Abstracts of Inquisitiones Post Mortem For the City of London: Part 1. Originally published by British Record Society, London, 1896.
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There is probably no class of record which can compare with inquisitiones post mortem, whether we regard them from a genealogical or topographical standpoint. Without reference to them it is quite impossible to write trustworthy local history for the period before the days of the great rebellion. They form, in fact, the ground-work for the history of all landed property which happened to be held "in chief". To the students of London history they are, indeed, of the highest value, and we have, therefore, determined to take our readers to the very sources of our local history, and to print these records so fully that it will be unnecessary for them to trouble to consult the originals, which are now deposited in the Public Record Office. Every scrap of information will be preserved, and these abstracts will, to all practical purposes, be the inquisitions themselves, shorn of all legal verbiage.
We propose commencing with the reign of King Henry VII., and to proceed with subsequent reigns in chronological order, until the termination of this series of records in 1645, in consequence of the abolition of the tenure of knight service.
It may be well to give the reader some particulars respecting these inquisitions or inquests. It must be remembered that they are quite distinct from the inquests which are still taken by the coroner in order to ascertain the cause of death. They were concerned solely with the property held by the deceased, and were required for the purpose of determining the feudal rights which accrued to the Crown upon the death of any tenant in chief. Until the practical abolition of the service of knight serjeanty, in 1645— it was not formally abolished until the accession of King Charles II., in 1660—the Crown was entitled, at the death of each feudal tenant in chief, to levy certain feudal dues, into the particulars of which, however, it is unnecessary here to enter. If the heir-at-law happened to be a minor he became a ward of the Crown. This was a source of profit, for the wardship was frequently sold for hard cash, since it was a privilege of considerable value, meaning the right not only to receive the rents and profits, but also the right to find a spouse for the youthful heir. When the heir-at-law attained his majority, then he became the subject of further feudal exactions, for on suing out his ousterlemain, that is, livery of his lands by the Crown, he had to pay certain dues, and bring forward strict proof that he had attained his full age of twenty-one years. Amongst the inquisitiones post mortem are still to be found some few of these inquests for proof of age, probatio etatis, which are usually very interesting documents, on account of the evidence of the witnesses who were examined in order to show how they knew that the heir was of age. They include some inquiries taken virtute officii, and others ad quod damnum, besides inquests as to the property of lunatics and idiots. These we shall also include.
The proceedings following on the death of any one who was supposed to be a tenant in chief were as follows: A writ, termed the writ of diem clausit extremum, which was a mediæval Latin synonym for obiit, was issued out of the Court of Chancery; this was directed usually to the escheator or feodary of the county in which the deceased was presumed to have been possessed of lands. It commanded him to hold an inquest and to summon a jury for the purpose. The inquiry thus held was upon the following points:—
1. Of what lands the deceased died possessed.
2. Of whom and by what services the same were held.
3. The date of his death.
4. The name and age of the heir-at-law.
In pursuance of the direction contained in the writ, the escheator or feodary summoned a jury of the county, who accordingly rendered their verdict upon their oath; this was engrossed upon parchment, and in due course delivered up into the Court of Chancery, and there duly filed. In the course of the inquest the dealings that the deceased had had with his property came under review, and this necessitated inquiries into family settlements and trusts affecting it, and consequently we often find such documents, including the deceased's will, are recited at length, thus affording us information of the highest value to the genealogist.
The officials in the Chancery in due course forwarded a copy of the inquisition into the King's Exchequer, in order that the officers there might collect the accruing feudal dues. Occasionally the jury made an insufficient or inaccurate return, and then a further writ, known as the writ ad melius inquirendum, was directed to the escheator, requiring him to hold a second inquest for better inquiring as to the facts omitted. Sometimes this process had to be repeated a second or third time.
In the reign of Henry VIII., in consequence of the alleged extortions on the part of the Crown officials, and the practice which had grown up of compelling landowners who were not tenants in capite to sue out their ousterlemain, the Court of Wards and Liveries was created, with the sole object of attending to the business arising from these inquisitions. To this Court also were sent transcripts of the inquisitiones post mortem. Consequently, until the thirty-fifth year of Henry VIII. there are two sets of inquisitions, the original returns, known as the Chancery series, and the transcripts, or the Exchequer series. After that date must be added a third, the Wards and Liveries series. The existence of these two series of transcripts is a fortunate circumstance, for frequently they enable us to make good the deficiences in the Chancery series.
The abstracts, of which we now print the first instalment, are taken from the Chancery series, supplemented where needful by reference to the transcripts. An ancient calendar of the inquisitiones post mortem, from the period of Henry VII. to Charles I., labelled "Escheats," may be found in the "legal" search-book at the Public Record Office. All the entries relating to the county of Middlesex and City of London were lately extracted and printed in pamphlet form under the editorship of the present writer. They number upwards of two thousand. As these records are in Latin, often not very easy to decipher, the advantage of readable abstracts in English is evident.