The Earldom of Chester was created by William the Conqueror in 1071 as a buffer state against the Welsh. By the time of Earl Ranulf de Blundeville (c 1181-1232) distinctive institutions had begun to emerge which set the county of Chester apart from other English shires. There seems to have been an embryo Chancery and Exchequer, a Justice who was the equivalent of the king's Justiciar and a chief clerk corresponding to the king's Chancellor.
The county appears to have enjoyed a great measure of fiscal independence. The earls had important judicial powers including 'pleas of the sword', perhaps modelled on pleas of the crown. When in 1215 King John was compelled to grant the Magna Carta, the inhabitants of Chester negotiated with Earl Ranulf for their own corresponding charter of liberties.
The deaths of Ranulf in 1232 and of John 'le Scot' in 1237, leaving Chester with no male heir, enabled Henry III to take over the earldom. Henceforth, Cheshire was controlled by the king or one of his family. Despite its subordination to the crown, its own institutions were consolidated and developed.
The term 'palatinate' was used to describe Cheshire from the late thirteenth century onwards. It implied an area where the earl or bishop exercised jura regalia, that is the administrative and judicial rights exercised elsewhere by the crown.
In 1301 Edward I created Edward of Carnarvon, his son, Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester. Subsequently the title of Earl of Chester was normally granted to the king's heir. When there was no earl, the palatinate was administered in the king's name.
The palatine institutions grew and flourished during the later Middle Ages. The Exchequer of Chester was both a financial office and a court, and performed secretarial duties for the palatine administration as well. The County Court dealt with both civil and criminal cases, and could review the decisions of lesser local courts. Its procedures set it apart from its equivalents in other shires although the law it administered was broadly that of the kingdom at large.
The palatine administration was headed by the Justice, who was the immediate deputy of the king or earl. In 1308 he was said to hold royal authority in the region, and he and his subordinates were responsible for the administrative and judicial affairs of Cheshire.
The Justice's responsibility for palatine finances was delegated to the Chamberlain, the leading official of the Chester Exchequer. The Chamberlain also supervised the secretarial functions of the Exchequer and received many of the kinds of writs which elsewhere would have gone to sheriffs.
Although the distinctive institutions of the Palatinate of Chester set it apart from the rest of the kingdom, it was never free from outside interference. Its judicial franchises were investigated twice in the Middle Ages, and sessions of the County Court were sometimes supplemented by special commissions held by the earl or king. From the late fifteenth century, moreover, Cheshire gradually came to be associated with Wales and the marches in commissions of the peace and of oyer and terminer. The later years of Henry VIII's reign, when the administration of Wales was reorganised, saw further modifications in the palatinate as well.
In 1536 JPs were introduced into Cheshire and Flintshire, and it was also enacted that writs in counties palatine should run in the king's name alone. In 1540-1541 sessions of the County Court were restricted from eight or nine to two each year, and a new sheriff's court was set up to hear minor pleas. The justice was given extensive responsibilities in north Wales as well as in the palatinate in 1543, when he was empowered to hold twice-yearly sessions in Denbighshire and Montgomeryshire as well as in Cheshire and Flintshire. Cheshire paid parliamentary subsidies for the first time in 1540 and shortly afterwards was given representation in Parliament.
The 'reforms' of the 1530s and 1540s removed many of the palatinate's most original features, but it retained its distinctive institutions into the nineteenth century. Most important of these were the Exchequer of Chester and the Court of Great Sessions, which between them claimed almost exclusive jurisdiction in the county, except in a few specific cases such as treason. While the Exchequer's financial functions were gradually eroded during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, its judicial and secretarial work flourished.
The functioning of the palatine institutions was interrupted during the Interregnum (1642-1660), and subsequently their decline was marked. In 1816 it was reported that the Exchequer had ceased to operate altogether.
By the Law Terms Act 1830 the entire judicial system of Wales was reorganised. The Courts of Great Sessions and the Chester Court, with its close links to the Welsh judicial system, were abolished. An assize circuit consisting of the counties of Chester, Flint, Montgomery, Merioneth, Carnarvon, Anglesey and Denbigh was constituted. The Exchequer of Chester which had fallen into disuse was also abolished.