Introducing the Common Pleas
What are 'common plea' rolls?
The National Archives at Kew, London, houses 4,135 rolls recording the proceedings of the 'Common Bench', or 'Court of Common Pleas', covering the years 1273–1874, catalogued as document class 'CP 40'. This court heard interpersonal, or 'civil', litigation, initiated either by private litigants, or by the monarch's attorney on behalf of the monarch acting as a private litigant. These rolls, four per year, contain an almost unparalleled wealth of information regarding persons, places and events in later medieval and early modern England. However, due to the extremely high volume of material they contain – records of some thousands of cases per year – and the difficulty of their language – highly abbreviated Latin until 18th century – they remain a largely untapped resource. Generally speaking, effective finding aids do not exist, and the rolls themselves are large, heavy and unwieldy documents roughly three feet in length, over a foot in width and each formed of hundreds of individual membranes, or 'rotulets', bound at the head and written on both front and back sides. A fuller account of these documents' scope and content, arrangement, related material, custodial history and partial and unpublished finding aids may be found by searching for 'CP 40' in The National Archives online catalogue (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/catalogue).
Contents of the rolls
Each plea roll records business from the four quarterly law terms during which the court met each year, each named for the feast around the time of which the court began to hear cases; Hilary, Easter, Trinity and Michaelmas. Entries on the plea rolls contain information in three basic forms: mesne process, terse entries denoting all actions taken by the court and its officials regarding a personal complaint from the issue of an original writ, by which a case was initiated, to the appearance of both parties, plaintiff and defendant, before the court to plead their case; pleaded cases, fuller entries in which the arguments or pleadings of each party in response to one another were recorded; and lastly further terse entries relating to trial, judgement and final process, such as short notes regarding the summoning of juries and the execution of awards. By far, the largest part of the rolls are taken up by mesne process, with some 5,000 to 10,000 cases in progress during each law term in the fifteenth century and each case warranting at least one mesne process entry, while only a very small percentage of cases ever reached the stage of pleading.
Types of cases heard at Common Pleas, and pleaded case content
Cases heard at common pleas were begun by original writ from Chancery. The court had four main sorts of jurisdiction: 'real actions' to assert title to land; 'personal actions' including actions of account, covenant and debt over 40s.; mixed real and personal actions such as ejectio firmae, ejectment from lands held for a term of years; and, shared with the Court of King's Bench, actions brought on breach of royal statute and trespass. The original writ by which a case was brought was directed to the sheriff of the county in which the dispute arose (i.e. where disputed lands were located or where debts, transactions or events giving rise to the dispute took place), for processing. In legal terminology, a case was thus 'laid' in a certain county.
In pleaded case entries, in addition to a brief account of the dispute, the land, event or events around which the case revolved are recorded, including the specific location (when in London, the city ward and parish) of the land or event/s around which the dispute arose. Further, all persons, documents and institutions involved in a dispute are normally recorded in a pleaded case entry. Where cases involve complex documents, such as indentures or bonds with detailed endorsements, the documents themselves are often copied into the pleaded case entry verbatim.
Pleaded case entries are arranged as a series of arguments and counter arguments, or 'pleadings'. Following the last pleading of a case there will often appear 'posteas', or notes of what happened following the case being plead before the justices. These posteas often will denote: licences to 'imparl', or to continue the case at a later date; orders to the sheriff of the county in which the case was laid to summon an individual or jury, and, when a jury did appear or a decision was taken by the justices, a record of the jurors and their findings or the justices' decision; directions that a case should be heard before a jury at 'assize', or a regional sitting of the justices acting in the king's name, and the result of that court's setting; or other similar post-pleading procedures and outcomes.
Common plea rolls: accessing the originals and digital reproductions
The records of the Court of Common pleas are held on site at The National Archives at Kew, London, and the vast majority are on open access with a National Archives reader's ticket. However, some rolls, particularly from the early fifteenth century, have been deemed 'unfit for production' (as of September 2010) and are awaiting conservation. These 'unfit' rolls may be accessed with special permission and under close supervision. Information on how to attain a reader's ticket, access the documents and handle them properly is available via The National Archives home page (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/). The rolls of the Court of Common Pleas appear in The National Archives catalogue under document class 'CP 40'.
Also, a major project, entitled 'Anglo-American Legal Tradition' (http://aalt.law.uh.edu/), or 'AALT', under the direction of Professor Robert Palmer of the University of Houston, is well under way to digitally photograph all pre-modern rolls of the Court of Common Pleas, as well as many other pre-modern English legal records. This project is under licence of The National Archives, and the digitized documents are displayed through the O'Quinn Law Library of the University of Houston Law Center. As of January 2010 the AALT site contained over five million frames of historical material, including images of most common plea rolls through to the end of the reign of King Henry VIII, with some gaps thereafter. Images of most of the cases on British History Online are available through the AALT site.
The standard work on the Court of Common Pleas in the later middle ages, while now somewhat dated, remains M. Hastings, The Court of Common Pleas in Fifteenth Century England: A Study of Legal Administration and Procedure (New York, 1947). Good starting points for further secondary reading include A. Harding, The Law Courts of Medieval England (London, 1973) and J.H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, 4th edn (London, 2002).