- The Church of England Courts
- Hierarchy of the Oxfordshire courts
The Church of England Courts
Records in this collection
The consistory and archdeaconry probate records
The earlier probate records of the consistory and archdeaconry courts are described in the introduction to BRS vol. 85. As stated there there is only one series of registers of wills for the earliest period up to 1650 and it is often difficult to decide whether a particular probate is a consistory or an archidiaconal act. The records are incomplete for the earlier Restoration period, but thereafter there are two separate series of registers of wills for the consistory and archdeaconry courts beginning in 1677 and 1678 respectively, and both continuing to 1857 without any obvious gaps. The earliest grants of administration of goods of persons dying intestate are included in the registers of wills to 1603. For the rest of the period of the earlier index, that is to 1732, there is a single series of administration act books recording grants made by both courts. For the whole period of this index there are two separate series of these act books, for the bishop’s and the archdeacon’s courts, both continuous from 1733 to 1857 (MSS.Wills Oxon. 108-109; 110-112).
The loose wills and administration bonds from which these registers and act books were written up were evidently always filed in four separate series of consistory and archdeaconry wills and bonds, and all four series begin in the sixteenth century. Each series is arranged under the initial letter of the deceased person’s surname and only chronologically within each letter of the alphabet, and those transferred from Somerset House in 1955 (MSS.Wills Oxon. 1-89; 113-177) extend to 1800. The wills and bonds of 1801 to 1857 (MSS.Wills Oxon. 228-288) are continuations of these four classes, arranged in the same way. By contrast with the earlier period when many probate inventories and some administrators’ accounts are filed with these wills and bonds, there are very few other types of document included in any of these four series for the period 1733 to 1800. From 1800 onwards, however, there is usually an affidavit sworn by the executor or administrator with the will or bond. This occasionally gives additional information such as the occupation of the deceased when, unusually, that information is not also found in the will or bond itself. There is only one very small obvious gap in any of these four series of wills and bonds from the 1670’s onwards. There are now no loose archdeaconry wills for persons with surnames beginning with Q for the period 1801 to 1857 although there are copies of six such wills in the registers. A small bundle for Q evidently went astray before the wills reached the Bodleian Library.
In addition to these four main series the loose documents transferred from the Principal Probate Registry include six boxes of miscellaneous probate records of all types for the period 1733 to 1849 (MSS.Wills Oxon. 301-306). These are mainly records of the archdeacon’s court and include renunciations of the office of executor or administrator, commissions to swear executors or administrators, warrants authorising grants of administration, citations requiring relatives to bring wills into court or take out grants of administration, court papers from testamentary causes, and a few unproved wills. Although there are almost no probate inventories later than 1710 in the four main series of wills and bonds this miscellaneous collection also includes inventories of the middle decades of the eighteenth century, from the 1730’s to the 1760’s.
There are also similar loose miscellaneous probate documents among Oxford diocesan and archdeaconry records which were evidently overlooked when all the collections mentioned above were transferred to the Principal Probate Registry in 1858. Most of these ‘strays’ among the diocesan records are earlier than 1732; 1 the few later ones indexed here are mainly inventories, renunciations, and appointments of proxies often to establish a title to property left unadministered for a long time (MSS.Oxf. dioc. papers b.26, c.2087, c.150). Similar archdeaconry ‘strays’ on the other hand are almost all later than 1732, and so all indexed here. These archidiaconal miscellanea were collected together and arranged alphabetically by the name of the deceased person, and then bound up to form twelve volumes soon after the Oxford archdeaconry records were transferred to the Bodleian Library in 1878 (MSS.Archd. papers Oxon. b.28-39).2 These volumes include many eighteenth century warrants authorising grants of administration, and some examples of each of the other types of probate document mentioned above.
