Soke of Peterborough

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Nassaburgh Hundred, Northamptonshire

The Soke of Peterborough is a hundred of Northamptonshire, which was once a Liberty under the control first of Peterborough Abbey and later of secular jurisdiction. (map)

The Soke was described as the Soke of Peterborough or on occasion as the Liberty of Peterborough, or Nassaburgh Hundred. It comprises Peterborough and about 30 parishes beyond it.[1]

Today the urban sprawl of the City of Peterborough has spread over much depth of the Soke and indeed beyond it into Huntingdonshire, and though the city dominates the area, in fact the greater part of the acreage of the Soke is farmland with many delightful rural villages remain, of which Barnack, Helpstone and Wansford are much noted. As of 2011, the population of the Soke was 126,725.


The southern boundary of the Soke of Peterborough is with Huntingdonshire, marked by the River Nene. The city has trespassed over this border and several of its new suburbs are within Huntingdonshire. The Northamptonshire village of Wansford crosses the border too, notwithstanding that the Nene produces a deep gorge here.

The Nene then divides Northamptonshire from Cambridgeshire to the south-east for some miles, and the Cat's Water running between Eye, Northamptonshire and Thorney, Cambridgeshire is the Soke's eastern boundary.

To the north is Lincolnshire in the fens, where the River Welland marks the boundary. The town of Stamford in Lincolnshire also reaches across the River Welland into the north of the Soke.

The division between the Soke of Peterborough and the rest of Northamptonshire is less clearly defined physically, running through the fields and farms a little way west of Wansford and Wittering.


The Soke comprises the ancient parishes of:


Peterborough Cathedral, West Front

During the Anglo-Saxon period the Abbey of Medehamstede (later Burh then Peterborough) was given extensive estates, and extraordinary independent ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and in addition certain secular powers. By the Middle Ages, the Abbot of Peterborough controlled the Hundred and the right to hold courts and administer justice within its boundaries; the Abbots either enforced in person, as lords, the observance of the ancient socage laws and customs, or appointed a deputy to act for them. On the establishment of Quarter Sessions in 1349, the separate jurisdiction of the Soke was maintained as distinct from that of the county of Northampton; and, except for parliamentary purposes and matters relating to the militia, the Soke of Peterborough was entirely independent of that county.

At the Reformation, the Abbey was dissolved but its jurisdiction continued under a secular "Lord Paramount of Peterborough", a position which fell in time to Lord Burghley and his heirs, the Earls and Marquesses of Exeter.

Quarter Sessions for the liberty were held at the Sessions House in Peterborough, and petty sessions at the same place.[2]

The civil government of the liberty vested in the Marquess of Exeter, as Lord Paramount of Peterborough and custos rotulorum; around 40 magistrates appointed by the crown; and a high bailiff of the city appointed by the Dean and Chapter of Peterborough Cathedral.[3] The Soke had its own magistrates, who were appointed by the Lord Paramount.

The justices of the Soke had wider powers than those of a normal county bench, acting under a commission of oyer and terminer, and gaol delivery, as well as under the ordinary commission, and consequently the magistrates for the liberty retained the power of hanging a criminal in cases of murder, which in fact they exercised so late as the year 1812. The Local Jurisdictions Act 1820, though giving the liberty bench the power to commit (for murder only) to the county Assizes, did not abridge their full rights of gaol delivery.

The Soke had also a separate rate, out of which all payments were made, and a separate police force, the Liberty of Peterborough Constabulary, appointed by and under the control of the magistrates of the Soke.

In 1874, the City of Peterborough was granted a Charter of Incorporation and the new council was required to appoint a Watch Committee and constabulary.[4] The two were eventually amalgamated in 1946 to form the Peterborough Combined Police Force.

In the provisions of the County and Borough Police Act 1856, the Weights and Measures Act 1878 and the Contagious Diseases (Animals) Act 1878, the Liberty of Peterborough, like that of the Isle of Ely, was in each instance treated as if it were a separate county.[5]

History of justice and government

Quarter Sessions

Sessions House (1842), Thorpe Road, Peterborough

The liberty justices in Quarter Sessions had long held powers in excess of those of most other Quarter Sessions. They could try and decide many serious crimes, including treason and murder, which normally could only be heard and determined in a Court of Assize, and in view of the special powers of the liberty justices, a Judge of Assize had no power to act in the Soke of Peterborough. Until the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the abbot had been empowered to appoint Justices of the Peace for the Hundred, or Liberty, of Nassaburgh. When Peterborough Monastery was dissolved in 1539 Abbot Chambers was made the first Bishop of Peterborough, and the following year King Henry VIII granted three Commissions of the Peace to the coterminous Liberty of Peterborough. They were:

  • The Commission of the Peace for the appointment of Justices to sit in Petty Sessional Courts and exercise the ordinary duties of the magistracy;
  • The Commission for Gaol Delivery, and
  • The Commission of Oyer and Terminer, that is to hear and determine, which empowered the Justices of the Liberty to hear assize offences at Quarter Sessions.

The last commission gave to the justices of the liberty, power to enquire more fully "... by the oath of good and lawful men of the Liberty of Peterborough, by whom the truth of the matter may be better known and by other ways, means and methods by which they shall or better know, of the treasons ... insurrections ... rebellions, counterfeitings, clippings, wastings, false comings ... murders, felonies, manslaughters ... and many other grave offences mentioned therein which in other counties are only triable by a Judge of Assize, and the Justices are commanded at days appointed for this purpose to make diligent enquiries into and to hear and determine the above mentioned offences."

