Catalogue description Records created, acquired, and inherited by Chancery, and also of the Wardrobe, Royal Household, Exchequer and various commissions

Details of C
Reference: C
Title: Records created, acquired, and inherited by Chancery, and also of the Wardrobe, Royal Household, Exchequer and various commissions

The records are predominantly those of Chancery as the central legal administration of the Crown, and of the court of Chancery as a court of equity and as a common law court.

Also included, however, are many records acquired by Chancery in the course of its official business (either records deposited in Chancery as a government registry, or lodged as exhibits in lawsuits) which were not themselves Chancery records.

A few series consist wholly or partly of records of the Supreme Court of Judicature, the Privy Seal Office, and the Lord Chancellor's Department.

The following series numbers have not been used: C 19-20, C 87, C 130, C 155-170, C 174-180, and C 198-200.

Date: 1085-2004
Held by: The National Archives, Kew
Legal status: Public Record(s)
Language: English

Chancery, 1066-1875

Exchequer, 1109-1880

Physical description: 281 series
Closure status: Open Document, Open Description
Access conditions: Open unless otherwise stated
Immediate source of acquisition:

Chancery and its successor courts and departments.

Administrative / biographical background:

The origins of Chancery

Chancery had its origins as the secretariat of the emerging English state. Before the Norman Conquest, the kings of England had little permanent bureaucracy. Much of the written business of central government, in particular the writing out of grants of lands and privileges, was carried out by ecclesiastical scribes who were either members of the recipient institution or simply clerks conveniently to hand for the itinerant royal court.

By the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), however, a nucleus of clerics attached to the chapel of the royal household, and perhaps under the supervision of a chancellor in all but name, acted as a central secretariat for royal administration. From the Norman Conquest onwards (possibly from as early as 1066), the office of chancellor and the existence of a permanent chancery are clearly established.

The functions of such a department at that date were limited, and centred on three points:

  • The king had a small permanent clerical staff to deal with his written instructions (writs) and grants (charters);
  • Royal writs and charters were authenticated with a royal seal, subsequently known as the great seal;
  • A senior royal clerk or chancellor had custody of this authenticating seal.

The character and scale of the chancery reflected the development of the centralised bureaucratic state; from a handful of clergy working within the peripatetic royal household, Chancery developed rapidly into the principal non-financial department of state, and, by virtue of the authority and trust required of the custodian of the great seal, the chancellor was the king's principal administrative officer.

As central government expanded its role, the intimate connection with the royal household gradually became impracticable (although the Tower of London remained an important repository for its records), and Chancery became institutionally settled in Westminster; as a court its sessions were held in Westminster Hall, while its administrative sites included (from 1377) the former Domus Conversorum in what became Chancery Lane and (from 1393) an office in the White Hall.

The development of Chancery

Although Chancery's functions, throughout its history, derived logically from its origins as the king's formal writing-office, they developed into several separate categories which went far beyond those origins.

  • The role as the formal writing-office persisted, and by the late twelfth century Chancery kept meticulous and voluminous records of almost all the Crown's grants, appointments, and official pronouncements.
  • As the source of the king's formal instructions, Chancery originated orders to the king's officers, and more especially to the king's courts, to transact business on behalf of his subjects. Consequently, in the course of the thirteenth century, access to the king's courts for the purposes of private litigation came to depend mainly on obtaining an original writ from Chancery.
  • From the reign of Henry III onwards, Chancery provided the secretariat and record-keeping functions for the king's council, and subsequently for Parliament when that institution emerged.
  • As the king's chief administrator and the head of the council's secretariat, the chancellor became the official route through whom petitions to the king were addressed; and, by an often obscure process of delegation, Chancery acquired a distinct role as a court of equity, in which the chancellor (or judges under him) dispensed justice in cases which were (allegedly) not amenable to litigation in the courts of common law. From the late fourteenth century until Chancery's assimilation into the Supreme Court of Judicature in 1875 this function as a court of equity provided the overwhelming bulk of Chancery's business, latterly (from 1841) subsuming the Exchequer's equity business as well.
  • In common with the other central courts, Chancery maintained, certainly from the early fourteenth century onwards, the right to exercise common law jurisdiction over its officers and others (including equity litigants) falling within its immediate purview.
  • As a department of state which kept its own very extensive records, Chancery became, too, an official repository or legal registry where particular types of record from other sources might be deposited for safe-keeping or reference.

Despite their distinctive characteristics, these functions were in many cases carried out by overlapping groups of staff within Chancery.

The decline of Chancery

Although other departments and courts, notably the offices of the secretaries of state and their State Paper Office, came into being over the centuries, Chancery maintained most of its principal and distinctive functions (except its parliamentary office, which had become detached in the early sixteenth century) until the nineteenth century. By then, many of its procedures, traditions and offices had become proverbial for bureaucratic obfuscation and judicial procrastination, and after drastic tinkering its main useful functions were redistributed.

In 1875, under the Supreme Court of Judicature Act of 1873, its judicial functions were absorbed into the new Supreme Court of Judicature. The common law business went to the King's Bench and Common Pleas Divisions, with the equity side going to the Chancery Division. The residual functions, connected primarily with the surviving procedures involving the great seal, remained with the lord chancellor, and in 1885 the office of clerk of the Crown in Chancery was united with that of permanent secretary in the Lord Chancellor's Office.

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