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From medieval times to the mid nineteenth centuries the church courts had a wide jurisdiction, and heard cases including defamation, matrimony, tithe, probate, church rights and breach of faith by clergy. At first there was only one central York church court, but in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Consistory, Chancery, Exchequer and the Prerogative Courts developed from the single Court of York.
The Consistory Court was the archbishop's general court for the administration of ecclesiastical law, although the archbishop did not usually appear in person but commissioned a judge, usually his chancellor. It was the court which oversaw the greatest amount of business. It heard causes (suits) between parties (called instance causes) and causes taken by the church against other parties (office causes) particularly in matters of clergy discipline. Until the late seventeenth century it also dealt with appeals from the Province of York.
The Exchequer Court was a purely testamentary court, proving wills and granting administrations. Its jurisdiction covered laity and unbeneficed clergy (clergy who were not rectors or vicars) who left land or property in the Diocese of York.
The Prerogative Court was a testamentary court formed in 1577, with jurisdiction over individuals who died in one of the dioceses or peculiar jurisdictions in the Province of York leaving goods and chattels to the value of five pounds and above in any other diocese or peculiar jurisdiction within the province ('bona notabilia'). All causes for accounts or legacies arising from such wills were also heard in this court.
The Chancery or Audience Court was the personal court of the archbishop, dealing with much correctional business, and having testamentary jurisdiction over beneficed clergy and testamentary jurisdiction during an archiepiscopal visitation. It had administrative functions such as supervising institutions to benefices, issuing licences and (until the early 20th century) granting faculties. It also heard appeals from the Northern Province. By the eighteenth century, appeals and faculty jurisdiction comprised almost all its business.
The Court of the Northern High Commission or, more accurately, the Ecclesiastical Commission at York, was not part of the normal framework of church courts, even though it was presided over by the Archbishop of York and the matters it dealt with were similar in nature and content to the church courts. The High Commissioners for Causes Ecclesiastical were empowered by the Elizabethan Act of Supremacy of 1558, to enforce the religious settlement and ecclesiastical discipline on behalf of the monarch. A Commission was established under the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1558 and the Northern High Commission at York followed in 1561. The Northern High Commission was the second most important conciliar court in the north after the Council in the North, which was also based in York. Members of the Commission were a mixture of clergy and laymen. It was a prerogative court, principally conceived as part of royal and ecclesiastical government in the north, and operating, like the church courts, under canon law rather than common law, but, unlike the church courts, with the power to fine and imprison and to pursue wrongdoers across different ecclesiastical jurisdictions. It thus operated alongside the church courts, using its more stringent penalties to enforce adherence to church law where necessary. The Court of High Commission dealt with cases of recusancy, the investigation of popish practices and with cases of contempt or subversion of the church courts. In particular it instigated disciplinary proceedings against those whose social position might render otherwise immune to prosecution. But it also dealt with a range of topics which could be found in the church courts, such as matrimonial cases, fornication and adultery, breach of contract, pew and tithe disputes. It was abolished in 1641, and was not subsequently revived.
All church courts were suspended during the Commonwealth period but the full panoply of church courts was reinstated in 1660. Between the 1830s and 1850s successive pieces of legislation removed large areas of their jurisdiction such as tithe, defamation, marriage and probate. Church courts today are largely concerned with jurisdiction over clergy discipline and disputed faculties.
Records comprise court books, cause papers and other documents for the Consistory Court (1417-2003), the Chancery or Audience Court (1525-1956), the Exchequer and Prerogative Courts (1521-1975) and the High Commission Court (1562-1641). There are also other records covering all courts (1300-2003) and papers of court officials (late 16th century- 2001).
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The new arrangement draws on the earlier arrangements of 1973 and 2003-2005 but will also incorporate some reorganisation, based on a comprehensive survey and inventory of the archive, and much new cataloguing.
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