Sub-fonds C/S - The Court in Session

Reference code



The Court in Session


  • 1532-1971 (Creation)

Level of description


Extent and medium

20 series

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Scope and content

C/S 1 Sessions Books
C/S 2 Order Books
C/S 3 Sessions Papers
C/S 4 Minute Books
C/S 5 Committee Minutes (including Visiting Justices of the Country Gaol)
C/S 6 Registers of Convictions
C/S 7 Registers of Cases
C/S 8 Records of Appeals
C/S 9 Appeal Files
C/S 10 Calendars of Prisoners
C/S 11 Justices' Notebooks
C/S 12 Recognizance Books
C/S 13 Indictments and Recognizances
C/S 14 Estreat Rolls
C/S 15 Depositions Etc.
C/S 16 Insolvent Debtors
C/S 17 Constables' Presentments
C/S 18 Records of Convictions
C/S 19 Appeals
C/S 20 Orders Reducing Tithe Rents


By the mid-seventeenth century, each sessions was opened at 0800-0900 hrs on a Tuesday morning in the Shire House by the Castle in Norwich. These sessions would last for the remainder of the week. On the following Tuesday, the first adjournment was to the west of the county and opened at Lynn, except at midsummer, when it would be located at Swaffham. The business would last no more than two days. The next adjournment would open on Thursday of the same week in the north of the county, the Easter and Midsummer sessions at Fakenham, the others at Little Walsingham

The Sheriff had to be present at the quarter sessions, and it was he who issued writs to summon freeholders for the Grand Jury and for the Petty Juries which decided issues of fact in criminal cases (i.e. the former decided whether there was any case to answer and the latter, questions of the defendants' guilt or innocence). In addition, there were juries of enquiry, each at least twelve strong, summoned by the bailiffs of Hundreds. Coroners, high constables and many petty constables also attended. Plaintiffs, witnesses and defendants were bound by recognisance to appear in court. Persons held on criminal charges were produced by the county gaoler or the keepers of houses of correction, who submitted lists (calendars) of prisoners in their custody. Together with lawyers, petitioner, and spectators, there must have been a considerable assembly, even though only a minority of JPs usually turned up.

Each active Justice would collect between sessions a number of depositions from witnesses and aggrieved parties and recognisances or bonds (acknowledgements of a penal debt owed to the Crown, but with a defeasance, i.e., a contingency nullifying the debt) for attendance at the next Quarter Sessions. Before the sessions were due to open, these documents would be sent to the Clerk of the Peace. From the presentments and depositions, in each case, a bill of indictment in Latin would be drawn up and submitted to the Grand Jury on the first day of the session. This jury would examine the witnesses and return the indictment endorsed either 'billa vera' (a true bill) or 'ignoramus' (we know not). If the former, the accused was arraigned either at those or at the following sessions to stand trial. The accused's plea may also be annotated at the head of the indictment.

The Court also had to consider presentments, submitted by high constables, petty constables and sometimes by justices. These, often written in colloquial English or dialect, concerned all manner of local nuisances and administrative negligences. Presentments might then be redrafted by the Clerk of the Peace as an indictment in formal Latin. Presentments were also made by the Grand Jury and by Hundred Juries.

Both legal and administrative functions were carried out by judicial procedure. For example, the justices had no mandate to enforce the maintenance of roads and bridges but could only take legal action against those who were presented for failing to do so, individuals, parishes or, in some cases, the shire itself, according to the dictates of local custom.

The decisions of the justices were subject to review by, and appeal to, the Court of King's Bench, to which a case could be removed to a higher court by a 'writ of certiorari'. Felonies were increasingly referred throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the Assize courts.

From 1828, Quarter Sessions courts were empowered to create within each county, districts or divisions for Petty sessions, thereby regularising earlier informal divisions. Special sessions were also created for specific purposes.

Order of Proceeding at the Sessions in Norfolk:

First Day - chief constables sworn, bastardy recognizances, oaths of allegiance, motions, appeals

Second Day - Grand Jury called and sworn, King's proclamation, charge to grand jury, persons summoned to appear and plead, prosecutors and witnesses, appeals, if any, traverses, prisoners

The Sessions met quarterly at Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer (Trinity) and Michaelmas from as least as early as the end of the thirteenth century. Courts were held in several towns in the larger counties. Norwich was an obvious meeting place, and it was here that each sessions opened, and were then adjourned elsewhere in the county. The adjourned sessions were held, at various times, in Swaffham, Thetford, and Little Walsingham, or, occasionally, in East Dereham. The major boroughs in the sixteenth century (Kings Lynn and Yarmouth) had their own series of quarter sessions. Adjourned sessions in, 'somnolent little towns and mouldering villages' (Sidney and Beatrice Webb, English Local Government: the Parish and the County (1906)) are described by eighteenth-century satirists as squalid affairs:

'Three or four Parsons, three or four Squires,
Three or four Lawyers, three or four Lyars,
Three or four Parishes bringing Appeals,
Three or four Hands, and three or four Seals,
Three or four Bastards, three or four Whores,
Tag, Rag, and Bob-tail, three or four Scores,
Three or four Bulls, three or four Cows,
Three or four Orders, three or four Bows,
Three or four Statutes not understood,
Three or four Paupers, praying for food,
Three or four Roads that never were mended,
Three or four Scolds, - and the Sessions is ended. '

(From: 'A Country Quarter sessions' in Ladies Magazine, 15 December 1750)

Further reading:
Introduction to D.E. Howell James' calendar of the Norfolk Quarter Sessions Order Book, 1650-1657, Norfolk Record Society, Vol. XXVI (1955)

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