In late Medieval Chester the office of Justice of Chester was a powerful position, but it was also a decidedly deadly one:- possibly one of the most dangerous jobs of the time - few survived the office without being exiled, killed or simply dying in office. Peaceful retirement was seldom an option. Uniquely, the effectively unelected mayor and sheriffs of the city of Chester then gained control of a legal system that was a complex patchwork of the City and County jurisdictions. Arguments as to jurisdiction continued into the 19th Century, while the development of the court buildings produced much architecture of interest that can still be seen today.
In England, a county palatine or palatinate was an area ruled by a hereditary nobleman enjoying special authority and autonomy from the rest of a kingdom or empire. The name derives from the Latin adjective palātīnus, "relating to the palace", from the noun palātium, "palace". The precise location of the "Palace of the Earl" in Chester is unknown, although some early maps show its supposed ruins in Edgar's Field.
Palatinate thus implies the exercise of a quasi-royal prerogative within a county, that is to say a jurisdiction ruled by an earl, the English equivalent of a count. The nobleman swore allegiance to the king yet had the power to rule the county largely independently of the king. It is therefore distinguished from a feudal barony, held from the king, which possessed no such independent authority. Rulers of counties palatine created their own feudal baronies, to be held directly from them in capite, such as the Barony of Halton. Formal county palatine jurisdictions were first created in England under the rule of the Norman invaders. In continental Europe, they have an earlier date, although the Anglo-Saxon subdivisions of England, even after there was an overall English King may have in practice had much effectively local jurisdiction.
Besides its own City courts, Chester was the location of courts held at Chester Castle for the county at large. In the Middle Ages the county court, presided over by the Justice of Chester, was the superior court for the whole county palatine, including the city. The other palatinate court, the Chester Exchequer, operated under the authority of the Chamberlain of Chester and heard cases concerned, among other matters, with debt. From 1543 the Justice of Chester held criminal sessions on circuit for Cheshire, Flintshire, Denbighshire, and Montgomeryshire, the equivalent of the assizes held for other circuits and known as the Court of Great Sessions. The sessions for Cheshire were held twice a year at Chester Castle, usually in March or April, and September or October, and as elsewhere were accompanied by much ceremonial and became the focus of the county gentry's social season. The Court of Great Sessions and the Chester Exchequer were abolished in 1830, but Chester remained an assize town until both the assizes and quarter sessions were replaced nationally by Crown Courts in 1971.
Until the palatinate was taken back under control of the Crown the Norman Earls of Chester were the heads of their own legal and fiscal system for any matter other than treason. This meant that Chester and Flintshire (eventually together with the "March" counties of Denbighshire and Montgomeryshire) had a legal system which was independent of the national assizes. In other words "the King's writ did not run to Chester". The fact that the City became a county in itself as a consequence of Charters made matters even more complex.
The Justice of Chester - possibly the most dangerous job in Medieval Chester
The Justice of Chester was the chief judicial authority for the county palatine of Chester from the establishment of the county. Within the County Palatine (which encompassed Cheshire, the City of Chester, and Flintshire), the Justice enjoyed the jurisdiction possessed in England by the Court of Common Pleas and the King's Bench.
As the list below shows, the position was often a precarious one and at times few survived the office without being exiled, killed or simply dying (often quite young) - notable Justices of Chester between 1387 and 1471 (of which only one lived to retire) included:
- DIED IN EXILE: Robert de Vere, Duke of Ireland 1387–1388: a "favourite" and court companion of King Richard II - he was attainted and sentenced to death in absentia by the "Merciless Parliament" of 1388. He died of the injuries he had sustained during a boar hunt in 1392;
- MURDERED: Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester 1388–1391: the leader of the Lords Appellant, a group of powerful nobles whose ambition to wrest power from Richard II, culminated in a successful rebellion in 1388 that significantly weakened the king's power. Richard II managed to dispose of the Lords Appellant in 1397, and Thomas was imprisoned in Calais to await trial for treason - during that time he was murdered;
- EXECUTED: John Holland, 1st Duke of Exeter 1391–1394: a half-brother of Richard II, to whom he remained strongly loyal. He is primarily remembered for being suspected of assisting in the downfall of King Richard's uncle Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester. Early in 1400 Holland entered into a conspiracy, known as the Epiphany Rising, with his nephew Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent, and with Thomas le Despencer and others. Their aim was to assassinate King Henry and his sons, and to return Richard, then in prison, to the throne. The plot failed and Holland fled, but was caught, near Pleshy Castle in Essex, and executed on 16 January 1400.
- DIED IN EXILE: Thomas de Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk 1394–1398: as a result of his involvement in the power struggles which led up to the fall of Richard II, he was banished and died in exile in Venice.
- EXECUTED: William le Scrope, 1st Earl of Wiltshire 1398–1399: Scrope was captured with Bussy and Green when Bristol Castle surrendered to Henry on 28 July 1399. He was executed without trial at Bristol Castle, together with Bussy and Green, and his head carried to London in a white basket to be displayed on London Bridge.
- KILLED IN BATTLE: Henry Percy 1400–1403: in 1403 the Percys turned against Henry IV in favour of Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March, and then conspired with Owain Glyndŵr against King Henry. In 1408 Percy invaded England in rebellion once more and was killed at the Battle of Bramham Moor. Percy's severed head was subsequently put on display at London Bridge.
- DIED IN OFFICE: Gilbert Talbot, 5th Baron Talbot 1403–1419. He died in office aged 35, having been appointed to the office at the tender age of about 19.
- DIED IN OFFICE: Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter 1420–1426: an English military commander during the Hundred Years' War, and briefly Chancellor of England. He died in office, in 1426 (aged 50).
- DIED IN CUSTODY: Humphrey of Lancaster, Duke of Gloucester 1427–1440: the trial in 1441 of Eleanor Cobham, his second wife, under charges of witchcraft, destroyed Gloucester's political influence. In 1447, he himself was accused, probably falsely, of treason, and died a few days later while under arrest.
- BEHEADED BY MOB: William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk 1440–1450: the disastrous renewal of the war in France, and other national problems spelt the destruction of Suffolk's career. Many accused him of maladministration and poor conduct of the war, and political pressures forced Suffolk into exile in 1450. Arriving at the coast on his way out of the country, he was caught near Dover by an angry mob, subjected to a mock trial, and beheaded.
