2. Justices


The keep of Guildford Castle was the county gaol throughout the Middle Ages.
Guildford Castle (image courtesy of Matthew Alexander)

The 1361 Peace Act confirmed the change of the title from Keepers to Justices of the Peace (JPs). They had powers to arrest and punish offenders, and take reasonable fines.

From 1363 the Justices were ordered to hold their sessions four times a year. These were the Quarter Sessions, held after Easter, Midsummer, Michaelmas and Epiphany. The county’s JPs came to be referred to collectively as the ‘bench’, as they would sit side by side in sessions. The Justices were assisted by Clerks of the Peace, legally-trained professionals who carried out all the office-work.


A medieval magistrate gives his judgement
(image courtesy of Matthew Alexander)

At first JPs could hear all manner of cases. By the end of the Tudor period, though, it had become accepted that serious cases should be referred to the twice-yearly Assizes of the King’s itinerant judges, who toured ‘circuits’ of counties. Surrey was in the Home Circuit, with the Lent Assizes held in March and the Summer Assizes in July or August.

Robert Castleton of Long Ditton (died 1527) proudly recorded that he was “one of the Justices of the Peace of the lord king in the County of Surrey”
(reproduced courtesy of Surrey Archaeological Society)

Those appointed JPs were generally land-owning gentry; from 1415 they had to be resident in the county and in 1439 a minimum property qualification was introduced. The numbers of the Justices continued to expand, as did their role and powers. In 1461 indictments to the Sheriff’s courts were transferred to the Quarter Sessions.

Read more about medieval Surrey.

Find out about the Quarter Sessions and Assize Records held at Surrey History Centre.

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