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Julius Kondratyev
Julius Kondratyev


The courts of assize, or assizes (/əˈsaɪzɪz/), were periodic courts held around England and Wales until 1972, when together with the quarter sessions they were abolished by the Courts Act 1971 and replaced by a single permanent Crown Court. The assizes exercised both civil and criminal jurisdiction, though most of their work was on the criminal side.[1] The assizes heard the most serious cases, most notably those subject to capital punishment or later life imprisonment. Other serious cases were dealt with by the quarter sessions (local county courts held four times per year), while the more minor offences were dealt with summarily by justices of the peace in petty sessions (also known as magistrates' courts).



The word assize refers to the sittings or sessions (Old French assises) of the judges, known as "justices of assize", who were judges who travelled across the seven circuits of England and Wales on commissions of "oyer and terminer", setting up court and summoning juries at the various assize towns.

By the Assize of Clarendon of 1166 King Henry II established trial by jury by a grand assize of twelve knights in land disputes, and itinerant justices to set up county courts.[3] Before Magna Carta was passed (enacted) in 1215, writs of assize had to be tried at Westminster or await trial at the septennial circuit of justices in eyre. The great charter provided for land disputes to be tried by annual assizes at more convenient places. This work soon expanded, becoming five commissions. In 1293, a statute was enacted which formally defined four assize circuits.[4]

As such, for centuries, many justices of the Court of King's Bench, those of the Court of Common Pleas, and barons of the Exchequer of Pleas in some seasons of the year travelled around the country contributing to five commissions: their civil commissions were those of assize and of nisi prius; their criminal law commissions were those of the peace, of oyer and terminer and of (or for) gaol delivery.

Historically, all justices who visited Cornwall were also permanent members of the Prince's Council, which oversees the Duchy and advises the Duke.[5] Before the creation of the Duchy, the Earls of Cornwall had control over the assizes. In the 13th century Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall, feted as 'King of the Romans', moved the Assizes to the new administrative palace complex in Lostwithiel but they later returned to Launceston.[6]

The Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873, which merged judges of equity and common law competing systems into the Supreme Court of Judicature, transferred the jurisdiction of the commissions of assize (e.g. the possessory assizes that heard actions relating to the dispossession of land) to the High Court of Justice, and established district registries of the High Court across the country, leaving a minimal civil jurisdiction to the (travelling) assizes.

19. And the lord king wills that, from the time when the sheriffs shall receive the summonses of the itinerant Justices to appear before them with their counties, they shall assemble their counties and shall seek out all who have come anew into their counties since this assize; and they shall send them away under pledge that they will come before the Justices, or they shall keep them in custody until the Justices come to them, and then they shall bring them before the Justices.

Assize courts tended to deal with the more serious criminal offences, although this was not always the case. Cases heard by assize courts typically included homicide, theft, rape and assault among other crimes.

For much of their history the assize courts sat twice yearly, for Lent and Summer assizes. Typically, Lent assizes, also referred to as Spring assizes, were heard in March/April and Summer assizes in July/August, although there could be variations. By the 19th century and into the 20th century the courts sat more regularly, with Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter assizes.

In terms of information about people, assize records, most commonly, give details of the accused. Typically this includes the name, occupation and place of abode of the accused, but some or all of this information can be unreliable as aliases were often used and other false details were given. The place of abode mentioned is often where the crime took place rather than where the accused lived.

Until 1916, assize indictments were either handwritten or partly printed and partly written on parchment. After 1916 all indictments were prepared using standard, usually pre-printed, forms. These give the jurisdiction and venue, the name of the defendant, the plea, a summary statement of the charge or charges and particulars of the charges.

As most assize court records remain available only in their original paper or parchment form (copies are not available online), to search for them and see them you will need to visit us at our building in Kew. Alternatively, if you can establish the record series and document references within the series, you can use our record copying service to have copies sent to you for a charge. Either way, you will need to follow these steps to locate records:

Usually, the best place to begin a search in the assize records is the crown and gaol books. To decide which kind of record will be most useful for your research see the information on record types in section 3.