- DIED IN OFFICE: Thomas Stanley, 1st Baron Stanley 1443–1459 (joint): died on 11 February 1459 of natural causes (aged 54).
- KILLED IN BATTLE: John Talbot, 2nd Earl of Shrewsbury 1459–1460: he was killed at the Battle of Northampton.
- RETIRED: Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby 1461–?: change of regime never really weakened his grip on the key offices of Chester and Lancaster and throughout his life Stanley consolidated the legacy he had inherited from his father and extended his hegemony and that of his family across the north-west. He was “a man of considerable acumen, and probably the most successful power-broker of his age”. He died in 1504, aged 69.
- KILLED IN BATTLE: Richard, Duke of Gloucester 1471–?: was King of England and Lord of Ireland from 1483 until his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. He was the last king of the House of York and the last of the Plantagenet dynasty. His defeat at Bosworth Field, the last decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses, marked the end of the Middle Ages in England.
The legal reorganisation of Wales and the Marches under Henry VIII diminished the authority of the Earl of Chester (i.e., the Prince of Wales) in the County Palatine: however the authority of the Justice was increased. In 1542, the Great Sessions were established in Wales, that country being divided into four circuits of three shires each. Denbighshire, Flintshire, and Montgomeryshire were made part of the Chester circuit, over which the Justice presided.
Under Elizabeth I, a second justice was added to each of the Welsh circuits, after which the senior and junior justice are generally referred to as the Chief Justice of Chester and the Second or Puisne Justice of Chester. Because the Cheshire justices were free to practise as barristers in the English courts or sit in Parliament, the post of Chief Justice was often awarded as a form of patronage by the Government to aspiring lawyers.
The offices of Chief and Puisne Justice were abolished in 1830, as part of reforms that also brought Wales under the jurisdiction of the courts at Westminster.
Chester Courts in Medieval Chester (1066-1506)
A borough court with 12 'lawmen' (iudices) existed in Anglo-Saxon times, and it was probably equivalent to the later Portmote. This was a gathering, i.e. *moot", of the men of a port. Hemingway writes:
- "according to Jacob there was a general assembly of the people to consider of and order matters of the commonwealth. There was anciently used by the Saxons a mote bell, employed by the English Saxons to summon people together to the court. The remains of this custom is still retained in this city to this day where a small bell is at St Peter's church, when the mayor and recorder go into court at each the general courts held in April, August and October."
In 1300, Edward I's charter granted the citizens of Chester the right to try pleas of the Crown before the mayor and sheriffs of the City - the first time any city in England obtained this privilege. Hemingway writes:
- "There is a document amongst the corporation records which purports to be a return to a quo warranto under the statute of the 6th Edw I, in which the constitution of the city is thus stated:- The Maior and citizens of the citty of Chester clayme to have liberties under written, that is to say that the citty of Chester be a free citty and that the citizens may chuse to them a maior of themselves, from year to year, the Friday next after the feast of St Denyce which shall make his oath to keep the laws of our sovereign lord the prince and the liberties and laws of the citty aforesaid. And also that they may chuse to them two sheriffs of themselves the day aforesaid which in manner aforesaid the execution and commandments of the said Earl of Chester and of the maior and citizens of Chester truly shall do by their oaths and to have Gildam Mercalem in the citty aforesaid and to have free court of port mote in the city aforesaid of all quarrels growing within the citty aforesaid to be tried that is to say to have pleas of lands and tenements and of repleven growing by plaint in the port mote or writ and pleas of dower in a writ of right which in the aforesaid port mote by writ originally ought to be served. And all other pleas to be holden in the pentice of the citty aforesaid afore the sheriff."
The most simple picture of the court system in medieval Chester is that:
- the mayor of Chester presided over the Portmote, which was the higher court and held in the Commonhall, located in Commonhall Street and heard "crown" cases such as those relating to theft and acts of violence. It conducted jury trials;
- the sheriffs of Chester presided over the Pentice, which was a lower court located at the High Cross and heard "personal" cases such as those relating to real-estate, debt, trespass and breach of contract. It acted after the manner of a magistrates court, without a jury.
However matters were frequently not as simple as that as can be seen from the descriptions of the various courts given below.
Throughout the later Middle Ages the Portmote remained a court of record for property transactions enrolled before the mayor and sheriffs. Wills and items of civic business were also enrolled from time to time. It also remained the only court to hear pleas of real estate, initiated by plaints which were probably written rather than verbal, and often subject to lengthy delays. The option of removing a case from the portmote to a higher court was apparently available to all litigants, but only by writ of error. Payment for such a writ, 3s. 4d. in 1442–3 but later doubled, was relatively uncommon in the 15th century.
The sheriffs continued to act as the court's executive officers in the later Middle Ages, responsible for the city gaol in the Northgate, executions, attachment, distraint, and the summoning of juries. In the more routine tasks they were assisted by four bailiffs, each responsible for one quarter of the city. Judgement remained the preserve of the doomsmen, still provided on the basis of ownership of particular houses within the city. By then some of the most prominent owners, including the abbot of Chester and the heads of the Stanley and Egerton families, customarily appointed attorneys to serve on their behalf. Such attorneys were generally drawn from the common pleaders of Chester's courts, although occasionally there were unusual appointments, such as a chaplain in 1404. They also acted for townsmen involved in litigation, commonly serving for many years and accumulating an expertise which perhaps compensated for their lack of formal legal training.
The Portmote was the principal medieval court of the city, and is first mentioned in the early 13th century, in a charter of Henry III: "Me in pleno Portmoto Cestriae remisisse". Initially (before 1305) the city sheriff (then a single officer) presided and judgement was vested in a group of "doomsmen" (judicatores), a body perhaps descended from the Anglo-Saxon "lawmen" and much the same in number. The doomsmen determined customs, fixed the dates when the Portmote met, postponed cases if they deemed the evidence insufficient, and acted as witnesses to property transactions recorded in the court. The doomsmen were the holders of certain properties within the city, and paid an "execution rent". Hemingway writes:
- "There were certain customary tenants of the city, sixteen in number, who by their tenure were bound to watch the city three nights in the year which are specified and also to watch and bring up felons and thieves condemned as well in the court of the justiciary in Chester in the county there as before the mayor of Chester in full crown mote as far as the gallows for their safe conduct and charge under the penalty which thereto attaches for which services the said customary tenants had certain privileges and exemptions."