Although there is only the one very small obvious gap in the survival of these consistory and archdeaconry records they are deficient in many ways for the period of 1733 to about 1768, and these deficiencies occur mainly in the records now classed as archidiaconal. There are numerous wills of this period which appear never to have been formally proved; there is no record of probate on either the filed will or in the register, and so only the date of writing of the will can be given here. There are three registers of consistory wills forming a reasonably continuous record of probate in that court from 1733 to 1768 (MSS.Wills Oxon. 95-97). There are in all six registers of archdeaconry wills covering this period (MSS.Wills Oxon. 210-215). All of these overlap in date with each other and in none of them are the wills written throughout in continuous chronological order of probate. One large volume of 534 pages (MS.Wills Oxon. 213) is written in one hand throughout and most of it comprises blocks of wills of varying dates for persons with surnames of the same initial. Thus the first 50 pages contain wills for persons with surnames beginning with G, and pages 149-207, 250-261 contain only wills for persons with surnames beginning with H. Much of MS.Wills Oxon. 211 is similarly arranged but with shorter runs of the same letter of the alphabet and written in more than one hand. Many of the wills with no record of probate are registered in these two volumes. It would seem that some loose wills can only have been collected up and entered in these two registers many years after they were first brought into the registry.
In this period, too, there are examples of loose wills surviving which were not registered and of larger numbers registered more than once, sometimes twice in the archdeaconry series of registers, sometimes in both the consistory and archdeaconry series. Similarly there are some administration bonds for persons for whom no grant of administration is recorded in the act books, others for whom grants are recorded twice and some records of grants for persons for whom no bond has survived. All these defects are particularly common in the 1730’s but further examples occur often up to about 1768, but only very rarely indeed before or after this period. New registers of both consistory and archdeaconry wills begin in 1769 and from that date both series are straightforward and complete records of probate in chronological order as they had been before 1733.
Long standing disputes about the limits of the archdeacon’s jurisdiction had led to an inconclusive lawsuit of 1735-37, and it has recently been shown that the two courts continued to compete for business, and therefore, of course, fees, and to question each other’s authority, at least throughout the episcopate of Bishop Thomas Secker (1737-1758). 3 The central point of dispute, whether the annual Easter visitation should be conducted by the Bishop’s chancellor or the archdeacon was only finally resolved in favour of the archdeacon in 1782. It seems very likely that this unsatisfactory record keeping was connected with this competition for business.
Herbert Beaver and John Stewart, the lawyers acting as registrars for the two courts and the principal contenders, were both in office for most of this period. Herbert Beaver was the deputy diocesan registrar from 1736 until his death in 1768.4 John Stewart was working for the archdeacon’s court from at least March 1737 until his death in 1762. 5 But Stewart’s employer, John Potter, Archdeacon of Oxford from 1741 to 1767, was also the diocesan registrar, having been appointed to that office as a sinecure during the episcopate of his father and namesake, John Potter, Bishop of Oxford from 1717 to 1737. Stewart as Potter’s officer could therefore also act as deputy diocesan registrar, and was actually described as deputy diocesan rather than archidiaconal registrar by the writer of his obituary in Jackson’s Oxford Journal. With this dual role Stewart may have been well placed to divert business and fees to the archdeacon’s court. Beaver writing to Bishop Secker in 1753 about a complaint from Stewart warned the bishop of ‘piratical proceedings’ by ‘persons who are not quite upright in their dealings’. 6
The proportions of probate business dealt with by the two courts was certainly changing during this period, more of it now going to the archdeacon’s court. The alphabetical filing of the wills and bonds makes it difficult to compare precisely the quantity of documents which have survived for the two courts for different periods. It was however noted in the introduction to the earlier volumes that over the whole period they cover there are noticeably more documents filed as ‘consistory’ than as ‘archdeaconry’. It is equally noticeable that for the period of this index there are more archdeaconry than consistory documents, and by the end of this period, from 1801 to 1857, there are at least three times as many archdeaconry wills and bonds as consistory.
