Local government and public services: Law courts

A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2005.

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J S Barrow. J D Herson. A H Lawes. P J Riden. M V J Seaborne, 'Local government and public services: Law courts', in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions, (London, 2005) pp. 20-28. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/ches/vol5/pt2/pp20-28 [accessed 27 May 2024].

J S Barrow. J D Herson. A H Lawes. P J Riden. M V J Seaborne. "Local government and public services: Law courts", in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions, (London, 2005) 20-28. British History Online, accessed May 27, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/ches/vol5/pt2/pp20-28.

Barrow, J S. Herson, J D. Lawes, A H. Riden, P J. Seaborne, M V J. "Local government and public services: Law courts", A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions, (London, 2005). 20-28. British History Online. Web. 27 May 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/ches/vol5/pt2/pp20-28.

In this section


Besides its own courts, Chester was the location of courts held at the 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. (fn. 1)

From 1543 the chief 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 the 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 (Fig. 10). (fn. 2) The Chester exchequer, from the later 16th century overseen by the vice-chamberlain of Chester, became chiefly a court of equity jurisdiction until its business dried up at the end of the 18th century. In the later 16th century it vigorously attempted to enforce its judgements in cases concerned with the city, which in the end had its autonomy confirmed. (fn. 3) The county J.P.s also usually held one quarter session a year in Chester, but their jurisdiction did not extend to the city, which from 1506 was a county in its own right. (fn. 4)

Figure 10:

High sheriff's coach at Cheshire assizes, early 20th century

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. (fn. 5) Among many trials at Chester assizes which attracted national attention perhaps the most notorious was that of the 'moors murderers' Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in 1966. (fn. 6)

Middle Ages


A borough court with 12 'lawmen' (iudices) existed in Anglo-Saxon times. (fn. 7) It is probably to be identified with the portmote, the principal medieval court of the city, first mentioned in the early 13th century, at which the city sheriff (then a single officer) presided and judgement was vested in a group of doomsmen (judicatores), a body perhaps descended from the lawmen and much the same in number. (fn. 8) The doomsmen determined custom, fixed the dates when the portmote met, postponed cases if they deemed the evidence insufficient, and acted as witnesses to property transactions recorded in court. (fn. 9)

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. (fn. 10) By the mid 13th century, however, it was also concerned with minor criminal matters, though not with those serious crimes which constituted the Crown pleas. (fn. 11)

By the 1290s the court met every two or three weeks (occasionally consecutively) on Mondays, with long recesses at harvest, Christmas, Easter, and Midsummer, (fn. 12) the last coinciding with the fair and usually lasting three or four weeks. (fn. 13) Its procedures, which allowed for numerous postponements, were cumbrous and many cases did not come to judgement. (fn. 14) Those arrangements continued largely unchanged throughout the later Middle Ages, lengthy recesses at Christmas and Easter remaining normal but by no means obligatory; (fn. 15) until the 1480s the court also continued to be suspended for several weeks during the Midsummer fair. (fn. 16)

Throughout the 13th century the sheriffs (from perhaps the 1220s two in number) presided over the portmote and acted as its executive officers responsible for attachment of persons and distraint of goods, in which they were assisted by the city serjeants. (fn. 17) In 1300, however, Crown pleas were assigned to the mayor, who evidently heard them at sessions of the portmote, with the result that by 1305 he had come to preside over all sessions of the court. A separate court for Crown pleas emerged only in the later 14th century. (fn. 18)

The mayor's association with the court was made explicit by his inclusion in the headings of the court rolls from the 1370s, and in the 15th century by the use of his name alone. (fn. 19) He routinely presided over judicial inquiries heard in sessions known as 'full' portmote, although the sheriffs were sometimes named and doubtless always present. (fn. 20) The common hall was the usual venue for such inquiries and probably also for regular sessions. (fn. 21)

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. (fn. 22) 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. (fn. 23) 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. (fn. 24) 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. (fn. 25)

Throughout the later Middle Ages the portmote remained a court of record for property transactions enrolled before the mayor and sheriffs. (fn. 26) Wills and items of civic business were also enrolled from time to time. (fn. 27) It also remained the only court to hear pleas of real estate, (fn. 28) initiated by plaints which were probably written rather than verbal, (fn. 29) and often subject to lengthy delays. (fn. 30) 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. (fn. 31)

In 1358 the citizens claimed that Crown pleas were heard before the mayor and sheriffs in the portmote and personal pleas before the sheriffs in the Pentice. (fn. 32) The mayor's civil jurisdiction was apparently largely confined to pleas of real estate, other types of plea being heard by the sheriffs, but in the later 14th century the portmote did hear some cases of debt, trespass, detinue (unlawful detention of personal property), and broken contract. (fn. 33) In the earlier 15th century such cases became fewer, (fn. 34) and the portmote seems increasingly to have confined its jurisdiction to pleas concerning land. (fn. 35) After 1430 and especially from the 1450s, however, that trend was reversed as growing numbers of personal actions were transferred from the Pentice. (fn. 36)

In the later 15th century judicial inquiries were heard in 'full' portmote in the common hall, at which jurors drawn from the four quarters of the city presented breaches of the peace and offences against the city's ordinances. (fn. 37) Similar inquiries held earlier had been conducted by the sheriffs or the mayor on various days of the week, but from the 1450s the mayor presided and the sessions always took place on Mondays, (fn. 38) often coinciding with a normal court hearing, and occasionally also with the crownmote. (fn. 39) There was a trend towards four 'full' portmotes a year, at intervals which suggest that they were quarter sessions in all but name.