Some of the duties (presumably including performing watch duties during the specifieed holidays) could be performed by deputies. By 1305 the mayor had taken over the presidency of the Portmote for civil as well as criminal cases. By then, too, the Portmote roll was dated by reference to both mayor and sheriffs, instead of the sheriffs alone, as had been customary earlier.
As a court of record, where the principal citizens witnessed one another's land grants, the Portmote's main business was probably pleas of real estate, initiated by plaint and writ. Hemingway writes of it as follows:
- "The mayor of Chester by ancient usage, confirmed by the charter of Henry VII, has crownmote and portmote courts. The former must have been created by one of the of Earls of Chester as we see by the following document, extracted from the rolls of the court of session at Chester, 44 Henry III, that it was in existence in 1260:- "Be it remembered, that the sheriffs and commonalty of the city of Chester, bailed to the liberty of their town from the gaol of the castle of Chester, Dawe the son of Maurice, suspected of many robberies, and him afterwards delivered and the same was soon afterwards attainted for stolen goods found upon him, and capital offences perpetrated within their baliwick."
It is not clear where the Portmote was originally held, but later - perhaps only after 1300 when the mayor became chief judicial officer - the Portmote was held in the Common Hall, otherwise known as the Moot Hall (see: Commonhall Street) and always on a Monday. The court rolls contain both pleas and enrolments of deeds and exist as a separate series from 1295 to 1563.
The Crownmote, which apparently emerged as a distinct court in the later 14th century, was also held in the Common Hall (see: Commonhall Street) under the presidency of the mayor and in the presence of the sheriffs who, as the executive officers, assembled the jurors. In 1399 the Crownmote was declared the court in which defendants who failed to respond to the writ capias ("that you may capture [him] in order for him to reply") were to be outlawed. Its other business included coroners' inquests into violent deaths, indictments for trading offences and encroachments, and infringements of civic ordinances and of the Statute of Labourers, matters which in the later 15th century were heard instead by the mayor in 'full' Portmote and once at a 'great inquiry' in the Common Hall. "Full" Portmote was a sitting at which jurors drawn from the four quarters of the city presented breaches of the peace and offences against the city's ordinances.
The sheriffs also operated in the Pentice court, where the procedure was more summary: cases were determined by the sheriffs without a jury. The court, named from the structure in which it was held, a lean-to built against St Peter's church, was well established by 1288. Its earliest surviving records date from 1297. On petition, a case could be transferred to the Portmote. The Pentice was particularly concerned with the regulation of the markets, and also heard all pleas during the fairs, when the Portmote was suspended. Samuel Lewis recorded the following:
- Fourteen days before the commencement of each general fair a wooden hand as the emblem of traffic and bargain is suspended from the Pentice adjoining St Peter's church where it remains during the fair a period of twenty nine days when non freemen are allowed to trade in the city and during the continuance of the fairs a court of pie powder is held by the sheriffs.
The transfer of cases from the Pentice to the portmote, first recorded in 1430, became increasingly frequent in the 1450s, often at the request of leading citizens. The reasons for removal remain obscure, but perhaps stemmed from dissatisfaction with the sheriffs' handling of the cases or from disquiet at the jurors' verdicts. As is noted below, the Pentice was to become a particularly slow and notoriously badly managed court.
Piepowder Court (see: Gloverstone)
A "court of pie powder" was a special tribunal which had unlimited jurisdiction over personal actions arising in the market, including disputes between merchants, theft, and acts of violence. In the Middle Ages, there were hundreds of such courts, and a few survived into modern times. The term refers to the dusty feet (in French, pieds poudrés) of travellers and vagabonds. Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England in 1768 described them as:
- "the lowest, and at the same time the most expeditious, court of justice known to the law of England"
The tradition of hanging up a glove to indicate that the Piepowder Court had jurisdiction is also found in other ports, particularly in Exeter, Portsmouth and Southampton.
The area around the Pentice and the High Cross would have been incredibly crowded. Not only was it the major crossroads in the city, but it also housed the Pentice, various instruments of punishment (the stocks, whipping-post and pillory), and a water cistern, but it was also the location for bullfights. Hughes (echoing Fletcher) writes:
- Near the Cross was the Conduit to which water was of brought in pipes to this city from St Giles Well in Boughton this conduit it was that according to ancient records was made run with wine on all public and festive occasions Here also upon the south side of St Peter's Church was the Penthouse Pentice of the city where the mayor and magistrates of the regime sat to administer justice with the one hand and feed turtle with the other A lean alderman was as great a curiosity those days as a fat parish pauper would be deemed in the present The Pentice which with its accessories the Stocks and the Pillory had too long obstructed this quarter of the city was pulled in 1803 and its jurisdiction removed to a more commodious in the north end of the Exchange. This locality crowded as it must have been before the removal of these obstructions was also annually the scene of the Corporation Bullhait thus vividly described by Cowdroy a local scribe of the last century The Cross is famous for being the annual scene of exhibition of that polite play called a bull bait where four or five of these horned heroes are attended by several hundred lovers of that rational amusement Till within a few years the dramatis persona of this elegant scene included even magistracy itself the mayor and corporation attending in their official habiliments at the Pentice windows not only to countenance the diversions of the ring but to participate in a sight of its enjoyments A proclamation was also made by the crier of the court with all the gravity and solemnity of an oration before a Romish sacrifice the elegant composition of which runs thus Oyez Oyez Oyez If any man stands within twenty yards of the bull ring let him take what comes After which followed the usual public ejaculations for the safety of the king and the mayor of the city when the beauties of the scene commenced and the dogs immediately fell to Here a prayer for his worship was not unseasonable as even the ermined cloak was no security against the carcases of dead animals with which spectators without distinction were occasionally saluted In many ancient boroughs a law formerly prevailed that no bulls should be slaughtered for food without having been first thus baited by dogs They loved tender beefsteaks in those days This barbarous recreation of a bygone age has long since been put down by the strong arm of the law and we can now from the very spot study the character of yonder Row which commanded in those days so near a view of the revolting spectacle.
