Transcribing Isle of Ely Assizes records reveal severity of a justice system that saw one man hanged for stealing lead from cathedral
PUBLISHED: 11:04 15 August 2020
Archivists have compiled a “rogues’ gallery” based on two hundred years of court records, including offences such as witchcraft and highway robbery.
The courts of assize - commonly known as the assizes - were replaced by the modern court system in 1972.
They were held in the main county towns and presided over by visiting judges from higher courts based in London.
The Isle of Ely Assizes would have tried the most serious criminal cases in the region at that time - including rape, forgery and “vagrancy”.
The records, mainly in Latin, include court proceedings and papers, depositions, jury lists, inquests, and examinations.
Among them was the case of Margaret Cotte, of Haddenham, accused in 1577 of causing the death of a blacksmith’s daughter “by witchcraft”.
Another woman, spinster Cecilia Samuel, was hanged the same year for drowning her baby in a Wisbech ditch.
In one case, records reveal how Richard Beckett, a labourer, assaulted a man called Robert Coward so violently that Robert’s life was “despaired of”.
In 1601, the records show that labourer John Hunsley of Wisbech, confessed to “feloniously” taking 12 pence from Thomas Blaxley of Wisbech and was sentenced to be whipped.
In July 1585, John Hamond of Ely, a baker, stole a book of common prayer, a psalter and a common tablecloth from the churchwardens at Doddington, while in 1603, William Paynter, a plumber (a person who deals or works in lead) of Ely, stole 20 pounds of lead from a storehouse at Ely Cathedral.
Although it was common not to record the punishment handed down in the Assize records, we do know that John Hammond was found not guilty of theft, while William Paynter confessed to stealing the lead from Ely Cathedral and his verdict was recorded as ‘to be hanged’.
Dating from 1557-1775, the Isle of Ely Assizes records offer a rare insight in to crime and punishment in Cambridgeshire, with Ely being one of the only dioceses in England and Wales – apart from Durham - to hold fiscal and judicial privileges over such a large area.
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The collection contains one of only two significant sequences of Assize records held outside The National Archives.
Referred to as ‘gaol delivery’, most of the criminal cases of the assizes of Ely, generally held twice a year alternately at Ely and Wisbech, relate to theft of common household items such as clothing, pots and pans, foodstuffs such as sacks of grain and barley, and sums of money.
Thieves also targeted livestock, with cases of stolen horses, cows, ducks and even three swans worth 20 shillings in 1573.
University library archivist, Sian Collins, said the files present a “cornucopia of information about everyday life and communities”.
“It enables us to hear the voices of people from all backgrounds whose names come tumbling out of the records,” she said.
“Many of these people, long dead and forgotten, will now have a small piece of their story told.”
Sally Kent, assistant archivist in the Department of Archives and Modern Manuscripts, said: “It seems to be the case that individuals confessed in the hope of receiving a lesser punishment.
“There seems to be just three or four cases in which a defendant has confessed and still received capital punishment. One such case was a poisoning (homicide) so Paynter’s verdict is, I think, quite unusual.”
The court records are also significant because they show how Ely’s bishops were granted judicial privileges until 1836 - the only diocese in England and Wales apart from Durham to hold the control.
Dr Paul Cavill, lecturer in Early Modern British History at Cambridge’s Faculty of History, said: “The Isle of Ely Assize records are a major untapped resource for lives and deaths of ordinary people over centuries.”
The full catalogue will be available online from September 2020.
Over 12 months in to the project, funded by the Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire Family History Society, 110 Assize rolls (almost 80 per cent) have been examined revealing over 4,200 individual cases with over 10,000 named individuals.
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