A typical jury, which numbered from 12 to 24, (fn. 40) might include members of the Twenty-Four and FortyEight (forerunners of the aldermen and common councilmen of the city corporation), and constables from each quarter. Presentments were evidently made by ward. (fn. 41) Offences ranged from assault and prostitution to infringements of market regulations. Punishment was customarily by a monetary fine, the amount apparently depending upon ability to pay. (fn. 42)

In the portmote the mayor also supervised the issuing of mainprizes, legal instruments which bound individuals or groups to keep the peace. (fn. 43) In the later 15th century few court sessions were without such business, especially at the final session of the mayoral year. (fn. 44) Subjects of mainprizes normally reappeared at a later session, when they either found further sureties or were dismissed by proclamation. (fn. 45) Evidently an effective device for controlling disruptive behaviour, the issuing of mainprizes apparently comprised much of the business transacted in the portmote court in the later 15th and early 16th century. (fn. 46)


The sheriffs also operated in the Pentice court, where the procedure was more summary. The court, named from the structure in which it was held, a lean-to built against St. Peter's church, (fn. 47) was well established by 1288. (fn. 48) Its earliest surviving records date from 1297. (fn. 49) Although its wide range of business was at first apparently little different from that of the portmote, cases were determined personally by the sheriffs and there were no doomsmen. In 1290 the county court admitted the sheriffs' claim that cases of simple trespass should be heard before them and that they should take the fines. (fn. 50)

The rapid procedures of the Pentice made it especially suitable for dealing with offences such as forestalling and regrating, both of which had the effect of forcing up prices for buyers in the markets. It also had an important role in relation to the fairs: it was the only civic court to function during the Midsummer fair, (fn. 51) and from the late 13th century heard summary cases involving market traders (piepowder pleas) at Michaelmas. (fn. 52) The growth in the mayor's influence is evident in the fact that c. 1320–40 he presided over the Pentice court alongside the sheriffs. (fn. 53) When the court became once more exclusively shrieval much of its business had been eroded. By 1307 the mayor was already involved in piepowder cases, (fn. 54) and fair-time pleas disappeared from the Pentice entirely after the mid 14th century. (fn. 55) By then forestalling and regrating were also regulated in the portmote. (fn. 56) Such developments rendered business at the Pentice more and more routine.

In the 1390s it became customary for the Pentice to sit on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, a pattern confirmed in 1506. (fn. 57) The sheriffs, who had resumed presidency of the court by 1358, (fn. 58) were as earlier assisted by four serjeants or bailiffs, (fn. 59) whose duties included summonsing, attachment, collecting fines, distraint, and assembling jurors. (fn. 60) The court dealt primarily with personal pleas which did not affect real property, (fn. 61) and fell into four main categories: debt, trespass, detinue, and broken contract. Pleas of debt were the most numerous, followed by pleas of trespass. (fn. 62) Suits were begun by plaint, sometimes in writing, (fn. 63) and all litigants were required to nominate pledges or hand over an item of property as a substitute. (fn. 64) Most causes did not proceed beyond the initial stage, either because the plaintiff failed to prosecute or the defendant to appear, or because agreement was reached out of court. (fn. 65) Those which did proceed to judgement were usually settled by the defendant's acknowledgment of a debt or admission of a charge. (fn. 66)

Throughout the period defendants could opt for a jury, a request with which plaintiffs invariably concurred. (fn. 67) In such cases, for which the shrieval court was apparently designated a 'passage' or 'panels' court, 12 jurors were assembled by the bailiffs with the assistance of four assessors (triatores), each representing a quarter of the city. (fn. 68) Although jurors gave decisions in cases at the Pentice throughout the later Middle Ages, the passage court was first expressly named in the 1460s. (fn. 69) Earlier, perhaps, jurors had been summoned on an ad hoc basis, the more formal procedures being established in response to an increasing demand for their presence in contested cases. (fn. 70) In the 15th century the passage court may have met only about eight times each year, a development which made justice in the Pentice less expeditious. (fn. 71)

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. (fn. 72) 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. (fn. 73) Occasionally a case in the Pentice was ended by a royal writ of supersedeas. (fn. 74)


The crownmote, which apparently emerged as a distinct court in the later 14th century, (fn. 75) was held in the common hall under the presidency of the mayor and in the presence of the sheriffs who, as the executive officers, assembled the jurors. (fn. 76) Sessions took place on Mondays, at approximately six-weekly intervals, sometimes coinciding with the portmote. (fn. 77) The court was normally in recess at Christmas and Easter, (fn. 78) but not apparently during the Midsummer fair. (fn. 79)

In 1399 the crownmote was declared the court in which defendants who failed to respond to the writ capias were to be outlawed. (fn. 80) Its other business included coroners' inquests into violent deaths, (fn. 81) indictments for trading offences and encroachments, and infringements of civic ordinances and of the Statute of Labourers, (fn. 82) 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. (fn. 83) After c. 1450 mainprizes were occasionally issued by the court, (fn. 84) but only for more serious offences. (fn. 85)

