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Understanding Recognisances

Recognizances make up more than 70% of all surviving Quarter Sessions records. Until 1734 they are usually written in Latin and English - the Latin part of the document describes how the recognizance was entered into, the English part the condition under which the recognisance was entered.

Recognizances are one of four general kinds:

  •   to keep the peace: pace ferund
  •   to be of good behaviour: de se bene gorend
  •   to attend a court and give evidence
  •   to attend a court and answer a charge.

The procedure was as follows:

An individual was made to go before a magistrate. The Magistrate would insist on a promise or the forfeit of a fine (which was generally an impossible sum for anyone to meet) and that the person find two guarantors to enter the undertaking with him or her, who were bound for a certain amount of money each. The guarantors were often well respected neighbours or clergy but could also be relatives. The idea was that those bound with the offender would act as a restraining influence upon them. If a recognisance was broken and the offender could not pay they would go to jail. If a person was unable to find a guarantor, they would be imprisoned – usually described as want of sureties.

Recognizances to keep the peace or be of good behaviour would require the party to attend the Quarter Sessions once every year until tensions had cooled and would then be released from the recognisance. Often there would be a mutual binding over of peace between two parties. It was a system open to malicious abuse, neighbours often accusing each other, although the magistrate could use his discretion and refuse to arbitrate.

These records survive in great quantities because they had to be kept in case a fine was demanded and the magistrate would be accountable to the Treasury.

They can be used to assess how frequently they were cast of, and what kind of disputes there were in a community. However, they do not reveal the circumstances of an offence.

For example Ref QSR1730/52

The condition of this recognisance is such that if the above bounded Daniel Britain shall personally appear in Court at the next general Quarter Sessions of the Peace to be held for the County of Bedford to answer unto such matters as shall be then and there objected against him by Elizabeth the wife of John Collett of Stotfold aforesaid, labourer concerning an assault and battery lately made upon the said Elizabeth Collett by the above bounden Daniel Brittain and concerning some other misdemeanours tending to the breach of the peace and that if he do not depart without leave of the court then this recognisance to be void, otherwise to be and remain in force and virtue. [signed]Thomas Brown.