The vast archives produced by the English legal system are some of our most valuable materials for legal, political, social, and family histories. Issuing from national and local courts, from common, ecclesiastical, and equitable jurisdictions, and covering civil and criminal law, they offer a window into the lives of ordinary people and the principles that governed their societies. Yet to the first-time researcher – and even to more experienced scholars – they can seem idiosyncratic, impenetrable, and daunting. As someone who is still on the steep learning curve that comes with reading these records, I have put together some basic advice for those new to working with them.
- Plan your approach to the records before starting to trawl through them. Because of the sheer volume of surviving court material in UK archives, you might choose to confine your research to the workings of an individual court within a certain timeframe, the experiences of one type of litigant across multiple courts, or the treatment of a category of complaint or offence in one or several jurisdictions, to give a few examples. You might also want to carefully select specific records for detailed analysis. Understanding as much as possible about one court could entail surveying all the relevant documents. But if you’re interested in comparative legal history, then smaller samples from each court or jurisdiction would be more efficient. Otherwise, a specific set of research questions might lead you to examine only certain documents – so an interest in litigation practices could mean looking primarily at pleas or petitions.
- Before committing to a potentially costly archive visit, start with any published materials. The Selden Society has printed selected cases from many medieval and early-modern courts, including Chancery, Star Chamber, and King’s Bench as well as a few manorial and borough courts. These volumes are often freely available online through the Internet Archive. Similar, county-specific studies have been published by regional and local record societies. Although they can be a little outdated (many of the Selden Society volumes are over a century old!), these compilations provide a way into the form and contents of many different types of legal records. It is also worth familiarising yourself with the composition of your chosen archive, the volume and quality of its surviving material, and any potential gaps. The List and Index Society is a great resource for calendars, keys, and indexes for a wide variety of legal record classes. Many archives have browsable online catalogues or research guides too, which are well worth looking at before going to the archives in person.
- Wherever possible, make the most of relevant digitised records. The most extensive and valuable website for students of English legal history is Anglo American Legal Tradition, a free-to-use database of images of central-court records dating from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century. Medieval and early-modern wills, special petitions to the Crown, and papers of the Court of Admiralty are downloadable through The National Archives catalogue (TNA). Other large-scale digitisation projects include the York Cause Papers (diocese of York church court records, 1300-1858) and the transcriptions of criminal cases from the London Old Bailey (1674-1913). Whatever your period or area of interest, it is worth checking if there are digitised records; there are many ongoing projects to make court documents available from your PC.
- Pinpoint if there are any skills worth investing time in before turning up at the issuing desk. Depending on your period of interest, introductory classes in palaeography and Latin or Law French (the main languages for many pre-modern legal records) are a must. There are many brilliant free resources for this online. TNA provides interactive classes in Latin and palaeography, and AALT offers some tutorials on reading old records. TNA also runs free, hands-on classes with legal records from various historical periods, which usually include an introduction to the historical English legal system, as part of their Postgraduate Archival Skills Training.
- Figure out early on how best to record and organise your research notes. Thinking about how you intend to use the information you’ve acquired from the archives – whether photographs, transcriptions, or notes – will help to prevent problems later. You might explore some specialist software: I’ve heard good things about Tropy for organising archive photos. More standard programmes can be just as useful for creating searchable notes, though I recently found that completing some of the larger-scale data analysis would have been much easier had I used a spreadsheet instead of a Word document to record my findings! Overall, as with all research, studying legal records requires some forward-thinking and though frustrating, it is ultimately fulfilling – and given the sheer volume of surviving records across the country there is undoubtedly much still to be uncovered.
 There are lots of current projects analysing and digitising thousands of petitions across multiple courts and jurisdictions: the Civil War Petitions project, the London Lives Petitions project, and The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England project.
 Dr Brodie Waddell (Birkbeck) has compiled a list of palaeography resources available online: https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2018/03/01/free-online-palaeography-resources/
Image: Court of Requests ‘miscellaneous’ records at The National Archives in Kew; author’s own photograph.