The probate records of the peculiar jurisdictions
The areas of Oxford archdeaconry exempt from the jurisdiction of the bishop and archdeacon are shown on this map kindly provided by Jeremy Gibson. The largest areas exempt in this way were the groups of parishes known as the Lincoln peculiars where visitations and courts were held in the name of the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln cathedral. In the north of the county were the Lincoln peculiars of Banbury, Cropredy (including the chapelries of Bourton (Great and Little), Claydon, Mollington and Wardington), Horley and Hornton, and, adjacent but in Northamptonshire, King’s Sutton. These four were always very closely connected with each other and are sometimes described just as one peculiar, that of Banbury; they are henceforth referred to in that abbreviated form here. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the wills of some residents of the adjacent Northamptonshire parish of Warkworth were also proved in the Banbury peculiar court, although there is no evidence of the Dean and Chapter’s jurisdiction extending to this parish for any other purpose. In the south-east of the county were the Lincoln peculiars of Thame (including Sydenham and Tetsworth, and Towersey in Buckinghamshire until 1939) and Great Milton, the two again sometimes known just as Thame peculiar.
Dorchester peculiar was another large area south of Oxford comprising in addition to Dorchester itself the parishes of Marsh and Toot Baldon, Benson, Chislehampton, Clifton Hampden, Drayton St. Leonard, Stadhampton, Warborough and, detached from the rest, Nettlebed and Pishill. These had all been subject to Dorchester Abbey, and after the dissolution this jurisdiction passed into lay hands belonging to the Fettiplace family of Swinbrook from 1578 to 1808.7 A peculiar court for the parish of Langford with its chapelry of Little Faringdon, partly in Oxfordshire and partly in Berkshire until 1844, was held in the name of the prebendary of Lincoln cathedral who occupied that stall.
The parish of Newington with the chapelry of Britwell Prior was a peculiar of the Archbishop of Canterbury and seems always to have been administered with the larger Canterbury peculiar of Monks Risborough some fifteen miles away in Buckinghamshire, and so has usually been regarded as part of that Archbishop’s peculiar.8 The hamlets of Sibford Gower and Sibford Ferris in the parish of Swalcliffe were not exempt from the jurisdiction of the bishop and archdeacon for any other purpose, but at least some of the residents there proved their wills in the court of the lord of the manor, not in any ecclesiastical court. For the whole period of the surviving Sibford probate records these lords of the manor were the Sheldon family of Beoley, Worcs. and Weston, Warwicks.9
The officials presiding over courts for all these peculiars (except Sibford), the surrogates deputising for them and the registrars keeping their records were usually the same men as were employed in the courts of the bishop and archdeacon of Oxford, or sometimes in the courts of the adjacent archdeaconries of Berkshire and Buckingham. They were also sometimes employed in other courts held for other peculiars in adjacent counties. There were no separate fixed registries for these peculiars and so the surviving records of each of them, including all the probate records indexed here (again except those for Sibford) originally accumulated in more than one ecclesiastical lawyer’s office. Even within an individual registry they will often not have been kept entirely separate from each other, nor from the diocesan or archdeaconry records. From about 1780 the same lawyer, Andrew Walsh, was registrar of both Oxford and Berkshire archdeaconries with an office in St. Giles, Oxford, and the two archdeacons’ officials continued to share one office and registrar in Oxford until the late nineteenth century.10
Many of these probate records for Oxfordshire peculiars will have been transferred to the Principal Probate Registry in 1858 from either the Oxford diocesan registry or from this joint registry for Oxford and Berkshire archdeaconries, but others will have gone there from the Buckingham archdeaconry registry in Aylesbury. At Somerset House all the probate records which had been transferred there for all Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire peculiars, and small quantities for Bibury, Glos. and Leighton Buzzard, Beds., were brought together and indexed by Ernest Cheyne. He classified them as eleven separate jurisdictions 11 but listed them all in one volume in a single alphabetical sequence of surnames. In 1957 this index with all the records listed in it was transferred to the Bodleian Library which by that date housed all the surviving non-probate records of all the Oxfordshire peculiars, most of those of Buckinghamshire peculiars and some of those of Berkshire.12 As stated above all the records of the Oxfordshire peculiars, probate and non-probate, were transferred to the Oxfordshire Record Office in 1984 and this index was transferred there at the same time.13
Most of the earliest surviving probate records of the Oxfordshire peculiars are not however to be found in these records arranged and indexed by Cheyne. As stated in the introduction to the earlier consistory and archdeaconry index the single series of registers for both those courts to 1650 include some wills proved and administrations granted in the peculiar courts,14 and these of course are listed in that index. Nearly all of them are for the Lincoln peculiars, Banbury and Thame, for the period c.1550 to 1570 or for Dorchester peculiar from about 1555 to 1610. There are also just a very few wills and administrations for Langford and Newington peculiars registered in those volumes.
