‘… infra Insulam Elien …’: cataloguing the assize court records of the Isle of Ely

A project to catalogue the records of the Isle of Ely assize courts is now in its fourth month. The project is generously funded by the Cambridgeshire Family History Society and aims to produce a full catalogue of 218 years’ worth of assize records for the first time. The project has attracted attention in Cambridge and further afield. In June, the project launch was marked by an article by Alison Flood in the Guardian, which has now been shared over 1100 times, a radio interview and much interest on twitter. This blog-post provides the first of what we hope will be a series of regular updates on the project.

The assize records cover the period 1557-1775, with one stand-alone roll from 1515, and comprise nearly 60 boxes of material in total. 20 plea or session rolls have been examined in detail so far. This first tranche of rolls contains information relating to nearly 900 criminal and civil cases dealt with at the Ely and Wisbech assizes between 1574 and 1595. The cases encountered so far have ranged from petty larceny (the theft of goods valued under 12 pence) to the more serious theft of money and livestock as well as burglary, trespass, assault, rape, murder, infanticide, the practice of witchcraft, vagrancy, defamation, breach of promise and debt.

A typical box of assize rolls

These first 20 or so rolls contain somewhere in the region of 2000 names of individuals – plaintiffs, defendants, attorneys, victims, judges – often with an accompanying place of abode and occupation or condition. Alongside the ubiquitous labourers, husbandmen, yeomen and spinsters, the following occupations have been noted:

a fishmonger of Ely; a bow-string maker of Sutton;
a thatcher of Chatteris; a pewterer of Huntingdon;
a baker of Wisbech; a glover of Whittlesey;
a horse-leech of Peterborough; a shearman of Cambridge;
a butcher of Newton; a beer brewer of Wisbech
a basket-maker of Aldreth; a woollen draper of Huntingdon
a bricklayer of Haddenham;an inn-holder of Ely
a maltster of Ely; a cordwainer of Wisbech

The geographical concentration of individuals who appear in the records is, as expected, largely confined to the historical Isle of Ely, an area now forming part of northeast Cambridgeshire. It has been interesting, though, to note the presence of some individuals in the records from surrounding counties, particularly Norfolk and Suffolk, but also from further afield including London, Gloucestershire and Somerset.

Only a small number of names encountered so far have been instantly recognisable. Richard Cox, Bishop of Ely (1559-81), Roger North, Justice of the Peace for the Isle of Ely from 1576, and Humphrey Tyndall, Dean of Ely Cathedral (1591-1614), have appeared as plaintiffs and Andrew Perne, Master of Peterhouse and Dean of Ely Cathedral (1557-1589), has appeared in connection with disputes over land holdings in Haddenham. For the bulk of the names recorded in the assize rolls, it seems likely that these individuals will have left no other surviving record beyond parish records of baptism, marriage and burial. In this sense, the assizes provide a small glimpse into everyday life that would otherwise be largely obscured.

Elizabeth Tyllingham of Ely, a witch of men as well as of beasts, 1595: one of six cases of alleged witchcraft encountered so far

In addition to the formal recording of proceedings of criminal and civil cases, the assize rolls document a number of related legal procedures. The rolls contain regular lists of names of attorneys (a form of warrants of attorney), records of prisoners granted bail, occasional memoranda, bonds obliging individuals to appear in court and records of fees paid for licences to agree.

There is every indication from this initial sample of rolls that the assize records will be a real treasure-trove for family and local historians. Watch this space for further updates on the project’s progress.

One comment

  • Geoffrey Homewood

    Good evening my name is Geoffrey Homewood, I’m trying to locate a possible recording of the father to my Great Great Grandmother. Her mother was Alice Benson of Coates Whittlesey and was wondering if there was any court record stating any payment for her to give birth at the Northampton union work house. I was told by the record office as she was not from Northampton some one would have had to pay for her to be in there and this maybe have been the parish she was from.

    Hope you are able to help in directing me in the right direction.

    Kind regards


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