Court of Piepowder

In the late 13th century rapid procedures for the convenience of non-Cestrian merchants were apparently administered in the Pentice. By the 1350s, however, piepowder law was pleaded before the mayor, probably in a separate court. (fn. 86) The court is known to have functioned during fair time only once, in 1486. The case, which involved two Spanish merchants and a spicer from Caernarfon, was doubtless heard by the mayor, whose portmote jurisdiction was at that period still restricted by the abbot's monopoly of jurisdiction during the fair. The mayor certainly presided over piepowder courts held before the door of St. Peter's church in 1470 and 1471, but neither was held during fair time. On each occasion the case had already been heard by the sheriffs in the Pentice, and the mayor secured a verdict from 12 jurors the following morning in order to give speedy justice to strangers. (fn. 87) The court apparently fell into disuse in the early 16th century. (fn. 88)

Court of Dee Mills

The ancient customs recorded in 1353–4 obliged the justice of Chester (an official of the palatinate) or his deputy to deal with trespasses committed at the Dee Mills and fishery, and excluded the city officials from all attachments and causes. (fn. 89) Profits from the court did not appear in later accounts, and in 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. (fn. 90) 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. (fn. 91) Thereafter, however, inquiries in 1406, 1407, 1410, and 1411 were apparently conducted during sessions of the county court. (fn. 92) In 1415 indictments were again made separately at the mills, (fn. 93) and 11 similar sessions are known to have been held between then and 1448. (fn. 94) Their discontinuance later was probably related to the economic decline of the mills. (fn. 95)

Sessions of the court were timed to dovetail with the county court to facilitate the attendance of royal officers, clerical staff, and the county gentry, who served as jurors. (fn. 96) The court required two or three juries, one composed of townspeople to present offences committed by the millers, another of mill workers for offences committed against them, and a third of local gentry for offences committed beyond the liberties or by the mayor and sheriffs. (fn. 97)

Ecclesiastical Courts

Chester was the seat of the principal archdeaconry of the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield, and by the earlier 14th century its archdeacon possessed unusual powers, (fn. 98) 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, (fn. 99) were exercised in a court presumably held, as later, in St. John's church, (fn. 100) by locally based officials on behalf of the absentee archdeacons, an arrangement which on occasion led to extortion and abuse. (fn. 101) In the 15th century the archdeacon continued to exercise primary jurisdiction through his official in Chester, (fn. 102) at courts held, it seems, in the chapel of St. Nicholas as well as St. John's. (fn. 103) For the laity the main business remained testamentary and matrimonial. (fn. 104)

The bishop and abbot also held courts for their manors within the liberty. (fn. 105) The more significant was the abbot's, which originated with Earl Hugh I's grant of immune jurisdiction over the abbey tenants and those who offended at the Midsummer fair. (fn. 106) Held in the abbot's chapel of St. Thomas outside the Northgate, by the early 13th century it had doomsmen (judices), an indication that its procedures resembled those of the portmote. (fn. 107) Business included the registering of land grants. (fn. 108) Although in the earlier 13th century relations with the citizens were sufficiently amicable for civic officials to witness grants, by 1289 the existence of the court had become a source of conflict. The citizens alleged that it was a new court, injurious to the king's court in the city in that it withdrew the pleas initiated by the abbot's tenants and any fines imposed upon them. The allegation was contested by St. Werburgh's. (fn. 109) The dispute was apparently never formally resolved, and in the mid 14th century the abbot still claimed exclusive jurisdiction during the Midsummer fair over all pleas except those of manslaughter. (fn. 110) In the 1350s the citizens again initiated pleas against the abbot in the borough courts, and his view of frankpledge was challenged. (fn. 111) In the early 15th century he was forced to defend his right to hold an annual court leet and to resist the attachment of his tenants in the Pentice court. (fn. 112) Each crisis resulted in a new definition of powers which left the abbey in a weaker position. In the early 1480s the sheriffs continued to provoke conflict by distraining goods from the abbey's tenants, (fn. 113) and they enjoyed a significant victory in 1485, when in contravention of the abbot's rights they attached two women involved in a brawl during fair time and imprisoned them in the city gaol. (fn. 114) Nevertheless, the abbot's fair-time jurisdiction was not formally cancelled until the charter of 1506. (fn. 115)

In the later Middle Ages the prioress of St. Mary's also held a manorial court. Although her jurisdiction was extremely limited, it survived the citizens' attempt to extinguish it in 1391–2, (fn. 116) and in the 15th century the sheriffs were still unable to fine the nuns' tenants or make arrests on their land. (fn. 117)

Early Modern, 1506–1660 (fn. 118)

Effects of the Great Charter

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. (fn. 119) 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 led to conflict between city and county jurisdictions. (fn. 120)

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. (fn. 121)

Summonsing and attachment continued to be the business of the city's serjeants, who in the 16th century comprised four serjeants-at-mace elected by the Assembly, and four serjeants of the Pentice, the sheriffs' personal officers. (fn. 122) Serjeants-at-mace dealt with the summoning and attachment of freemen in both portmote and Pentice and of 'foreigners' (non-freemen) in the portmote, (fn. 123) while serjeants of the Pentice were empowered only to attach foreign defendants in the Pentice. (fn. 124) The arrangements led to repeated friction between the two sets of officials in the late 16th and 17th century. (fn. 125)

