The Court of Great Sessions in Wales

The Court of Great Sessions was formally established in 1543 by Act of Parliament (an Act which came to be known as the 'Second Act of Union'; the 'First' had been passed in 1536). This divided Wales into thirteen shires (which would form the basis of local government until 1974), of which twelve formed the circuits of the new courts. There were four circuits: Chester (comprising Flintshire, Denbighshire and Montgomeryshire); North Wales (Anglesey, Caernarfonshire and Merioneth); Brecon (Breconshire, Glamorgan, Radnorshire); Carmarthen (Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire, Pembrokeshire). Monmouthshire was added to the Oxford circuit of the English Assizes (and so its records are held in the PRO). In fact, the Great Sessions had already begun operating before the Act was passed, during 1541; the court would play a major role in the legal life of Wales until its abolition in 1830. The Sessions met twice a year in each county, in around April/May and August/September, administering English law - officially, in English, although the extensive use of interpreters would represent an acknowledgement of linguistic realities throughout its existence. It was a powerful institution: it covered both criminal and civil actions, on the civil side, it enjoyed the same powers within Wales as King's Bench and Common Pleas (and it also had an equity jurisdiction) in England, and its criminal jurisdiction was equivalent to the English counties' assizes. In other words, it was the main court for the prosecution of felonies and serious misdemeanours in Wales for almost three centuries, especially as the once-powerful Council of the Marches in Wales became increasingly feeble in the seventeenth century (it was abolished altogether after 1688).

The gaol files

The gaol files are the principal record of the Crown, or criminal, work of the courts, one file for each session held. In some respects, the contents of the gaol files will be entirely familiar to anyone who has researched the English assizes. The main 'formal' record of prosecution, as in the English courts, is the indictment, written in Latin until 1733 and in English thereafter (although some indictments contain Welsh, in cases of seditious libel or slander where recording the exact form of spoken words was important). The indictment is well known to historians of English crime, as are its problems. Trial outcomes may be noted on indictments, on jury lists and/or on gaol calendars; the latter (and sometimes jury lists) also regularly record sentencing decisions. From the eighteenth century, there is an increasing amount of information in other documents within the records relating to prisoners, sentences and transportation.

However, what distinguishes the gaol files from many English assize records is the extensive survival of less formal records. In particular, examinations and depositions have survived from early dates and in substantial numbers on some circuits. There are also substantial numbers of recognizances (bonds for the appearance of prosecutors, witnesses and offenders), petitions, 'articles of misdemeanour', jury presentments (especially in the seventeenth century), jury lists and gaol calendars, as well as coroners' inquests. 'Depositions', 'examinations' (and 'informations') were created at early stages in the prosecution of a criminal offence. Accusers, witnesses and accused gave their verbal accounts of the events in questions to one or more magistrates (or sometimes a coroner, in the case of homicide investigations). At the time, or shortly after, a written record was made, either by the examining officer or possibly his secretary. So, they are not verbatim reports of witness testimony. Moreover, in the case of Wales, many will originally have been given in Welsh and translated into English, and it is very rarely possible to detect this. Nevertheless, they give insights into early modern crimes and offenders that other records can rarely rival; additionally, they often contain a wealth of incidental detail relating to everyday life and beliefs.

Survival rates from the different circuits vary, however. Worst are those of the North Wales circuit, with almost nothing before the eighteenth century; the Carmarthen circuit records are very patchy, while the Chester and Brecon circuits have the best survival rates. The disruptions of the Civil Wars mean that for many counties there are large gaps during the 1640s and, to a lesser extent, the 1650s as well. For examinations, the Chester circuit (particularly Denbighshire and Montgomeryshire) has the richest and earliest deposits. The largest published sample of the contents of the gaol files is Murray Ll Chapman (ed), Criminal proceedings in the Montgomeryshire court of Great Sessions: transcripts of Commonwealth gaol files (Aberystwyth, 1996). The essential reference guide is Glyn Parry's Guide to the records of Great Sessions in Wales (Aberystwyth, 1995), which lists all the classes of records with much crucial background information about the history of the court.

Indexes and calendars

  • The NLW has made its online database of all criminal cases from 1730-1830 available for online searching
  • Contemporary documents that serve as indexes:
    • Flintshire 'Crown Books' (1564-1667)
    • Flintshire 'Memorandums of the Crown Side' (1707-56, 1757-94, 1822-30)
    • Brecon circuit 'Black Books' (1726-1830)
    • Calendar Rolls of Indictments: Radnor (1553-1659), Glamorgan (1553-1601), Cardigan (1541-1602), Pembroke (1541-1674)
    • Rule books, minute books etc (varying usefulness, though some contain material on verdicts and sentencing): Chester circuit (1738-1830); North Wales circuit (1783-1830); Brecon circuit (1725-1830); Carmarthen circuit (1661- 1807); Flintshire (1574-1806)

The files: comments on survival rates

Chester circuit

  • Earliest surviving files: Denbighshire 1545; Flintshire 1542; Montgomeryshire 1554
  • All three counties are good in terms of continuous runs from the early 1570s onwards, and near complete after the Restoration. (Flintshire has the best survival rates for the Civil Wars/Commonwealth period.)
  • This circuit is particularly good for its substantial deposits of examinations, depositions, petitions etc, from the sixteenth century onwards.

North Wales circuit

  • Earliest surviving files: Anglesey 1708; Caernarfonshire 1622 (the only pre-eighteenth-century file for the county, and the whole circuit for that matter); Merioneth 1702
  • Reasonable continuous runs begin: Anglesey 1732; Caernarfonshire 1730; Merioneth 1725. But many of the surviving files are still disappointingly slim and gaps occur right through to 1830. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of Caernarfonshire, for which there exists an excellent run of Quarter Sessions records from the early 1540s.

Carmarthen circuit

  • Earliest surviving files: Carmarthenshire 1542; Pembrokeshire 1547; Cardiganshire 1542
  • Some continuous runs begin: Carmarthenshire 1660s; Pembrokeshire 1603 (good 1650s); Cardiganshire 1700
  • NB: the eighteenth-century files in particular are often disappointing; at first sight bulky, they tend to contain much procedural material (relating to civil actions, I think) unlikely to interest historians of crime.

Brecon circuit

  • Earliest file: Breconshire 1559; Radnorshire 1542; Glamorgan 1542
  • Good continuous runs begin: Breconshire 1561; Radnorshire 1554; Glamorgan 1695
  • If it weren't for the lack of examinations before 1720 (a few have survived, filed elsewhere within the records) the Brecon circuit would be the best of the four, but it's still probably the most promising for long-term serial analyses of prosecution rates. (In Breconshire and Radnorshire, the files appear to have survived well even for the 1640s and 1650s.)