Manuscripts and Special Collections

Introduction to Libels (Cause Papers)

The 'Libels' series within the Archdeaconry of Nottingham contains cause papers. This is the legal paperwork produced during Instance, promoted Office and some Correction causes heard in the Archdeaconry of Nottingham's consistory court. There is more information about the areas of responsibility of the Archdeaconry court in the page about the History and Procedure of the Archdeaconry in this web resource.

The Archdeaconry of Nottingham was unusual in the diocese of York for having its own consistory court. Nevertheless, not all causes were heard at Nottingham. Nottingham tended to deal with simple causes, while more complex or important causes were heard at the consistory court in York. Some causes were also begun in Nottingham, and passed up to York once the local evidence had been collected. Appeals were always heard in York, as were all testamentary causes except simple non-payment of legacies.

The consistory court kept legal terms, and during these terms usually sat every two or three weeks. The Official was the judge of the court. Causes were introduced and argued by proctors - ecclesiastical lawyers. At any given time, only about two or three proctors took on the majority of causes coming before the Archdeaconry court.

Causes heard in the court were argued by the means of written plenary pleadings, producing a mass of documents known collectively in the archive of the Archdeaconry of Nottingham as Libels (AN/LB). In fact, a libel was only one of a variety of documents which could be produced in the course of a cause: 

  • The formal process began by the issuing of a libel - a preliminary paper setting out the case of the plaintiff, with all the relevant facts 'propounded' in clear numbered paragraphs. In Correction and promoted Office causes, the paper was called the articles.
  • The person bringing the cause was called, in Latin, the pars actrix or pars agens. The defendant was called the pars rea.
  • The defendant was called into court using a citation. The matter could finish here if he was prepared to make amends (by admonition, penance or other means) and pay the court fees.
  • The defendant replied under oath, and his denials were written down, in the same order as the paragraphs in the libel, in his personal answers.
  • His counter-case could be stated in a document called an allegation, which was also the general name given to any subsequent pleas after the initial libel or articles.
  • A period of time, called a term probatory, was then assigned in order for the plaintiff's proctor to collect evidence.
  • Proctors produced interrogatories, which were lists of questions to be asked of the witnesses for the opposing party.
  • Witnesses were called to court using citations. Their statements, taken down exactly as they were said by the registrar, were termed depositions. Depositions were statements by neighbours, family and friends of the parties involved, relating to the issue in question. They record the witnesses' exact words, in English, sometimes gave personal details about the witnesses, such as their occupations, ages, marital status, and place of birth, and were usually signed or marked
  • Additional positions, excepted material, articulate material, or declaratory material could sometimes be generated, giving further information on behalf of either of the parties. All these documents were forms of allegation, and followed the general form of the initial libel or articles.
  • Supporting evidence such as petitions, letters and certificates were sometimes brought into court and filed with the cause papers.
  • When all the evidence had apparently been collected, the Official gave a term to propound all acts, which assigned a period after which no more evidence could be submitted, and which was recorded in the Act Book.
  • The final term to conclude gave a date for the cause to be judged.
  • After considering all the evidence, the Official pronounced a definitive sentence, an official document which wrapped up the cause by explaining the process and assigning punishments.
  • Bills of costs were drawn up listing the fees which had to be paid to the court.

The Act Book was used to keep a summary record of proceedings. Some causes were inhibited or prohibited - transferred up to a higher court, or across to a civil court of law - and in such cases the Archdeaconry archive would not contain any evidence of the outcome. Similarly, some people appealed the verdict. All appeals were heard at the court in York. Some documents from York, relating to transmission of the relevant papers so that the appeal could be heard, survive in the Archdeaconry of Nottingham libels series.

The punishments handed out in the consistory court were similar to those used for disciplinary causes in the correction court. People could be excommunicated for contumacy or for not paying their fees. People found guilty of defamation were usually asked to perform a declaration by way of penance. Schedules of penances and excommunications are sometimes found filed with the relevant cause papers rather than in the main series of documents.

Until 25 March 1733, the language of record in the Archdeaconry court was Latin. Most documents in the libels series are in Latin until this date. However, defamatory words were usually written out as spoken - that is, in English. The words spoken by witnesses in depositions, and by the parties in their personal answers, are also usually given in English. Additionally, articles in promoted Office causes or Correction causes are often predominantly in English - perhaps because the person being accused of the ecclesiastical offence needed to know what he or she was alleged to have done. Therefore, although the introductory paragraphs in many documents are in Latin and are full of legal jargon, there is often enough English present for researchers to pick out the main facts of the cause.


Next page: Example of cause papers in a typical defamation case

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