In 1657 the ancient tradition of serjeants-at-mace acting as attorneys was abolished; the Assembly decreed that instead the mayor, recorder, and sheriffs should nominate four other persons to serve in that capacity in the portmote and Pentice, expressly excluding any officer of the mayor or sheriffs. (fn. 126)


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. (fn. 127) 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 court 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. (fn. 128) Its business 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. (fn. 129)


Most cases involving small sums continued to be considered in the Pentice, the informal procedures of which were heard before the sheriffs and recorded by the clerk but not supervised by the recorder. Business comprised personal actions of debt (much the most numerous class), detinue of goods, assault, slander, and other invasions of the rights of one citizen by another. (fn. 130) Contested cases continued to be referred to a passage court, held irregularly but supposedly every few weeks, (fn. 131) a procedure which sometimes entailed delays of two or three months. (fn. 132) Litigants claimed that the officers of the passage court were corrupt and that the jurors were unfit to deal with complex business, and the more influential among them petitioned for their cases to be transferred to the portmote. (fn. 133)

By the earlier 16th century the volume of litigation, delaying tactics by defendants, (fn. 134) and the inefficiency of officials meant that the procedures of the Pentice court were scarcely expeditious. After 1506 the custom of awarding a case to the plaintiff if a defendant defaulted on three summonses had apparently been relaxed in favour of a fine for every day of failure to appear, though the large fines thus accrued by long-term defaulters were often commuted. (fn. 135) In 1545 the Assembly revived the custom of awarding such cases to the plaintiff, (fn. 136) and in a further attempt to discourage fraudulent delays ruled in 1575 that when a defendant denied a bond, bill, or similar instrument and the case was found against him, he could be imprisoned and fined. (fn. 137)

By the later 16th century the administration of the Pentice had many abuses. The courts were held irregularly at the pleasure of the sheriffs and not on the appointed three days a week; (fn. 138) despite admonition by the Assembly in 1570 and 1604, (fn. 139) 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 passages 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 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. (fn. 140)

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. (fn. 141) 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 to the senior court. (fn. 142)

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. By then, too, the court played a significant part in administering the city's social legislation, a role closely monitored by the Assembly. (fn. 143)

County Court of the City

The main function of the 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. (fn. 144)

Ecclesiastical Courts

The special powers of the archdeacons and their courts were such that in 1535 Bishop Rowland Lee could claim that he had no authority in the archdeaconry. (fn. 145) The continued delegation of judicial powers to locally based officials engendered abuse and difficulties in enforcement, not remedied by the introduction in the 1520s of sessions outside Chester. (fn. 146) The archdeacon's court was held at St. John's church until 1541, when it was transformed into the consistory court of the new diocese and transferred to the cathedral. (fn. 147)

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. 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, his right to hold a fortnightly court in St. Thomas's outside the Northgate and to hear pleas during the Midsummer fair being abolished. Although Birkenshaw refused to accept the decision, St. Werburgh's never recovered its ancient rights. (fn. 148) After the Dissolution the dean's jurisdiction was confined to the manorial court of St. Thomas, held in Abbey Gate. (fn. 149)

Decline of The Ancient 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. 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. (fn. 150) 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. (fn. 151) Quarter sessions met at first three times a year, reduced in the earlier 18th century to two principal sittings in spring and late summer, the January sessions being held merely as a formality and routinely adjourned. Criminal business mainly concerned assaults and petty theft. (fn. 152) In the later 18th century the quorum was the mayor and recorder alone (in breach of the charter of 1506), though often as many as eight or ten J.P.s attended. (fn. 153) Much routine judicial business was transacted on a relatively informal basis at weekly meetings of the mayor and at least one other J.P. in the inner Pentice. (fn. 154) From such meetings emerged petty sessions, held twice weekly by 1835 and supplemented by daily sittings of the mayor and aldermen J.P.s to deal with minor offences and licensing. (fn. 155) About 1715 the portmote, apart from swearing in city officials and producers of bread and meat, handled only a few cases of debt and one or two property lawsuits, and by the 1750s had practically no business. (fn. 156) In the early 1830s it was still handling final concords and common recoveries, as well as 'frequent' cases concerning vessels in the Dee, under the mayor's admiralty jurisdiction. (fn. 157) Ordinary suits of debt and trespass continued to go before the Pentice court, but in numbers probably halved between the 1720s and the 1750s to fewer than 300. In the later 18th and early 19th century, although actions were still begun in the Pentice almost none came to trial because debtors normally paid what they owed on being served with the Pentice court's summons. (fn. 158)

In 1836 the city's quarter sessions were confirmed, and thereafter commissions of the peace were issued by letters patent. (fn. 159) The meetings of petty sessions eventually evolved into the magistrates' court. (fn. 160) The portmote and Pentice also survived the reform of the corporation in 1835, meeting thereafter under the recorder four times a year. Their procedures were brought into line with those of the Westminster courts in 1870. (fn. 161) During the recordership of Horatio Lloyd from 1866 many Cestrians chose to bring their cases to be heard by him rather than in the county court, but when he was appointed a county court judge in 1874 the business followed him there and the portmote in effect ceased, though the town clerk continued to give notice each quarter that it and the Pentice would be held before the recorder. (fn. 162) The Pentice continued in being as the instrument for admitting the city's freemen, and after 1974 the district council was permitted to continue using the name of Pentice court for the equivalent ceremony. (fn. 163)


