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Assizes, 1515-1517, 1559-1775

Reference Code: GBR/0012/MS EDR/7/1

Scope and Contents

The assize records comprise two concurrent series of documents: the rolls of gaol delivery and pleas, the formal written-up proceedings of each assize session; the assize files, which comprise bundles and loose papers forming the working documents or real-time record of the assizes. The rolls are generally in good physical order. The files are in some state of physical and intellectual disorder.

The assize rolls comprise records of gaol delivery (criminal cases) and pleas or civil action (referred to as the general sessions of the pleas). Each roll typically comprises the record of an individual assize session, apart from those of the Elizabethan period which often contain the records of multiple separate sessions in a single roll. The covering dates are as follows:

- for gaol delivery: 1558-1566 [still to be catalogued]; 1572-4; 1577-79; 1581; 1583-91; 1593-6; 1600-1; 1603-6; 1608; 1610-13; 1619; 1621; 1642 (one entry only).

- for pleas: 1515-17; 1558-1566 [still to be catalogued]; 1572-9; 1581-91; 1593-6; 1600-1; 1603-6; 1608; 1610-13; 1619-25; 1627; 1629-42; 1645-6; 1650-9; 1661-4; 1666-1671; 1673-4; 1693; 1699-1704; 1706; 1714-1722; 1724-1725; 1733-4.

After the 1620s, the records of gaol delivery, where extant, are to be found in the assize files. The assize files commence in 1605. The files typically consist of a mixture of the following record types: examinations; depositions; recognizances; indictments; coroners' inquests; list of court officials; gaol calendars; related court papers. Some bundles have been labelled by regnal year or document type but, generally, the contents are in some disorder and have not yet been examined in detail due to their physical condition.

Except for the Commonwealth period, the records are mostly in Latin up to 1733. The following information has been recorded for each roll entry, where possible: name of defendant with any stated aliases, his/her occupation and place of abode; date of offence; details of offence in summary, including the names of other parties involved. Some archaic phrases or words have been retained in description, particularly for entries relating to trespass and trespass on the case or assumpsit.

The spelling of Christian names has been modernised, where possible; the spelling of surnames has been retained as found in the records, using the first spelling encountered in an entry. The spelling of major place names (towns and villages) has been modernised using ‘The Place-Names of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely’ (English Place-Name Society, Vol. XIX, edited by P.H. Reaney) as a reference text. The spelling of minor place names, particularly fields and pieces of fen ground, has been retained as found in the records. Unless otherwise stated, all places are in the historic county of Cambridgeshire.

Square brackets are used to indicate uncertainty or to present additional information supplied by the cataloguer.


  • Creation: 1515-1517, 1559-1775

Conditions Governing Access

From the Fonds:

Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (

Biographical / Historical

The assizes were typically held twice a year in the Isle of Ely, alternating between Ely and Wisbech, often in April and September, but this was not rigidly set in stone. In principle the assizes dealt with more serious criminal offences such as homicide, infanticide, rape, assault, witchcraft, trespass and vagrancy. In practice, the court system in the Isle of Ely suggests a degree of expediency. Thus, the assizes also dealt with far less serious crimes such as the theft of goods valued well under 12d while the quarter sessions seem to have dealt with some of the serious crimes. Larceny was by far the largest group of offences tried at the assizes – theft; horse, cattle and sheep stealing; pick-pocketing, burglary and housebreaking. The assizes also heard common pleas, legal action between private individuals, generally actions to recover debt and property, property disputes, trespass, assault, and defamation and slander.

Geographically, the Isle of Ely fell within the Norfolk circuit of assize courts. However, the Bishop of Ely’s ancient liberty ensured the Isle sat apart from the established circuit system. This juridical independence is difficult to understand in practice. It is likely that the medieval bishops of Ely appointed, or attempted to appoint, their own justices. By the early-modern period, the Crown nominated and issued commissions of assizes for the Isle, a mandate which was then re-issued by the bishops to the very same set of individuals. The assizes were presided over by professional judges. There is often a clear crossover in personnel between the Isle of Ely and the Norfolk circuit. The key individual was the bishop’s nominee, the Chief Justice of the Isle. This somewhat ad-hoc system remained in place until 1836 when the bishop’s secular jurisdiction was abolished.


138 rolled item(s)

40 archive box(es)

Language of Materials




The idiosyncratic system of numbering, a reflection of the work carried out by Alfred Gibbons and Dorothy Owen respectively, has been retained (for the rolls: E1/4-9 and E2-E5; for the files: E/6-41). No rolls or files have been renumbered nor has the chronological order been altered.


A project to catalogue the Isle of Ely assize records was funded by the Cambridgeshire Family History Society (CFHS) between June 2019 and September 2020.

Repository Details

Part of the Cambridge University Library Repository

Cambridge University Library
West Road
Cambridge CB3 9DR United Kingdom