Only two slim volumes registering wills for any of the Oxfordshire courts separately have survived for any period earlier that 1736, and both of these volumes include material for peculiars of adjacent counties not indexed here. The first volume referred to as ‘Blunt’ in Cheyne’s index contains records of wills proved and administrations granted for Banbury and Cropredy peculiars from 1585 to 1596, copies of just five wills for the Gloucestershire peculiar of Bibury of 1591 to 1593, and of a single one of 1590 for Langford. The second volume referred to as ‘Wode’ in Cheyne’s index contains another contemporary copy of some of these items in ‘Blunt’, and records of wills and grants of administration for the Oxfordshire peculiars of Banbury, Dorchester, Langford and Thame, and for Faringdon, Berks. and Monks Risborough, Bucks. peculiars, all registered in one chronological sequence for years between 1698 and 1733. This is however only a record of a very small part of the probate business of all these courts in this period; many loose wills and bonds survive from these decades for all these peculiars which are not recorded in this volume.
The entries in ‘Wode’ are the only registered copies of Dorchester and Langford wills which have survived. For the Lincoln peculiars of Banbury and Thame however there are nine later volumes (referred to as volumes J-R in Cheyne’s index) containing in one chronological sequence copies of wills proved in those courts from 1736 to 1858 with no obvious gaps in the registration. All these volumes also include in the same sequence wills proved in the Lincoln peculiar of Bierton, Bucks., and the last volume also includes wills for Aylesbury and Buckingham peculiars, that is just for the years 1851 to 1858. This Buckinghamshire material is not indexed here. Regular records of grants of administration for the Lincoln peculiars begin earlier than these registers of wills. There is an act book recording in one chronological sequence grants made in the Oxfordshire peculiar courts of Banbury and Thame and the Buckinghamshire courts of Aylesbury, Bierton, Buckingham and Monks Risborough from 1674 to 1856. This volume (Cheyne’s ‘Act Bk.’) is however entirely in nineteenth century hands on paper watermarked 1819 and so will have been written up, probably from the loose administration bonds, long after many of the grants were made. The only other volumes for the peculiars indexed here are two containing records of wills proved and a few administrations granted in Sibford manor court from 1733 to 1829 (referred to by Cheyne as Sibford Bks. 1-2). Up to 1808 these two volumes also contain copies of probate inventories for most of the Sibford persons concerned.
For all the Oxfordshire peculiars except Sibford loose wills and administration bonds have survived over a longer period than that covered by these volumes. Much the largest collection of loose documents is that for the Lincoln peculiars of Banbury and Thame and Bierton, Bucks. Up to 1800 wills and bonds accumulated by these courts are filed together, and they are now arranged (like the consistory and archdeaconry series) under the initial letter of the deceased person’s surname and only chronologically within each letter of the alphabet (MSS.Wills peculiars 32-56). The latest documents, that is those for the years 1801 to 1856, which were housed in the Oxford District Probate Registry, not at the Principal Probate Registry, are filed differently, in two separate chronological series of wills and bonds (MSS.Wills peculiars 57-61).