  • 1. V.C.H. Ches. ii. 2–3, 11–22.
  • 2. Ibid. ii. 34–5, 37, 56–7.
  • 3. Ibid. ii. 38–40; v (1), Early Modern Chester: City Government, 1550–1642 (Legal Administration).
  • 4. Ibid. ii. 34, 45–7; v (1), Later Medieval Chester: City Government and Politics, 1350–1550 (Charter of 1506).
  • 5. Ibid. ii. 59, 63.
  • 6. e.g. [P. Holland], Memories of Chester (Halifax, 1997), [9].
  • 7. V.C.H. Ches. i. 326, 343.
  • 8. J.C.A.S. N.S. x. 19–20, 29.
  • 9. Sel. R. Chester City Cts. pp. l-liv; V.C.H. Ches. v (1), Early Medieval Chester: City Sheriff and Portmote; Later Medieval Chester: City Government, 1230–1350 (Sheriffs and their Courts).
  • 10. Sel. R. Chester City Cts. pp. xxiii–xlix.
  • 11. e.g. Cal. Ches. Ct. R. pp. 4, 26.
  • 12. Sel. R. Chester City Cts. p. xxi; C.C.A.L.S., ZMR 1–3, 5, 7–10.
  • 13. Below, Fairs.
  • 14. Sel. R. Chester City Cts. pp. xxiii–xlix.
  • 15. C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 5, f. 51; ZMB 6, ff. 66v., 94v., 134v.
  • 16. Ibid. ZMB 6, ff. 68v., 70v., 100, 101 and v.; B.L. Harl. MS. 1989, f. 454; Morris, Chester, 133–4.
  • 17. V.C.H. Ches. v (1), Later Medieval Chester: City Government, 1230–1350 (Sheriffs and their Courts).
  • 18. Ibid. (Charter of 1300 and City Government 1300–50); below, this section (Crownmote).
  • 19. e.g. C.C.A.L.S., ZMR 48, 50–1, 60, 62–4, 71, 78, 80, 90, 101, 104.
  • 20. e.g. ibid. ZMB 4, ff. 7v., 34; ZMB 5, f. 174v.; ZMB 6, f. 35; ZSB 1, f. 133v.; ZSB 2, ff. 27v., 39v., 44v., 60; ZSB 3, ff. 3, 60v.; ZSB 4, ff. 10, 48, 123v.
  • 21. e.g. ibid. ZSB 1, f. 133v.; ZSB 2, f. 85; ZSB 3, f. 19; ZSB 4, f. 30; ZMB 5, f. 200; ZMR 91, m. 1; B.L. Harl. MS. 2046, f. 33.
  • 22. e.g. C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 1, f. 67; ZMB 2, f. 43v.; ZMB 3, ff. 71v., 81; ZMR 51, m. 1; ZMR 62, m. 1; ZMR 67, m. 1; ZMR 68, m. 1; ZSR 126, m. 2; ZSR 160, m. 1; ZSR 164, m. 1d.
  • 23. e.g. ibid. ZMB 2, f. 95v.; ZMB 5, ff. 1, 41v., 69, 85; ZMB 7, ff. 80, 157; ZSB 1, f. 20v.; P.R.O., SC 6/800/1, m. 1d.; Cat. Anct. D. iii, C 3291.
  • 24. C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 2, f. 29v.; ZMB 5, ff. 1, 41v.; ZMB 7, ff. 80, 118.
  • 25. e.g-ibid. ZSR 289–308, 377–411; ZMB 3, f. 87v.; ZMB 4, f. 22v.; ZSB 2, f. 84; ZSB 3, ff. 1, 62; ZSB 4, f. 4.
  • 26. e.g. ibid. ZMR 58, m. 1; ZMR 76, m. 1; ZMR 80, m. 1; ZMR 84, m. 1; ZMR 90, m. 1; ZMR 91, m. 1; ZMR 93, m. 1; ZMR 95, m. 1; ZMR 98, m. 1.
  • 27. e.g. ibid. ZMR 75, m. 1 and d.; ZMR 77, m. 1; ZMR 85, m. 1.
  • 28. Ibid. ZCHB 2, ff. 76–7; Morris, Chester, 553–4.
  • 29. e.g. C.C.A.L.S., ZMR 51, m. 1; ZMR 59, m. 1; ZMR 60, m. 1d.; ZMR 62, m. 1.
  • 30. Ibid. ZCHB 2, ff. 71–2; ZMR 51; ZMR 61; B.L. Harl. MS. 2057, f. 120 and v.; Sel. R. Chester City Cts. pp. xxx–xxxvii.
  • 31. C.C.A.L.S., ZCHB 2, ff. 66v., 68 and v., 79, 82v.–84; ZMB 5, ff. 46v., 47v.; B.L. Harl. MS. 2158, ff. 196v., 205, 209v., 212; Blk. Prince's Reg. iii. 291–2.
  • 32. Blk. Prince's Reg. iii. 291–2.
  • 33. C.C.A.L.S., ZMR 82, 92, 99–100, 102, 109.
  • 34. Ibid. ZMR 82.
  • 35. Sel. R. Chester City Cts. pp. xix, xxiii.
  • 36. C.C.A.L.S., ZSR 173, m. 1; ZSR 283, m. 1d.; ZSR 284, m. 1; ZSR 285, m. 1d.; ZSR 288, m. 1; ZSR 291, m. 1; ZSR 293, m. 1; ZSR 294, m. 1; ZSR 295, m. 1; ZSR 296, m. 1; ZSR 297, m. 1; ZSR 298, m. 1; ZSR 299, m. 1; B.L. Harl. MS. 2046, f. 33; below, this section (Pentice).
