Understanding Sources: Six Reasons to Explore the Cause Papers

We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Hannah Reeve. It offers a new entry to our ‘Understanding Sources’ series that we began in 2016. Hannah is in her third year of her AHRC-funded PhD at Newcastle University, where she is currently researching the Hanoverian parish. Follow her on Twitter @Hannah_Reeve_.

Back in my MA days I stumbled across the Cause Papers. Fast forward five years and I still use them – almost daily – as part of my PhD thesis on the early modern parish. Misbehaving clergy? Check. Decayed and dilapidated churches? Check. Squabbles over pews? Check. Boozing during divine service? Check. Really, they have it all. In this short post, I want to share with you what makes the Cause Papers such a unique source and why almost anyone interested in early modern England should explore them.

First, however, the nitty-gritty. The Church courts functioned from the middle ages to the nineteenth century to hear cases on a whole host of matters relating to the Church, and these have survived to form the Cause Papers. Anything from cases of defamation to tithe disputes were heard, where plaintiffs (the person making the complaint) would bring their grievance to the attention of the judge and ask for the defendant (the offender) to be cited to court. Once in court, each party were to produce proof to support their version of events, and these usually took the form of witness statements. Each statement usually began (in Latin) with a personal description of the witness (such as name, where they were from, age and profession). The one below, for instance, is for twenty-seven-year-old James Smith, a York based bell-founder.[1]

Borthwick Institute for Archives, CP.H.2557, “Violation of church rights (repairs of church),” 1664-1665. Image reproduced courtesy of the Borthwick Institute for Archives.

The rest of the statement followed – usually in English – to describe the witness’s version of events. Once all the evidence had been gathered, the case would eventually move toward final sentencing, though some reconciled or admitted guilt prior to the final verdict. In some cases, a verdict of excommunication was decided, where the defendant would be expelled from the Church of England. Francis Milburne, for instance, was caught digging up the “dead bodys, and the bones and sculls of several dead men and women” in the churchyard of St Michael-Le-Belfry (York). In 1664, Milburne was presented to the courts to explain why these corpses had been “heaped against” the side of the church, causing a “filthy noysome smell” for the inhabitants of the parish and those attending divine service. In Milburne’s failure to desist in his shady undertakings, the Church courts excommunicated him in a last ditch attempt to save his soul and deter others from following in his footsteps.[2]

Despite the extensive paper-trail left behind, the Cause Papers remain an underused source. The following will therefore share six reasons why anyone with an interest in the early modern period should utilise them and hopefully draw attention to their potential for future projects.

  1. They are extensive. The Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York holds the most extensive collection of Cause Papers in the country. Included in this collection are over 14,000 individual cases from the fourteenth century to the nineteenth century, covering the diocese of York and beyond, as explained in the Borthwick’s research guide.
  2. They are easy to access. The Borthwick Institute has made their extensive collection available online, searchable via the catalogue. A simple search of “sexual slander” yields almost 2,000 returns, and “defamation” almost 3,000 – perfect for perusing during a pandemic.
  3. They are not only for those interested in religion. The scope of issues heard at the courts offers social, cultural, economic, political, and family historians alike the opportunity for study. Philippa Hoskin, Simon Sandall and Emma Watson have brought attention to the range and diversity of the collection, citing an array of topics which can be studied: medieval defamation; beliefs in the sixteenth century; education during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and nineteenth century marital discord.[3] Within in my own research, I have used the papers in a variety of ways; sometimes as a standalone case to gain insight on a single parish event, and other times in conjunction with several papers to analyse broader trends and patterns. 
  4. Change over time can be plotted. The number of cases heard can be used to plot the rise and decline of the Church courts, but the content of each is also useful for analysing the changing concerns of the parishioners and those of the Established Church. For those interested in the impact of the Restoration, for instance, the return of the Church courts in 1660 can provide insight on the social, religious, and administrative issues the re-established Church was facing, as well as the parishioners’ responses.
  5. You never know what you will find. It is not unusual for other types of documents to find their way into the Cause Papers, often submitted as “evidence”. Items with a traditionally poor survival rate can sometimes turn-up, such as extracts from churchwardens’ accounts or pew plans. Sometimes these additional documents can leave you with more questions than when you started, but more often than not, they open a whole new avenue for exploration.
  6. They are fun! Countless hours can be spent pouring over the Cause Papers, often coming across fascinating snippets on day-to-day life. Anything from office-holding; the aged and infirm; parish identity; perambulations; parish traditions; pew disputes; and disgruntled congregations can be unearthed.

So, if you’re currently doing an assignment or need to flesh out your thesis with some colourful examples of parish life, head to the catalogue to get started. A keyword search is the fastest way to get stuck in, but if you’re after something a little more specific, try either the basic or advanced search engine. If you find yourself struggling with the hand-writing, remember to check out these free palaeography resources. Give it a go and see what you can dig up!

Further reading

French, Henry. ‘Legal and Judicial Sources’ in Laura Sangha and Jonathan Willis (eds.), Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources (2016), pp. 43-46 (‘The Church Courts’)

Hoskin, Philippa, Simon Sandal and Emma Watson. “The court records of the Diocese of York 1300-1858: an underused resource”, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 83 (2011): 148-163. Longley, Katharine M. Ecclesiastical cause papers at York: dean and chapter’s court 1350-1843. York: Borthwick Texts & Calendars, 1980.


[1] Borthwick Institute for Archives, CP.H.2557, “Violation of church rights (repairs of church),” 1664-1665.

[2] Borthwick Institute for Archives, DC.CP.1664/2, “Violation of church rights,” 1664.

[3] Philippa Hoskin, Simon Sandall and Emma Watson, “The court records of the Diocese of York 1300-1858: an underused resource,” Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 83 (2011): 148-163.

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