Trove of English Court Records Reveal Stories of Murder, Witchcraft, Cheese Theft

Archivists are cataloging documents from the Assizes court in the Isle of Ely, which tried serious crimes

University of Cambridge

For centuries, serious offenders from the region of Cambridgeshire, England, met their judgement in court in the Isle of Ely, a historic area that was accessible only by boat until the 1600s. There, judges heard cases of theft, witchcraft, assault and murder—and now, as Alison Flood reports for the Guardian, the University of Cambridge is working to make an archive of the court’s fascinating documents more accessible to the public.

In conjunction with the Cambridgeshire Family History Society, the university is cataloguing some 270 rolls and files from the Isle of Ely’s Assizes court— a local judicial system that was held periodically and presided over by visiting judges from higher courts in London. The documents date from 1557 to 1775, and they have not been catalogued before. Most are written in Latin, and they constitute a notable collection because, according to Cambridge, “this information is not available elsewhere. There are no surviving minute books or summary records for the Assizes during this period.”

The Ely court records offer a remarkably rich array of depositions, jury lists, inquests and examinations, which are helping experts learn more about historic crime trends and the application of justice within Ely’s court system. The collection also “enables us to hear the voices of people from all backgrounds whose names come tumbling out of the records,” says Sian Collins, an archivist at the Cambridge University Library.

There are stories of rage, desperation, indignation—like the 1580 case of yeoman John Webbe, who was called to answer a plea of defamation after he told one Joan Tyler that her husband was “a knave, a rascall & a thief.” Also in 1580, the court documented the crime of one William Sturns, who was brought to court for swiping three cheeses.

“Unfortunately we don’t know what type of cheese it was,” Collins tells Sabrina Imbler of Atlas Obscura.

Sturns was ultimately found not guilty; juries tended to show leniency to people who stole “low value food and drink,” Collins explains, because they recognized that the perpetrators were likely driven to steal out of desperation. In fact, for all their tantalizing details, the Ely court records are often heart-breaking, testifying to the harsh realities of life in England’s past. In 1577, for example, a woman named Margaret Cotte was accused of killing the daughter of a blacksmith by “witchcraft.” She, too, was found not guilty, but the records “leave room for historians to wonder about the effects of the accusation and the acquittal on those involved and their community,” Cambridge says in a statement.

That same year, an unmarried woman named Cecilia Samuel was hanged after she was found guilty of drowning her baby in a ditch. The court’s records claim she was “seduced by a diabolical instigation.” But “[i]n this day and age we have a little bit more compassion for people and we ask ourselves why was Cecilia driven to do that,” Collins tells the Guardian’s Flood. “Was she in desperate circumstances, was she suffering in this way?”

“There isn’t much to laugh about in these records,” Collins adds.

As part of the cataloguing project, experts are putting together a complete list of each court sitting, with an index to all the cases held at the Assizes over the period covered by the documents. The Cambridgeshire Family History Society also plans to make the names of the accused and information about their alleged crimes available on its website—because while the Ely court papers may not be a cheery read, they offer an insightful glimpse into the lives and deaths of people who have been largely forgotten by history.

“Courts were an option for a surprisingly large proportion of the population at this time and the records are a cornucopia of information about everyday life and communities,” Collins explains. “It is both fascinating and touching to see the names and words of people who have no other memorial.”

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