  • 37. e.g. C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 4, f. 7v.
  • 38. Inquiries held by sheriffs: ibid. ZMB 2, ff. 23, 106v.; ZMB 3, ff. 7v., 32, 44, 71; ZMB 4, ff. 6v., 72v.; by mayor: ZMB 4, ff. 34, 47, 53; ZMB 6, f. 35.
  • 39. e.g. ibid. ZMB 5, ff. 11v., 15; ZMB 6, ff. 45, 58v.; ZSB 1, f. 134v.; ZSB 3, f. 63.
  • 40. e.g. ibid. ZSB 2, ff. 39v., 45v., 59, 85; ZSB 3, ff. 60, 63, 91v.; ZSB 4, ff. 48, 51.
  • 41. e.g. ibid. ZSB 3, ff. 37–40, 63–7.
  • 42. e.g. ibid. ZSB 2, f. 25.
  • 43. e.g. ibid. ZMB 4, ff. 59–65v.; ZMB 5, ff. 74–80v.; ZMB 6, ff. 5v.–28v.; ZMB 7, ff. 83–94v., 162v.–189v.
  • 44. Ibid. ZMB 6, ff. 26–28v., 137–40; ZMB 7, ff. 91–93v.
  • 45. Ibid. ZSB 3, ff. 67, 69; ZMB 5, f. 79; ZMB 6, ff. 13v., 24, 44v.
  • 46. D. J. Clayton, Administration of County Palatine of Chester, 1442–85 (Chetham Soc. 3rd ser. xxxv), 240–77.
  • 47. Above, Municipal Buildings: Pentice.
  • 48. Cal. Ches. Ct. R. pp. 154, 156; Sel. R. Chester City Cts. pp. xv, xviii–xix.
  • 49. C.C.A.L.S., ZSR 1.
  • 50. Cal. Ches. Ct. R. pp. 154, 169–70, 177–8, 197.
  • 51. C.C.A.L.S., ZSR 11, 25, 41, 44, 51, 59; below, Fairs.
  • 52. B.L. Harl. MS. 2162, f. 58; below, this section (Court of Piepowder).
  • 53. C.C.A.L.S., ZSR 33, m. 1d.; ZSR 39, m. 1; ZSR 42, m. 1; ZSR 48, m. 1; ZSR 50.
  • 54. B.L. Harl. MS. 2162, f. 93.
  • 55. Last recorded in C.C.A.L.S., ZSR 51, m. 2; ZSR 52, m. 1d.; ZSR 66, m. 1d.
  • 56. e.g. ibid. ZQCR 2, 4–5.
  • 57. Ibid. ZCH 32; Morris, Chester, 524–40.
  • 58. Blk. Prince's Reg. iii. 291–2.
  • 59. C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 3, f. 66v.
  • 60. Ibid. ZMB 3, f. 20; ZSR 210, m. 1; ZSR 238, m. 1; ZSR 272, m. 1d.; ZSR 293, m. 1; ZSR 346, m. 2.
  • 61. Ibid. ZCHB 2, f. 76; Morris, Chester, 553–4; Blk. Prince's Reg. iii. 291–2; Sel. R. Chester City Cts. pp. xvi–xxiii.
  • 62. C.C.A.L.S., ZSR 183–93, 281–315, 330–68.
  • 63. e.g. ibid. ZSR 126, m. 2; ZSR 132, m. 1d.; ZSR 157, m. 1.
  • 64. e.g. ibid. ZSR 228, m. 1; ZSR 231, m. 1d.; ZSR 245, m. 1; ZSR 276, m. 1; ZSR 282, m. 1; ZSR 284, m. 1 and d.; ZSR 319, m. 1; ZSR 324, m. 1d.; ZSR 349, m. 3d.; ZSR 367, m. 1d.; ZSR 435, m. 1d.
  • 65. e.g. ibid. ZSR 81, m. 1d.; ZSR 116, m. 1d.; ZSR 177, m. 1; ZSR 218, m. 1d.; ZSR 290, m. 1d.; ZSR 318, m. 1; ZSR 408, m. 1.
  • 66. e.g. ibid. ZSR 170, m. 1; ZSR 182, m. 1d.; ZSR 205, m. 1d.; ZSR 266, m. 1 and d.
  • 67. Sel. R. Chester City Cts. pp. xlv–xlvi.
  • 68. e.g. C.C.A.L.S., ZSB 1, f. 50v.; ZSPR 1, mm. 8d., 16d.
  • 69. Ibid. ZSPR 1; ZMB 5, f. 103v.
  • 70. Johnson, 'Aspects', 147.
  • 71. Johnson, 'Aspects', 149–50, 153–9; C.C.A.L.S., ZSPR 6, m. 9; ZSPR 7, m. 1; ZSPR 10, m. 1.
  • 72. C.C.A.L.S., ZSR 173, m. 1; ZSR 283, m. 1d.; ZSR 284, m. 1; ZSR 285, m. 1d.; ZSR 288, m. 1; ZSR 291, m. 1; ZSR 293, m. 1; ZSR 294, m. 1; ZSR 295, m. 1; ZSR 296, m. 1; ZSR 297, m. 1; ZSR 298, m. 1; ZSR 299, m. 1.
  • 73. e.g. ibid. ZSR 309, m. 1 and d.; cf. ZSR 312, m. 1d.
  • 74. e.g. ibid. ZSR 149, m. 1; ZSR 195, m. 1; ZSR 232, m. 1; ZSR 318, m. 1d.; ZSR 420, m. 1.
  • 75. Blk. Prince's Reg. iii. 291–2; Morris, Chester, 554.
  • 76. e.g. C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 1, f. 52; ZMB 2, f. 89v.; ZMB 6, f. 16v.; ZSB 3, f. 2.
  • 77. e.g. ibid. ZSB 1, ff. 80–1; ZMB 5, ff. 48–60; ZMB 6, ff. 41–59; ZMB 9c, ff. 7–8v.
  • 78. Ibid. ZMB 2, f. 33; ZMB 4, f. 69; ZMB 5, f. 101.
