Early Modern Crime and the Law

The Court of Great Sessions in Wales

The Court of Great Sessions was formally established in 1543 by Act of Parliament (an Act which came to be known as the 'Second Act of Union'; the 'First' had been passed in 1536). This divided Wales into thirteen shires (which would form the basis of local government until 1974), of which twelve formed the circuits of the new courts. There were four circuits: Chester (comprising Flintshire, Denbighshire and Montgomeryshire); North Wales (Anglesey, Caernarfonshire and Merioneth); Brecon (Breconshire, Glamorgan, Radnorshire); Carmarthen (Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire, Pembrokeshire). Monmouthshire was added to the Oxford circuit of the English Assizes (and so its records are held in the PRO). In fact, the Great Sessions had already begun operating before the Act was passed, during 1541; the court would play a major role in the legal life of Wales until its abolition in 1830. The Sessions met twice a year in each county, in around April/May and August/September, administering English law - officially, in English, although the extensive use of interpreters would represent an acknowledgement of linguistic realities throughout its existence. It was a powerful institution: it covered both criminal and civil actions, on the civil side, it enjoyed the same powers within Wales as King's Bench and Common Pleas (and it also had an equity jurisdiction) in England, and its criminal jurisdiction was equivalent to the English counties' assizes. In other words, it was the main court for the prosecution of felonies and serious misdemeanours in Wales for almost three centuries, especially as the once-powerful Council of the Marches in Wales became increasingly feeble in the seventeenth century (it was abolished altogether after 1688).

The gaol files

The gaol files are the principal record of the Crown, or criminal, work of the courts, one file for each session held. In some respects, the contents of the gaol files will be entirely familiar to anyone who has researched the English assizes. The main 'formal' record of prosecution, as in the English courts, is the indictment, written in Latin until 1733 and in English thereafter (although some indictments contain Welsh, in cases of seditious libel or slander where recording the exact form of spoken words was important). The indictment is well known to historians of English crime, as are its problems. Trial outcomes may be noted on indictments, on jury lists and/or on gaol calendars; the latter (and sometimes jury lists) also regularly record sentencing decisions. From the eighteenth century, there is an increasing amount of information in other documents within the records relating to prisoners, sentences and transportation.

However, what distinguishes the gaol files from many English assize records is the extensive survival of less formal records. In particular, examinations and depositions have survived from early dates and in substantial numbers on some circuits. There are also substantial numbers of recognizances (bonds for the appearance of prosecutors, witnesses and offenders), petitions, 'articles of misdemeanour', jury presentments (especially in the seventeenth century), jury lists and gaol calendars, as well as coroners' inquests. 'Depositions', 'examinations' (and 'informations') were created at early stages in the prosecution of a criminal offence. Accusers, witnesses and accused gave their verbal accounts of the events in questions to one or more magistrates (or sometimes a coroner, in the case of homicide investigations). At the time, or shortly after, a written record was made, either by the examining officer or possibly his secretary. So, they are not verbatim reports of witness testimony. Moreover, in the case of Wales, many will originally have been given in Welsh and translated into English, and it is very rarely possible to detect this. Nevertheless, they give insights into early modern crimes and offenders that other records can rarely rival; additionally, they often contain a wealth of incidental detail relating to everyday life and beliefs.

Survival rates from the different circuits vary, however. Worst are those of the North Wales circuit, with almost nothing before the eighteenth century; the Carmarthen circuit records are very patchy, while the Chester and Brecon circuits have the best survival rates. The disruptions of the Civil Wars mean that for many counties there are large gaps during the 1640s and, to a lesser extent, the 1650s as well. For examinations, the Chester circuit (particularly Denbighshire and Montgomeryshire) has the richest and earliest deposits. The largest published sample of the contents of the gaol files is Murray Ll Chapman (ed), Criminal proceedings in the Montgomeryshire court of Great Sessions: transcripts of Commonwealth gaol files (Aberystwyth, 1996). The essential reference guide is Glyn Parry's Guide to the records of Great Sessions in Wales (Aberystwyth, 1995), which lists all the classes of records with much crucial background information about the history of the court.

Indexes and calendars

The files: comments on survival rates

Chester circuit

North Wales circuit

Carmarthen circuit

Brecon circuit