English Manorial Court Records as a Source for Eighteenth- and Nineteenth Century Families

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Article by Cecil R. Humphery-Smith in World Conference on Records, 1980.

Manorial records of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are most likely to cover the period when the majority of emigrants from the British Isles left their homelands for the New World. However, one should not dismiss these records before or after the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is not my intention to give any historical account of the origins of the manorial system and its records here. There are sound texts on that subject.1 I have commented elsewhere on their value2 and would add that they are indispensable for tracing ancestry of Nonconformist dissenters.

It is not easy to understand the difference between the several types of courts held by a manorial lord or his steward. Essentially, there were three governing the relationship between the lord and the community for which he had responsibility. There were the customer court, the leet court, and court baron.

The customary court was also responsible for assessments and met from time to time, roughly every seven years, to assess the rent due from freeholders, leaseholders, and copyholders. When a new lord succeeded, it would arraign all tenants of the manor, and a list would be completed, a most valuable directory. Occasionally, the steward would recite the customs of the manor, which were the anciently agreed terms of the relationship between the lord and his tenants.

The leet court was, in effect, the police court. A homage swore fealty by the view of frankpledge, as it was called, and the jury decided on the fines payable for offenses, appointed the officers of the manor, and heard the cases against miscreant tenants. If your ancestor was not an alemeter, a Hayward, constable, catchpole, or wayward, he was bound at sometime or other to have been fined for grinding his own corn, dragging brushwood, overgrazing sheep, or making offensive remarks.

The court baron was concerned with the lord’s “incidences,” what was due to him from movement of tenants especially. Surrender, admission, death, marriage, making over to the use of wills – all entitled the lord to a monetary payment in lieu of payment in kind. These fines, too, were recorded, with details of the incident giving rise to them, in the court roll.

The earlier rolls, some of which survive from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and many from the sixteenth, are of course difficult to read and interpret. Experience in Latin and paleography is essential.3 The principal records are made up of pieces of sheepskin, goatskin, or calfskin (known as parchment or vellum) sewn together in lengths that can be composed of ten or more skins. They are written in quite small hands on both sides of the skins, and the words are much abbreviated. By the nineteenth century most of these rolls, as they were called from having been stored rolled up, were written in English in large copperplate handwriting in heavy books bound in leather.

For some reason which I have always found hard to fathom, genealogists mistrust the records of the feudal period and use them little if at all. They certainly do need understanding before they can be used for tracing ancestry because, like so much of the records of the courts of law, they depend upon custom and usage. Perhaps that is why genealogists fear heraldry and pretend it is unnecessary to their craft. Certainly, if you wish to understand the records of the manors, you must have firsthand experience using them and not rely upon what little has been written in books and articles on the subject. Therefore, I can only give guidance based upon my experience. That is a large and wide experience with these particular records, but I am convinced that only by taking one through a series of related court records could it be possible to teach him fully the significance and value of them. That is not to say that I shall not be able to give some guidance.

What records may exist for any manor will depend much upon the way in which the courts of that unit have been conducted over the centuries and by what sort of administration. The larger manors derived from the tenures of feudal barons and acquisition of land and rights distributed from monastic territory after the Reformation will probably encompass many smaller administrations; and the muniments room will include cartularies (extensive catalog and descriptions of charters and grants of rights), rental books, customaries, exemplifications, original presentments and ordinances, estate maps, mill books, account and wardrobe rolls, title deeds, views of frankpledge, depositions, and of course, what are usually called the manor court rolls, the records of the courts leet and courts baron. These will have been brought together by successive full-time stewards or seneschals. In other cases, a small subinfeudated manor may produce nothing more than a simple minute book compiled by the lord himself or by his bailiff with some accounts of income and expenditure. In either case, let me emphasize that the great value of these records is that they provide often a most vivid account of the daily lives and vicissitudes of the ordinary people of the English village. While some elements of the feudal system of military and social government from which all these records are derived are to be found in varying measures throughout Europe, I shall concentrate upon what I know of the English scene. People’s lives can only be followed when they are recorded, when events in their day-to-day existence come up against the administration of law and order. The manor was, even more so than the parish, the administrative unit controlling the local populace, their comings and goings, good and bad behavior, loyalties, and commerce.

