Church Courts


There’s one last group of courts for us to look at to conclude this series on law-keeping in the fourteenth century. These are the church, or ecclesiastical, courts. They were a cause of bad feeling between many monarchs and archbishops of Canterbury. The kings felt that the church courts encroached too much into non-church matters, while the church wanted to spread their influence over the lives of ordinary parishioners.

The church had the right to try clerics in their own courts. They were governed by canon law, not the law of the kingdom. Each diocese had two main kinds of court: the consistory, which covered the whole diocese and was presided over by the bishop, and the archdeaconry court, which only covered an archdeaconry and was presided over by the archdeacon.

As well as trying clerics, the courts also covered lay people where the issue between them was a moral one. You could be taken to these courts if you were a drunkard, swore, slandered someone, beat your wife, traded on a Sunday, expressed heretical views, perjured yourself, ate meat on a fasting day, attacked a cleric, didn’t pay your tithes to the church, gambled during mass, lent money at interest, wanted to dissolve your marriage because of consanguinity or non-consummation, or had a case against a cleric. The courts also dealt with some issues relating to wills. These were all considered to be moral issues, or issues affecting the church or bringing it into disrepute.

Moral disputes mostly related to sex. Fornication, bigamy, adultery, bastardy, homosexuality, prostitution and incest were all within the province of the ecclesiastical courts.

For many, being tried in a church court was preferable to being tried in any of the other courts, especially for murder, since the church courts could not order capital punishment. It is said that people who were not clergy claimed that they were in order to be tried in a church court and avoid the possibility of being hanged or beheaded. This has always seemed odd to me, since I thought it unlikely that those in charge of the court would not have the means of finding out whether or not the accused person really was a cleric. I have since learned that the number of men in the church was vast. As well as monks and parish priests there were also chaplains and chantry priests scattered about the country. It’s been estimated that two percent or more of the male population was a cleric.

A man could “prove” that he was a cleric by reading a text from the Bible, which was not such an easy test as you might think. The literacy rate was low, but it was higher than two percent.

Whilst the church courts did not have the death penalty, they did have some imaginative punishments. They issued fines or ordered the guilty party to be whipped. Most of the punishments were carried out in public.  Sometimes it was to make an offering in church in front of the whole of the parish, or to stand in a white sheet by the door of the church, being passed by other parishioners as they went in and out of the church to mass. The ultimate punishment, of course, was excommunication.

The highest church court was the Convocation where the worst crimes committed by clerics were tried. For a cleric, the worst punishment was usually being defrocked.


The Time Traveler’s Guide to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer

A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams

A Social History of England 1200-1500 edited by Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

47 responses to “Church Courts

  1. I’ve loved reading this series, April. It’s fascinating stuff. I’m fairly sure my mum used to threaten me and my brother with excommunication if we didn’t behave!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting..I didn’t realise churches held courts, I wonder when that stopped?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a complicated business the law could be! The ecclesiastical courts are interesting, and the fact that the literate (well, literate men, anyway) could escape hanging by reading a “neck verse” particularly so. I don’t think this option was available to women.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t suppose it was complicated if you lived then, but, yes, it’s complicated.

      I’m ashamed to say that I don’t know whether nuns were literate or not, so the test might or might not have applied. I do know that nuns were tried in church courts. Some of them did very un-nunlike things.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’ve always assumed that some nuns could both read and write, but now I think about it, that assumption’s based on tenuous grounds. It probably came from reading about abbesses such as Hildegarde of Bingen and Heloise. I think they were both Benedictine abbesses, and literate abbesses implies some literate nuns. That could also have applied in English abbeys, but no particular name comes to mind.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I was thinking about Hildegarde of Bingen and then I started wondering about whether or not she was literate. We’re on safer ground with Heloise, though. In the back of my mind there’s something about abbeys being places where women were educated as a matter of course, but I don’t know where I picked it up and I don’t know if it’s true. Very few of my books have much to say about nuns and abbeys, annoyingly.

          Liked by 2 people

          • There’s a future project!

            I have something similar about (wealthy) women’s education in my mind, too, but I’m not sure how it got there.

            Liked by 2 people

          • Shaunn Munn

            Many literate nuns were taught to read prior to taking vows. Since nuns were expected to recite prayers from psalters, missals, & holy literature, there were likely rudimentary lessons for those needing it. But convents were not noted for education at that time. Women were severely discouraged from excessive education so as to keep them subservient to men.

