Manuscripts and Special Collections

Examples of offences

The scope of the ecclesiastical courts was different from that of the civil courts, such as the Quarter Sessions. The offences brought before them were of a religious or moral, rather than criminal, nature.

The exact words used in the Presentment Bills to describe offences varied according to the preferences of the people writing them, and terminology was often used which was specific to the 17th-century Archdeaconry court. The meanings of some of the words used to describe the offences have changed over time, and the significance of some of the offences can only be explained in terms of the religious, social and moral attitudes of the period.

As part of a Heritage Lottery funded project to catalogue the 16th and early-17th century Presentment Bills, the offences mentioned by the churchwardens were indexed and entered into a database. The index terms were chosen from a list of possible offences, drawn up by the project archivist, to ensure consistency in data entry and retrieval. The list was based on analysis of the Presentment Bills in the Archdeaconry of Nottingham.

The offences can be searched from the 'Persons Search' form within the Manuscripts Online Catalogue.

The index terms are shown below in bold type, and are accompanied by an explanation of what kind of behaviour is indicated by each term, and why such behaviour was considered an offence by the church authorities. They have been arranged into broad groups, bringing together common categories of offence.

At the bottom of the list of definitions is a table showing the most commonly reported offences, 1587-1756. This gives a crude indication of how widespread particular misbehaviours were, or perhaps how enthusiatically the church authories prosecuted them.


Problems with the fabric of the church, churchyard and other church buildings, and supplies of fixtures, furnishings and religious objects

Church repairs

This term covers two separate areas of responsibility: the upkeep of the chancel was the responsibility of improprietors or rectors (parsons). The fact that most were absentee explains the large number of complaints to the Nottingham Archdeaconry court about the chancel being 'in decay'. The nave of the church and the rest of the church buildings were the responsibility of the parish, hence householders were subject to regular assessments 'for the repairing of the church'. Also included under this term are problems with the fixtures of the church, such as the roof, doors, windows, steeple and bells. 'Church repairs' was one of the most commonly presented offences throughout the active period of the Archdeaconry court.

Church and furnishings violations

In contrast to the term 'church repairs', which covers routine maintenance of the building and its fixtures, and 'church supplies', which relates to the provision of moveable objects within the church, this term refers to deliberate actions taken against the fabric of the church. Examples in the Archdeaconry of Nottingham include vandalism, breaking and entering, and youthful misdemeanours such as pulling down the bell ropes, or ringing the bells without permission. They also include tearing down pews, pulpits or other furnishings, or moving church furniture around without consent - these actions may well have been part of a Puritan drive to re-arrange the church interior. This offence was most commonly reported in the 1630s, during the time of the Laudian reforms which aimed to regulate church interiors.

Church supplies

Each parish church was expected to be equipped with such (moveable) items as a communion table, surplices for the clergy, communion vessels, a Book of Common Prayer, a large Bible, a book of Homilies, and a copy of the Paraphrases of Erasmus. This term covers the availability and good repair of such items. This offence was mentioned in 29 Presentment Bills in the 1620s, but in incredible 284 during the following decade, as the church authorities cracked down on the provision of supplies in parish churches.

Churchyard repairs

The fence around the churchyard was the communal responsibility of the householders of the parish, usually broken down into sections so that a fixed number of yards was the individual responsibility of one particular person. The churchyard needed to be adequately fenced so that it was not 'profaned' by allowing animals through to graze or root there. This offence was fairly consistently reported across the decades, but with noticeable peaks in the 1620s, 1630s and 1680s.

Churchyard violations

If animals were allowed to graze or root in the churchyard, this was a violation of the churchyard's sanctity, and would come under this term. Also included here would be active despoilation of the churchyard due to deliberate tearing down of the fence or the stile, allowing dungheaps, hovels, dirt or other filth to accumulate, felling trees without permission, and allowing the churchyard to be used for secular events such as fairs. Occasional references are found in the Archdeaconry of Nottingham to the enclosure or taking in of part of the churchyard by an individual: this was a case of illegal trespass rather than good maintenance, and has been entered in the Presentment Bills database as 'alienation or withholding of church property'. Like 'churchyard repairs', this offence was most commonly reported in the 1620s and 1630s.

Parsonage and vicarage repairs

This term is used to record any damage to incumbents' residences and their outbuildings. The parson or vicar was normally liable to pay for any repairs, but occasional presentments of tenants, who were renting the buildings, exist in the Archdeaconry of Nottingham archive. Instances of this offence were reported in every decade throughout the active period of the Archdeaconry court.


