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Court Procedures - Assizes

Azzises Court
Azzises Court

The holding of the Assizes was a significant event in a town.

In Bedford, for example, the Judge would be received and escorted from the station to the courts by the High Sheriff, Chaplin, Javelin men (Sheriff's retainers who had a ceremonial role and kept order in the courts) and other dignitaries.

His Lordship would then open the commission at the Shire Hall, where the court would be held. Following this, he would attend a church service, with the town sheriff, mayor and other members of the corporation.

The following morning the judge would take his seat at the crown court, usually just after 10:00am. The role of magistracy of the county would then be called over and gentlemen of the 'grand jury' sworn in. The grand jury had the power to judge the cases and dismiss any with insufficient evidence. They would prepare bills of indictment for those to be brought before the court.

After this, the judge would read the proclamation against vice and immorality. He would then deliver the charges and would make any comment deemed necessary on the cases to the grand jury, who then retired to the chambers to review the bills laid before them and listen to witness evidence. The High Sheriff sat in attendance.

Whilst this was happening the 'Petty Jury' would be sworn in (the members of the public that would return the final verdict on the case to be tried). There would be a newspaper reporter in court ready to take notes, as well as the clerks and official recorders of the trials.

The prisoners, whose indictments had been approved (found true) by the grand jury, were brought into the court and formally charged.

Each trial started with the clerk reading the charge again, and then the prosecutor presented the case against the defendant, followed by the witnesses, who testified under oath. Witness testimony was the most common source of evidence and Judges frequently intervened to ask questions or comment.

The defendant was then asked to state his or her case. They could call witnesses, if they had any, and use a defence lawyer.

 After the Judge's summing up, the Jury would retire to consider the verdicts. In some courts, cases were tried in batches, with juries hearing perhaps half a dozen trials before retiring to consider their verdicts. Each day a new jury was sworn in.

At the end of the session, those prisoners who had been found guilty were brought forward to hear their punishments. defendants who were convicted of capital crimes were given a chance to address the Court before they were sentenced. The judge would pass the sentence.

In the case of issuing the death penalty, the Judge would say: "The court doth order you to be taken from hence to the place from whence you came, and thence to the place of execution, and that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be afterward buried within the precincts of the prison in which you shall be confined after your conviction. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul."

The actual trials were often very quick; in 1833, at the Old Bailey (an Assizes court), it was estimated they averaged 8-9 minutes.

An Example of an Assizes Court: The Huntingdon Lent Assizes

Assizes: Picture Gallery