            Hildegard was a noblewoman, and as such, had more leeway for her pursuits, and received a great deal of education before becoming a nun. As long as she didn’t rock the church’s positions on things, she was encouraged. Heloise was also educated prior to entering her nunnery. Both women were free to explore their faith within the constraints allowed by the Church.

            Liked by 2 people

            • I don’t really have a reason to investigate this, because nuns are tricky in romance stories, but I do want to know a bit more about this. Few of my books have much to say about the education of women, but they must have had some sort of education, at least those who were members of the aristocracy.

              Liked by 2 people

      • Shaunn Munn

        Most nuns, I’ve read, were the unmarriageable or “gift” daughters of the gentry, nobility, & merchant classes. It was uncommon that a peasant woman was accepted except as domestic help. A few exceptional peasants did become nuns, provided they had dowries or an important skill, but the majority were from landed families. The women & girls brought their dowries for their maintenance & for upkeep of the convent. It became church property in perpetuity. Well-off spinsters were eagerly sought & was one of the means by which the church ended up so wealthy. Often, the dowries became gifts from church officials (males, obviously) to bastard children.

        Due to their origins, most nuns had at least rudimentary literacy. The ability to read a psalter, missal, book of hours or other accepted texts were considered enough. Few women actually read the Bible.
        The Holy Book had information that was considered proprietary for the Church elite, and was dangerous for simple minds. It was also always printed in Latin or Greek. All other languages were too heathen for the Holy Words. Most of the population was ignorant of what the Bible REALLY contained! The convent leaders were usually of higher nobility, and often had better educations prior to taking their vows, but even they rarely READ the Bible! No wonder by the Reformation, people wanted to read the Holy Book in their native languages! Nothing whets the appetite like forbidden fruit!

        By the time of the Dissolution in England, there was great disparity among convents. A few were underwritten by wealthy benefactors, but others were well near penury. Most were barely regulated, and it was not uncommon for a nun to have a child by a male clergyman, visiting friend, the convent reeve, or other men employed by the house. Little beyond corporal punishment was actually done to these women, especially those higher on the social ladder.

        Nuns usually had few responsibilities beyond the daily schedule of prayers & embroidering vestments. They were bored! Doubtless some did not choose the vocation, but were pressed by parents. They likely had healthy libidos & chafed at convent life. Several convents must have had some real wild wires!

        A few convents had pious, dedicated daughters. Sadly, because of the tradition of sending unmarried girls to a life few wanted, the whole institution suffered.

        Did they need to plead by literacy? Highly doubtful.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Shaunn Munn

          Also seeding mentioning were the many widows who bequeathed their portions to the church in exchange for lifetime housing and care. Some ended up taking orders as well. These women brought their educations as well as their bodies, and might have influenced the nuns by their worldly experiences, if they were in contact.

          Liked by 2 people

        • Thank you, Shaun. I was quite shocked when I picked up a booklet in what remains of a nearby abbey. The nuns got up to all kinds of things, including leaving the abbey to go into taverns. Occasionally there was a crackdown by the bishop and an abbess was dismissed. There’s nothing in it, though, about courts and trials. It’s something I’ll be looking out for in the future.

          Liked by 2 people

          • A new series about four sisters, April?

            I don’t think nuns – whatever mischief they got up to – would be likely to have committed a hanging offense, but the “benefit of clergy” rule still applied in the 16th century, when the literacy rate would have been much higher than it was in medieval times. Mind you, it only worked once. A second offense meant hanging. And I’m pretty sure it applied only to men.

            Liked by 2 people

            • I got out my book about nunneries, which has a very high level overview of life as a nun and could find nothing worse than sexual misconduct, wearing flashy clothes and assaulting a vicar.

              Rather shockingly it looks as if many convents housed the parish church. No wonder they could get up to all kinds of things.