The whpping-post, stocks and pillory were sited on an elevated platform, which was evidently sufficiently high to allow a small shop to be located beneath it - there is no record of what it sold. An occasional punishment associated with the Pillory was commonly inflicted on slanderers or seditious libeller’s who were found guilty of such offences by the city courts - it was also inflicted on William Dakins, who issued pedigrees and other heraldic documents without the proper permissions - their ears were nailed to the retaining board of the device and then removed with the use of a razor or sharp knife. Dakins fate is recorded as follows:
- "Copying the lawful Norroy in all things, Dakins proceeded to appoint Deputies. One of them was Henry Overton, a painter of Dunham (whether Massey or on-the-Hill is not clear), who was appointed on 2 November 1579 to be Dakins’s Deputy in Cheshire and Lancashire. Dakins also had another Cheshire Deputy, named Randulph Massey. However, Proby (the official herald) did not have to suffer this competition for long. In the following February, Dakins was brought before the Court of Star Chamber, where he confessed his offence. His sentence, though savage, was in some respects fitted to his crime. The Court ordered that he should be set on the pillory in the Palace of Westminster and there lose one of his ears. After being taken down and whipped, he was to be taken to stand on the pillory in Chester at assize time, with the tabard on his back and the letters of deputation to Massey about his neck, and there to have his other ear cut off. There is no record of Massey and Overton’s being punished, but the downfall of Dakins necessarily meant the end of their brief careers as Deputy Heralds."
Fortunately, the pillory in Chester does not appear to have been a regular form of punishment, at least in the 18th Century. By 1789, it was reported that no person had been “pilloried” in Chester for some 20 years and during the previous 90 years only 4 people had actually been sentenced to this particular penalty.
In addition to being the commercial and administrative centre of Chester, the city’s Pentice was also the civic heart of the community, the place where nobles and local dignitaries would be entertained by the Mayor and Corporation. When King Charles I visited Chester in 1642 prior to the Civil War, he was heartily entertained by the Corporation and a number of Chester’s leading citizens at the Pentice. Associated with the Pentice building, was the Mayor’s Balcony, an elevated platform from which the Mayor and his corporation could deliver local ordinances, election results, civic speeches, as well as watching events unfold at the High Cross.
The King's Court
The city's growing independence from the county of Cheshire was evident in its relations with the County Court. In the 13th century the Portmote's competence was restricted to civil cases and minor criminal offences. Crown pleas were dealt with by a court under the Justice of Chester, which by the 1280s was known as the King's Court in the City. Like the Portmote, it met on Mondays, though not usually more than once a month and with recesses at Christmas, Easter, Midsummer, and harvest. It met within the city, possibly at Chester Castle, and included judgers drawn, like those of the portmote, from the senior citizenry of Chester.
Increasingly the sessions of the King's Court in the City were distinguished from those of the normal County Court. In the mid 13th century its proceedings were included with the rest of the county business, but by the 1280s they were recorded on a separate roll, and indeed included some property transactions of the kind frequently enrolled at the Portmote. Increasingly, the city sought to limit or at least define the King's Court's role. In 1295 the mayor of Chester, Hugh of Brickhill, and Roger of Mold's steward appeared before the court of King's Bench to argue that no royal official except the Justice of Chester had ever held any plea in the city, but were forced to admit that they had no charter to justify their claim save the king's confirmations of the past customs of the county.
In 1300, in the Charter of Edward I, the grant of the Crown pleas to the citizens, at the time a unique privilege, replaced the King's Court in the City with a new court presided over by the mayor and the city sheriffs. The association of the latter with the mayor in a new judicial role affected the standing of both offices. The charter did not specify the nature of the court which was to hear the Crown pleas, beyond implying that it was in some sense the successor to the King's Court in the city. Initially, it seems, no separate court was held. The earliest Crown pleas were enrolled with the records of the Portmote, and were presumably heard at its sessions. The uniqueness of this arrangement led to a very odd state of affairs: court cases relating to acts performed outside of the city, in the county of Cheshire were subject to the jurisdiction of the essentially self-electing major and sheriffs of Chester.
Dee Mills Court
The ancient customs recorded in 1353–4 obliged the Justice of Chester or his deputy to deal with trespasses committed at the Dee Mills and fishery but by the late 14th century sessions were probably held only intermittently. A revival was attempted in 1402, perhaps because of the presence in Chester of Henry, prince of Wales, and his council; the mayor and sheriffs were ordered to proclaim a session to be held before the Justice and chamberlain of the palatinate and to summon a jury drawn from the city and the mills. It was perhaps intended to initiate regular sessions, and a judicial inquiry, nominally under the Justice of Chester, was held at the mills in 1404. Thereafter, however, inquiries in 1406, 1407, 1410, and 1411 were apparently conducted during sessions of the County Court.
Chester was the seat of the principal archdeaconry (then the most senior diocesan position below a bishop) of the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield, and by the earlier 14th century its archdeacon possessed unusual powers, eventually encompassing wills, instance and ex officio causes, and marriage and divorce. Those powers, which virtually excluded the bishops from first-instance jurisdiction in the city and shire, were exercised in a court presumably held, as later, in St Johns church, by locally based officials on behalf of the absentee archdeacons, an arrangement which on occasion led to extortion and abuse.
In the 15th century the archdeacon continued to exercise primary jurisdiction through his official in Chester, at courts held, it seems, in the chapel of St. Nicholas as well as St Johns. St Nicholas' Chapel was located in St Werburgh Street. Since it ceased functioning as a chapel it has had a number of uses, including being at one time a Music Hall. It is now used as a shop. The chapel was built in about 1300 for Simon de Albo, the abbot of St Werburgh's, Chester. It was used for a period as the church of the parish of St Oswald, then closed as a church and conveyed to the Mayor and Assembly of Chester in 1488. In 1545 an upper floor was inserted and it was used as the Commonhall and Wool Hall.
For the laity the main business remained testamentary and matrimonial. The bishop and abbot also held courts for their manors within the liberty. The more significant was the abbot's, which originated with Earl Hugh of Avranches's grant of immune jurisdiction over the abbey tenants and those who offended at the Midsummer fair.
