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Vice-Chancellor's Court records, 1498-1957

Reference Code: GBR/0265/UA/VCCt.

Scope and Contents

The records comprise act and deposition books, exhibita files and probate records.


  • Creation: 1498-1957


Conditions Governing Access

From the Management Group:

The University Archives are generally freely available to the holder of a reader's ticket for the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library, West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DR. Restrictions on access are imposed on certain categories of sensitive record: financial, governmental and personal, by order of the originating body or under data protection legislation. Access information, including opening hours and how to obtain a reader's ticket, appears as part of the Library's web site (

Biographical / Historical

AUTHORITY The exercise of an independent jurisdiction in the regulation of its affairs and in the disciplining and prosecution of its members was, in the Middle Ages, a generally coveted privilege, to which many autonomous corporations aspired, and which constituted a source both of pride and of profit to the community which enjoyed it. Much of the early history of Cambridge University can be regarded as part of the long struggle for the establishment and extension of such a jurisdiction, which should on the one hand be free from the interference of the lay or common law system (represented by the royal justices and the local courts of the borough) and on the other hand independent of the higher ecclesiastical courts, of which the Chancellor's Court (Vice-Chancellor's by the early sixteenth century) had originally been a humble offshoot. The University would not of itself been sufficiently wealthy or powerful to achieve such a position had it not been fortunate enough to enjoy the support and patronage of the Crown and of the Pope, shown in the long series of royal and episcopal charters (see elsewhere in this catalogue, classmark UA Luard). By their aid, however, what was at first a very necessary precaution for the University in hostile surroundings, and later primarily an affair of honour, was operating in the later medieval, Tudor and early Stuart periods as a flourishing system of courts, based on the privileged jurisdiction of the Chancellor.

By the time of Elizabeth I, the University had acquired a highly privileged jurisdiction. By her letters patent of 26 April 1561, the Queen declared the University Court to be a court of record, and confirmed Richard II's grant to it of jurisdiction over civil proceedings in which title to land was not concerned, and over criminal proceedings for all offences below the grade of felonies and mayhems, whenever one of the parties to the proceedings enjoyed the privilege of the University. At the same time, she provided a higher criminal jurisdiction by granting that whenever any person enjoying the privilege of the University should be accused by a 'layman', at the assizes or quarter-sessions, of having committed treason or felony or mayhem in the town or county of Cambridge, the University might claim the prisoner. He would then be tried by its high steward (Senescallus Cancellarii) and according to the common law. In such cases a jury would be empanelled, half of them being members of the University. In 1571, by the Act for the Incorporation of the Universities (13 Eliz. I, c.29), her letters patent of 1561 and all other letters patent granted by any of her predecessors to either of the Universities, were declared to be as full of legal effect 'as if the same letters-patent were recited verbatim in this present Act of Parliament'. These enactments placed beyond challenge the authority of the University Court and the power of the Chancellor to employ civil law procedure. Almost simultaneously, a room on the east side of the Schools Quadrangle was fitted up as a Consistory Court for the Vice-Chancellor, who by this time presided in the Chancellor's Court.

By royal charter of 17 February 5 Ric. II, the University received sole custody of the assize of bread, wine and ale, survey of weights and measures, and cognizance of trading in victuals in the town and suburbs of Cambridge, with all profits of justice arising therefrom, as fully and freely as the Mayor and burgesses had formerly enjoyed them. This charter was the basis of the University's control of the Cambridge market and of all trading in victuals for a considerable distance round the town, together with the power of issuing licences for vintners, victuallers and keepers of ale-houses.

In 1600/1, in a description of the University submitted by Registrary Tabor to Sir Robert Cecil on his becoming Chancellor, the Consistory Court is described as sitting weekly in term time to administer justice. Its procedure had been from medieval times (as was also that of its inferior, the Commissary's Court) similar to that of the other spiritual courts: use of canon and civil law, and competence to deal with ecclesiastical persons and causes. Even after the Reformation, the procedure, the use of civil law and much of the jurisdiction remained, while the Vice-Chancellor retained quasi-episcopal powers such as that of licensing preachers and giving dispensations for eating flesh in Lent. Disciplinary and some moral causes were dealt with by the Vice-Chancellor's Court, and there also fell to it the task of enforcing the various religious settlements. The essential ecclesiastical character of the Court was shown by its having power to grant probate of the wills of resident members of the University and other 'privileged' persons (that is anyone providing a service to a University member, such as a stationer or tailor).

PRIVILEGED PERSONS. The protection which the University claimed to exercise over its members had early been extended to certain classes of tradesmen who served the needs of learning: writers, stationers, booksellers and illuminators, 'whose trespasses were justiciable by the Chancellor'. In the year following the great 'Charter of Assize and Assay', a further grant from the Crown of 10 December 1383 redefined, to the University's advantage, the limits of the Chancellor's jurisdiction in cases where 'a master, scholar, scholar's servant or common minister of the University be a party'. The University's privilege was thus established over servants of the University, as well as over those of individual masters and scholars, and those persons were generally known as 'scholars servants' or 'privileged persons'. The mattter of 'privileged persons' rankled with the town, as they enjoyed exemption from routine duties and the common charge of the borough, as well as freedom from the borough courts. Wills of 'privileged persons', like those of members of the University, were proved in the Vice-Chancellor's Court.

In the important award between the University and the town, made at the instance of the Lady Margaret on 11 July 1502, the numbers of privileged persons were again increased by the provision 'that all Bedells of the University, and all Manciples, Cooks, Buttlers, and Launderers of every College and Hall; also all Apothecarys, Stationers, Lymners, Scriveners, Parchment Makers, Bookbinders, Physitians, Surgeons and Barbers in the said University ... shall have the Privilege of Scholars Servants, as long as they use any such Occupation'.

