Researching an ancestor in the Chancery Courts

This blog sets out to demonstrate what resources maybe available and how they may be used to research an ancestor in the Chancery courts.

The National Archive (TNA) collection of Chancery Records are now largely searchable online at their discovery[1] website and provides a good starting point.

A quick of family surnames, Richardson and Huddlestone, on the (TNA) discovery website for chancery proceedings, being common surnames finds around 4,500 and 500 references respectively. Researching my married surname, Pettyfer, finds only 4 references[2]:

  • “Reference:    C 6/548/132
  • Short title: Pettyfer v [unknown]
  • First plaintiff: Richard Pettyfer.
  • Defendants: [unknown].
  • Document type: bill only.
  • Date:   [1649-1714]
  • Reference:      C 8/321/212
  • Short title: Pierce v Cotterell.
  • Plaintiffs: Edward Pierce.
  • Defendants: George Cotterell, Richard Pettyfer and Thomas Goodlucke.
  • Subject: money, Wiltshire.
  • Document type: bill only
  • Date:   1668
  • Reference:      C 2/ChasI/K27/108
  • Short title: Knybbe v Dean of Windsor.
  • Plaintiffs: Henry Knybbe and Emott Pettyfer on behalf of themselves and other copyholders of Manor of Austy, Warwickshire.
  • Defendants: Dean and Canons of His Majestys Chapel of St George in the Castle, Windsor, Berkshire.
  • Document type: rejoinder only
  • Date:   1625-1660
  • Reference:      C 11/1719/9
  • Short title: Cotton v Cotton.
  • Document type: Bill and four answers.
  • Plaintiffs: Robert Cotton, esq of Gidding, Huntingdonshire.
  • Defendants: Jane Cotton, John Cotton and Elizabeth Stewart Cotton, infants (by John Pettyfer, clerk), Charles Jamens senior, Charles Jamens junior, Mary Jamens, Elizabeth Jamens and Robert Jamens, infant (by said Charles Jamens senior), Dame Mary Burdett, Sir Robert Burdett bart, infant (by Robert Holden, esq), Elizabeth Burdett, Jane Burdett, Mary Burdett, Frances Burdett, Ann Burdett and Dorothy Burdett.
  • Date of bill (or first document): 1722”

I also searched the spelling ‘Pettifer’ and found 55 references; the spelling ‘Pettefer’ found 4 references; and the spelling ‘Pettifor’ found 5 references. These of course should also be checked to see if they are in fact ancestors. These are all cases where a ‘Pettyfer’ is named as a party to the proceedings.

The online searches at TNA can only be by names of Plaintiffs and Defendants. They do not include cases where a ‘Pettyfer’ was a Deponent in a case or made an Affidavit. If it is known that an ancestor was a Deponent or made an Affidavit in a case any record of the deposition/Affidavit would need to be searched on the TNA website by the case name/parties using indexes IND 1/16759 and IND 1/9115 to IND 1/9121 for town depositions, IND 1/14545-14567 for Affidavits covering the period 1611-1800 and IND 1/14575 -14684 for Affidavits covering the period 1801-1875. Country Depositions can only be searched by surname of the parties there is no index.

Further, the references found all concern pleadings: the first two cases appear to have Bills of Complaint only; the second is a Rejoinder; and the third is a Bill of Complaint and four answers. It may be that the cases did not progress further and therefore no other records exist; or it may be that other records have either not been missed from the online listing; or appear under different names if the parties changed perhaps because a party died, married or due to some legal necessity. Cases could be protracted and continue for many years.

Whilst the TNA online index does not appear to limit its searches to first plaintiff and defendant (from my searches above) it may not always correctly identify cases involving a particular surname (most likely due to mis-spelling, simply missing a party from the list etc). Further the descriptions on the online catalogue are not always accurate or full so through viewing the actual records more about the case may in fact be discovered without resorting to further indexes. For example, if a case did not proceed further there may be a record to that effect on the documents; or there may in fact be more documents in the ‘bundle’ of pleadings than is stated in the description.

It is therefore always worth searching the records found in an online search and the physical indexes and calendars at TNA.

A good starting point to search for other records where the date (range) of a case is known is the indexes to the Masters’ Reports (C38) found in IND 1. For example, the second case listed above is dated 1668, I would therefore start a search in IND 1/1937, the index covering that year’s Master’s Reports for Plaintiffs with surnames beginning K – R (the plaintiff in that case being Edward Pierce) and then search the indexes for a period of at least five years.

If records exist, the relevant bundles can be found by searching the indexes for the Masters’ Documents and Master’s exhibits (C117 – C126 (covering period 17th Century to 19th Century) and C103 – C114 (covering period 1234 to 1860)) again in IND 1 locating the relevant index for the appropriate period. These records are particularly useful from the 18th Century onwards.

