Witchcraft and road rage found in 400-year-old court records

An engraving of the court at Chichester Cathedral, engraved by R H Nibbs in 1860, and inset, author Peter Wilkinson. Pictures: West Sussex Record Office
An engraving of the court at Chichester Cathedral, engraved by R H Nibbs in 1860, and inset, author Peter Wilkinson. Pictures: West Sussex Record Office

Road rage and witchcraft are among the fascinating court records from the early 1600s which have been translated in a new book.

Chichester Archdeaconry Depositions 1603-1608 features 46 cases from across the county which were brought to trial at Chichester Cathedral between 1603 and 1608, including eyewitness accounts.

Deposition of John Bayley in the defamation case of Harris v Graye, 1606/7. Peter Wilkinson has spent several years translating these documents into modern English.

Deposition of John Bayley in the defamation case of Harris v Graye, 1606/7. Peter Wilkinson has spent several years translating these documents into modern English.

The book, written by Peter Wilkinson, former archivist at the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester, gives a glimpse into life in rural West Sussex and will be launched tomorrow at 2.15pm at Worthing Library in Richmond Road.

One such tale found in its pages was a spat between James Pellett, the vicar to Madehurst, and Richard Hobbes, a member of the gentry, when neither would give way on horseback.

The records revealed this was part of an extensive ongoing dispute between the two men over the payment of the tithes to the vicar.

The subsequent case involved allegations of crime, immorality and misbehaviour against many local inhabitants.

A photograph of the consistory court in Chester Cathedral, which would have looked similar to the court in Chichester Cathedral

A photograph of the consistory court in Chester Cathedral, which would have looked similar to the court in Chichester Cathedral

Peter Wilkinson, was the archivist at the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester for more than 30 years.

He was responsible for the Chichester Diocesan Archives, which form the basis of the book. After he retired in 2005, Peter decided to translate the early modern English and Latin found in the court records into something we can read today – a process which began in 2012.

The 77-year-old from West Ashling said: “I enjoyed doing it and I think it has some interesting stories to tell and I hope it will make people in Sussex and further afield go to the records, and mine them for other good stuff.”

Throughout the book, paternity cases, matrimonial affairs, defamation of character and disputes over wills showed that life in 17th century West Sussex was not unlike that of today.

However, you will not see trials today that involve witchcraft. In 1606, Thomas Herold of Pulborough brought a successful case against his neighbour, Elizabeth Hitchcock, after she accused him of being ‘a witch and did bewitch her husband’s cattle’.

After several delays, during which she was threatened with excommunication, the case ended in May 1608 and Elizabeth was condemned to do penance in Pulborough church.

The book has been published by the Sussex Record Society, which has released 90 books since 1901 and of which Peter is a member.

Wendy Walker, the current chairman, praised Peter’s efforts and said it was a book filled with ‘fantastic stories’: “Some of them pull you up and you think gosh, like the trial involving witchcraft, and others which you would recognise today. There is this mix of the familiar and the unknown.”

To buy a copy, call the West Sussex Record Office on 01243 753 600.