Well, I have these allegations of corruption and conspiracy in 1590s Denbighshire. I want to track down the cases in the court records. (Warning: this post is about some of the minutiae of doing archival research. If you think that’s going to bore you to tears, you’d better go and read someone else’s blog today.)
There is no easy way to do this with this county’s records. There are no modern calendars or indices of the contents of Great Sessions files before the 18th century, except for Montgomeryshire.* If this were neighbouring Cheshire or Flintshire (the other two counties I’m interested in with this research), I could use a handy (relatively speaking…) set of volumes known as Crown Books, which recorded business at each session of the court (and this is a bit of a Chester volume). There is nothing similar for the Denbighshire Great Sessions. You just have to slog through the gaolfiles themselves. (Fortunately, at various points in the last few years I’ve already compiled some (very) rough working handlists of the files for 1595-1603ish. So for the moment I’ve concentrated on the listed cases within that period.)
Then there are a few more problems to deal with. American readers will still be familiar with the grand jury system, although I don’t know enough to say whether it works in quite the same way in modern America as it did in early modern England and Wales. By the late sixteenth century, capital felonies including homicide were prosecuted formally by the process of indictment, leading to trial by jury.** But before a trial could take place, the “bill of indictment”, setting out the charges against the accused, had to be placed before a grand jury (of at least 13 gentlemen), which would consider the prosecution evidence only and decide (by a majority verdict) if there was a good enough case to go to trial. Technically, this “bill” did not become an “indictment” until it was passed by the grand jury. (But historians, including me, tend not to worry about the distinction too much most of the time.) If the grand jury passed the bill, it was endorsed “billa vera” (true bill); if the jurors rejected the bill, it was endorsed “ignoramus” (literally “we do not know”).
And unfortunately for the historian, ignoramus bills were supposed to be destroyed.*** So the absence of an indictment cannot be taken to mean that there was no prosecution (and I haven’t even started on the procedures by which cases could be removed to superior courts…). Now, there are other useful documents in the Denbighshire gaol files that can give some clues. (Again, if I had the equivalent of the Chester/Flint Crown Books to work with, this sort of detective work would be a little easier.) Many files contain “calendars of prisoners”, which are lists of the prisoners held in the county gaol at the opening of the session of the court (these include prisoners being brought for trial and those previously convicted and reprieved and awaiting pardons), and also – in Denbighshire – people who had been bound over to appear at the court. (In Flintshire and Cheshire these appear on a separate list known as the “mainprize”.)
These calendars are all the more useful because after they were initially drawn up, just before the court got to work, they were then annotated by the court clerks during the course of the session with the decisions and outcomes of individual cases, including noting when someone was discharged and freed by the court. In the case of prosecutions thrown out by the grand jury, that particular notation (in tandem with a recognizance for someone to prosecute the suspect and/or a coroner’s inquest with a verdict of unlawful killing) may often be the best clue I’m going to get that a prosecution did take place but did not reach the stage of a trial.
But then come the buts. Unfortunately, this was clearly not a completely systematic procedure; not all entries are annotated. (At some sessions, they might not be annotated at all.) The annotations, moreover, are written in extremely abbreviated Latin, and clearly often in haste. Insertions were made in the left-hand margin and above the original entries, often getting very cramped in the process. Deciphering them is not good for the eyesight. (A Cheshire example. And that’s a nice one.)
As a final whammy for the long-suffering historian, these calendars, which are quite large parchment documents, were often used as wrappers for the files, which means that they are frequently damaged, stained, torn, quite possibly nibbled by bugs or mice, or simply faded to near illegibility (you can get out the U/V lamp in these cases, but it’s still a big pain in the neck); or they might not have survived at all. I looked at one this week which was impressive as a monument to archivists’ restoration work, but large parts of it were not very helpful for a historian. (That is to say, non-existent. There was almost as much filler as document.) And in it could be found the very end of an entry: “… murder”. Nothing else remained.****
If you could scream and pull your hair out in the middle of a reading room (without getting thrown out), I would have.
But you’ll be pleased to know that I did have some luck. More next time.*****
* For the period 1730-1830, there is now a complete online database. If anyone is interested, the published transcript of the Montgomeryshire Commonwealth period gaol files is currently being sold off by NLW for the absurd price of £3 (and you can get the Guide to the Great Sessions for a fiver, which is equally ridiculous). The new calendar for the Montgomeryshire files 1540-70, a massive hunk of print gorgeousness (yep, this is the kind of thing I drool over. I am such a history geek…), is just shy of £50, although it doesn’t seem to be in the online shop catalogue yet.
** You can see my glossary of terms for further information about indictments, grand juries etc.
*** At varying dates, many courts began to keep them on file – from around 1670 in the Denbighshire gaol files. But in this earlier period they do not survive.
Update: It just got worse. It isn’t just the ignoramus bills that are missing. I have found a definite record of a trial and verdict (acquittal) in one of the cases, but no indictment on file.
**** Again from the Cheshire gaol files, and a different kind of document, but nonetheless these are good examples of what an archival-based early modernist may have to put up with. You modernists don’t know you’re born.
***** Isn’t there a footnote plug-in out there somewhere? That really could be useful.