Court of King's Bench: Plea and Crown Sides: Coram Rege Rolls
Plea rolls containing the record of pleas on both the Crown and Plea Sides of the Court of King's Bench from the reign of Edward I to that of William III.
Their title derives from the fiction that proceedings in the court were held before the king in person (coram rege), although that was rarely true. The record is of formal stages in cases; not of what was said during pleading.
Until 1292, but never thereafter, there is often more than one roll for each term, where the main roll, made for the chief justice, is supplemented by a roll or rolls of puisne (junior) justices. From 1276 to 1289 a series of 'king's rolls', kept for Walter of Wimborne, who was both a puisne justice of the court and king's attorney, are included. There are also five similar ones from the few previous years kept for Richard of Staines, a puisne justice.
The separate subdivision for the rotuli carrying crown pleas and associated with the office of the king's attorney in the court, identified by the heading 'Rex' at the top of each one, developed after 1290. The division between the civil pleas and 'Rex' sections of the rolls is complete by 1324. The fines and forfeitures section, which physically separates the two, begins in 1323, and there is a section for appointments of attorneys at the end, after the 'Rex' section. Both these small sections disappeared during the reign of Charles II. Essoins are included in some of the early rolls but disappear after 1290.
The series is remarkably complete. There are no inexplicable gaps after the reign of Edward I, for which rolls are wanting for seven terms, during one of which, Trinity 1277, it is known that no session was held because of the Welsh war. Later missing terms are all explained by events: the plague (Trinity 1349, 1361, 1368 and 1545, and Michaelmas 1569), the Peasants' Revolt (Trinity 1381), the return to London of Edward IV after the readeption of Henry VI (Easter 1471) and the interregnum between James II and William III (Hilary 1689).
From 1324 the rotuli of the 'Rex roll' were given a separate contemporary numeration from those forming the justice's roll or civil pleas roll. During the fourteenth century the court usually delivered the gaols in the counties which it visited. The presence of a gaol delivery record for a particular venue in the 'Rex roll' between 1301 and 1421 (KB 27/164-640) is indicated in the catalogue by '(GD)' after the name of the place. Until 1302, and once thereafter in 1338, the court also sometimes heard assizes when travelling; the presence of records of an assize session in a roll is indicated in the list by '(A)'.
Essoins were recorded on rotuli attached to the rolls of puisne justices, but only until 1290. The attorneys section was always filed at the end, the fines and forfeitures section was filed between the civil pleas and 'Rex' sections. However, both those small subdivisions disappeared during the reign of Charles II, thus making it easier to split the rolls into the two separate Plea and Crown Side series in 1702.
Well before 1702 the rolls had been physically divided into several parts because of their size. Initially the rolls for Hilary and Trinity terms came to be divided into two parts, beginning in 1596. From 1617 they were often divided into three parts, although the rolls for all the terms contracted into one part each from Michaelmas 1642 to Michaelmas 1645, coinciding civil war disruption. The recovery was rapid, with Trinity 1647 being the first term to have a plea roll in four parts, but after 1662 no roll ever exceeds three parts, and after 1686 none exceeds two. The greater size of the Hilary and Trinity rolls from the late sixteenth century onwards, the reverse of the earlier situation where Michaelmas and Easter were normally larger, is explained by the practice of litigants from outside London and Middlesex filing large numbers of bills on the Plea Side of the court so that they would go to nisi prius in the following Lent and summer assizes respectively.
The civil pleas roll was compiled by a number of clerks, who from an early date 'signed' their rotuli with their surnames, at the foot of the face, although the actual writing was probably done by under-clerks working for them. The practice was first adopted in 1290, then in 1317 became permanent. Individual clerks came to be associated especially but not exclusively with the business of particular counties, often not those from which they originated, and relatively fixed county groupings became established around about fifteen clerks.
A chief clerk, or prothonotary, sometimes more than one person sharing the office, emerged by the mid-fourteenth century, and the other clerks became known as filacers (filazers, philizers). From the 1440s the prothonotary was assigned rotuli 20 to 40 in the civil pleas section of the roll, and his proportion of the rotuli gradually increased, especially as a result of the great increase in bill litigation during the sixteenth century, the filacers becoming confined to a handful of the rotuli at the very beginning. By 1702 the prothonotary's domination of the civil section of the whole roll was complete; the last roll includes no filacers' rotuli.
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