due process to be followed in order to protect the right’s of the individual.

In the end, Henly was found not guilty, which supports the notion that ecclesiastical courts were not above due process. A common misconception is that ecclesiastical courts were free to operate as they wished behind closed doors. For the most part however, ecclesiastical courts were just as concerned with the just upholding of the law as contemporary secular courts were. Many, including the Times reporter, thought Henly was guilty, however, without definitive evidence it was impossible to lay charges against him.

However, it seems that Henly was unable to take the hint and in 1909 he found himself once again before the Court of Arches for “(1) the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament; (2) the holding of a Benediction service; and (3) disobedience to a monition of the Court issued in 1906 in respect to the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament.”[7] Henly hindered his own defence by not being present during the trail. It was also reported by the Rhos Herald that Henly had threatened to “black” the eye of William Henry Partridge, clerk to the registrar of the diocese, when he attempted to serve Henly with the bishop’s monition.[8]Perhaps unsurprisingly, on this occasion the Court of Arches sided with the Bishop of Oxford and Henly was deprived of his ecclesiastical promotions within the Province of Canterbury. It seems that Henly and the Bishop of Oxford could not be reconciled, as Henly would leave Oxford for another diocese before later joining the Roman Catholic.


[1]Newspaper Cutting of “Arches Court” Article from the Times, 11 December 1906, Davidson Papers 1906-1907, Vol. 761, Lambeth Palace Library, London.






[7] Newspaper Cutting of “Court of Arches” Article from the Times, 4 August 1909.

[8] Newspaper Cutting of “Bishop v. Vicar” Article from the Rhos Herald, 24 July 1909.

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.