Problems with clergy

Faults of clergy, failure to perform duties

The Nottingham Archdeaconry Presentment Bills from the late 16th and early 17th centuries include many references to the clergy. The Queen's Injunctions of 1559 and the Canons of 1597 and 1604 laid down many rules. Some of the things that clergy failed to do, and which are entered in the Presentment Bills database under this term, are as follows: 

  • Read divine service on Sundays and holy days, strictly according to the Book of Common Prayer.
  • Read the litany on Wednesdays and Fridays.
  • Provide sermons. Preaching could only be done by licensed preachers, but not all parish clergy were qualified to preach. Each parish had to have four sermons per year ('quarter sermons') under the 1559 Injunctions, which could be provided either by the incumbent, if he was licensed, or by another preacher living nearby. In the 1604 Canons, this was increased to one sermon per month. Those clergy who were licensed preachers were charged with preaching one sermon every Sunday, either to their own parish or to a nearby parish who did not have a licensed incumbent.
  • Read one of the Homilies on Sundays where a sermon was not provided.
  • Provide Holy Communion at least three times a year, including on Easter Sunday, and ensure that no excommunicants or other unsuitable people took part.
  • Provide catechism for the youths and servants of the parish every Sunday and holy day.
  • Wear the surplice and make the sign of the cross during baptism (these duties were often ignored by Puritan clergy)
  • 'Keep hospitality', in other words, give a proportion of their beneficed income to the use of the poor.

This offence was reported regularly until the 1640s, but the most notable peak came in the 1680s when churchwardens' filled in 175 Presentment Bills containing an instance of this offence, compared to 11 in the 1670s and 14 in the 1690s. The peak was explained by William Sampson, rector of Clayworth, who wrote in his diary on 18 April 1684 that 'Dr Thomas White, Archdeacon of Nottingham, made his 1st Visitation : & enquired most narrowly of ye churchwardens upon every Article in ye Book deliverd them'. (The Rector's Book, Clayworth, Notts, transcribed and edited by Harry Gill and Everard L. Guilford M.A. (Nottingham: 1910), p.66). Many clergy were reported for small transgressions such as 'not reading the statute against profane swearing and cursing twice a year as is by law required'.

Faults of clergy, not leading a moral life

Such faults as alehouse-haunting and becoming embroiled in arguments or fights with their parishioners would come under this term in the Nottingham Archdeaconry Presentment Bills database. There were never very many instances of this offence, and in some decades no instances were reported at all.

Pluralism, non-residence or lack of clergy

A clergyman could procure a licence to hold two benefices, but if this was not allowed, or if he was neglecting his cure by not living in the parish, he might be presented to the Archdeaconry Court. There were occasions during which parishes had no incumbent, usually following the death of the previous clergyman, and this was occasionally brought to the attention of the Archdeaconry court by the churchwardens in their Presentment Bills. This term covers all these instances. The problem was reported most often in the early years of the Court, up to 1609, and again in the 1660s. 

Unlicensed clergy

This term describes the offence of a person preaching sermons or taking services without being fully ordained or showing their licence from the ecclesiastical authority. The last instance of this offence being presented occurred in 1704.


Problems with parish officials


Faults of churchwardens


Churchwardens were obliged to account for their expenditure before the new churchwardens were sworn in at Easter time; they were also charged with presenting all offenders in the parish and ensuring that all church necessities were supplied and all assessments paid. Defects in any of these duties could be reported either by the incumbent or by the incoming churchwardens, and have been indexed under this term in the Archdeaconry of Nottingham Presentment Bills database. Instances of reporting this offence tailed off dramatically after the 1680s.

Faults of parish clerks

By the 1604 Canons, it was specified that the parish clerk should be at least 20 years of age, of good character, and able to read and write and, if possible, sing. Occasionally, clerks under the prescribed age were presented to the Nottingham Archdeaconry court, and this fault would be indexed using this term. Other faults relating to the clerk's conduct are often unspecified. It was never a very commonly presented offence, with no more than four Presentment Bills mentioning it submitted in any particular decade.

Unlicensed schoolteachers

All teachers were supposed to have a licence from the ecclesiastical authorities. Failures in this regard are indexed in the Archdeaconry of Nottingham Presentment Bills database using this term. It was not a commonly presented offence.

Unlicensed midwives or physicians

Midwives were more than just medical practitioners - they were empowered to administer emergency baptism, and had therefore to be vetted and licensed by the church authorities. Physicians also had responsible positions, and needed a licence to practise. Failures in this regard are indexed in the Archdeaconry of Nottingham Presentment Bills database using this term. Only a very few presentments of this offence were ever submitted, the last being Lydia Oldfield of Mansfield in 1726.