In 1877 Queen Victoria confirmed these commissions and endorsed the ancient privileges of jurisdiction of the liberty justices and at the same time excluded the High Sheriff of Northamptonshire from exercising his authority in the Soke. The commissions of oyer and terminer and gaol delivery were not renewed by the monarchs immediately succeeding Queen Victoria and in 1920 the Court of Criminal Appeal quashed a conviction recorded at Peterborough Quarter Sessions. It was held that three of the liberty magistrates adjudicating at the hearing were not in order, as the assize authority of the court then derived from commissions granted during the reign of Queen Victoria. The three justices in question had been appointed to the commission of the peace subsequent to her death and only justices appointed during her reign were in order in adjudicating at such a court. This resulted in a renewal of the commissions in continuation of the ancient assize jurisdiction, and an announcement was made at the Easter Quarter Sessions in 1921 that "whatever may have happened as a result of a recent case in the Court of Criminal Appeal by authority of this Commission now granted, this Court will continue to exercise this ancient jurisdiction in the same manner as it has done under similar commissions since the days of Charles I." In fact, the justices of the liberty did not exercise their full powers, although they were always jealous of their special and historic privileges.

Burghley House, seat of the Marquess of Exeter

In 1949, the 5th Marquess of Exeter moved an amendment in the House of Lords to the Justices of the Peace Bill. This was necessary to safeguard the special position of the liberty jurisdiction as the new Bill provided there should be a separate commission of the peace for every administrative county and county borough and not for any other area. Accordingly, an amendment was accepted by the Lord Chancellor and the following paragraph was included in the Act:—

SAVING FOR SOKE OF PETERBOROUGH: The Justices for the Soke of Peterborough shall, by virtue of the Commission of the Peace and without any further commission, have within the county the same jurisdiction as before the coming into force of Section 10 of this Act the Justices for the Liberty of Peterborough had within the Liberty by virtue of the commissions of oyer and terminer and gaol delivery customarily issued to those Justices, but as respects any matters within their competence as Justices of the Peace, shall act as such and not as Justices of Oyer and Terminer or Justices of Gaol Delivery.[6]

In accepting the amendment the Lord Chancellor said that in murder cases this ancient jurisdiction had survived all these years only because it had never been exercised and he added, "if the justices ever appear to act upon the powers they possess, I shall be the first to come and remove those powers for them."[7]

The Courts of Assize and Quarter Sessions were eventually abolished by the Courts Act 1971 and replaced by a single permanent Crown Court.

Local Government Act 1888

Under an amendment by the Marquess of Exeter to the Local Government Act 1888, the Soke became a separate administrative county in its own right, distinct from the remainder of Northamptonshire.[8] An elected council of a chairman, 10 aldermen, and 30 councillors, took over the administrative functions of the Quarter Sessions and had its meetings at the Guildhall; but this formal change hid a great deal of continuity, as Justices of the Peace were often elected councillors, the Clerk of the Peace became the Clerk to the Council and so on.[9] When this council was granted a coat of arms by the College of Arms in 1950, the shield placed the crossed keys of Saint Peter, from the arms of the Diocese of Peterborough on the silver and blue barry field of the arms of the Cecil family, Marquesses of Exeter. In time the administrative county changed is bounds beyond those of the Soke and was eventually abolished in 1965.

John Speed's seventeenth century map of Northamptonshire

Outside links


  1. Britton, John and Brayley, Edward Wedlake: The Beauties of England and Wales J. Harris, London, 1818
  2. Old Gaol, known as 'Sessions House' Hidden Heritage (retrieved 19 December 2009)
  3. Lewis, Samuel Peterborough (St. John the Baptist) Topographical Dictionary of England (7th ed.) vol.3 (pp.558-564) S. Lewis & Co., London, 1848
  4. Incorporation of Peterborough: Report of the enquiry held at the New Hall by Major Donnelly J.S. Clarke, Peterborough, 1873
  5. Peterborough with Longthorpe and Newark Kelly's Directory of Northamptonshire (pp.233-244) Kelly & Co., London, 1903
  6. Schedule 2 of the Justices of the Peace Act 1949 (12, 13 & 14 Geo. VI c.101)
  7. The Soke of Peterborough and the Liberty Quarter Sessions Commemorating 100 years of service of the Peterborough Police 1857–1957 (pp.6-8) Peterborough Combined Police Force, 23 May 1957. See also Gaches, Louis Bingham History of the Liberty of Peterborough and the jurisdiction of the justices of gaol delivery for the Hundred of Nassaburgh a reprint of articles published in Fenland Notes and Queries Geo. C. Caster, Peterborough, 1905
  8. The Times London, 07 August 1888, see Cecil Family, Marquess of Exeter Peterborough City Council (retrieved 22 September 2007)
  9. Brabner, J.H.F. (ed.) Northamptonshire or Northampton The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England and Wales vol.4 William Mackenzie, London, 1895
Hundreds of Northamptonshire

Chipping Warden • Cleley • Corby • Fawsley • Greens Norton • Guilsborough • Hamfordshoe • Higham Ferrers • Huxloe • King's Sutton • Nassaburgh • Navisford • Nobottle Grove • Orlingbury • Polebrook • Rothwell • Spelhoe • Towcester • Willybrook • Wymersley