However, a case may not have been referred to a Master if no factual evidence was required. In such cases, or if nothing is found in the Masters’ Reports, the Decree and Order books may be the next stage. These are found in C33 (1544 to 1875[3]) and are indexed in IND 1 locating the relevant index for the appropriate period, and in calendars on the open shelves at TNA. Taking the same example of the 1668 case, the appropriate index to begin with would be IND 1 1613 which covers book B (surnames beginning L – Z) for 1668 and then search indexes for at least the next 5 consecutive years.

Final decrees could be Enrolled. Enrolled Decrees covering the period 1534 to 1903 can be found in C 78 and C 79. The Anglo-American Legal Tradition website[4] can be searched for online versions covering the whole of the series. For those enrolled during the reigns of Henry VIII to George III the index IND 1/16960A & B can be searched.

There may also be records of appeals against enrolled decrees and those records are now held at the Parliamentary Archives as such appeals were made to the House of Lords but can be search on the TNA discovery website.

Decrees which were not enrolled were also often appealed. These appeals went back to the Lord Chancellor and would be found amongst Ordinary and Appeal Petitions in C 36 (covering the period 1774-1875) which can be searched in the indexes 1/15029-15047 or for period 1876-1925 in IND 1/15048-15282.

For later cases, those between 1842-1880, the best finding aid to begin with may be the Cause books which consolidate “references to decrees, orders, reports and certificates made during the course of a case, together with the names of all the parties to it and their solicitors and the dates of all their appearances”[5]. They are found in series C 32 and are indexed for the period 1860 to 1880 in IND 1/16727-16747.

I have considered above depositions available to search by index at TNA and noted that there is no index to country depositions at TNA although an online search of the case name may find such records. A better finding aid is Bernau’s Index and if no records for an ancestor can be found at TNA online, then this may be the better starting place as they may not have brought or defended a case but may have been a witness.

Bernau’s index can be found on microfilm at the Society of Genealogists (SOG) and at LDS[6] Family History Centres. This is a card index of proceedings and depositions (although many cards refer to ‘correspondence’) in the Courts of Chancery and Exchequer includes about 4.5 million individuals and is particularly useful for Chancery Proceedings between 1714 and 1758 found in TNA series C 11 as the index for this period names every litigant. Bernau’s notebooks for this period, in 426 volumes, also include parties and summaries of the disputes.

The Index is also particularly useful for finding country deponents, listing all county depositions from 1558 to 1649 (TNA Series C 21) and town depositions up to 1800 (TNA series C 24).

The index cards provide a bundle and suit number and the reference should be noted in full as they do not represent modern references at TNA and “you will otherwise be lacking vital clues when it comes to translating the obsolete references given into the modern National Archives references”[7]. To translate the references, Sharp’s How to use the Bernau Index[8] should be consulted. Because the index provides a bundle number, which usually refers to a box of depositions from many different suits, the suit number is provided by Bernau’s index to be able to find a specific deposition within the box, although the names of the parties to the proceedinsgs are not provided.

Another drawback to using Bernau’s Index is that it can be difficult to read and there can be variations in spelling of the same surname. There is also a lack of additional information to be able to distinguish between individuals with common surnames without recourse to the original documents. They are however indexed in alphabetical order by surname and then first name.

The SOG also holds the Great Card Index on microfilm, which is another card index of several million names containing various miscellaneous information, including amongst others, references to Chancery proceedings. If visiting the SOG to search Bernau’s index it may be worth searching the Great Card Index too.

Where a case involves an inheritance dispute, Coldham’s Index is a good finding aid to search first. Otherwise known as the Inheritance Disputes Index, it is available to search online at Find My Past[9] and can be searched by name (including variants), year, county and country. The index (a transcript of the original) provides: the names of the testator, the plaintiff and the defendant; the year of case, place and TNA reference covering the period 1543 to 1714.

The index includes over 26,000 cases concerning wills, bequests, grants of administration, descent of property, identity claims and other testamentary disputes tried in the Chancery Court, with cases typically involving several members of the same family.