All assize court records at The National Archives are identified by the department code ASSI. You will also need a series number (each circuit has its own set of series) to narrow your search. To find the right record series refer to the keys in the appendices of this guide. For English counties use Appendix 1; for Welsh counties use Appendix 2.

There are some other scattered records outside of the ASSI department at The National Archives which relate to criminal trials at assize courts. There are also records and accounts of trials elsewhere, in other archives and libraries.

Payments and expenses incurred by sheriffs in the punishment of prisoners were often recorded. These records can include lists of prisoners tried or transported, accounts for maintenance in prison or expenses for carrying out an execution. They provide a useful alternative for the many missing assize records from this period.

In 1830 the palatinate of Chester (Cheshire) joined the assizes court system. Durham and Lancaster (Lancashire) merged into the assizes system in 1876. Prior to these years you will need to consult the Palatinate of Chester court records, the Palatinate of Durham court records or the Palatinate of Lancaster court records.

c. 1400, "regulate, arrange, dispose" (a sense now obsolete), from size (n.) or shortened from a verb form of assize (n.). The meaning "make of a certain size" is from c. 1600; that of "classify according to size" is attested from 1630s. The verbal phrase size up "estimate, assess, take the measure of" is from 1847 and retains the "assessment" sense of size (n.). Related: Sized; sizing.

The word assize refers to the sittings or sessions (Old French assises) of the judges, known as "justices of assize", who were judges of the King's Bench Division of the High Court of Justice who travelled across the seven circuits (formerly, there were six) of England and Wales on commissions of "oyer and terminer", setting up court and summoning juries at the various Assize Towns.

From the thirteenth century onwards, judges appointed by the king or queen of England were sent (usually in pairs) on circuits to administer both civil and criminal law. Originally their function was in civil litigation, the periodic regulation and examination of the quality, weights, measure and prices of certain products offered for sale, notably ale, bread and cloth. They were to control local justice in criminal cases, since they administered the law more accurately than the local justices, being more susceptible to royal authority than the local justices of the peace sitting in quarter sessions. They were also charged with reporting the political feeling of the area they served. By the fifteenth century, the criminal side dominated the business of the assize sessions. Any case could be heard but (after 1590) the more serious cases were sent to assize, as well as those dealing with the finer points of the law. Criminal transportation sentences to the American colonies, for example, were usually issued by assize courts (or their equivalents in Greater London). In 1971 the assize circuits were abolished and replaced by the Crown Courts.

Quarter Sessions handled summary offences and misdemeanours, but sometimes heard felonies. The Assizes were supposed to hear only serious criminal cases, but in practice some minor ones are found in their records. The reasons are no doubt complex but some may be related to the convenience of the court, and to the expenses of arrest, detention in gaol, and proceedings. The county paid the bill for the quarter sessions whilst the central government paid for the assizes. In order to reduce the burden on county funds local magistrates might commit as many prisoners to the assize as they thought reasonable.[1]

All these prisoners were sent to York to be tried in the court (assize is a historical term referring to courts that periodically administered civil and criminal law). The court opened proceedings in Ancaster on 23 May 1814. Nineteen men were officiallycharged with high treason. In sentences handed down 7-21 June, Jacob Overholtzer, Aaron Stevens, Garrett Neill, John Johnston, Samuel and Stephen Hartwell, Dayton Lindsey, George Peacock Jr., Isaiah Brink, Benjamin Simmons, Adam Crysler, Isaac Petit,Cornelius Howey, John Dunham, and Noah Payne Hopkins were found guilty. Dayton Lindsey, Noah Payne Hopkins, John Dunham, Aaron Stevens, Benjamin Simmons, George Peacock Jr., Isaiah Brink and Adam Crysler were executed by hanging on 20 July 1814 at BurlingtonHeights.

The most serious criminal offences were dealt with by assize courts. In Lancashire, the Palatinate of Lancaster had its own jurisdiction, until 1876 when it was replaced by the Northern Circuit of the assizes. Use the criminal registers for England and Wales 1791 to 1892 (National Archives) first to see if it contains the information you need. 041b061a72


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