  • 79. Ibid. ZMB 5, ff. 59, 101; ZMB 6, f. 164; ZMB 9c, f. 8v.
  • 80. 36 D.K.R. App. II, p. 99.
  • 81. C.C.A.L.S., ZQCR 7.
  • 82. Ibid. ZQCR 4, 8–11.
  • 83. Ibid. ZMB 4, f. 34.
  • 84. e.g. ibid. ZMB 4, f. 69 and v.; ZMB 5, ff. 15, 38v., 58v.–59, 81v., 212 and v.; ZMB 6, f. 29 and v.; ZMB 7, ff. 74–79v.; ZMB 9E, ff. 33–34v.
  • 85. e.g. ibid. ZMB 5, ff. 125v., 152; ZMB 6, f. 29v.; ZMB 7, ff. 74, 152, 191; ZMB 9c, f. 8.
  • 86. B.L. Harl. MS. 2162, ff. 58, 93; Blk. Prince's Reg. iii. 178; above, this section (Pentice).
  • 87. B.L. Harl. MS. 2057, ff. 125–126v.
  • 88. Johnson, 'Aspects', 143.
  • 89. Eaton Hall, MS. 321; P.R.O., SC 6/784/5, m. 3; B.L. Harl. MS. 2081, f. 179; Morris, Chester, 105 n.
  • 90. C.C.A.L.S., ZCHB 2, f. 71; B.L. Harl. MS. 2115, f. 69.
  • 91. P.R.O., CHES 25/10, mm. 10, 14.
  • 92. Ibid. mm. 22, 25d., 32–3; cf. CHES 25/11, mm. 1A–1B.
  • 93. Ibid. CHES 25/11, m. 5.
  • 94. Ibid. mm. 8, 19, 22; CHES 25/12, mm. 4, 18d., 20d., 26, 28d., 34d., 38d.; CHES 25/13, m. 1; CHES 25/14, m. 3d.
  • 95. C.C.A.L.S., ZCH 28; P.R.O., SC 6/798/1, m. 1d.; J. Laughton, 'Aspects of Social and Economic Hist. of Late Medieval Chester, 1350–1500' (Camb. Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1993), App. 3; below, Mills and Fisheries: Dee Corn Mills.
  • 96. e.g. P.R.O., CHES 25/10, mm. 10, 22, 33; CHES 25/12, m. 18d.
  • 97. Ibid. CHES 25/10, mm. 10, 14, 22; CHES 25/11, mm. 8, 19; CHES 25/12, mm. 18d., 28d.
  • 98. V.C.H. Staffs. iii. 31; P. Heath, 'Medieval Archdeaconry and Tudor Bishopric of Chester', Jnl. Eccl. Hist. xx. 244; Great Reg. of Lich. Cath. known as Magnum Registrum Album, ed. H. E. Savage (Collns. Hist. Staffs. 3rd ser. 1924), 237–8.
  • 99. V.C.H. Ches. iii. 8–9; Jnl. Eccl. Hist. xx. 247–50.
  • 100. Jnl. Eccl. Hist. xx. 246; below, Collegiate Church of St. John.
  • 101. Great Reg. of Lich. Cath. 57; V.C.H. Staffs. iii. 142; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 8; Cal. Papal Reg. i. 529; Jnl. Eccl. Hist. xx. 244; Cal. Ches. Ct. R. pp. 188–9.
  • 102. Jnl. Eccl. Hist. xx. 243–52.
  • 103. 3 Sheaf, v, p. 38.
  • 104. e.g. ibid. xxxvi, p. 54; P.R.O., WALE 29/291; B.L. Harl. MS. 2020, f. 18; Cal. Papal Reg. viii. 331–2; Lich. Jt. R.O., B/A/1/12, ff. 133v.–135v.; Jnl. Eccl. Hist. xx. 246–7.
  • 105. e.g. Cal. Ches. Ct. R. pp. 157, 165.
  • 106. Cart. Chester Abbey, i, pp. 14, 21, 23.
  • 107. Ibid. i, p. 49; Sel. R. Chester City Cts. p. li.
  • 108. Ancestor, vi. 33.
  • 109. Cal. Ches. Ct. R. p. 159; Burne, Monks, 42–3.
  • 110. Ormerod, Hist. Ches. i. 287–8; below, Fairs.
  • 111. Blk. Prince's Reg. iii. 178, 185, 190, 360–1.
  • 112. C.C.A.L.S., ZCHB 2, f. 84 and v.; cf. ibid. ZCR 65/Bn. 33.
  • 113. e.g. P.R.O., CHES 29/187, mm. 5–6, 8 and d., 11.
  • 114. C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 6, f. 101.
  • 115. Ibid. ZCH 32; Morris, Chester, 524–40.
  • 116. B.L. Harl. MS. 7568, f. 190v.; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 147.
  • 117. e.g. C.C.A.L.S., ZSR 205, m. 1; ZSR 208, m. 1; ZSR 245, m. 1; P.R.O., CHES 25/16, m. 19d.
  • 118. What follows draws heavily on Johnson, 'Aspects', 139–89.
  • 119. Ibid. 180–1; Morris, Chester, 526, 528–30, 534, 536–9.
  • 120. V.C.H. Ches. v (1), Early Modern Chester: City Government, 1550–1642 (Legal Administration).
  • 121. Johnson, 'Aspects', 161–2, quoting B.L. Harl. MS. 2057, ff. 122–3.
