4. A Courtroom for an Ecclesiastical Court

By Zoë Jackson (@ZoeMJackson1)

Tucked away in the southwest corner of Chester Cathedral lies a small, unassuming room, often devoid of the crowds that the rest of the cathedral attracts. Apart from being an interesting addition to any visit to the Cathedral, this room bears another significant distinction: It is one of the only courtrooms for a 16th century Consistory Court surviving intact.[1]

The consistory courts were responsible for adjudicating ecclesiastical law, one of several kinds of sometimes overlapping law in force in England in the early modern period. In so doing, the courts monitored and maintained the spiritual health and morality of the community and its individuals.[2] They oversaw cases we might assume to be related to the religious establishment, such as church business and the behaviour (and misbehaviour) of clergymen, but also encompassed types of cases that fall under other bodies of law in modern day. Early modern ecclesiastical courts primarily dealt with two types of cases: office and instance cases. Most cases dealing directly with morality, such as adultery or incest, fell under the ‘office’ jurisdiction, which was initiated from the ‘office of the judge’. The ‘instance’ jurisdiction handled disputes between two parties, such as tithe disputes and defamation cases.[3]

In the early modern period, therefore, the remit of the court extended far beyond what the court addresses today. But the survival of the Chester Consistory Court courtroom reminds us how central such courts were in the lives of their communities, even if these courts operate mostly inconspicuously today.

Photo of Chester Consistory Court taken by the author.

[1] For a brief description of the Chester Consistory Court, see ‘Catalogue Description: Consistory Court’, The National Archives, accessed 24 November 2022, https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/83e4bd55-f44b-4581-b35c-6bfb512f6957#:~:text=The%20Chester%20Consistory%20Court%20was,and%20matters%20of%20clergy%20discipline; Martin Ingram, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 1–2, doi:10.1017/CBO9780511560590.

[2] For an overview of the workings of the church courts, and the place of ecclesiastical law in the wider legal landscape of early modern England, see Ingram, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 27–69.

[3] Donald A. Spaeth, The Church in an Age of Danger: Parsons and Parishioners, 1660–1740 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 59–60, https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511496073.

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