What were the Quarter Sessions?

Well, another week of cataloguing comes to a close and I’m at the point of creating the next blog post…..so what should I write about? I said I’d give you an insight into the world of a cataloguing archivist, but there’s far more to this project than just the cataloguing side. What are the Quarter Sessions, I hear you cry? What did they do? And why are they so important?

Well, to answer the first question, the Courts of Quarter Sessions were courts held to roughly coincide with the four quarters of the year, which were also tied to liturgical feasts of the Church. The four quarters were Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer, and Michaelmas. The courts were generally fairly itinerant in origin, which betrays their roots in the fourteenth century, though the concept of itinerant justice ultimately has its own roots earlier still, in the evolving legal and administrative reforms of the reigns of Henry I and Henry II in particular.

The nature of medieval kingship was intimately tied to the idea of ability to dispense justice, and to be seen to dispense justice; without this essential ability the king might be considered to be unable to maintain his ‘peace’ and an essential stay in the fabric of society was loosened. Kings who were unable to maintain the peace of the realm, or who were considered to withhold justice, such as King Stephen (reigned 1135-1141) and King John (1199-1216), might face considerable political upheaval and outright rebellion from their vassals.

Eventually, through a process of legal evolution, the idea of the itinerant justice, a royal officer appointed to hear and determine (oyer et terminer) the felonies committed in the realm was born, through the legal reforms of the General Eyre of Henry II, by which royal officers were dispatched to the counties to hear the crimes committed there, travelling around the country over time. These travelling royal officers, termed ‘justices in eyre’ were very different creatures in many important respects to the justices of the peace sitting in the 1730s, but they are nevertheless an important link in the chain which leads to the Quarter Sessions themselves.

By the fourteenth century then, quarterly courts were established, which often continued on the itinerant principle by settling in the main town of a given part of the county for which they were held at different points in the year. While this was the case for many counties, such as Glamorgan, for example, into the nineteenth century, in the 1730s records for Devon which I have catalogued, they courts seem to have been held generally at the castle in Exeter, though I have noticed some sessions in adjournment being held at places such as the Unicorn Inn, in Pilton, (now apparently a church hall, incidentally).

The Courts of Quarter Sessions, by the eighteenth century at least, had criminal jurisdiction over ‘misdemeanours’ (less serious offences such as burglary, assault, nuisances) and civil administration of the roads and bridges, settlement and removal of vagrants, and oversight of the Overseers of the Poor, through whom the Poor Law was administered. Quite a hefty remit, then! As my colleague Brian Carpenter put it the other day, the records document the fabric of society itself. There’s no better way of putting it, really.

So what does all this mean? Why are these records useful? What uses can they be put to by archive users? I’ll be focusing on those questions in the next update, so stay tuned, and have a great weekend!

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