Lack of parish officials

Each parish should have had collectors for the poor and a number of other officials such as constables and a parish clerk. Failures in this regard are indexed in the Archdeaconry of Nottingham Presentment Bills database using this term. The failures appear to have been most common in the 1660s, as parishes re-adjusted to the restoration of the church authorities after the Civil War and Commonwealth period. After that, there were just two isolated instances, in West Leake in 1680 and Hockerton in 1740.


Church finance

Not paying church dues

Parishioners were regularly asked to contribute to 'cessments', assessments, lays or levies, imposed on householders to pay for repairs to the parish church. They were also supposed to contribute towards the 'poor man's box', to the provision of communion bread and wine, and to other church levies. Refusal to hand over money which was the rightful property of the church, and which was 'detained' or 'withheld' in someone's hands was slightly different to the refusal to pay regular small amounts for various purposes, and has been indexed in the Archdeaconry of Nottingham Presentment Bills database under the term 'alienation or withholding of church property'. 'Not paying church dues' was always a popular offence for churchwardens to report, with many hundreds of instances presented. Indeed, in the 1690s it occurred in 28 percent of those Bills in which the churchwardens presented at least one offence, more than any other particular transgression.

Not paying church fees

Occasional sums of money were demanded from the parishioners for specific reasons. This term usually covers refusal to pay a fixed fee for burying a person in the church or churchyard. The offence was presented occasionally throughout the period up to the 1680s, but very sporadically after that.

Not paying church wages

Householders were liable to contribute a share of the wages paid to the parish clerk, and could be presented if they refused. The offence has been indexed under this term. Like the previous offence, it was mentioned only occasionally after the 1680s.

Not paying tithes

Tithes of corn, hay, sheep or other payments in kind supported the incumbent of the parish, and all householders occupying titheable land were supposed to contribute. The offence was only mentioned in 24 Presentment Bills throughout the whole period 1587-1756, as most instances of non-payment of tithes were dealt with by Instance rather than summary jurisdiction and were not therefore presented by churchwardens. 

Alienation or withholding of church property

This term covers actual theft of church goods, enclosure of land in the churchyard or glebe lands by a private individual, detention of church goods in an individual's hands (for example, a previous churchwarden holding onto something), or refusal to pay money destined for the church or for the use of the poor of the parish (for example, by somebody's executor). Most instances of this offence occur before the 1680s, although there are one or two further examples in every decade apart from the 1740s. 


Irreverence, abuse and violence by parishioners

Abuse of clergy

This term is used to index instances of parishioners arguing or fighting with their minister, due to anti-clericalism, differences of religious opinion, or simple clash of personalities. It was presented most often during the 1620s and 1630s. The last instance of this offence was presented in East Leake in 1725.

Abuse of churchwardens

The churchwardens for each parish, and their assistants (variously called swornmen, sidesmen, jurati, juratores or assistants), were responsible for ensuring that the parishioners attended church every Sunday, received holy communion and lived moral lives. They were empowered to fine non-attenders, and were also charged with levying and collecting assessments for the relief of the poor and the upkeep of the parish church. If their admonishments did not cause their parishioners to change their ways, the churchwardens were obliged to present them to the Archdeacon's court, setting in train a process which could lead to the imposition of penances and ultimately excommunication. Their power within the parish was therefore considerable, and occasionally resentment by parishioners spilled over into verbal or even physical abuse of the churchwarden carrying out his duty. This term is used to index instances of parishioners arguing or fighting with churchwardens. Like 'abuse of clergy', it was most commonly reported in the 1620s and 1630s. After 1663, there were only a handful of odd cases, the last occuring in 1708.

Brawling or violence

This term refers to brawling occurring in consecrated precincts, such as the church or churchyard. Occasionally violence was directed towards clergy or churchwardens, in which case the terms 'abuse of clergy' or 'abuse of churchwardens' have also been entered into the Archdeaconry of Nottingham Presentment Bills database. In other cases, the fight was between two parishioners, and was sometimes over seats or pews in the parish church, and sometimes due to personal animosity. Reporting of this offence was most common in the early 17th century, reaching a peak in the 1620s when it occurred in 55 Presentment Bills, and the 1630s when it appeared in 51. It was very sporadically mentioned after the Restoration.


This term is used for instances of swearing and blaspheming. It was last reported in the 1720s.


This term is used occasionally in the Presentment Bills database. It was most often reported in the early 17th century period, up to 1643, and thereafter very sporadically, as cases of defamation or slander were usually heard in the court of Instance, rather than the court of Office which dealt with churchwardens' presentments. The Archdeaconry court was only responsible for certain kinds of defamation or slander: those by which a person was accused of an offence under spiritual jurisdiction, e.g. sexual immorality. Defamers who accused somebody of a civil offence such as theft were dealt with by the lay courts.