- Over against the market halls on the east side of the street stands the Abbey gate consisting of a lofty pointed arch with a postern at the side both of which are included in a larger obtuse one. The interior of the gateway is vaulted with stone with ribs and carved keystones at the intersections and the rooms over now used as the registry were originally approached by a spiral stair case. On the south side was the porter's lodge and on the other St Thomas's Court to which the tenants of several abbey manors still render suit and service. Before this gate were anciently ranged the booths for the merchants frequenting the abbot's fair covered with reeds which the monks were empowered by an especial charter to gather from Stanlaw Marsh and here also the performers in the Chester mysteries commenced the exhibition of their pageants.
He goes on to add:
- On passing through the arched gate way we enter into Abbey square. On the right hand is a dead wall inclosing the episcopal palace a good stone building but as destitute of magnificence as it is of elegance. This edifice was wholly rebuilt by Bishop Keene out of his private property at an expence of £2200 soon after his promotion to the see in 1752. The east side of the square contains only two good houses one at each extremity the interval being occupied by smaller dwellings. The north and west sides are filled up with elegant buildings occupied by some of our first quality. The two end houses adjoining the gate stand on the site of an old edifice called the prison house On pulling down the latter about five years ago a narrow cell was discovered on the first floor from which all light was excluded in which it is said that martyr to popish cruelty, George Marsh, was immured previous to his execution at Boughton.
In fact Marsh was mostly imprisioned at the Northgate. The only old ecclesiastical court in the country to have survived is the "Consistory Court" at the Cathedral: located at the base of the never-completed southwest tower. The woodwork dates from the late 1500s and was placed here in 1636. The courts dealt with probate, slander, libel, non-attendance at church and clergy discipline. Probate jurisdiction was moved to the secular courts by the Court of Probate Act 1857 and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857. Consistory Courts had also corrective jurisdiction over the crimes of clerks, but this was abrogated by the Church Discipline Act 1840. Today, the principal business of consistory courts is now the dispensing of faculties dealing with churchyards and church property, although they also hear the trial of clergy (below the rank of bishop) accused of immoral acts or misconduct (under the Clergy Discipline Act 1892).
Chester Courts in the Early Modern (1506-1660)
The GREAT CHARTER of Henry VII (1506) proceeds:
- "know Ye that we, for the great affection which we have and bear to our City of Chester, the Citizens and Commonalty of the same City, and in consideration of the good behaviour and great expenses of the inhabitants of the same City, as also of the voluntary service many ways rendered by them against our adversaries and rebels, willing the better estate of the same City, and especially to provide for the convenience and quiet of the said Citizens, their heirs and successors, of our especial grace and certain knowledge, and mere motion, have given and granted, and do give and grant, and by these presents have confirmed for us and our heirs to the aforesaid Citizens and commonalty, their heirs and successors for ever, that the said City, and all the ground within the said City, with the suburbs and hamlets within the precinct and compass of the same, and all the ground within the precinct and compass of the said City of Chester and the aforesaid suburbs and hamlets, (wholly excepting our castle within the walls of the said City), be exempted and separated, as well by land as by water, from our shire of Chester; and that the said City, and the suburbs and hamlets of the same, and all the ground within the precinct and compass of them, (except as before excepted), be henceforth a County by and in itself distinct and separate from our County of Chester, and that from henceforth it shall be called and named the 'County of the City of Chester.'"
The Mayor and Sheriffs were invested with authority to hold a Court in the Common Hall of the City for the trial of offences and claims of all kinds arising within the City, its suburbs, and hamlets, "our Castle and our liberty within the boundary commonly called 'Gloverstone' only excepted." The Northgate Tower was to be continued as a gaol, and Portmote and Crownmote courts were to be held before the Mayor. The forfeited goods of felons were to be the property of the citizens, who were also freed from the payment of all customs except those on wine and iron. The management and regulation of the Dee fisheries was vested in the Mayor and Sheriffs, as well as the control of the city markets. The twenty-four Aldermen were automatically justices of the peace by virtue of their office, and special powers were conferred upon any four of them, the Mayor and Recorder being two of the four, to inquire from time to time, and as often and whenever they should think good:
- "concerning all felonies, trespasses, forestallings (that is, purchasing goods elsewhere than in fair or market), and regratings (buying up goods or victuals for re-sale), from time to time there done and committed."
The charter of 1506 amended the structure of the city's courts. While confirming that the Portmote, Pentice, and Crownmote were to be held as formerly, it added two others, the County Court of the City and Quarter Sessions. The County Court of the City, a necessary aspect of Chester's new status as a county in its own right, had little business. Quarter Sessions on the other hand was responsible for trying all misdemeanours and most felonies in the city; in practice it took some business from the Portmote but most from the Crownmote, for which only the most serious felonies were reserved. The changes and rationalization in the city courts' internal procedures coincided with a rise in the activity of the Cheshire courts based at the castle, which again led to conflict between city and county jurisdictions. The main officials serving the city courts in 1506 were the clerk and the recorder. The clerk of the Pentice acted as clerk to all the city courts and soon became known as the town clerk. In the early 16th century the recorder came into conflict with the civic authorities by attempting to deliver judgement in the city courts; the matter was resolved in the corporation's favour in 1540, when a commission ruled that the recorder's role was simply to offer expert advice.
In the early 16th century the portmote continued to meet regularly on alternate Mondays. Its status as the superior court of the city was confirmed by the regular attendance of the recorder from 1506. Fees were higher than in the Pentice court, from which cases could be transferred either by writ of error or on petition. The Portmote remained the principal court of record, the decisions of which could be questioned only by writ of error, and possessed exclusive jurisdiction over actions concerning landed property. The Portmote also continued occasionally to enrol debts under Statute Merchant, but did not, in general, deal with cases in which the sum at issue was less than 40s., except in the case of disputed actions at the Pentice transferred by appeal. The business of the Portmote was limited in comparison with the Pentice, and even as litigation increased in the later 16th and earlier 17th century it scarcely exceeded 150 cases a year.
