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 Fire of London

At the 350th anniversary of the Fire of London, which began on 2 September 1666, this blog post highlights sources in the Library which shed light on this event and its aftermath, including a sermon preached soon after the Fire by William Sancroft, then Dean of St Paul’s (and later Archbishop of Canterbury).

H5133 920.08TP
Printed book H5133 920.08

The printed book collection also includes a Book of Common Prayer (this edition dating from 1681) which contains these ‘Forms of Prayer to be used yearly on the second of September, for the dreadful Fire of London’.


H5145.A4 1681fBbb
Printed book H5145.A4 1681


The papers of Archbishop Sheldon (volume 1 ff 25-27) include an Order of the King in Council dated 7 November 1666 requiring him to ascertain through the bishops in the Province of Canterbury the sums collected in each parish for the relief of those who have suffered distress in the Fire of London, and to make arrangements for the funds to be sent to the Lord Mayor of London.

Records in the Library also document the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral. MS 670 is an account of income and expenditure covering from 1666 to 1700. MS 2872 folios 44-49 comprise papers of the Commissioners for Rebuilding St. Paul’s Cathedral dating from 1674-5, among them an order approving the new design and requiring them to proceed with the work ‘beginning wth ye East End, or Chore’, that the Surveyor with his assistants and officers should immediately set out the ground and lay the foundations ‘of so much of yt Designe as lies East of ye Cupola, or Tower, & pursue ye work with all Diligence so long as the Season of ye year shall permitt’. The signatories include Sir Christopher Wren.

MS 2872 f 46r

Among records relating to Doctors’ Commons, the association of ecclesiastical lawyers situated near St Paul’s Cathedral, there is a list (MS 2080 f 56) of those contributing to the reconstruction of their premises after the Fire. The story is further explored in E A Pickard and E Jeffries Davis, ‘The Rebuilding of Doctors’ Commons, 1666-72′, London Topographical Record (1931), xv, 51-77. This later print (dating from 1808), a recent gift from the Friends of Lambeth Palace Library, shows the interior as rebuilt.

Print 027/20


Some records relate to the effects of the Fire on specific institutions situated within the City. The records of the library of Sion College (Sion L40.2/E58) include catalogues of the printed books and manuscripts saved from the destruction of the College in the Fire and carried to safety at the Charterhouse. They are in the hand of John Spencer, the Librarian. The shelf marks of the printed books differ from the Library’s earlier shelf marks and represent a new post-Fire arrangement of the collection.

Aside from the physical damage caused by the Fire, the records document its consequences for ecclesiastical administration in the City of London. MS 1701 comprises a set of tithe assessments, assessing certain London parishes for a rate in lieu of tithes, made according to the provisions of the Act of Parliament (22 and 23 Chas. II cap. 15) for settling the maintenance of clergy in parishes burnt in the Fire.

One piece of evidence is an absence rather than a presence. The Library holds the records of the Court of Arches, the court of appeal for the Province of Canterbury, which was medieval in origin: but few of its earliest records survive, being destroyed when the Fire ravaged the church of St Mary-le-Bow where the Court sat, and so the surviving archive predominantly dates from after 1666.