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A manor is an estate or an agricultural unit of local government, held by a landlord. A more detailed definition of its constitution and functions would not be valid for all periods of time nor all parts of the country.
Outside of the United Kingdom, many believe the term manor refers to a building, but the manor is the specific area of land. The residence of the landlord was called the manor house. Those living on the manor were subject to the customs of the manor, a sort of local common law often set by the landlord and which varied from manor to manor. The landlord was referred to as Lord of the Manor, but was not necessarily a titled person. The landlord held the estate from the Crown either directly or through one or more mesne lords (a 'middle' lord). The mesne lord generally held one or more manors from the king, then in turn was a superior lord over a manor lords who held one of his manors. Manors began after the Norman Conquest (1066) and weren't abolished until a property act of 1922.
"In many hundreds of villages throughout England, the oldest and most important surviving building after the church is the manor house. It may not be called that. The local people may refer to it as 'the old hall' or 'the big house'. Sometimes it has been relegated to use as a farmhouse, or a vicarage, or an hotel, or it may be in ruins, but it nearly always holds a special place in the affections of the older people who, even if they know very little of it's history and regard those who occupy it now as complete strangers, have a sense of its past influence on the growth of their village."
The people who lived on the manor were either
- Villeins, people who owed allegiance to and were bound to the lord of the manor, or
- Free tenant farmers (may also be known as franklin or yeoman) were not subject to the customs of the manor or the will of the lord.
It is estimated that there were between 25,000 and 65,000 manors in England, compared to the approximately 12,000 to 15,000 parishes.
Each manor held two periodic courts to administer affairs of the manor. The surviving records of these courts are the most valuable to the genealogist. Court was held at intervals ranging from six weeks to six months. The two courts held were Court Baron and Court Leet (by the 1600's known as View of Frankpledge). The procedure was judicial, but the matters dealt with were both administrative and judicial.
The principal for the manor was "Justice shall be done by the lord's court, not by the lord."
- Court Baron, originally for free tenants, dealt with land transfers, lord's and tenant's rights and duties, changes in occupancy, and disputes between tenants.
- Court Leet, originally for villeins, dealt with petty crimes, and the election of officials for the manor. These officials were: bailiff (appointed by the steward), reeve, hayward, beadle, constable, ale-taster, and two affeerers.
Records survive from 1246; most manors stopped holding court in the 1800's.
The Manorial Documents Register (MDR) lists extant manorial records and their location. They also have a list, by parish, showing the manors lying within each parish. The MDR is a type of catalogue, which identifies what records exist and where they are located. Actual records are held in The National Archives (Kew, near London), county record offices, large reference libraries, muniment rooms in the manor house, and sometimes in the private papers of the solicitors for the estate.
The National Archives website describes the MDR:
The Manorial Documents Register is the official register of manorial documents for England and Wales. We maintain it on behalf of the Master of the Rolls. The Register contains information about the nature and location of surviving manorial documents. Manorial documents have statutory protection under the Manorial Documents Rules. They are defined in the Rules as court rolls, surveys, maps, terriers, documents and books of every description relating to the boundaries, franchises, wastes, customs or courts of a manor. Only those types of document defined in the Rules as manorial documents are noted in the Manorial Documents Register. Title deeds and other evidences of title are not defined as manorial documents and are therefore not included in the Register. The Manorial Documents Register is not a register of title, and we do not seek to collect information about the ownership or descent of manors.
The MDR is being placed online. As of June 2013, the catalogue of extant manorial documents available online includes:
- Wales (all counties)
- Hampshire and the Isle of Wight,
- Westmorland, and
- Yorkshire (all three Ridings).
all other counties can be searched at The National Archives search room.
Razi and Smith attempted to create a nationwide inventory of all surviving pre-1500 manor court records. It is published in the Appendix to Zvi Razi and Richard Smith, Medieval Society and the Manor Court (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996) FHL British Book 942 P2rz.
- Bailey, Brian.English Manor Houses. London: Robert Hale, 1983. FHL 942 H2bb
- Harvey, P.D.A. Manorial Records. Gloucester: Alan Sutton Publishing for the British Records Association, 1984. FHL 942 B4bra no. 5
- Hone, Nathaniel J. The Manor and Manorial Records. 2nd ed. rev. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1912. FHL 942 R2hn 1912
- Molyneux-Child, J.W. The Evolution of the English Manorial System. Lewes, Sussex: The Book Guild Ltd., 1987. FHL 942 H2mjw
- Palgrave-Moore, Patrick.How to Locate and Use Manorial Records. Norfolk: Elvery Dowers Publications, 1985. FHL 942 A1 No. 831. Pages 1-25.
- Park, Peter B. My Ancestors Were Manorial Tenants: How Can I Find Out More About Them?. London: Society of Genealogists, 1990. FHL 942 D27pp
- The National Archives, Manor and other local court rolls, 13th century to 1922, London:2010. Online at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/research-guides/manor-court-rolls.htm
- Travers, Anita. "Manorial Documents." Genealogists' Magazine 21 (March 1983): 1-9. FHL 942 B2gm
- Bailey, Brian. English Manor Houses. London: Robert Hale, 1983. p. 13 FHL 240727
- The National Archives, About the Manorial Documents Register. Retrieved 16 Nov 2011 from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/mdr/aboutapps/mdr/about.htm.