These, you will say, are exactly the sort of records you have always sought to provide evidence of your ancestors’ lives – where they lived and what they did. Indeed, more than is ever possible with parochial registers, which, at the best, can only suggest that John was the son of Henry in the absence of any other possible John, manorial records will prove beyond doubt that there could not be any other father for John but Henry and give his family historical background. The reason for this is straightforward: the descent of title to property tenure is always determinable from usage and the documentation of usage. The territory is determinable, and the relationship between a user and his or her successor in the usage of that territory is documented precisely.

In the cartularies there are extensive descriptions of the properties, buildings, and rights conveyed by charters, by whom, to whom; and the juxtaposition of fields and estates to highways and to named neighbors or neighboring properties are well defined. Persons are identified in place and time (or date) and, as often as not, by reference to relations and occupations. Much the same can be said of the vast quantity and variety of deeds. Deeds need to be understood in their legal context.4 It is also of interest to know how they came into being in order to understand why one particular type may have been employed rather than another, and this is why it is necessary to have experience with and a good knowledge of paleography.

When you have discovered the area or village from which your ancestor came, you may find that the local library or count records office has a large collection of deeds and other documents relating to that area. You arrive and find that there are boxes – if not sacks – full of the stuff: enormous, stiff vellum recoveries with expansive and decorative headings portraying royal arms or portraits; pages of parchments; masses of paper, unwieldy and verbose. Where do you begin? What little time you have to look at one or two, let alone hundreds or perhaps thousands, of such documents! The skilled researcher can spend half an hour or so and sort out a box of several hundred such papers deciding that only half a dozen need to be read, and these only for pertinent facts. All these documents have been written by lawyers who were probably paid by the number of words they could use. At least, that is the accusation the laity makes against them. Be that as it may, each one is composed according to a formula for that special type of deed. The names you are looking for will always appear in one particular place in the context of the document, the date also. So there is no need to read all the wording at all. In most cases, you look for the word inter or between, and you know that names of the parties involved will follow. If the name you seek is not there, the document can be put aside. In no time, the task which appeared to be insurmountable is reduced to proportions which can be tackled in a reasonable time.5

Any form of document which lists names of people in the context of a date and a place is a directory and at least tells that those people flourished in that place at that time. You must be prepared to adjust your concept of genealogical research to realize that you will not always get precise dates and places of birth, marriage, and death to write into a family tree. Who knows when and where he was born? We have secondhand evidence from the word of our parents. In many cases, as we go back with research, we only know dates of baptism, often not even a mother’s name. We do not know how long before baptism a child was born; it may have been years. I know of a case where mother, father, and several children were christened the day before the wedding of the eldest daughter, when they were reconciled with the vicar! There is no indication of ages, but circumstantial evidence proves the relationship. I need not expand on it. So, with the records of the manor, we have to make a different approach and realize that genealogy is a scientific process of connecting an individual with the generations preceding and succeeding him with indisputable documentary proof or weight of circumstantial evidence.

Rental books constitute specially useful forms of directories. Often they will enable the researcher to discover the actual whereabouts of the home of his ancestor as, of course, may estate maps, which could well have representations of the actual house painted on them. They are, however, rare and often far removed physically from their original homes in the muniments of manor or estate.

After an especially bad winter, a ford or bridge may have been dangerous, and the seneschal of the manor may have required it to be closed. The homage or jury of the manor would have been witnesses to the instructions requiring all tenants and freeholders to respect the orders. The crier would have made the news known to the illiterate. The place under protection probably would have been described in terms of the names of the neighboring properties and their tenants. A collection of such ordinances, relating to roads, wells, millstreams, gates, commons, and a variety of other tings, can soon build up a historical picture and details of the background of your ancestors’ lives, as well as the names and occupations of those who dwelt among them.

A bundle of thin strips of parchment skin, sewn together at one end, may constitute the account of the residents in a particular house with garden, orchard, and piggery for three or four hundred years; and, if it has always remained by copyhold tenure in the hands of the same family, these documents provide an indisputable line of pedigree.

Accounts of food and wine, meat and beer, ales and ciders, clothing and fabrics, who had what quantities of corn ground, what they paid and to whom they paid their dues; fair and market tolls’, day-to-day household accounts; as well as inventories of goods in buildings, houses, barns and shops made for assessments locally or for probate – all these records add to the colorful and accurate picture among the records we are now considering. They are fascinating insights into the social economy of the community.

