Chosen by Peter Wilkinson, former member of staff
The records of the diocesan courts, particularly in the period from Queen Elizabeth’s reign to the start of the Civil War, give us a unique picture of local life in Sussex. On the one hand we see the bishop and his officials trying to keep a tight control on life within the parish communities. Their “office courts” (nicknamed by the puritans “bawdy courts”) sought out the transgressors who had failed to attend church – and particularly those whose weekday activities might include fornication and adultery.
But the parallel system of “instance courts” did a very different job: they provided a means to resolve personal disputes, as demonstrated in the case which features in these particular papers; the elopement of Margaret Osborne, the 13 year old daughter of a West Wittering yeoman, and Richard Taylor, the local squire.
The instance courts produced lengthy depositions: statements by witnesses describing the disputed events; and these provide vivid narratives – especially in matrimonial disputes and rows over accusations of character defamation. They can be amazingly detailed and accurate. You can walk the first stages of Richard and Margaret’s elopement (I’ve done it): from West Wittering church, up the road towards Chichester; across the fields to her home, Hale Farm; up the farm track to meet the road to Birdham; and on to Newark Farm, where the horses were waiting, ready for the ride to Lewes. You can follow the full story as described in the depositions on the Sussex Record Society website (http://www.sussexrecordsociety.org/dbs/biblio/T008/).
The witnesses’ stories can lead to fascinating research into other sources to find what happened afterwards. In 1602, Margaret’s father quashed the couple’s plans to marry and compelled her to marry a Bosham man; but she ran away after seven years and, in 1616, Richard successfully fought a second case to allow them to marry. However, we found that the happy ending of this story was shorter than hoped; after only a year of marriage Margaret died in 1619. Later Richard married Katherine Rishton, a member of a local gentry family and inheritor of the manor of Almodington in Earnley. After twelve years of marriage, which produced six children, Richard died in 1633 – requesting in his will that he be buried with Margaret in West Wittering church, where he had provided a monument to her. But don’t look for it in the church – the Victorians swept it away.
The stories that these records tell make the depositions a wonderful source for pictures of life in the 16th and 17th centuries. I feel they are still under-used; and so I am trying to introduce them to a wider readership by editing a complete series of depositions, 1603-1607, which will be published by Sussex Record Society next year.