Posted by 20 January, 2015

The courts of chancery and King's Bench were central courts associated with the king of England's administration. They had the power act as courts of appeal and overturn the decisions of lower courts, and were in theory open to the king's subjects of Ireland, but the cost and distance associated with pleading there would have discouraged many from making the trip to plead. Additionally, doubts about the remit of these courts in Irish matters were expressed from the 14th century on, and this may have discouraged potential litigants from the colony further.

For example, in the court of chancery in 1445-54, Michael Gryffyn, who was defending himself from a plea of John Cornwalshe about the confiscation of certain properties, raised this issue of the court's jurisdiction over the colony. He alleged that that John had stated that ''the land of the Irland ys departed fro the rewme of Ingeland and under the ligiaunce and obedyens of the kyng of Ingeland', and that all of the king's people there are to be governed, ruled and impleaded by the laws and customs of the land which have pertained from time immemorial' (C 1/13/228; Smith and Dryburgh, pp 125-6). His argument sought to use John's own words to call into question his right to plead in England. Several decades earlier, officials in Drogheda contended with Janico Dartas about the application of English statutes in Ireland: clearly, there was some question about the relationship between courts and laws in England and the colony in Ireland.

This uncertainty about Ireland's place in the legal system, which is apparent in a number of documents from this period, did not stop Irish subjects from occasionally bringing cases. Women were able to plead in both courts, usually alongside their husbands or as widows; therefore, it is possible that Irish women could have appealed to either court. Evidence of this, however, is difficult to find.

C 1 records the bills of complaint sent to chancellors as the heads of the court of chancery, which was an equity court, and as such, able to make judgements that were not available to common law courts. The court of chancery was particularly attractive to female litigants, and there are high numbers of English female plaintiffs, including many women acting alongside their husbands, as well as widows and single women. It is clear that many men chose their wives as their executors, and it is in this capacity that many of the women appear before the court.


The Irish material in C 1 has been extracted by Brendan Smith and Paul Dryburgh up to the year 1485, and there are only two women with Irish lands involved in chancery cases. From 1485-1500 there is an index of bills of complaint recording the names of both defendants and complainants as well as the issue at dispute. Only three complaints of many thousands address disputes began in Ireland, but Irish bishops and Irish migrants to England appear in other cases dealing with disputes that arose while they were travelling through or living in England. None of the plaintiffs or defendants in cases from 1485-1500 with a strong Irish connection are female, but an examination of the original bills may reveal the involvement of women in the Irish cases.

KB 27 records the crown side records of the court of king's bench. King's bench was the highest criminal court and was used as a court of appeal. The material of Irish interest from 1300-1377 has been identified and recorded in NLI Special List 57, but after this period, searching becomes difficult. There is no modern index to KB 27, and the only aid to searching the masses of KB material is the contemporary Docket Rolls, which record the county and persons involved in each case for each of the three terms of every legal year.


An examination of the earliest series of docket rolls, covering the years from 1390-1399 and 1413-1422, did not yield any Irish entries. The search was complicated by the poor state of many of the right hand margins where counties are recorded and the uncertainty surrounding the abbreviations that would be used to signal Irish counties (would it be the county abbreviations used within Ireland, like Limer' (Limerick), Mid' (Meath), and Typar' (Tipperary), or would the margin simply state Hib' or Hib'n (Ireland), as seen in other English administrative documents? I looked for both, or all possibilities, but Hibn' seems to be the abbreviation used.


The archivists at the National Archives at Kew suggest that it will be unlikely to find any Irish material using the Docket rolls, and it is very unlikely that there are many Irish cases, particularly by the fifteenth century. The selected published cases from the court of King's Bench contain almost no Irish material. The entirety of KB 27 is digitised, but the volume of material makes it unfeasible to trawl through it chronologically. Sampling years in a set pattern (every ten years perhaps) would make the material of manageable size, but would greatly lessen the chances of finding any Irish material, which is so rare. Is it best then, to leave KB altogether? If we are to get a good understand of the range of judicial options open to women living in the English colony in Ireland, we cannot omit these English courts to which they had a right to appeal.


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