Old English is not just a Furniture Polish

I’ve begun to locate some of the original Babb documents on file through the Court of Chancery in England. I was immediately struck by how much harder to read they were than the will I recently translated. In some the penmanship is so poor that some words are barely a scribble. These records are significantly older as well and date to approximately 1475 (547 Years ago).

So, I thought, “why not allow everyone to see how much fun this is?”


Here is a bunch of handwriting samples to get you started. Note how many of the characters bear little resemblance to their modern equivalents. g can look like an x or y; A like B or J; The Capital B, E, P, R, S, T and W (2nd example) look completely different as well. Also, what is up with the little r looking like a z? That really threw me!

Note: Full-Sized images are available by clicking on pictures below.

Now, here are a few of the early documents along with their Abstract, which will help you pick out some of the names and places from the document.


Court of Chancery: Six Clerks Office: Early Pleadings and Proceedings, Richard II to Philip and Mary. Chancery pleadings addressed to the Bishop of Lincoln as Lord Chancellor.
Short title: Babbe v The Mayor of Exeter. Plaintiffs: William Babbe, of Exeter, and Johanne, his wife. Defendants: The mayor and bailiffs of Exeter. Subject: Imprisonment pending an action of trespass brought by John Sterre, of Exeter, and partiality of the mayor. Certiorari. Devon.
Date: 1475-1485

Babb v The Mayor of Exeter – 1475-1485 (C 1/64/757)

Starter Transcript: separated into line by line for readability

To the right tenant Hader in god right good & gracious Lord
the Bishop of Lincoln Chancellor of England

Meekly belonging yours good and gracious lordship you point orator William Babb of the diocese of Exeter and Johanne his wife that where of late son John Steere of Exeter

usurped of his powers make and annul wills worst matter or trauma of right both suffered and taken of trespass a youth your feed fealment suffered the Mayor & Bailiffs

of Exeter for said by forthwith few <illegible> and there by the Mayor’s commandment kept imprisoned not <illegible> them to be taken into Gaol & not <illegible>

would dealers in yours them and for aforesaid <illegible> paid mayor and 2 baliffs of Exeter aforesaid. both proudly supported to the point John Sterre

and Mayor to your powers supplants and the fear your <illegible> not of power to <illegible> their malicious intent hath impanted fear an insults


Court of Chancery: Six Clerks Office: Early Pleadings and Proceedings, Richard II to Philip and Mary. Chancery pleadings addressed to William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury as Lord Chancellor.
Short title: Benet v Babbe. Plaintiffs: Henry, son and heir of Henry, son and heir of John Benet and Alson, his wife. Defendants: Thomas Babbe and Johane, his wife. Subject: Detention of deeds relating to a messuage and land in Plymouth. Devon.
Date: 1504-1515

Benet v Babbe 1504-1515 (C 1/282/40)

More about the Court of Chancery

Source: Court of Chancery – Wikipedia

The Court of Chancery was a court of equity in England and Wales that followed a set of loose rules to avoid the slow pace of change and possible harshness (or “inequity”) of the common law. The Chancery had jurisdiction over all matters of equity, including trustsland law, the estates of lunatics and the guardianship of infants. Its initial role was somewhat different: as an extension of the Lord Chancellor‘s role as Keeper of the King’s Conscience, the court was an administrative body primarily concerned with conscientious law. Thus the Court of Chancery had a far greater remit than the common law courts, whose decisions it had the jurisdiction to overrule for much of its existence, and was far more flexible. Until the 19th century, the Court of Chancery could apply a far wider range of remedies than common law courts, such as specific performance and injunctions, and had some power to grant damages in special circumstances. With the shift of the Exchequer of Pleas towards a common law court and loss of its equitable jurisdiction by the Administration of Justice Act 1841, the Chancery became the only national equitable body in the English legal system.

Academics estimate that the Court of Chancery formally split from and became independent of the curia regis in the mid-14th century, at which time it consisted of the Lord Chancellor and his personal staff, the Chancery. Initially an administrative body with some judicial duties, the Chancery experienced an explosive growth in its work during the 15th century, particularly under the House of York, which academics attribute to its becoming an almost entirely judicial body. From the time of Elizabeth I onwards the Court was severely criticised for its slow pace, large backlogs, and high costs. Those problems persisted until its dissolution, despite being mitigated somewhat by reforms, particularly during the 19th century. Attempts at fusing the Chancery with the common law courts began in the 1850s, and finally succeeded with the 1873 and 1875 Supreme Court of Judicature Acts, which dissolved the Chancery and created a new unified High Court of Justice, with the Chancery Division – one of three divisions of the High Court – succeeding the Court of Chancery as an equitable body.

For much of its existence the court was formally led by the Lord Chancellor, assisted by the judges of the common law courts. The staff of the court included a large number of clerks, led by the Master of the Rolls, who regularly heard cases on his own. In 1813 a Vice-Chancellor was appointed to deal with the Chancery’s increasing backlogs, and two more were appointed in 1841. Offices of the Chancery were sold by the Lord Chancellor for much of its history, raising large amounts of money. Many of the clerks and other officials were sinecures who, in lieu of wages, charged increasingly exorbitant fees to process cases, one of the main reasons why the cost of bringing a case to the Chancery was so high. The 19th century saw the abolition of many sinecure offices and the institution of a wage and pension for the Lord Chancellor to curb the sale of offices, and later the right to appoint officials was transferred from the Chancellor to the Crown.

Leave a Reply