The Consistory Court of the Diocese of Lichfield and Coventry and its work, 1680-1830
This thesis examines the work of the bishop's consistory court of the Diocese of Lichfield and Coventry through the cause papers and administrative documents generated between 1680 and 1830. These courts were extensively used through the century, business peaking in the 1730s and 1780s at between 200 and 250 causes per year. The overall pattern of the work of the courts is established in relation to its constituent elements of defamation, tithes, matrimonial, testamentary and Office causes. The social and spatial provenance of the plaintiffs is considered. Almost all of the plaintiffs were of the 'middling sort' and lower social levels, and many were women. Comparative material from Birmingham in 1770 would suggest that the users of the courts mirrored the overall occupational structure of the period. A re-evaluation of the work of the ecclesiastical courts shows that the Lichfield courts represented a source of arbitration for intractable disputes of predominantly rural origin. Causes arose from within the community, rather than being imposed externally by the church authorities, and formed a channel for public censure of those who offended against local mores, regardless of sex or social standing. Judgements in the form of sentences were often invisible and the courts have been considered to have been useless. The fact that these courts could harm neither purse nor person was not a failing, but a strength in a 'face to face' society, where an individual insisting upon the incarceration or financial deprivation of another could seriously escalate conflicts within a community. The medieval function of these courts was merely to 'correct and punish the disobedient, the unquiet and the animous', and case studies from Lichfield demonstrate that this function continued into the nineteenth century.