Original presentments are rare but are, in effect, the steward’s minutes and miscellaneous notes made at the time of the holding of his courts and, in most cases, will include the petitions of those claiming the right to be admitted to tenure and their signatures, marks and signs of witnesses, and a miscellany of material which, again, in context will enable you to learn more about the lives of those you can now be certain are your ancestors because the records so positively identify them. I repeat: parochial registers seldom provide such positive means of identification. Doubt always seems to remain. Even if an ancestor takes an alias, as he may well do, and there is an apparent change of surname during the tracing of your ancestry, he is still positively identified by manorial records and would not be by any others which are normally employed in this sort of research. The chances of a suit before one of the senior courts of the Crown, Chancery, or Exchequer, for example, in which such detail could emerge, are rare except, perhaps, with mercantile and landed families.

By far the most important records of the manor, of course, are the court rolls. All others give isolated instances in the lives of the inhabitants, while the rolls seem to trace them through from their first tenancy to the last held by their descendants. Of course, we must admit at this point that the rolls are not always easy to find. The earliest were, sadly, destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt for misconceived reasons. The few that survive and those which have been kept since are now dispersed because the whole system upon which manorial jurisdiction was based began to collapse in the fifteenth century and finally came to an end with the Land Registration Act of 1925. Before then, many lords were no longer collecting their incidences and dues or rents; solicitors and local country lawyers, who had acted as stewards to several manors on an itinerant basis for generations, now wanted the space in the offices taken up by what they considered to be bulky and useless old documents; there was little or no sense of record preservation, and much was thrown out. The changes in the law to place all such records under the protection of Her Majesty’s master of the rolls, one of the most senior in the judiciary of the realm, came too late to prevent most of the disaster that had already silently occurred. Nevertheless, a great deal has survived, and there are some means of finding this, which I shall next outline.

If you know the area from which your ancestors came, make a list of the villages and parishes covering it thoroughly. A good aid is a large-scale ordnance survey map combined with a map of parochial boundaries, produced by the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, Canterbury. Some good county directories, gazetteers, or topographical histories will give the names of the manors and last known lords, but these are often inaccurate or incomplete. Kelly’s directories were especially helpful before the Second World War.

Armed with your list, you must make a personal visit to the National Register of Archives of the Historical Manuscripts Commission. Their very efficient office in Quality Inn, Chancery Lane, London, has a well-indexed guide to what original documents are known to have been deposited in what record offices, libraries, and collections throughout the United Kingdom and elsewhere, when they relate to English and Welsh records. There is a similar commission for Scotland and Ireland. They have two index systems: The one under names of parishes lists the manors known to have had jurisdiction over any parts of the parishes, for, due to subinfeudation (the splitting up and selling of the rights or portions of the rights in a manor), parochial and manorial boundaries rarely coincide. Next, there is an index of manors containing details of the known remnants of the rolls, the periods they cover, and where they were last known to be. It must be borne clearly in mind that this is only the latest information available to the register. Some entries may be forty or more years old. Many manorial documents are in the British Library, among the royal archives, and in the Public Record Office. More are now in county and local record offices in public administration custody. Some are in private or semiprivate collections such as those at the College of Arms, the Society of Antiquaries, and other societies. Much remains in private hands, with ecclesiastical archives and solicitors as well as with individuals. The majority of documents have not been listed, and the National Register has not been informed of their existence. How, then, do you find them to study them?

Genealogical and historical research has always been a game of patience and detection. Some county or local history book or the personal knowledge of an archivist or historian in the neighborhood would be able to provide you with the name of the last family to hold the lordship of the manor. A search for the will of the deceased lord would reveal his acting attorneys at probate court, who, as likely as not, would also have been stewards of his manors. They should know how the manorial rights have devolved. It is well to be wary in tracing the solicitors. Names of partnerships change over a few generations, but as likely as not, the firm remains in the same ancient premises – a massive Queen Anne or Georgian building in the High Street – and a visit or a letter to the managing clerk will ascertain what they have or to whom you should address further enquiries. Unless the manor was rectorial (one supporting a parish, in which case the records have probably survived among ecclesiastical archives or in some college of Oxford or Cambridge), the parochial incumbent is unlikely to be able to give much assistance in discovering the present whereabouts of manorial records. A local librarian may prove to be the most helpful. As a last resort, ask me! Over more than thirty years I have been building up a collection of notes on where some of these obscure documents may be found. In fact, I began to take an interest while sorting salvage just before the outbreak of war in the summer of 1939.