This term is applied to offences concerning people described as 'common drunkards' or 'alehouse haunters', meaning habitual drinkers. When people are described as drinking when they should have been in church, the term 'drinking or keeping company on Sundays or holy days' has been used. Drunkenness also came under the purview of the secular courts. It was fairly consistently reported throughout the period of the Presentment Bills, apart from during the 1670s and 1690s when only one Presentment Bill in each decade made mention of drunkards.

Misbehaviour in church

This term describes irreverent behaviour, such as fighting or making a noise in church, sleeping through the service, or arguing with fellow parishioners. It is often used in conjunction with other offence terms such as 'brawling and fighting'. Generalised terminology, often used in the original Presentment Bills, such as 'irreverence', or 'misdemeanour', makes it difficult to distinguish between general rowdiness, or genuine religious dissent. Where dissent can be identified, the term 'lay non-conformity' has been used. This offence was most commonly reported in the 1620s and 1630s, when over 200 Presentment Bills included a reference to it. After 1663 it was occasionally reported.

Misbehaviour in churchyard

Irreverent or raucous behaviour, such as fighting, arguing, making a noise, or playing games in the churchyard, has been entered in the Nottingham Archdeaconry Presentment Bills database using this term. Like 'Misbehaviour in church', this offence was reported most often in the period up to 1643.

Scolding or railing

Women were most liable to be presented as 'common scolds' but some instances of men being presented for scolding have been found. The term also covers descriptions of verbal arguments, often described in the Presentment Bills as 'railing in the street', or 'disquieting their neighbours'. When the argument spills over into violence, the term 'brawling or fighting' is used instead. The term can be used in conjunction with 'misbehaviour in church' or 'misbehaviour in churchyard' if that is where the offence took place, and if the abuse is directed against the clergy or churchwardens, then 'abuse of clergy' or 'abuse of churchwardens' will also appear in the database. Reporting of this offence reached a peak in the 1620s, with 75 Presentment Bills from that decade containing a reference to it. The two last instances of the offence were reported in May 1685, in Bramcote and Winthorpe.

Disorderly behaviour

A term used for generalised complaints about un-neighbourly behaviour, covering such offences as 'sowing discord among neighbours', 'breeding discontent', keeping a disorderly house or a bawdy house of ill-repute, and consorting with suspicious or scandalous people. The largest numbers of instances of this offence were reported between 1610 and 1629, but it was never very commonly reported.

Harbouring an excommunicant

This term is used for the offence of taking an offender into a private house, or assisting him to escape ecclesiastical justice. Only 16 Presentment Bills ever mentioned this offence, the earliest in 1602 and the latest in 1641.


Failures in religious observance among parishioners

Lay non-conformity

Into this category come manifestations of Puritanism and non-conformity, such as wearing of hats in church (considered to be irreverent by the church authorities, although this was disputed by Puritans who often deliberately wore their hats as a protest); refusal to kneel in church; questioning attitudes especially over the manner of receiving communion; arguments with or disparaging of clergy over specifically religious questions; attending other churches or visiting preachers outside their own parish; and holding private religious meetings.

Presbyterian and Independent sects flourished in the Interregnum period, but on the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the authorities cracked down again on both Roman Catholicism and non-conformity. The Act of Uniformity came into law in 1662, followed by the Conventicles Act of 1664 and 1670. It was not until the Act of Toleration in 1689 that non-conformist congregations such as Independents and Quakers could legally open their own meeting places. The kind of offences that are classified in the Presentment Bills database as 'lay non-conformity' were most commonly presented between the 1610s and the 1680s. After the 1680s there were just two isolated instances, in 1693 and 1700.

Not attending catechism

Young people and servants were supposed to receive catechism from the minister every Sunday and holy day, but many did not attend. The offence is described in the Presentment Bills database using this term. It was rarely presented, but was most commonly mentioned in the 1630s.

Not attending church

This term is connected with the duty of each parishioner to attend their own parish church every Sunday, and on holy days. Those who failed to attend were liable to be fined 12d for each absence. This was one of the most common offences reported to the Archdeaconry court. In each of the decades of the 1610s, 1620s, 1630s, 1660s, 1670s and 1680s, more than 100 Presentment Bills made reference to some parishioner committing the offence. However, in relative terms, it was particularly cracked down upon in the years after 1663, when the church authorities were attempting to take back control following the restoration of the monarchy and the bishops. In the 1660s, it was mentioned in a staggering 46 percent of the Presentment Bills which included a reported offence, in the 1670s it was mentioned in 21 percent, and in the 1680s in 24 percent.