By the later 16th century the administration of the Pentice had many abuses. The courts were held irregularly only at the pleasure of the sheriffs and not on the appointed three days a week. Despite admonition by the Assembly in 1570 and 1604, of the prescribed 150 sessions only 37 were held in 1579–80, and in 1622–3 the number sank to 14, nearly all in October and November. The highest number recorded was 114 in 1592–3. Although the Assembly ordered monthly sittings there were generally no more than four a year in the 1620s and 1630s, reaching up to 160 cases each session. Such a diminution was the more serious because of the increase in the Pentice court's business by some two thirds between the 1560s and the 1630s. The problem of insufficient sittings and delays continued to plague the court throughout the 17th century
Quarter Sessions and Crownmote
The establishment of Quarter Sessions enhanced the office of recorder; he, along with the mayor and those aldermen who had already served as mayor, constituted the city's justices of the peace. Four J.P.s, including the mayor and recorder, formed a quorum. Other court officers included the serjeant of the peace (the macebearer), the four serjeants-at-mace, and the clerk of the peace, who was in practice always the clerk of the Pentice. As part of the rationalization of the courts in the early 16th century, minor offences and the binding over of citizens to keep the peace were transferred from the Portmote. Quarter sessions also took over many of the criminal cases formerly heard in the Crownmote, leaving the latter with only the most serious felonies and gaol deliveries. The Crownmote's sittings, presided over by the same officers as Quarter Sessions, were reduced from c. 13 to three or four a year, at dates which were adjusted to dovetail with meetings of Quarter Sessions in order to facilitate the referral of serious cases from the Quarter Sessions to the Crownmote.
A large part of the business of Quarter Sessions was to receive presentments made by the ward constables, usually for offences against the assize of ale and other minor misdemeanours. By the early 17th century it appears that very few of the fines levied were actually collected, a further example of the failure of the sheriffs to perform their duties.
County Court of the City
The main function of this court, which from 1508 met every month on Mondays under the presidency of the sheriffs, was to summon all those accused of felonies against the king for trial at the next Crownmote. From 1543, when Chester was first represented in parliament, it was also responsible for declaring the election of the city's M.P.s.
The charter of 1506 assigned all jurisdiction within the liberties to the mayor and citizens, and thereby brought to a head the long-standing conflict between the corporation and the abbey. Such conflicts were not unknown elsewhere: from the 7th century onwards, in addition to his spiritual authority, the Bishops of Lindisfarne, and then Durham, also acted as the civil ruler of his region as the lord of the liberty of Durham, with local authority equal to that of the king. This special jurisdiction was based on claims that King Ecgfrith of Northumbria had granted a substantial territory to St Cuthbert on his election to the see of Lindisfarne in 684. The bishop appointed all local officials and maintained his own court. After the Norman Conquest, this power was retained by the bishop and was eventually recognised with the designation of the region as the County Palatine of Durham. As holder of this office, the bishop was both the earl of the county and bishop of the diocese. Except for a brief period of suppression during the Civil War, the bishopric of Durham retained this temporal power until it was abolished by the Durham (County Palatine) Act 1836.
In Chester the church lost its temporal power at an earlier date. When in 1507 Abbot Birkenshaw demanded recognizances to keep the peace after a brawl in Northgate Street, the disputed jurisdiction was referred to arbitration which in 1509 found in the city's favour; the abbot's authority was confined to the monastic precincts, with both his right to hold a fortnightly court in St. Thomas's outside the Northgate and to hear pleas during the Midsummer Fair being abolished.
The chapel dedicated to St. Thomas (Becket) stood by 1200 in the graveyard belonging to St. Werburgh's abbey some distsnce outside the Northgate, in the fork of the later Parkgate and Liverpool roads. Serving as the meeting place for the abbot's manor court of St. Thomas, it became a private house called Green Hall after the Dissolution. The building probably survived only until the demolition of the northern suburbs during the Civil War siege, though in 1821 it was claimed that the former chapel was still in use as a barn. Today, the site is occupied by the George & Dragon public house. After the Civil War a new St Thomas was built within the City Walls towards the south end of the Abbey Green.
There were two places of Execution at Chester: the City Gaol and Gallows Hill at Boughton near St Giles Cemetery: (see also: Gloverstone). After 1801, condemned men (and women) were sent to Northgate Gaol for execution, and later, to the City Gaol. A third place where "criminals" also died was Chester Castle. It is generally supposed that he punishment of loading a prisoner who refused to plead with weights or "pressing" a prisoner (to death if necessary) was introduced in the time of Edward III. However, T. A. Coward, in his "Picturesque Cheshire", suggests that the practice actually originated in the time of Edward II at Chester:
- "Adam of the Woodhouses, having burnt the said houses and carried away his goods, was one of the stubborn men they gave him three morsels of bread one day, and three sups from the nearest puddle the next; but Adam lingered long on this sumptuous diet, so Edward II, then king, in order to accelerate the man’s decision, originated the idea of putting heavy weights upon the chest. Thus at Chester was instituted that barbarous punishment, if punishment it can be called, of pressing to death."
In 1601 a woman named Candy was pressed to death at the Castle. In 1435 "pressing" seems to have been used simply as a means of execution:
- "Thomas Broune of Irby complained to the Justice of Chester that John Strete of Nantwich stole a horse of his, worth 12s. Strete was arrested, but refused to plead; he could speak but of his malice he would not. The jury convicted him and the sentence was pronounced: let him be sent back to prison in the King's Castle of Chester and there be kept under strict custody, lying naked upon the floor; let iron above what he can carry be placed upon his body; as long as he lives let him have a morsel of bread one day and the next a drink of water from the nearest prison gate, until he shall die there in the said prison." (Chester Plea Rolls)
This punishment of "ad dietam", which consisted of the daily diet on alternate days of three morsels of the worst bread and three draughts of standing water nearest to the prison door, dated back to the time of Edward I when "John, son of Warin le Grovenour", was charged with slaying Richard de Pulford in Budworth with a longbow, refused to plead and was condemned to prison at Chester and the punishment of "ad dietam" (John survived the first application of this punishment and later obtained acquittal on a technicality).