This collection begins with just one Thame bond of 1547, a very few wills and bonds of the 1550’s, and a larger number of wills and bonds, with some inventories, of the 1570’s. For the years 1581 to 1585 almost all the probate records of these Lincoln peculiars are now lost. Within those years there are only four surviving wills and/or inventories of 1582-3, two for residents in Cropredy peculiar, one for Bierton, Bucks. and one where the place of residence and the court are not specified. A continuous series of wills, bonds and inventories begins in 1586 and thereafter there do not appear to be any years entirely missing except for the Commonwealth period. There is, however, another big gap in the sixteenth century records. There are no surviving loose probate documents at all for Thame peculiar before 1601 except the bond of 1547 mentioned above, another of 1555, a single will of 1598 and an inventory and administrator’s account also of 1598 for a different person. This loss is surprising because some non-probate records of the Thame peculiar court have survived among the Oxford diocesan records for the Elizabethan period whereas there are now no such non-probate records for Banbury peculiar earlier than churchwardens’ presentments beginning in 1605. There are acts of regular monthly sessions of the Thame peculiar court in 1584-5 and 1587-90, and the official of the peculiar was holding visitations (at which wills would have been proved) twice a year at that time.15
There is one little group of wills of these Lincoln peculiars which were evidently left lying about but were not lost for ever. The volumes made up of ‘strayed’ archdeaconry probate records which were never transferred to the Principal Probate Registry are described above.16 One of these volumes includes nine wills proved in the peculiar courts of Banbury, Cropredy and Thame between 1662 and 1674, all for persons with surnames beginning with the letter R (MS.Archd. papers Oxon. b.36). No other documents connected with these nine wills such as inventories have survived elsewhere.
More probate inventories and administrators’ accounts are included with these wills and bonds of the Lincoln peculiars in proportion to the persons concerned than with the consistory and archdeaconry series. In particular there are many more sixteenth century inventories for residents in Banbury peculiar than elsewhere in the county, though only the single one of 1598 for Thame. This contrast was pointed out by M.A. Havinden who edited all the Oxfordshire inventories to 1590 found in both the consistory and archdeaconry and the peculiars records, but he did not explain that almost no probate documents of any kind have survived for Thame peculiar for that early period.17 All the surviving probate documents of 1590 to 1650 for residents in Banbury parish in this collection have been published by the Banbury Historical Society, edited by Jeremy Gibson.18 It is shown in that edition that not only do exceptionally large numbers of inventories continue to be exhibited up to 1640, but also wills were being proved and administrations granted for a larger proportion of the population than was usual, including many whose inventories show them to be persons of small means. More than a quarter of the inventories list goods totalling less than £5. As well as these exceptional records for the peculiar court, a surprisingly large number of wills of more substantial Banbury inhabitants were being proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury at this time.19 In this period, 1590-1640, churchwardens were regularly asked at visitations whether they knew of any wills not yet proved or of anyone administering ‘the goods of those that be dead, without lawful authority’, and sometimes they were just asked to present the names of all those who had died ‘possessed of any goods or chattels’ since the last visitation or since a named date.20 It is probably because the official of Banbury peculiar was actively pressing the churchwardens for such information and pursuing the offending executors (from whom of course he would demand fees) that we have such good probate records for Banbury at this time. Between 1610 and 1624 Banbury churchwardens presented the executors of no less than 136 named deceased persons,21 and most of the surviving Banbury wills, bonds and inventories of those years are for those persons. The wills are usually proved and inventories exhibited within a month of the presentment.
There are also numerous inventories for residents in all Lincoln peculiars not only throughout the remainder of the seventeenth century but also for the first four decades of the eighteenth century, although the main consistory and archdeaconry series include very few later than 1710. From 1736 onwards when the registers of these Lincoln peculiars wills begin the surviving records appear to be complete. Loose originals or copies of almost all the wills in the registers have survived and there are almost no surviving wills not registered. From 1736 the officials conducting all the business, probate and non-probate, of these Lincoln peculiars must also have been working in Buckingham archdeaconry and these records had evidently been preserved in Aylesbury until they were transferred to the Principal Probate Registry. Marriage bonds and bishop’s transcripts of parish registers are the main classes of non-probate records the peculiar courts were still accumulating by the middle of the eighteenth century. From 1736 all surviving marriage bonds for these Lincoln peculiars are found actually filed with those for Buckingham archdeaconry in a single series and are still at Aylesbury in the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies. Transcripts of parish registers for parishes in Banbury and Thame peculiars from 1736 to 1812 although now in Oxfordshire Record Office had first come to the Bodleian with the Buckingham archdeaconry records in 1914, not with Oxford diocesan or archdeaconry records.