Not being churched

Particular rites or ministrations were supposed to be carried out by the clergy when a woman first came back to church after giving birth. Refusal to take part in the ceremony was an offence in the eyes of the church authorities, described in the Presentment Bills database using this term. It was only occasionally reported, but interestingly its peak in 'popularity' was in the 1660s, when 22 Presentment Bills contained a reference to the offence.

Not receiving holy communion

This term is used with regard to the fact that all parishioners (over the age of 14 in the 1571 Canons, raised to 16 in the 1604 Canons) were supposed to receive Holy Communion three times a year. The communion offered at Easter was the most important, and failure to take it was the occasion of most presentments under this head. This was a very commonly presented offence, mentioned in over 100 Presentment Bills per decade throughout the 1600s, 1610s, 1620s, 1630s, 1660s, 1670s and 1680s. After Michaelmas 1686 there appears to have been a policy decision not to continue prosecuting religious offences, as only a small handful of instances of 'not receiving holy communion' were subsequently reported.


The word 'recusancy' refers to any deviation from the tenets of the Established church and can therefore cover Protestant non-conformity as well as Catholicism. In practice, it can be hard to tell which sort is meant unless the term 'Popish recusancy' is specifically used in the original Presentment Bill. In analysis of the Archdeaconry of Nottingham Presentment Bills, the index term 'recusancy' has been used whenever the word 'recusancy' is found in the original bill, with the caveat that it might in a small number of cases actually mean Protestant non-conformity.

Although a few presentments against Catholic recusants were made in the reign of Elizabeth I, most date from 1607 and afterwards. In 1605, James I's  "Act for the better discovering and repressing of Popish Recusants" (3 Jac. I, iv), churchwardens were required to present recusants each year. Despite the severity of James I's laws against Catholics, recusancy in Nottinghamshire seems to have been of most concern to the Archdeaconry in the 1630s and 1640s. In this period, 393 Presentment Bills mentioned at least one 'recusant', and 16 percent of bills mentioning an offence included a presentment of 'recusancy'. In no other decades did 'recusancy' appear in more than 8 percent of completed bills.

Whereas Protestant non-conformist groups were allowed to meet and worship openly under the terms of the Toleration Act of 1689, Roman Catholicism remained a proscribed religion, with its members denied full involvement in civic society, until 1829. There were a few instances of this offence mentioned in Presentment Bills after the 1680s, but most presentments of 'recusancy' ceased after Michaelmas 1686.

Standing excommunicate

Persons who had been excommunicated by the church authorities were not allowed to enter church or to take holy communion. Excommunicants were supposed to seek absolution within 40 days, and could be arrested and imprisoned by the civil authorites. Some who refused to conform remained excommunicate for many years. The term is used whenever the Presentment Bill refers to people standing or remaining excommunicate without seeking absolution.

Like the offence 'not receiving holy communion', 'standing excommunicate' was a very commonly presented offence up to Michaelmas 1686, when it largely ceased to be mentioned. In centres of Protestant dissent such as Mansfield, each Presentment Bill could name scores of offenders, who were regularly presented year after year. For instance, on 18 November 1667 the vicar of Mansfield, John Firth, presented 75 individuals for standing excommunicate (AN/PB 304/9/23).



Drinking or keeping company on Sundays or holy days

There are many occurrences of presentments relating to people gathering together in someone's home or being in the alehouse 'on the Sabbath day in time of evening prayer' etc. This term, in the Archdeaconry of Nottingham Presentment Bills database, relates specifically to activities taking place on Sundays or holy days when people were supposed to be in church. It is to be distinguished from the term 'drunkenness', which refers to habitual drinking. This term is also used for presentments of people who allowed such gatherings to take place in their house.

See also the related terms 'other activities on Sundays or holy days', 'working on Sundays or holy days' and 'Sabbath-breaking'.

The different types of Sabbath-breaking were regularly presented as offences until the end of the 17th century, with a handful of instances in the 18th century. Sabbath-breaking became a civil as well as an ecclesiastical offence with the passing of laws by Charles I in 1625 and 1627, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why the different types of Sabbath-breaking were particularly strongly reported in the 1620s and 1630s.

Working on Sundays or holy days

This term in the Archdeaconry of Nottingham Presentment Bills database is used for presentments of people who ground corn, fetched and carried items, sold goods, ploughed, gathered crops, baked, and generally carried on their daily business on the Sabbath day or on one of the holy days when they should have been at church, and for those who asked their family/servants to do the same.

See also the related terms 'other activities on Sundays or holy days' (for recreational activities such as games or sports), and 'drinking or keeping company on Sundays or holy days' (for attending convivial gatherings on the Sabbath).