There was also at least one beheading: that of the Royalist Sir Timothy Fetherstonhaugh who liberally contributed money to the royal cause, raised troops at his own expense, and served in the field. At the Battle of Wigan Lane, Lancashire, 26 August 1651, he was taken prisoner, and imprisoned at Chester Castle (from where he wrote a farewell letter to his wife). After trial by court-martial at Chester for "corresponding with Charles Stuart or his Party" he was beheaded outside the Abbey Gate, 22 October 1651, despite his plea that he had quarter for life given him.
Chester Courts after 1660
After 1660 the ancient city courts declined steadily in significance to become almost purely formal as the activities of quarter sessions expanded. In 1651, the castle was described, by Daniel King, as follows:
- "At the first coming in is the Gate-house, which is a prison for the whole County, having divers rooms and lodgings. And hard within the Gate is a house, which was sometime the Exchequer but now the Custom House. Not far from thence in the Base Court is a deep well, and thereby stables, and other Houses of Office. On the left-hand is a chappell and hard by adjoyning thereunto, the goodly fair and large Shire-Hall newly repaired where all matters of Law touching the County Palatine are heard, and judicially determined. And at the end thereof the brave New Exchequer for the said County Palatine. All these are in the Base Court. Then there is a drawbridge into the Inner Ward, wherein are divers goodly Lodgings for the Justices, when they come, and herein the Constable himself dwelleth. The Thieves and Fellons are arraigned in the said Shire-Hall and, being condemned, are by the Constable of the Castle or his Deputy, delivered to the Sheriffs of the City, a certain distance without the Castle-Gate, at a stone called The Glover's Stone from which place the said Sheriffs convey them to the place of execution, called Boughton."
The county court of the city was held for the purposes of conducting parliamentary elections until an Act of 1745 laid the responsibility on the sheriffs, after which it ceased to meet. The crownmote remained the city's highest criminal court, presided over by the recorder, and in the early 1830s tried some 40 cases a year.
Thomas Harrison and the Courts at Chester Castle
In the summer of 1784, Cheshire magistrates, following a country-wide typhus epidemic the previous year, held a design competition for a new gaol within the castle. Thomas Harrison, now in his early forties, won the 50-guinea prize for his plans. Preliminary work began on site in 1788. Harrison’s new Shire Hall, with a grand façade of a Doric portico in fine ashlar stone, formed a harmonious whole with the prison buildings. Work continued on the Chester Castle site for the rest of the decade; a new Armoury and Barracks (the present day Military Museum) for the garrison was added.
Hemingway writes of it:
- "This building which is in the Grecian style of architecture is noticed in the following manner by the celebrated M Dupin in his account of England: The sessions house and the panoptic prison of Chester are united in the same building which most assuredly is the handsomest of this kind that is to be seen in Europe. The interior arrangements are well contrived and bespeak much regard for humanity the architecture is equally simple and majestic. The armoury and the exchequer buildings which form the wings of the superb county hall at Chester, and also the chaste and unexampled propylea or gateway before it were built after designs furnished by Mr Harrison and the new bridge across the Dee now in progress formed of one arch of 200 feet span is also from his design."
By 1799 the new Shire Hall was complete: a "magnificent hall of justice", it comprised a large semi-circular, semi-domed court room ringed with an Ionic colonnade. The Assize court has a massive and impressive portico. The plan of the Assize is very similar to that of Harrison's/Joseph Gandy’s Gothick Shire Hall at Lancaster Castle of the 1790s and derives from Gondoin's Chirurgie (designed 1769 to 1774) in the Ecole de Medecine, Paris or Palladio's Teatro Olimpico at Vicenza (built 1580-1585) and ultimately from the Pantheon in Rome (built 27 BC – 14 AD).
Well before the Pentice was taken down in 1803 much of its usage had transferred to The Exchange, known at first as the "new common hall", was erected between 1695 and 1698 at the corporation's expense but with contributions from William III, Peter Shakerley (former governor of Chester Castle and a Tory M.P. for Chester from 1698), Francis Gell (projector of a plan to improve the River Dee navigation), and the estate of Thomas Cowper of Overleigh Hall. The main apartments were in the upper storey, which comprised 'a fine magnificent room styled the common hall of pleas', with to the south the portmote court, 'extremely ornamental, wainscotted with oak and adorned with figures of carved work', and to the north the sheriffs' court. Those apartments later functioned as an assembly or banqueting room, a court room, and a council chamber. Hughes (1858) writes:
- "But what is yon new looking structure overlooking the Marketplace? New did you say? Why it is not very far from a couple of hundred years since that building, the Exchange, first delighted the eyes of the old fashioned citizens. True the stone work has been lately restored and the bricks newly pointed but practically this is the same Exchange which in 1698 was completed at a cost of £1000, Roger Whitley the then Mayor being a large contributor. The statue embellishing yonder niche on the south front is a graceful representation of Queen Anne of glorious memory in her coronation robes, a work which must have emanated from no mean chisel. The superstructure of the Exchange stood originally upon four rows of stone columns the ground floor being otherwise entirely open but in 1756 just a hundred years ago owing to some well grounded fears for the safety of the structure the lower tiers of shops etc. were erected as an extra support to the fabric the greater portion of these are now occupied as police offices, lock-ups etc. On the higher story are the Assembly Room the Penitice or Council Chamber and the spacious Town Hall. The Assembly Boom was a popular resort in the last generation when corporation feasts redolent of venison and primest turtle were perpetually being discussed there but its many a long day since these savoury viands graced the aldermanic board."
As the Exchange was known to be in disrepair by 1839, the building must have been renovated so that Hughes could see it "as new" in 1858 (the Corporation borrowed £800 in 1856 for repairs to The Exchange). However, it was destroyed by fire just a few years later on 30th December 1862. Some say one of the few surviving part of The Exchange is the solitary pillar in the center of Abbey Square, but the design of that pillar just seems wrong. A statue of Queen Anne was salvaged from the Exchange building and placed near the Watertower, but that "vanished" during repair work in the 1960's.
The Town Hall
After the Exchange fire of 1862 a competition was organized for a new Town Hall. Entrants were to submit designs which were "substantial and economical" and in accordance with "the general features of this ancient city" and costing no more than £16,000. Some thirty designs were submitted in 1864 and the competition was won by the Belfast architect W. H. Lynn with a design said to be based on the medieval "Cloth Hall" in Ypres, Flanders (largely destroyed in WW1, but since rebuilt). The Town Hall was the home of the new Magistrates Court.