In 1589 the privilege was again extended to some further categories of College and University servants, ranging from the Keeper of the University Library to the husbands of married College laundresses. Of more moment was the provision that the families and household servants of all married graduates living in the town should also be included. By the 1590s the number of persons claiming and enjoying privileged status was probably at its greatest extent. An oath was required of all persons entering the privilege. By the mid-eighteenth century the numbers had declined considerably and were almost entirely confined to University and College servants. The status of 'privileged person' was finally abolished by the Cambridge Award Act of 1856.

PROCEDURE Cases were divided between office causes, brought by the University in exercise of its authority, and instance causes brought by everyone else. Cases were initiated by the plaintiff issuing a ‘libel’ or written statement of the case followed by a citation of the defendant. Non-attendees were pronounced contumacious and could be fined or imprisoned. On appearance in court, the defendant responded to the libel and in a responsio personalis (personal response) could deny or admit the charges. Once any part of the libel had been denied, it was thereafter referred to as allegations which the plaintiff would be required to prove. Written evidence was presented in the form of depositions (or witness statements) in response to allegations, interrogatories (or questions) and other documents, such as account books and bonds, submitted by both sides and filed for reference. Once the judge felt sufficient evidence had been gathered, he assigned a term ‘to propound all acts’ and set a deadline for concluding the case and finalising the evidence. Thereafter, he fixed a date for judgement, sentencing and issue of an expenses bill, outlining fees incurred and payment plan. Many cases settled out of court without going the full course.

The Vice-Chancellor's Court could suspend from degrees and could imprison but, by a University statute of 1569, any sentence of imprisonment passed upon a doctor, or a sentence of expulsion passed upon anyone, was ineffectual unless assented to by the majority of the heads of Colleges. From this court there lay an appeal to the University itself which could be heard by Delegates elected by the Senate. Finally, there could be an appeal to King in Council.

In the inferior court over which the Commissary presided, no case could be dealt with in which anyone of so high a degree as a Master of Arts was concerned. From it an appeal lay to the Chancellor's Court and then to the University Delegates.

OFFICERS The chief executive officials of these courts, after the Vice-Chancellor and his Commissary, were the Proctors whose duties included acting as University police, for instance in searching for bad flesh and fish, forestallers and regrators, and other persons who contravened trading provisions, and enforcing discipline among junior members of the University. They were assisted by the Taxors, Gaugers and others. An Assessor and four Appraisers were appointed chiefly to assist the Vice-Chancellor in the exercise of his testamentary jurisdiction. The Registrary was Clerk of the Courts.

ABOLITION In 1828 the Act of Parliamentof 9 Geo. IV, c.31 conferred upon Justices of the Peace sitting in petty sessions a summary jurisdiction over cases of assault; and the act contained no reservation of the University's hitherto exclusive jurisdiction over cases in which its members were concerned. Already however the Vice-Chancellor's Court seems to have found its business greatly diminished. While civil law procedure was felt to give a real benefit and privilege, as was the case in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, it was difficult to limit the numbers of people who pressed their claims to be heard in the University courts. During the eighteenth century, however, when on more than one occasion the University failed to make good its claims and civil law procedure was felt to be anachronistic, claims of cognizance more or less died out. The last was in 1844 and was disallowed. The 1852 University commissioners reported that the court was already obsolete except in cases of discomuning or a University man's breach of discipline. Thus the way was easy for the Cambridge Award Act of 1856 to provide (S.18) that 'the right of the University, or any officer thereof to claim conusance of any action or criminal proceeding, wherein any person who is not a member of the University ahall be a party, shall cease and determine'. The court was finally abolished by the Administration of Justice Act 1977.


10 linear metre(s) : paper, parchment

Language of Materials



Related Materials

For records relating to the matriculation of privileged persons see:

- 'Oath of Scholar's Servants' in first matriculation register of 1544 (classmark: UA Matr.1) - Lists of privileged persons bound together, 1524-1720 (classmark: UA CUR 36.2) - Ship Money and lists of privileged persons, 1635 - 1678 (classmark: UA CUR 36.1) - Register of admissions to privilege, ca1607-3 May 1694 and 16 Sept. 1740-16 May 1744 (classmark: UA VCCt.I..2).


For background information on the remit and operation of the court at different times, see:

Charles Henry Cooper, Annals of Cambridge volume II (Cambridge, 1843), pp. 608-10

Jacqueline Cox, ‘Trials and tribulations: the Cambridge University Courts, 1540-1660', Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society Vol. XV, No. 4 (2015), pp. 595-623

Alexandra Shepard, Meanings of manhood in early modern England, with special reference to Cambridge, c. 1560-1640 (Cambridge, 1998), Cambridge University Library, PhD.22076

Ibid., Meanings of manhood in early modern England (Oxford, 2003)

Ibid., ‘Litigation and locality: the Cambridge university courts, 1560-1640', Urban History 31.1 (May 2004), pp. 5-28

Ibid., 'Legal learning and the Cambridge University courts, c. 1560-1640', Journal of Legal History 19.1 (1998), pp. 62-74.


The online catalogue was completed in 2003 and emended in November 2005, July-October 2011, April 2012, Jan.2013-July 2014, Nov. 2016-Feb.2017 and Aug.-Sept. 2021.


Vice-Chancellor's Court

Finding aid date

1998-05-06 15:52:45+00:00

Repository Details

Part of the Cambridge University Library Repository

Cambridge University Library
West Road
Cambridge CB3 9DR United Kingdom