Other activities on Sundays or holy days

This term is used for all other (mostly leisure) activities, such as hunting, playing at bowls and playing cards during times of divine service or sermon when the presentee ought to have been at church. See also the related terms 'drinking or keeping company on Sundays and holy days' and 'working on Sundays and holy days'.

Sabbath-breaking (in general)

This term is used where the Presentment Bill mentions an offence of 'Sabbath-breaking' but does not give any details as to the type of offence. This makes it impossible to classify the offence as 'working on Sundays and holy days', 'drinking or keeping company on Sundays or holy days' or 'other activities on Sundays and holy days'. 


Sexual offences 

The various classifications of sexual misconduct below were extremely commonly reported to the Archdeaconry court, and by the 18th century made up the vast majority of presentments.


The offence of having sexual relations with a married person was held to be a danger to the parish due to the potential neglect of wives and children (notwithstanding the moral issues). There is some overlap in the Nottingham Archdeaconry Presentment Bills database between the term 'adultery' and the term 'fornication'. Sometimes it is clear that a married person was involved, but the word 'fornication' was used by the writer of the bill, e.g. AB, wife of CD, is presented for fornication with EF. Secondly, the person writing out the bill may not have been made aware of the married status of the presentees, so that many cases of apparently simple fornication may in fact have concerned married people. As a general rule, the specific word used in the original Presentment Bill has been entered into the database. See also the related term 'sexual immorality'.


The parish authorities were concerned about the birth of illegitimate children both as a moral issue and also as a potential burden on the parish poor-box. The mothers of illegitimate children were normally the people presented to the Archdeaconry court for penance, although the putative fathers were often named, and were sometimes presented for the associated offence of fornication. As well as being an offence under the ecclesiastical courts, 'bastardy' cases were also dealt with by the Justices of the Peace, who had the power to enforce settlements and to order the parents to be whipped.

The term 'bastardy' is used in the original records of the Archdeaconry, and has therefore been used in the Presentment Bills database rather than the modern term 'illegitimacy'. 'Bastardy' as a specific technical term in the Presentment Bills tends to be used more often in the later 17th century and 18th century. In earlier periods, many women were presented for simple 'fornication', although the wording of the bill often makes it clear that there was a child involved. From the 1720s to the 1750s the offence 'bastardy' is the most common in the database. In the 1720s, 27 percent of bills which included at least one presentment of an offender contained a 'bastardy' presentment. This rose to 39 percent in the 1730s, 74 percent in the 1740s, and dropped slightly to 69 percent in the 1750s.


In the 17th and 18th centuries, the word 'fornication' was commonly applied to sexual relationships outside marriage. The word appears in the original Presentment Bills and has therefore been used in the Presentment Bills database. It is sometimes apparent that the words 'adultery' and 'incontinency' could mean the same thing. In our analysis of the Presentment Bills, the term 'fornication' is entered when that word is specifically used in the original bill. It was an extremely commonly reported offence, with instances appearing in every single decade of the Presentment Bills.


Fornication or adultery

The wording 'fornication or adultery' in reference to sexual misconduct began appearing regularly in Presentment Bills after the restoration of the Archdeaconry Court in 1663. When classifying Presentment Bills dated before 1643, the two separate terms 'fornication' and 'adultery' were both added to the Presentment Bills database in relation to the name of the offender. After 1663, the exact phrase 'fornication or adultery' was entered instead as a separate term. The phrase seems to have indicated a reluctance by the authorities to decide on the specific nature of the offence, or to state with certainty whether the offence involved a married person. It became very commonly used. In the 1690s it appeared in 11 percent of all the Presentment Bills which reported an offence, in comparison with simple 'fornication' which appeared in just 8 percent.

Fornication before marriage

Very many cases of apparently simple 'fornication' were in fact cases of pre-nuptial fornication, although it is not always possible to determine this without other evidence such as parish registers. The term 'fornication before marriage' is entered in the Nottingham Archdeaconry Presentment Bills database in cases where it is clear from the original bill that this is the meaning of the presentment. Otherwise, the term used is 'fornication' or 'sexual immorality', so that researchers looking into evidence of sexual conduct will need to check all of these terms. This was always a commonly-reported offence, and especially so in the years up to 1643, and again throughout the 18th century.

Harbouring a pregnant woman or fornicator

Harbouring pregnant women, especially women from other parishes, caused concern because of the fear that the illegitimate child and its mother would burden the poor rates. Harbouring also allowed offenders to escape punishment in the church courts. Some pregnant women were sheltered by relatives; others travelled to other parishes to stay with friends or sympathetic people, and moved on once the baby was born. The vast majority of instances of this offence were reported in the years up to 1639. There were just three further instances, in Wollaton in 1640 and again in 1668, and in Keyworth in 1669.


