The Pie Powder Court of Chichester: Dusty feet and quick justice

By Abigail Hartley, Searchroom Archivist

Happy Pi Day! As always with these sorts of events, I was looking for something innocuous to post for this fun little hashtag holiday, and ended up tumbling down the rabbit hole of something only marginally related to what I set out to do. Instead of a photo or two on Twitter and Instagram, I have ended up writing a whole blog about it. C’est la vie.

Ep/VI/11/1 – An example entry from 1778

This is all to explain why I did a quick search for “pie” on our online catalogue. From there I was led to Ep VI/11/1 – Curia Pavilionis Cicestr[ensis] Ep[iscop]i, or, The Bishop of Chichester’s Pavilion Court, a volume for the piepowder court between 1582-1801.

A pie powder court has many, many, many, many, spelling variations: piepowder, pyepowder, pipoulder, pepowder, pipoudre, pie poudre (the latter two hint to its etymological origins) and they are all used up and down the country, sometimes changing within the same document! In the spirit of non-standardised English, so to will this blog endlessly change spellings.

The court was a type of tribunal in England organised when a fair or market rolled into town. In Chichester’s case, this was the October Sloe Fair. Immie, one of our brilliant Searchroom Assistants, wrote about the Sloe Fair – Chichester’s Oldest Fair – which you can read about by clicking this hyperlink – a couple of years back.

Ep/VI/11/1 – Front page

Pie powder courts originally had unlimited jurisdiction over events taking place in the market, and they would preside over things like disputes between traders, thievery, and general acts of disorderly conduct. In the Middle Ages, there were many hundreds of such courts, and a small number continued to exist even into modern times.

They were not known for their thoroughness, nor the severity of the cases they heard. Sir William Blackstone, writing in 1753, had this to say about the court:

“The lowest, and at the same time the most expeditious, court of justice known to the law of England, is the court of piepoudre, curia pedis pulverizati; so called from the dusty feet of the suitors; or, according to Sir Edward Coke, because justice is there done as speedily as dust can fall from the foot”

William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England in Four Books, vol. 2 [1753], Book III, p 31

So piepowder, in an ultimate example of the English language’s ability to strangle French within an inch of its life, came from pieds poudrés – dusty feet. What this is referring to is most likely the people who travelled to towns from far and wide for market days – travellers and vagabonds. Within modern French, pieds-poudreux is supposedly used for travelling beggars. Another given reason is how it relates to the speedy justice that was administered. Or perhaps another origin comes from how members of the piepowder courts were constantly walking around the markets, the dust coating their feet as they moved.  It’s possible the term references them, rather than the travellers and merchants. In my mind the first is the most obvious answer, but it is likely the true answer is a combination of all three.

Ep/VI/11/1 – Instructions on how to start and end each Piepowder court session

Regardless, the same themes emerge: mobility and speed. After all, fairs and markets would rarely last more than a week, so decisions were generally made in less than two days. Merchants had come from far away to sell their goods and they didn’t have time to sit and wait for a conclusion about who stole whose spot at the sloe tree outside North Gate.

So, how does one hold a piepowder court in Chichester? Ep VI/11/1 gives us some handy instructions, including the town crier’s declaration to open the court:

“Let the Cryer make Proclamation on the South Side of the High Cross as follows – at 8 o’clock

Oyez – All manner of Persons that have to do or intend to have to do At the Ancient Pavillion Court of the Right Rev. Father in God Sir Wm Ashburnham Bart. Lord Bishop of Chichr holden on this Day [at the Gate commonly called the Canon Gate] for this City and the Liberties there of with the Fair called the Sloe Fair, for the time and space of Eight days beginning this Day being the Eve or Vigil of the Feast of St Faith the Virgin come forth and give your attendance. God save the King”

Ep VI/11/1 f4
Ep/VI/11/1 – Neat handwriting detailing the beginning of each court in October for the Sloe Fair

The town crier was entitled to a cut of the income made from the pye powder court, so when the court closed, a similar instructional notice in Ep VI/11/2 (a small bundle of loose pages that originated from the court book) notes that the town crier – at the time a Mr John Barnes – can go on to spend 2s and 6d on a breakfast for a job well done. I can only estimate the date of this note to the 1730s, when John is mentioned in the list of Bailiffs and Constables in our Quarter Session records, but even so, this seems a substantial sum to me for a bit of brekkie!

Ep VI/11/2 – £32 raised by the court in 25 years!

Sadly, our piepowder court book does not detail the cases that were heard – or at least for the vast majority of the entries. There is one instance of assault from the bundle of loose pages at the front, but the writing is near impossible for me to decipher. I would love to learn in more depth what kind of cases were heard. Was it as simple as disputes over payment and location?

Other loose documents, however, give details of what was going on during the fair. One piece of paper titled: “Sums collected at the Bishop of Chichester Pye Powder Courts the last Twenty Five years” notes that £32 1s 4.5d was raised between 1776-1800. There is also a list of the charges made to butchers, publicans and farmers for selling at the market, which since 1738 had been considered too high a price to pay for some. For example, a publican would be charged 6d for wine, and 4d for beer. There’s a list of the city keyholders in 1709, who upon the court being held would make their way down to the Bishop’s Palace to hand over the keys to control the incoming merchants and vendors.

We know for definite the Chichester pie powder court had wound up by 1834. The court had filled a need for quick action on relatively minor actions of people who were not permanent residents of the market towns, but this need was being solved through other means as the 19th century went on. Nationwide, the last court was held in Hemel Hempstead in 1898, and in terms of Parliament Acts, it was the Courts Act 1971, and the Administration of Justice Act 1977, that finally closed a chapter on these quirky courts which had been in existence since at least the 11th century.

Ep/VI/11/1 – Though the outside of the volume looks worn, beautiful entries lay within!

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