State Trials

By Lally, Christy | History Today, August 2000 | Go to article overview

State Trials


Lally, Christy, History Today


AFTER YEARS OF BEING LOCKED AWAY in libraries and antiquarian bookshops, the legal records of the State Trials have at last entered the electronic era. The State Trials on CD-ROM is a major publishing project this summer. For the first time the contents of more than 1,000 trials, from 1163 to 1858, will be available to historians and legal researchers on a single CD.

Information that would be almost impossible to find in the 58,000-plus printed pages can now be searched and located in seconds. This comprehensive collection gives valuable accounts of the development of the British legal system, and the constitutional history of Britain and former colonies, and provides a rare insight into the society and values of successive generations. Exhaustive footnotes -- often as long as the trial text itself -- were added, providing a background to the trial and the momentous events unfolding therein.

Publishing the State Trials has involved four continents. The electronic version was commissioned and published in the UK by Jutastat, a subsidiary of South Africa's legal publisher Juta & Co. The conversion of the text was managed in the United States, having been double-keyed in India. The assembly and programming was carried out at Jutastat's parent company's head office in Cape Town, making this a genuinely international publishing project.

The printed volumes of the State Trials appeared in two series. Howell's (1809-1828, in thirty-three volumes plus index), and the new series, edited by MacDonell, (1888-98, eight volumes). Howell's State Trials incorporated the first series of legal reports and historical accounts collected in the late eighteenth century of what were known as `State Trials' -- that is, trials primarily concerned with offences against the state, usually high treason, heresy, and sedition. In subsequent editions the Howell's collection incorporated cases of piracy, rape, witchcraft, bigamy, and murder, as well as peerage claims and special proceedings and investigations. These cases were added ostensibly for legal interest, as many contained important judgements and precedents, although notoriety and celebrity (leading to increased sales) was also a factor. We should be grateful for this, as a wealth of valuable information is contained in these trials. The final edition of Howell's eventually appeared in 1828, containing trials up to the death of George III in 1820.

In 1885 a committee was appointed to bring the State Trials `up to date', and the second series of State Trials under the editorship of John MacDonell appeared between 1888 and 1898. …

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