This term was applied to a broader range of relationships in the 16th and 17th centuries than nowadays. By the 1604 Canons, Archbishop Parker's Table of Consanguinity and Affinity (1563) was ordered to be publicly set up in every church at the expense of the parish. The table prohibited sexual relationships and marriages between people 'within the prohibited degrees', which included first cousins, a deceased brother's wife, and the siblings of one's deceased spouse. The prohibitions remained in force until they were modified by the civil authorities in 1907. Any relationship presented to the Archdeaconry court which broke any of these regulations is entered in the Presentment Bills database under this head. The offence was regularly presented in modest numbers. In proportion to the number of bills submitted, its importance was greater in the 18th century.

Sexual immorality

This modern term has been applied in cases where imprecise wording, such as 'incontinency', or 'living an incontinent life', appears in the original Presentment Bill, or where it is not clear what the actual sexual offence was. It is also used for references to co-habitation. It was a very common presentment throughout the period covered by the Presentment Bills.

See also the related terms 'fornication' and 'adultery'.


Faults concerning baptisms, marriages and burials


The meaning of this term has not changed over time, although the offence would now fall under civil rather than ecclesiastical law. It only appears in 17 Presentment Bills throughout the whole period.

Clandestine or irregular marriage

This term, in the Archdeaconry of Nottingham Presentment Bills database, is used to describe a variety of offences relating to marriage. The Canons of 1597 and 1604 specified that in order to conform with ecclesiastical law, marriages had to take place in the parish church of one of the parties, had to have been preceded by either the granting of a licence or the calling of banns and could not take place if one of the parties was under 21 and had not obtained the consent of his parents or guardians. There were also particular times of the day and year in which marriages should not take place, and marriages could not be solemnized in private houses or other places.

However, these Canons were stricter than the prevailing common law, which recognised marriages 'in the sight of God' even if the exact form of ecclesiastical law had not been followed. Many of the marriages presented to the Archdeaconry court under this heading had in fact been solemnized by ministers, but had taken place in remote parishes or in parishes which came under Peculiar rather than Archidiaconal jurisdiction.

Other presentments concerned couples who lived together as man and wife but had no evidence of a church ceremony having taken place. In common law, the couple were married; but the ecclesiastical authorities were concerned to ensure that all marriages were solemnized and sanctified by them.

All these issues led to a tightening of the marriage laws under Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1753. There is a good deal of secondary literature on clandestine marriage, which explains in greater detail the issues surrounding it.

In the Archdeaconry of Nottingham, presentments for 'clandestine or irregular marriage' were fairly common throughout the period of the Presentment Bills. The offence was particularly strongly reported in the 1670s, present in 98 Presentment Bills compared to 44 in the subsequent decade.

Irregular baptisms

Any baptism not conducted in church or under the rites of the Anglican church was an offence, and presentments to the Archdeaconry Court are indexed using this term. The term also covers instances of Catholic baptisms performed by priests, baptisms held privately without good reason, and failure to have any baptism performed to the knowledge of the church. It was particularly strongly reported in the 1660s compared to other decades, as the church authorities attempted to force people back to the established Anglican church and its rituals. Most of the people reported for this offence were also reported for other offences such as 'not attending church', indicating dissent.

Irregular burials

This term refers especially to clandestine burials (usually performed at night) in the churchyard of people who would not normally be permitted to be buried there, e.g. recusants, excommunicants, or people who had committed suicide. Like 'irregular baptisms', there was a noticeable peak in the regularity of its reporting during the 1660s.

Unlawful separation

Divorce was an option available to very few people in the 16th and 17th centuries. Annulment or legal separation was available through the civil courts, but might not be recognised by the church authorities. This term is used when Presentment Bills refer to people living apart from their spouses. Apart from three cases in the 1660s, the offence was only mentioned in Presentment Bills in the period up to 1639.


Other offences

Matters concerning probate or administration

As the church authorities were responsible for probate, there are occasional mentions of related problems in the Presentment Bills. The term usually concerns family members appropriating goods and chattels without going through the correct procedures, or not carrying out the deceased's wishes with regard to charitable donations to the poor. It was not a commonly presented offence.

Not attending court (contumacy)

Clergy, churchwardens and parishioners were expected to attend the Archdeaconry court or the Archbishop's court when summonsed. If they did not appear, they were guilty of the sin of 'contumacy', for which they could be excommunicated. The last known reporting of this offence was in Edwalton in 1685.

