Jane’s research into Sussex church court records provided the basis for her talk. The records, now held at Chichester, are extensive, unlike those of Surrey which have largely been lost (or were Surrey people better behaved?). Jane described how the courts worked and took us into some of the cases.
The courts dealt with misdemeanours against the church (allowing hogs to roam in a churchyard), immoral behaviour, and disputes over tithes property pews and the like. One person sat in judgement with a beam between him and the accused to protect him from violence – a court room with this arrangement still exists high above the south transept at Chichester cathedral. Witnesses travelled surprisingly long distances to give evidence and those found guilty of moral misdemeanours had to wear a white smock, carry a lighted candle, and repent in front of the congregation, a humiliating experience. Jane then entertained us with extracts from the records of a number of cases. People’s behaviour then was much the same as today!
The weakness was that one man sat as judge and jury. After being suspended by Cromwell, the courts were restored but their role was gradually taken over by the civil courts. They still exist however and can be used to consider certain cases involving the clergy.