No distinct system of ecclesiastical courts existed in England before the twelfth century. Rather, bishops of the church were also secular lords, who exercised their authority through the local assemblies.
"In the shire court, the bishop presided with the sheriff, and it seems that spiritual matters were placed first on the agenda. William I ordered in the 1070s that pleas of bishops and archdeacons should not be heard in the hundred courts, but that the power of the king and the sheriff should be available to compel appearance before the bishop. This was an attempt to prevent the corrective jurisdiction of the Church, which generated monetary income, from passing with the hundreds into lay hands. The separation of ecclesiastical and lay pleas at county level probably did not occur until the next century." (26)
By the end of the twelfth century a machinery of ecclesiastical judicature had developed consisting of a hierarchy of tribunals with the Roman Curia as its apex. As described by Baker,
"At the lowest level, archdeacons had criminal courts for the correction of moral and disciplinary offenses; appeal lay from archidiaconal courts to episcopal 'courts of audience'. The bishops also had their 'consistory courts', presided over by chancellors learned in Canon law, which heard lawsuits such as matrimonial and defamation cases. From bishops, appeal lay to one of the two archbishops: in the province of York to the Chancery Court of York, in that of Canterbury to the Court of Arches. From these provincial courts, appeal lay to the pope." (27)
The Church tried cases involving actions of the clergy, articles concerning the church, and cases where the matter was of a spiritual nature. This last included, with respect to the laity, issues of morality, religious behavior, marriages, legitimacy, wills, and the administration of intestate estates. It served as a registry concerning baptisms, marriages, and burials.
Most of the records are held in the archives of the various religious houses and diocesan headquarters.
26. Baker, John H. An Introduction to English Legal History, 4th ed. London: Butterworths Lexis/Nexis, 2002 at p.127