              Liked by 2 people

  4. rachaelstray

    I have thoroughly enjoyed this series. I can see why people would’ve preferred to be tried though church court for sure!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Losing the Plot

    I have also loved this series, it’s been fascinating. Just enough to learn something each week without getting bogged down. I’m quite excited for the next topic 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Yes it’s been a grand series April.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I didn’t realise the church still had courts, I thought Henry had put a stop to them..glad they have less power or I’d be definitely up there for all sorts of things :D…great info, its been a great series.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I learned when I was looking at the dissolution of marriage that Catholics still need to appear before a consistory court to dissolve a marriage. I don’t expect it happens very often.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It happens quite often, especially in the United States and Italy. Not usually dissolution, but rather a declaration of nullity (i.e. that the marriage never existed). Rare cases of dissolution are reserved to the Pope and only occur if (a) the marriage was not consummated or (b) it was between unbaptized persons.

        Liked by 2 people

  8. I had no idea that there were two separate court systems in the middle ages. Do you know what happened to clerics who were defrocked?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can imagine that life was not great for them. Some of them could become scriveners, writing and reading letters for money. They had few valuable skills and no lord, so they probably had to find employment of some kind in the towns.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Shaunn Munn

    I am sad that this is the last of the series! I learned so much to fill in the cracks of my mind! Many things I’ve pondered have been cleared by you! MANY, MANY THANKS!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. John Kitcher

    All very interesting – I was involved in a C of E consistory court in the mid to late 1980s. The court was called into being to try the varying opinions as to whether St Mary’s Eling should be re-ordered as proposed by the incumbent vicar, or left as is for future generations to enjoy. The court was held in the church, and followed the procedures of a High Court – barristers, solicitors, expert witnesses etc etc. Wiki gives a very clear definition of these courts, which date back in some form (apparently) to William the Conqueror. So – these courts can still be called today based on some rules laid down in 1963 – and not just the Catholic Church.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Reading a verse from the bible would’ve meant reading it in Latin, wouldn’t it? So you didn’t just have to be literate, you had to read (of fake your way through) Latin.


    • I think if you could read at all you could probably read Latin. Most teaching was in Latin. If you learned to read in a less formal way you might be able to fake the Latin.


      • Shaunn Munn

        Many, especially merchants, relied upon Latin for communicating throughout the Christian world. Clerks, who kept accounts for international transactions, used it. Merchant ships often had at least one person who could write in Latin so transactions could be checked against cheating. But that could backfire when so few knew a language so powerful. Corruption within the educated was rife.

        The Church hierarchy kept a monopoly on who learned Latin, so as to protect established doctrines from dissension. By the 16th century, the Roman Church had become so corrupted that it was dangerous to let laymen read the Bible, especially in European languages! There was nothing in the Bible forbidding it to be read in other languages, as Wyclif, Luther, and others knew well!

        Nationalism was beginning to grow by Henry V’s reign. People were starting to refer to themselves as English, more than by counties or shires. French was rapidly disappearing from local correspondence & records, and Latin was also beginning to waver. Fast forward a hundred years, when new discoveries began to topple preconceived notions, Latin’s sphere was reduced even more. While new discoveries were classified in Latin, they were increasingly discussed and written about in English. It was a knell of doom for Latin when English people chose to absorb the Brave New World in English!

        English has long been a flexible language of assimilation. Rather than trying to find Latin descriptions for new things, English went local (wherever local happened to be), and its lexicons blossomed! Latin was left to the taxonomists. Latin classified. English described.

        This is why when you look up , say, opossum, in modern English biology texts, you will usually find a Latin classification, but an English common name (borrowed from Native Americans) & description. Latin words are becoming sparse in modern professional literature. A couple of generations back professional research was crammed with them. So many Latin terms have become incorporated in spoken & written English, that throwing in an italicized Latin terms seems superfluous & a bit show-offish, a far cry from the days when it was a sign of education, power & enlightenment!

        English rules!

        Liked by 1 person

  12. There is an important distinction between major and minor orders, but even the latter were considered clerics. Major orders would be bishops, priests, deacons and subdeacons. But minor orders included readers, altar servers, and nearly anyone who ever studied in a seminary. (It was still possible to marry when one remained in minor orders.) On this basis, many men could claim a clerical status.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you. That demonstrates that there were very many men who could call upon the clerical courts. No wonder kings were frustrated that so many of their subjects were technically beyond the scope of their laws.


  13. Pingback: 134:  In Search of Snakes-Purr – The Earl of Southampton's Cat

  14. Pingback: What Did Pardoners and Summoners Do? | A Writer's Perspective

Please join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s