Not doing penances

Penance was one of the stock punishments for offenders in the Archdeaconry court. This term is used when a person was presented for failinge to perform the penance ordered by the court. This was a serious offence liable to lead to excommunication, but was not commonly presented. After 1643 there was just one isolated incident, in Radcliffe-on-Trent in 1665.

Not performing perambulation of parish

Each year, in Rogation Week, the people of the parish were supposed to 'beat the bounds' of the parish, by walking around its perimeter, to refresh people's memory about the extent of the parish and to check that all was well. If this was not performed, or if the procession was blocked at any point by an individual, it could be presented at the Archdeaconry court. The Presentment Bills database uses this term to describe the offence. The offence was rarely presented, and last mentioned in the 1660s.

Playing unlawful games

Servants and labourers in husbandry were prohibited from playing certain games by the Act of Parliament, 12 Richard II, c.6, which was intended to encourage archery. The Act was repealed by James I, but it seems to have been the case that certain games were still frowned upon if played by members of the lower classes.

In the Archdeaconry of Nottingham Presentment Bills, the playing of games and sports such as cards, tables, shovelboard, nine-holes, and bowls, which were often played in alehouses, tended to be presented to the court because they were played on the Sabbath or on holy days, rather than simply because they were 'unlawful games'. The related term 'other activities on Sundays or holy days' has therefore usually been entered into the database along with 'playing unlawful games'. The offence was not mentioned after the 1630s, apart from three isolated incidents in 1679, 1723 and 1742.


Lending money at interest was against ecclesiastical law, although the civil law permitted loans up to a maximum of 10 per cent interest. A very small number of presentments to the Nottingham Archdeaconry court are known of under this head, 7 in total, the last being reported in West Bridgford in 1622.

Witchcraft, sorcery, soothsaying or superstition

This term covers a variety of offences. Some examples which were presented to the Nottingham Archdeaconry court were:

  • visiting witches to discover the identity of thieves in the neighbourhood
  • allegedly knowing the dates on which other people would die
  • using excrement to put a curse on others
  • ringing the church bells for curfew on All Saints Eve (a superstitious practice)

Witchcraft was considered to be such a serious offence that many cases went straight to the Archbishop's court in York, or to the civil authorities in the Nottinghamshire Quarter Sessions. There are only 28 Presentment Bills which make mention of these kinds of practices, all dating from before the suspension of the court in 1643 apart from one isolated example in Hucknall Torkard in 1671. Sorcery and witchcraft were abolished as secular crimes in England in 1736.


Table showing the most commonly reported offences, 1587-1756

The fiigures shown here are for the number of Presentment Bills in which each particular offence appears, arranged into descending order from the most common ('not attending church', appearing in over 2,000 separate Presentment Bills), to the least common ('usury', mentioned in only 7). It does not show the numbers of individual people being presented for that offence. Many bills contain presentments of multiple people for the same offence. There were also wide variations over time, with some offences, as indicated in the definitions of each of them (see above), only being prominent during particular decades. The table, however, does give an indication of which offences were most commonly committed or prosecuted over time.


not attending church 2026
church repairs 1828
fornication 1749
not paying church dues 1711
not receiving holy communion 1705
bastardy 1702
standing excommunicate 1553
fornication before marriage 1303
church supplies 890
recusancy 842
faults of clergy, failure to perform duties 637
sexual immorality 553
churchyard repairs 502
clandestine or irregular marriage 426
adultery 416
working on Sundays or holy days 411
misbehaviour in church 366
parsonage or vicarage repairs 365
drinking or keeping company on Sundays or holy days 316
faults of churchwardens 304
pluralism, non-residence or lack of clergy 282
lay non-conformity 222
scolding or railing 200
not paying church wages 187
brawling or violence 166
harbouring a pregnant woman or fornicator 164
fornication or adultery 160
alienation or withholding of church property 159
irregular baptisms 157
misbehaviour in churchyard 128
drunkenness 124
other 112
incest 110
churchyard violations 106
defamation 97
abuse of churchwardens 92
church and furnishings violations 91
abuse of clergy 86
other activities on Sundays or holy days 86
disorderly behaviour 85
unlawful separation 84
unlicensed schoolteachers 76
cursing 75
not being churched 57
not paying church fees 56
matters concerning probate or administration 52
not attending catechism 52
playing unlawful games 50
faults of clergy, not leading a moral life 41
unlicensed clergy 39
irregular burials 31
faults of parish clerks 30
witchcraft, sorcery, soothsaying or superstition 28
not doing penances 24
not paying tithes 24
not performing perambulation of parish 22
lack of parish officials 21
not attending court 20
harbouring an excommunicant or recusant 17
bigamy 16
Sabbath-breaking 15
unlicensed midwives or physicians 9
usury 7


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