Assuming that you have now located a promising-looking collection of manorial rolls and minute books, how do you use them?2 To help you understand this, I believe that my last task is to attempt to conjure up for you a picture of the holding of the courts, the sort of transactions that took place, and in what circumstances, and then to cite a few examples for original rolls in my own collection.

The custom of the manor, as often as not unwritten but remembered and undisputed by all, determined when and where the court would sit. Perhaps it was on Lady Day, the feast of the Annunciation, in the spring. Perhaps it was at Michaelmas, the feast of St. Michael and the Heavenly Host. When once the community may have worked out its rules for peace and order and government under some sacred oak tree at the meeting of paths from one group of huts and another to the oak and the watering place, by the sixteenth century the manor house in which the lord would reside with his family was probably supported by produce from the manor lands, and the farmer had a building of his own close by that old oak tree. The front parlor was large and served as the court room – hence manor court farm. There was beer or cider and plenty of food – beef, bread, and fowl – served for all who came; and everyone was expected to attend.

The meeting of the ways was called the leet in some long-forgotten tongue, and that word is used to describe the court which first sat to determine who may have offended against the norms of behavior upon which an equally ancient tribal community influenced by Christian ethics had once agreed should regulate decent conduct. First there was an examination of the freedoms and privileges, responsibilities and rights enjoyed by all and their lord. This view of frankpledge became a ritual formality and was followed quickly by the selection of the homage or jury (those sworn in) to be responsible for the good behavior of the whole community. They, in turn, determined the common fine and selected and appointed to their various policing duties, the constable, woodward, wayward, Hayward, and such other officers as might be required, along with catchpole and linkmen. The holders of these gave rise to many surviving surnames, and of course, already each court’s record had begun to list, in the context of date and place, names and occupations of individuals who might be among your ancestors.

After that, the jurat fixed the common fine, heard the essoins or excuses for absences or refusals to take up offices, and then got on with the business of hearing the accounts of misdemeanors committed since the last court. Serious offenses were usually referred to the justices of sessions or to the assize, though in earlier times, before the power of the magistrates had become great, lords of manors often maintained their own pounds or prisons, stocks, pillories, whipping posts, and other, less humane forms of punishment for those who transgressed. Most of the offenses brought to the attention of the leet court were likely to mean that your ancestors and mine made several appearances in a lifetime. Dragging timber in the woods damaged the bracken and undergrowth.

That was an offense that the woodward would report. Taking saplings for firewood, driving cattle on a muddy track in the rainy season of the year, permitting cows to stray in the corn, milling too much of one’s own corn at home instead of at the lord’s mill, blocking a drain, throwing slops out of the window and missing the sewer! – offenses such as these came to the attention of the steward and his jury. Fines were imposed, and when paid, that was the end of the matter; but a record was made and that is where you are able to discover that your ancestor lived, had a certain occupation and, perhaps, gave short measure of his home-brewed ale.

When all these petty and more serious matters had been judged, the court took on a different function. Perhaps folk attending were now too involved in the accompanying market, fair, or other entertainment that had been customarily arranged on the day, or had imbibed too much good English ale or cider. On the other hand, newcomers to tenure of land might interest them. The court baron, the court of the lord which determined the incidences, rights, and privileges due to him, was held immediately after the leet had finished its business.

Years ago some widow had made her will. Perhaps she inherited from her mother or by virtue of a marriage settlement the deed, which can still be found in a record office. The deed will contain a wealth of genealogical detail. The will may not necessarily be found in a probate court. She had made it over to the Lord with a condition that her use of land which she had had from her husband should go on to her daughter’s husband. Perhaps the daughter could not be found, but a grandson came forward and was presented as heir. He might well change his name to that of this grandmother in order to substantiate the claim to his copyhold title. That is one of the ways in which an alias comes into existence, for often land property was named after the family which provided the successive generations of user of it. Look at the enormous amount of genealogical information that emerges from one such entry in a court roll and how it illustrates just how positive these records are in identification when use of a will has been accorded by the court.

Leases and sublettings may be confirmed or denied by the court baron, and the lord would receive his fine (an incidence of the manor) for the privilege enjoyed by his tenant. On the death of a copyhold tenant, his heir would be called. Details of the death and the extent of the tenancy and description of the land would be given. Its precise location would be determined by its abutments. The supposed heir or heiress would be called three times and often at successive meetings of the court so that every opportunity was given for the right user of the land to come along and stake a claim. If none did, then the property would revert to the lord’s holdings.

