ecclesiastical courts

views updated May 18 2018

ecclesiastical courts have existed alongside secular courts from the Norman Conquest onwards, though their activities were much diminished after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In addition to supervising clerical discipline and performance, the courts had important jurisdiction over matrimonial disputes, probate, and wills, and a general responsibility for the behaviour and religious observance of the laity. In the 12th cent. the boundaries between royal and ecclesiastical jurisdiction and the extent of benefit of clergy were hotly disputed and contributed much to the conflict between Henry II and Becket. Until the Reformation the hierarchy of courts, with appeals to the one above, was archdeacons' courts, bishops' (consistory) courts, archiepiscopal courts, and the papal court. Above the archiepiscopal court for Canterbury was the Court of Arches: above York, the Chancery Court. After the breach with Rome, a Court of Delegates heard appeals for the archbishops' courts, until in 1833 the duty was given to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In addition, between 1559 and 1641 the Court of High Commission was very active, and James II established an ill-judged Ecclesiastical commission 1686–8. Until the late 17th cent., the ecclesiastical courts had a high profile, prosecuting for fornication, witchcraft, and absence from church and, for lesser offences, punishing often by public penance. Much of the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts was removed in the 19th cent., particularly over tithes, probate, and matrimonial causes, leaving their authority confined largely to the clergy. In Scotland, the Commissary Court of Edinburgh, set up in 1564, had jurisdiction over matrimony and wills, as well as an appellate role, but was abolished in 1876 by which time many of its functions had been taken over by the Court of Session.

Judith Champ

Ecclesiastical Courts

views updated May 18 2018


In England, the collective classification of particular courts that exercised jurisdiction primarily over spiritual matters. A system of courts, held by authority granted by the sovereign, that assumed jurisdiction over matters concerning the ritual and religion of the established church, and over the rights, obligations, and discipline of the clergy.