  • 122. Johnson, 'Aspects', 146; Morris, Chester, 220, 534; Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603–42, pp. xii–xv.
  • 123. Johnson, 'Aspects', 151, 163–4.
  • 124. Ibid. 146, 163–5; C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, f. 108.
  • 125. Johnson, 'Aspects', 164–7; C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, ff. 226, 251.
  • 126. Johnson, 'Aspects', 166; C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 2, f. 115v.
  • 127. Johnson, 'Aspects', 161.
  • 128. Ibid. 144, 150–4.
  • 129. Ibid. 160–1, quoting C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 33.
  • 130. Johnson, 'Aspects', 145.
  • 131. Ibid. 147.
  • 132. Ibid. 153–4; B.L. Harl. MS. 2093, ff. 12, 29–32, 51.
  • 133. Johnson, 'Aspects', 154, quoting C.C.A.L.S., ZMP 1, f. 5; ZMCP 1/11, 2/4, 2/17.
  • 134. e.g. C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, ff. 75V.–76, 165V.
  • 135. Johnson, 'Aspects', 149.
  • 136. C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, ff. 75v.–76.
  • 137. Ibid. f. 165v.
  • 138. Ibid. f. 124; Johnson, 'Aspects', 154–5.
  • 139. Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603–42, 16.
  • 140. Johnson, 'Aspects', 156–60.
  • 141. Morris, Chester, 525, 530, 532, 538.
  • 142. Johnson, 'Aspects', 180–4; C.C.A.L.S., ZQCR 13; B.L. Harl. MS. 2057, ff. 97–9.
  • 143. Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603–42, pp. xiv–xv, 187–8; Johnson, 'Aspects', 179–89; C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 28, passim; cal. of ZQSF 15–51.
  • 144. Johnson, 'Aspects', 179; V.C.H. Ches. ii. 98; C.C.A.L.S., ZSB 5, f. 73; ZSB 9, f. 230.
  • 145. C. Haigh, Reformation and Resistance, 1; Jnl. Eccl. Hist. xx. 247; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 9.
  • 146. Haigh, Reformation and Resistance, 3–4, 14–19.
  • 147. C.C.A.L.S., EDC 1/1–10, esp. EDC 1/10, ff. 146v., 155v., 158v.; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 13–14, 18–19, 38, 43.
  • 148. V.C.H. Ches. iii. 142; Morris, Chester, 133–5.
  • 149. Burne, Chester Cath. 249–52.
  • 150. Parl. Elections Act, 1745, 19 Geo. II, c. 28; The Trial at Large, in Several Informations in the Nature of a Quo Warranto, the King against Thomas Amery and John Monk (Chester: J. Fletcher, 1786), 65.
  • 151. Rep. Com. Mun. Corp. pp. 2623–4.
  • 152. Ibid. p. 2624; C.C.A.L.S., ZQSF 79–131.
  • 153. Trial at Large of Quo Warranto, King vs. Amery and Monk, 27, 29.
  • 154. C.C.A.L.S., ZMIP 1–198; V.C.H. Ches. v (1), Early Modern Chester: City Government and Politics, 1662–1762 (City Government).
  • 155. Rep. Com. Mun. Corp. p. 2625.
  • 156. C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 45; ZMB 50; ZMSR 140–86; Archives and Records, ed. Kennett, 23–4.
  • 157. Rep. Com. Mun. Corp. p. 2624.
  • 158. Ibid.; C.C.A.L.S., ZSBC 143; ZSBC 165; ZSPR 160, 163–4; ZAF 53, pt. 3, petition July 1744.
  • 159. C.C.A.L.S., ZCH 43; ZQJC 1–4.
  • 160. Archives and Records, ed. Kennett, 94–5.
  • 161. Pentice and Portmote Cts. of the City and Boro. of Chester: General Rules and Regulations (Lond. 1870: copy in Liverpool Univ. Libr.).
  • 162. H. T. Dutton, Chester Town Hall and its Treasures, 7; Ches. Contemporary Biographies, ed. W. T. Pike, 267.
  • 163. Archives and Records, ed. Kennett, 23; C.C.A.L.S., ZMFR 16; ZMPM 1; ZMSR 187–237.