Perhaps the son of the deceased was well known and came forward to report his father’s death. He would then be presented to court by two other customary tenants of the manor – those who held their status by custom – and he would take the rod. This was a real and meaningful part of the ritual of admission to the manor. In front of the steward or his clerk lay a wooden rod to hold which was a dignified sign of submission to all the rules and customs which generations of the community had laid down for good law and order, their rights and duties. Someone, perhaps a midwife or a parson, would come forward and swear that the boy was an adult – usually more than sixteen, eighteen, or twenty-one years of age – and upon paying the heriot (customarily the best heifer or other young beast, but more usually a pecuniary composition) for the death of the copyholder and the fine (fee) for admission into the community, the young man would be entered on the rolls by the steward, with the property he was inheriting as fully described as it had been generations before for his great-grandfather and remoter ancestors who had held it. His petition for admission would be signed or marked in the presence of witnesses. That and the notes made by the steward would be the original presentments to be put, along with the sworn statements and depositions of witnesses to age and relationship, into the muniments of the manor. Either at the court or at his leisure between the holding of successive courts, the steward or his scrivener would write out the fair copy of the proceedings in the court roll. All the legal working would then be expanded according to the agreed formulas. Then the new tenant would obtain a copy of the entry in the roll. Thus, he would become a “copyholder.” His copy would be sewn up with those of his ancestors and predecessors who had made use of the same land, its cottages, orchards, etc., and those documents constituted the title deeds to his tenure for leif and his right to ensure that the tenure could pass on to his heir. For younger sons and husbands of daughters, copyholders who might be farming many strips could beg the court’s favor for them to be relieved of one tenure or another and for it to admit their nominee or nominees to it. Again, fines were payable to the lord (for upsetting the status quo – the tranquility of things as they were) but this was often a solution to the provision of subsistence for to her children, for dowries and marriage settlements. Therefore, it is quite possible for a very large account of the limbs, branches, and even the twigs of the family tree to be drawn out from the detailed study of a series of manorial rolls of the proceedings of the court baron.

In summary, then, do not be afraid of these records. Realize that they are, in fact, among the most positive ways of ensuring that true and not speculative ancestry is traced, and not always only the direct lineage but also the collaterals and branches, so that a full family can be positively structured. Be patient in trying to find them, and you will soon appreciate that, while nothing was ever written originally for the benefit of future family and local historians, the records of the manorial community provide more evidence than any others for them.

Some manorial records have been indexed in manuscript by stewards, but most are easy enough to search because the name of these amerced (fined), admitted, or surrendering, appear clearly in the margins. It is therefore only necessary to look down the margins from the end of the sixteenth century. The content of most entries follow the formulas, and the detail within them abounds with family history. From 1733 the records are written in English, and often a cross-reference to previous entries assists in tracing devolvement of copyhold property.


1 Paul Vinogradoff, Growth of the Manor (1905); Nathaniel J. Hone, The Manor and Manorial Records (1906), and “Manorial Court Rolls,” The Pedigree Register (1910); Herbert W. Knocker, “Manorial Records,” The Genealogists’ Magazine (1932), Vol 1, pp. 92-100.

2 Cecil R. Humphery-Smith, “Genealogy from Manorial Records,” The Genealogists’ Magazine (1962), Vol. 14, pp. 2-6. Stephen K. Kendall, “The Genealogical Value and Use of Manorial Records,” Genealogical Journal (1977), Vol 6, pp. 37-42, is a well-presented guide.

3 Eileen A. Gooder, Latin for Local History (1961-1967); Charles Trice Martin, The Record Interpreter (1892: reprint ed., 1976); L.C. Hector, The handwriting of English Documents (1958, 1980); and Hilda E.P. Grieve, Examples of English Handwriting 1150-1750 (1954). This last is the best of all practice books.

4Julian Cronwall, How To Read Old Title Deeds, Sixteenth to Nineteenth Centuries (1964); A.A. Dibben, Title Deeds, Thirteenth to Nineteenth Centuries (1968).

5 E.R. Daniell, Chancery Practice and Forms (1914); Richard Sims, Manual for the Genealogist, Topographer (1888); Walter Rye, Records and Record Searching (1897); Stacy Grimaldi, Origines Genealogicae (1832); and Madox, Formulare Anglicanum (1702).

6 William Lee and Daniel Pakeman, The Order of Keeping a Court Leet and Court Baron (1650); Manuscript, Harley 1714, British Library.