The peculiar legal relation of the courts of the City of Chester (a county in itself) and those of the actual country of Cheshire was still being argued about well into the 19th Century (see: "Reports of Cases Principally on Practice and Pleading, Determined in the Court of King's Bench: In Hilary, Easter, Trinity, and Michaelmas Terms, A. D. 1819. With Copious Notes of Other Important Decisions", Volume 1). In one notable case a "capias ad respondendum" was directed to the chamberlain of the county palatine of Chester commanding him to take the defendant into custody but it was found irregular due to the complexity of the jurisdiction and defendant took advantage of such irregularity to evade capture (Bracebridge v johnson).
Fair or not?
Beginning in the twelfth century, England was divided into six judicial circuits (Home, Midland, Norfolk, Northern, Oxford and Western), with Justices visiting each circuit twice a year to preside over assize courts. Wales and Chester, however, differed from this arrangement, the latter as a consequence of its status as a county Palatine. In place of the assize circuit, they had instead four circuits of Courts of Great Sessions (Brecon, Carmarthen, North Wales, and Chester), the Chester circuit encompassing the counties of Cheshire, Flintshire, Montgomeryshire and Denbighshire. Views on this separate system for Cheshire were divided. A Parliamentary Report from 1829 indicates how the the system in Chester was viewed by some:
- "..the prevailing wish of gentleman resident in the different counties of Wales and Chester, that the benefit of English judicature should be extended to those counties.."
On the other hand local newspaper editor Hemingway raged against any proposed changes. Nevertheless, despite these objections, the views of the authors of the Report were upheld, and under the Law Terms Act of 1830 the Courts of Great Sessions of Wales and Chester were abolished and brought within the assize circuit.
The majority of those indicted before the Chester Court of Great Sessions (62.5%) were found guilty, with only 21% and 7.5% being found not guilty or discharged as No True Bill respectively. Of the remainder, 3% were discharged as ‘no prosecution’, 2% were discharged by proclamation, 2% turned King’s evidence against their former criminal compatriots and 2% received another outcome (such as being discharged on condition of joining the army or navy). There were no marked differences in the verdicts handed down to men and women, with roughly similar percentages of each sex being found guilty. Prosecution for property offences were particularly commonplace, and a sentence of death was often handed-down for a single instance of burglary (although a reprieve was often given, more frequently as time went on).
No detailed study has been done as to whether a conviction was more likely in the Chester courts, and if so, what the causes of such a local bias might have been. However, there are indications that the courts in Chester were particularly severe on those accused of property offences. Further research would of course be needed to determine whether there is an alternative explanation, such as an underlying excess of criminal tendency amongst those living in the jurisdiction.
The Modern Courts
The Courts and Prison were designed by Harrison
The Assize Court closed in 1971 and became the Crown Court
In two weeks of April-May 1966, the infamous Moors Murders case was tried at Chester Assize Crown Court within the castle grounds. Both Brady and Hindley denied some of the murders and tried to blame an associate, Smith, for them. Police protection had to hold back crowds from getting at the police van carrying Brady and Hindley to the courts. Local myth says that they were brought from their cells in the Police Station located in the basement of the Town Hall although they never, in fact, were kept there. Jeers rang out when these cars appeared. A glass screen was installed before the dock at the courtroom to prevent things being thrown at them. On 6 May 1966, Brady was found guilty of the murders of John Kilbride, Lesley Ann Downey, and Edward Evans and was sentenced to three concurrent terms of life imprisonment (as the death penalty had been abolished a year earlier). Hindley was found guilty of the murders of Downey and Evans and given two concurrent life sentences, plus seven years, for harbouring Brady knowing that he had murdered John Kilbride.
The "Courts of Assize", or "Assizes" were periodic criminal courts held around England and Wales until 1972, when together with the "Quarter Sessions" they were abolished by the Courts Act 1971 and replaced by a single permanent "Crown Court". The Assizes heard the most serious cases, which were committed to it by the Quarter Sessions (local county courts held four times per year), while the more minor offenses were dealt with summarily by Justices of the Peace in petty sessions (also known as Magistrates' Courts). In Chester, the Magistrates Court was for many years located in the Town Hall where the disused courtroom can still be visited today.
The courtroom at the Town Hall ceased to be used for Quarter Sessions in 1972 or as a Magistrates Court in 1991 when a new Magistrates Courthouse was opened in Grosvenor Street. An adjoining room was used as a retiring room for the magistrates.
Requirements for becoming a lawyer in England and Wales and in Northern Ireland differ slightly depending on whether the individual plans to become a solicitor or barrister. All prospective lawyers must first however possess a qualifying law degree, or (since 1979) have completed a "conversion course". Following graduation, the paths towards qualification as a solicitor or barrister diverge. Prospective solicitors must enroll with the Law Society of England and Wales as a student member and take a one-year course called the Legal Practice Course. In 1962 the only place this course could be taken was either in London or Guildford, although Chester was added to this very short list in 1974.
Christleton Hall is a former country house in the village of Christleton, Cheshire, England. It was built in about 1750 for Townsend Ince. The building was later used as a boarding school, and since 1974 it has been a law college. Additions were made to it in the middle of the 19th century, and in the early part of the 20th century. The house is constructed in red brick with stone dressings, and has a Welsh slate roof. It is in three stories, and has a south front of four bays, three of which are from the original house. The hall is recorded in the National Heritage List for England as a designated Grade II listed building. The 20th-century additions are excluded from the listing.
Sources and Links
- Chester Assize Court at English Heritage;
- Chester Crown Court home page
- Hearings List for Chester Crown Court;
- The opening of the Assize Courts - silent film from the 1920's which does not actually show the Assizes.
- Lloyd, H., (1909). The Pentice and other ancient law courts in Chester: Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 16 (2). Vol 16(2), pp. 5-25;
- Squibb, G. D., (1969). The Deputy Heralds of Chester. Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 56. Vol 56, pp. 23-36.
- Crime and Justice in Georgian Cheshire, The Chester Court of Great Sessions, 1760 – 1830;