England Manor Courts (National Institute)
The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Court Records-Criminal, Civil and Ecclesiastical by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
A manor is a property for which the owner held a court for his copyhold tenants. Manors were often farms or multiple farms and could include other rural lands, but could also comprise a group of town houses (see Gibbens’ English Magistrates. Metropolitan (London and North Middlesex Family History Society) Vol 18 #3, page 137-143). The land of a given manor was rarely coterminous with parish boundaries, either ecclesiastical or civil, and frequently contained a part of one parish, or parts of two or more parishes, not always contiguous to one another. One land owner might hold several manors and tenants might therefore transfer from one part of his estate to another—a point to remember when an ancestor suddenly appears in or disappears from a certain parish. A land owner could also hold freehold properties with tenants which were not part of any manor and hence held no court. Some manors were small and the lord could be the occupier farming his own land, living in the home or barton farm or desmesne land. Other manors were much larger, up to 150 square miles, and here the land was leased out except for the lord’s demesne lands which he farmed himself, or let out at fixed rent to a bailiff, the latter being the commonest situation from the 17th century.
The manorial system had its origins in Saxon England, developed under the Norman kings, but did not cover the whole of England and so manorial records exist for some areas but not others. Manorial records are private rather than public although there are legal provisions for their custody. The Victoria County Histories, which can be found in larger libraries and on film, normally trace the ownership of manors but the series is not yet complete. A list of currently available VCH volumes is given in the course English: Education, Health and Contemporary Documents. TNA research guides L1 and L9 have good background information and help access what is available there, much of which is also available on film, of-course. Estimates of the number of manors vary between 25,000 and 65,000 (Travers) whereas there are about 12,300 ancient parishes (Humphery-Smith 1995). Travers estimated the amounts of surviving manorial documents from samples from five counties (see chart below). From this it can be seen that there is a greater chance of being able to use them for confirming, or replacing missing, parish register information as only a lucky few will be able to use them to continue a pedigree prior to 1538. Manorial records are the most reliable statements of ancestry (Humphery-Smith 1997) and should be sought out if at all possible.
Chart: Survival of Manorial Documents (data from Travers)
|Surviving manorial documents||% of manors|
|Name only, no records||34%|
|A few of different dates||44%|
|Good run from 16th or17th century||18%|
|Good run from before 16th century||4%|
The lord of the manor could hold two main courts:
This was obligatory and dealt with transference of copyhold land, enforcing local customs and agricultural practice and settling minor disputes and debts involving less than 40 shillings. It was held by the lord of the manor or his legally-trained steward at least once a year or as often as its business demanded. The court baron often included the old court customary of the bond or villein tenants, and there were other minor courts in some places. The records of courts baron which deal with inheritance, sale and transfer of land are discussed in the National Institute for Genealogical Studies course English: Land and Property Records Including Manorial Documents and Maps. Other court baron records are covered here.
There may also have been a court leet (including, and also alternatively called, the view of frankpledge) which was essentially a subsidiary hundred court. The view of frankpledge was a method of checking to which tithing each man belonged, and it records the names of the most substantial men, usually the freeholders, who do not appear, of-course, as copyhold tenants in the court baron records (Cox). The court leet dealt with criminal offences such as murder, treason, rape, arson, counterfeiting and burglary, which it then referred on to the county assizes, as well as common law offences for which it levied punishments, and it also appointed some local officials.
Procedures and Practices
In practice the two courts were usually held on the same day, one after the other, and recorded separately but often in the same manor court roll or book. All tenants of the manor had to attend, this duty being called suit of court. Absentees had to provide excuses (essoins) and those who didn’t were fined (amerced) as defaulters. Local practice determined whether freeholders attended the manor court; in some all freeholders attended, in others only some did so (Hey) and custom varied over time and from one part of the country to another.
It has been estimated that at least three-quarters of the adult male population appear in manor court records (Hey). Tenants of the smallest holdings, women, children, servants and the poor are the least likely to be recorded although some are.
Although customs (the customs of the manor) varied greatly from manor to manor there were uniform standards of procedure and practice of record keeping, which simplifies their use by the researcher. The records, (the court roll or book), was typically in Latin from feudal times, (the earliest extant is from 1246), until the end of 1732, except for ten years in the Commonwealth period but from 1733 they will be in English. They may have a contemporary index at the beginning, end or at the side of the text. The lord of the manor’s steward (seneschal) was a lawyer who presided over the court, and may have supervised several manor courts in his area. He conducted the proceedings and wrote up the court book or roll.
A manor court usually had 12 homagers, selected from the chief tenants of the manor, forming its jury. It was the jury which made the decisions, not the lord or the steward; and freeholders played little part in manorial administration. The jury attended to the following duties:
- The lord’s financial interests in his manor.
- Appointing of officers within the manor.
- Reeve or local manager particularly concerned with weights and measures at the market.
- Hayward who looked after hedges, fences and straying cattle.
- Beadle who acted as a court summoner, kept order and headed processions.
- Constables acted as the policemen, placing offenders in the local lock-up until tried, and had many other duties.
- Aletasters (aleconners) determined the quality of beverages.
- Affeerors who assessed the value of penalties imposed by the court.
- Judging pleas brought by individuals, there being over 60 offences liable to be dealt with by the Court Leet and more than 40 by the Court Baron, including:
- Petty theft, especially of farm implements and produce.
- Failing to do their allotted duties in respect to communal facilities such as Streams, hedges, paths, bridges, harvest, carting stones for highway etc.
- Obstruction of roads and watercourses, like digging a hole in the road or damming a stream to make a mill pond.
- Allowing buildings to decay or having dangerous chimneys.
- Grazing too many animals.
- Letting their animals stray.
- Cutting wood to which they were not entitled.
- Domestic violence or desertion.
- Drunkenness, fighting and quarrels, even youths loitering on street corners in the evenings (so what else is new!)
- Building on the manor wastes.
- Failing to maintain the watch or the hue-and-cry (to catch offenders).
- Breaking the assize of bread by selling underweight loaves.
- Breaking the assize of ale be selling weak beer, short measure, adding salt to the liquid to increase the thirst of drinkers, selling on Sundays or by unlicensed people.
- Butchers were fined for blowing air into the arteries of venison to give a plumper look.
- Laying pains or ordinances (setting regulations) and fixing penalties for breaching them. Pains included:
- Organization of communal agriculture.
- Scouring of ditches.
- Use of public wells.
- Muzzling of mastiffs (large dogs).
Penalties could be fines (amercements) perhaps recorded in a separate heriot or estreat book, or custodial sentences (poena).
Changes to Customs
Breach or change in custom of the manor. The custumal of the manor was the written document outlining the customs of that manor, but any breaches or new variations were noted at court. A new lord might try to assert himself by claiming new rights, and these were rebutted by elderly tenants who remembered past usage, or claimed it was so from time immemorial (legally 1189) or at least before the memory of man (113 years).
Announcements of Coming Courts
A precept, or announcement of a forthcoming manor court is shown below, the format of a court roll or record and a transcription of a whole court beneath that. .
Precept for a Manor Court
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Court Records-Criminal, Civil and Ecclesiastical offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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