Fortunately many loose wills and bonds have survived for Dorchester peculiar court in addition to the few of the early eighteenth century included in the register ‘Wode’. These are now arranged in the same way as the records of the Lincoln peculiars, that is wills and bonds for the period 1550 to 1800 are filed together arranged alphabetically under the initial letter of the deceased person’s surname (MSS.Wills peculiars 65-72), and the later records transferred from the Oxford District Probate Registry are filed chronologically in two series of wills and bonds (MS.Wills peculiars 73). The collection begins with three probate inventories of the 1550’s, the earliest will is one of 1576, and it becomes a reasonably continuous series of wills and bonds from the 1590’s onwards. It includes numerous seventeenth century probate inventories and some for the first three decades of the eighteenth century. The last visitation held by the official of Dorchester peculiar took place in 1836 22 and the wills transferred from the Oxford District Probate Registry only extend from 1801 to 1835 and the bonds to 1834.
The surviving loose documents for Langford peculiar (MS.Wills peculiars 78) are a much smaller collection than any of the above relating to a much smaller area. There are six inventories and one will of 1560 to 1576, and then a reasonably continuous series of wills and bonds, with some probate inventories, from 1607 to 1833. Unlike the Lincoln peculiars and Dorchester this is a single series for the whole period, all of the documents having been transferred from the Principal Probate Registry, and again they are arranged alphabetically under the initial letter of the deceased person’s surname. All but one of the sixteenth century inventories 23 are endorsed in a Principal Probate Registry hand ‘ex Court of Chancellor of Oxford’ so these were probably found among the University archives and sent to Somerset House when John Griffiths was compiling his index of University wills published in 1862. An even smaller collection of loose documents has survived for Sibford peculiar (MS.Wills peculiars 82), and this is the only peculiar for which registers extend over a rather longer period than the documents. The latter comprise just wills and inventories of 1752 to 1798 transferred from the Principal Probate Registry and wills of 1801 to 1821 tranferred from the Oxford District Probate Registry. No loose bonds related to the few grants of administration recorded in the register have survived and there are loose copies only of some of the inventories included in the registers, not of all of them. Not all Sibford wills were proved in this manorial court; there are numerous other wills and grants of administration for Sibford residents amongst the Oxford consistory and archdeaconry probate records, both in the earlier records to 1732 previously indexed and in those from 1733 onwards indexed here.
Newington is the only peculiar mentioned above whose records, probate and non-probate, are not now in Oxfordshire Record Office, and so it is the only ancient parish which has always been in Oxfordshire whose inhabitants’ wills proved locally are not indexed here. 24 Often regarded as part of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s peculiar of Monks Risborough, Bucks. most of its records cannot be physically separated from those of Monks Risborough and so all of them are now in the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, including wills and bonds of 1605 to 1853. For similar reasons the Buckinghamshire Lincoln peculiar of Bierton cannot be separated from the Oxfordshire Lincoln peculiars with which it was usually administered and so its probate records are still in Oxfordshire Record Office (although there are microfilm copies in the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies). An index of all Buckinghamshire local probate records to 1660 has been published by the British Record Society(vol.114) and the Buckinghamshire Record Society and includes Newington, Oxon. material at Aylesbury of that period and the Bierton, Bucks. material still at Oxford but which is not indexed here. We expect this BRS index to be online in the National Wills Index in early 2011.
Wantage peculiar probate records
The BRS indexes did not include the probate records for the Wantage peculiar (1582-1668) stored at the Oxfordshire Record Office, possibly because Wantage at that time was in Berkshire. These records are now included in the Oxfordshire wills index (and searchable either under County = Oxfordshire or County = Berkshire), which provides access to the digitised images of the original records.
There are 290 index records for Wantage peculiars, with 182 referring to people from Wantage itself, 65 from Grove, 22 from Charlton, 14 from West Locking. There are 188 wills, but 256 inventories. Occupations are given in 170 of the cases.
Note that there is a further peculiar covering the Wantage area, that of the Dean and Canons of Windsor in Wantage. These records are at the Wiltshire Record Office, and are indexed in British Record Society vol.122, Wills at Salisbury 1464-1858
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