Love Lost and Found in the Church Courts

by Peter Wilkinson

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Three cases in the Bishop of Chichester's consistory court for the archdeaconry of Chichester, 1602-03, 1609 and 1616-17, tell an unusual story. The central figures are Richard Tayler, gentleman of Racton (and a West Wittering landowner), and Margaret Osborne of West Wittering, a yeoman's daughter. The starting point is the summer of 1600 when Richard was in his mid 20s and Margaret was probably 13 or 14. An unsuccessful elopement was followed by Richard's equally unsuccessful attempt to establish a binding contract of marriage. Margaret's father then forced her to marry John Markwick. Eventually she deserted him and returned to Richard; and six years later Richard won his second case, annulling the Markwick marriage, and finally enabling the couple to marry.

I have described these cases in an article in Sussex Archaeological Collections for 2014 (Vol. 152). To supplement the article, I offer here an edited transcript of the depositions made by the witnesses: they tell the story so vividly that they need little commentary. At the same time they give an interesting picture of how matrimonial cases were presented in the church courts. The cases hinge on depositions given by witnesses, made in the course of 'instance' proceedings. Instance procedure was a process peculiar to the ecclesiastical courts. It was used to deal with private disputes between individuals, and derived its title from the Latin instancia partium, (at the instance of parties). The depositions it produced are a valuable source of information for social, local and legal history and frequently reproduce, vividly and verbatim, the speech of the people involved.

In broad terms instance causes dealt with four principal types of business: defamation (libel or slander), matrimonial (the validity of a marriage), testamentary (wills and probate) and tithe (the payment of tithes and church dues). Each provides different kinds of information. Defamation cases provide accounts of local quarrels, frequently culminating in accusations of sexual misbehaviour. Matrimonial cases describe marriage contracts and customs, and also marriage breakdown. Testamentary cases provide deathbed narratives and family disputes. Tithe cases describe agricultural practices and changes, and parochial customs, and can sometimes look back over 60 years to events before the Reformation. As well as describing the matters under dispute, the depositions furnish valuable additional local and genealogical information because the witnesses had to provide a biographical account covering their age, occupation and the places where they had lived – and usually their financial status.­­­

A short but important element linking the first and final Tayler cases comes from a case in a separate church court. Running parallel to the 'instance' proceedings were 'office' cases which were a kind of summary procedure. They were brought forward by the 'office of the judge' (roughly analogous to a 'police prosecution') and dealt usually with offences (usually termed 'correction' or 'detection') which had been 'detected' by local churchwardens and clergy. As well as failures in religious observance they included a remarkable volume of sexual offences (especially fornication and adultery) – earning their Puritan nickname of 'bawdy courts' - and imposed a range of punishments (usually penance or excommunication).

Although depositions survive among the records of many English dioceses, they have not been given the attention they deserve: the use of a certain amount of Latin and sometimes difficult scripts, and above all the complicated court process, have deterred readers without specialized experience. So I hope this story will provide a flavour of what can be found in the court records – and serve also as a 'taster' for a Sussex Record Society volume which is to be published shortly.

This volume will contain a complete Deposition Book for the archdeaconry of Chichester, December 1603 to April 1607, and will enable the Society to publish depositions in a form which has not previously been attempted. It will, I hope, encourage the exploitation of a very important record source, both locally and nationally. It tackles some of the considerable problems which the depositions pose through their sheer abundance and prolixity. A complete transcript is tempting – but it would produce a vast amount of text, much of it highly repetitive. A tithe case, for example, could involve 10 or more witnesses, all responding to the same set of questions.

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