A search of this index for the name Pettyfer, including variations, finds one result under the variant surname Pettifor. No first name is given but the other information provided is[10]:

  • “Year  1661
  • Place   St. Martin Le Grand, London
  • Testator first name(s) William
  • Testator last name      Samuell
  • Plaintiff last name      Pettifor
  • Defendant last name   Samuell
  • Case details    Pettifor v. Samuell 1661
  • County            London
  • Country           England
  • National Archives reference   C10/487/193”

It would seem likely that the Defendant is the widow, son or daughter of the deceased. This case is amongst the five listed in my search on TNA discovery website in the name ‘Pettifor’. The entry on the TNA website provides further information as to the parties:

  • “Reference      C 10/487/193
  • Description:  
  • Short title: Pettifor v Samuell.
  • Plaintiffs: Elizabeth Pettifor and Jane Pettifor.
  • Defendants: Anne Samuell, widow.
  • Subject: personal estate of William Samuell, St Martin Le Grand, London.
  • Document type: bill only.
  • SFP
  • Date:   1661”

So, it would appear that there are in fact two plaintiffs and that all the parties are female; the defendant being the widow of the deceased and executor of his estate. Other finding aids at TNA should be searched for further records in the case (as discussed above).

Other finding aids include several volumes published by the List and Index Society and available to purchase from their website[11], including:

  • Samples of Chancery Pleadings and Suits: 1627, 1685, 1735 and 178
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls, 31 Eliz I, 1588-9 (C 66/1332-46)   
  • Calendar of Chancery Decree Rolls (C 78/86-130)  
  • Calendar of Chancery Decree Rolls (C 78/46-85)
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls, Calendar, 30 Eliz I, 1587-1588      
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls, Calendar, 28-29 Eliz I, 1585-1587, (C 66/1271-91) Pt. 2 (with index to grantees)                              
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls, Calendar, 28-29 Eliz I, 1585-1587, (C 66/1271-91) Pt. 1         
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls, Calendar, 27 Eliz I, 1584-1585, (C 66/1254-70), with index to grantees, 23-27 Eliz. I          
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls (C 66), Calendar, 20-23 Jas I           
  • Chancery: Patent Rolls (C 66), Calendar, 18-19 Jas I

There are other volumes which are currently out of print.

Whilst the British Record Society website[12] details several Chancery Proceedings index publications, when the items are opened on the website, they all state “This publication is no longer available”. They are publications generally from the 19th and early 20th Century and are available online on websites such as Internet Archive[13].

If it is known a case was begun in the years 1627, 1685, 1735 and 1785 it would be worth searching Horwitz and Moreton’s Samples of Chancery pleadings and suits, 1627, 1685, 1735 and 1785[14] which provides, as the title suggests, an index to a sample of about 1000 cases from the four specified years.

Other finding aids online include Ancestry’s[15] “British Chancery Records, 1386-1558” set which they describe as “an index to the Chancery Court proceedings, which consist of bills of complaint, answers, replications, and rejoinders, from 1386-1558”. This index provides the names of more than 286,500 individuals involved in the Chancery Court proceedings between 1386 and 1558, providing references to the location of their name in the original records, found at TNA in series C 1.

A search in these records produces interesting results for the surname ‘Pettyfer’ and variants, such as:

  • Christopher Petyfrer
  • Place:  Hertford, Hereford
  • Date:   1544-1547
  • Volume:          9
  • Page:               96
  • Bundle:           1150

There were 112 records indexed largely from the 15th and 16th centuries of which in fact only 17 were variants of ‘Pettyfer’ the rest were variants of ‘Bedford’. The surname variants included Petyfrer, Petefer, Petifer, Petyfere, Peytefere, Pitfforde, Pyttford, Pedeford, Paytefere, Pytford. This is a useful tool in finding surname variants to search in other finding aids.

These can be searched online at the TNA discovery website.

The Ancestry website also holds three further searchable indexes to chancery proceedings:

  • A calendar of chancery proceedings: bills and answers filed in the reign of King Charles the First (976 records)          
  • Abstracts of inquisitiones post mortem relating to the city of London, returned into the Court of Chancery (897 records)
  • Index of chancery proceedings (Reynardson’s division) preserved in the Public Record Office: 1649-1714 (523 records)

There were no results from these sets of records when searching for the surname ‘Pettyfer’ or variants.

As is demonstrated above, finding ancestors in Chancery proceedings may not be an easy task, however where records are found, they can be very rewarding for the family historian providing many genealogical details as well as social, financial and historical context to an ancestor’s life.


[1] https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/

[2] https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/results/r?_d=C&_hb=tna&_q=Pettyfer

[3] Digital images of some of these records are available at the Anglo American Legal Tradition website http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT.html

[4] ibid

[5] https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/chancery-equity-suits-after-1558/

[6] Latter Day Saints

[7] Bevan Tracing your Ancestors in the National Archives page 506

[8] SOG 1996

[9] http://www.findmypast.co.uk

[10] https://www.findmypast.co.uk/transcript?id=GBOR%2FOR%2FIDI%2F00020205%2F2

[11] http://www.listandindexsociety.org.uk/allpubs.html

[12] https://www.britishrecordsociety.org/publications/

[13] https://archive.org/

[14] List and Index Society 1995

[15] http://www.ancestry.co.uk

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