The High Court of Admiralty was probably established as a separate court after the battle of Sluys in 1340. In the following century, under the deputy of the Lord High Admiral as its judge, it absorbed the jurisdiction of the deputies and courts of the separate admirals of north, south and west.
It was established to deal primarily with questions of piracy or spoil but it developed a jurisdiction in prize and a civil jurisdiction in such matters as salvage and damage by collision, based on Roman or civil law, under which process could issue against ships and goods as well as persons.
In the 15th century much of this business was still dealt with in Chancery, but in the early years of the following century there was a great expansion in the activities of the court, notably in consequence of the patent granted to the Duke of Richmond as Lord High Admiral in 1525. In this year the records of the court may be said effectively to begin.
Throughout its early history, as statutes of 1391 and 1400 testify, and particularly during the 17th century, when its influence was much reduced, there was a continuous struggle between the court and the courts of common law as to the jurisdiction it claimed to exercise.
On the criminal side, the difficulty of securing a conviction under civil law for offences committed on the high seas was reduced by the Offences at Sea Acts 1535-1536. These provided for jury trial at the common law under a commission directed to the Lord High Admiral or his deputy and to three or four other substantial persons appointed by the Lord Chancellor. As a result of this the criminal jurisdiction of the Lord High Admiral passed to the Session of Oyer and Terminer and Gaol Delivery for the Admiralty of England.
When the work of the Admiralty Sessions passed to the Central Criminal Court in 1834, the ancient jurisdiction of the Lord High Admiral in criminal cases on the high seas was recognised by the inclusion of the Admiralty judge in the commission of oyer and terminer and gaol delivery for the new court.
Soon after the Restoration in 1660 the civil or ordinary business of the High Court of Admiralty was taken separately from that relating to prize, with an Instance Court distinct from the Prize Court. The wars of the 18th century resulted in much increased Prize Court business; from the turn of the century, and particularly while Lord Stowell was judge from 1798 to 1828, the court's decisions were of authoritative importance in the development of prize law.
Admiralty Court Acts of 1840 and 1861 enlarged the jurisdiction of the court to enable it to deal with the growing volume of litigation in shipping, salvage and collision cases. Following the Admiralty Court Act 1859 the court was opened to the barristers and solicitors of the common law courts, removing the monopoly of the civil lawyers of the College of Advocates of Doctors' Commons, acting as advocates and proctors in probate and matrimonial as well as Admiralty causes, and from which had sprung the Advocate General, the Procurator General and the Admiralty Advocate General. When the Supreme Court of Judicature was set up in 1875 the former common link with the civil law was reflected in the creation of a Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court of Justice which absorbed the jurisdiction of the High Court of Admiralty. One effect of this was to sever the centuries-old connection between the High Court of Admiralty and the Lord High Admiral or the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, ending the latter's administrative supervision which thereafter became the responsibility of the President of the new Division, and of the Lord Chancellor.
The administrative work of the court was undertaken in the Admiralty Registry under the control of the Registrar, who also exercised important duties in relation to interlocutory applications, assessment of damages in cases referred to him by the court for report, taxation of costs, etc. From the second half of the 19th century he was also at various times adviser to the Treasury on questions arising out of the suppression of the slave trade for which he was separately remunerated.
Until 1904 he was also Registrar to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in ecclesiastical and maritime causes, a post he had previously held in the High Court of Delegates and the High Court of Appeals for Prizes. Another important officer of the court was the Marshal whose principal duty was the arrest of ships and cargoes, as well as their custody and, if condemned, their appraisement and sale. Initially, these latter duties applied to instance cases only but from the early 19th century they included prize cases.
Admiralty jurisdiction was also exercised by Vice-Admiralty courts in the maritime counties of England and Wales and in the overseas dominions of the Crown. A similar jurisdiction was also exercised by county courts and certain other inferior courts as a result of 19th century legislation.
From the earliest times appeals from the Admiralty Instance Court were made to the King in Chancery who appointed judges delegate to hear them. From 1535 this appellate jurisdiction was exercised by the High Court of Delegates. Appeals in prize causes were heard by a Commission of Appeals in Prize also known as the High Court of Appeals for Prizes.
In 1833 the jurisdiction of the High Court of Delegates was transferred to the King in Council under the Privy Council Appeals Act 1832 and, later in the same year, to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council under the Judicial Committee Act 1833. The jurisdiction of the High Court of Appeals for Prizes also passed to the Judicial Committee under the latter Act.