Manorial Records

Manorial records are a vital resource for both family and local historians as they deal not only with small claims and land ownership, but disputes over land and tenants’ rights. Men could be called to the Manor Court to answer for such things as allowing a ditch to become blocked, or pasturing animals in the wrong field at the wrong time of year, or encroaching on someone else’s land, so even the lowliest tenant may be named. In theory every man on the Manor over the age of 12 had to attend the court but in practice probably only the court officers, the jury, offenders, witnesses, litigants, sureties and those involved in land transfers attended.

For family historians these records are useful for information about when a tenant died and the name of the heir, and often give details of relationships and dates of death. They also record when and by whom manorial land was bought and sold, and as sales often took place between family members this can be extremely useful.

What was the Manor Court?

A manor was an area of land attached to a manor house, and the owner was known as the Lord of the Manor. Some manors coincided with parish boundaries, some large manors crossed parish boundaries and some parishes contained several manors, so there was no relationship between a parish and a manor. The two systems grew up completely independently.

All manorial land was held ‘of the manor’, that is, it belonged to the Lord of the Manor and was held by tenants under a tenure known as copyhold. This system, part of the feudal system, came into existence after the Norman Conquest when tenants held their land on condition they worked so many days a year on the Lord of the Manor’s land. This system was eventually commuted to money payments, and by the 17th century to all intents and purposes the copyholder had very similar rights to a modern freeholder. He could buy, sell, mortgage and bequeath his land at will – except that a record of transactions had to be written into the Manor Court Rolls and a nominal ‘fine’ or ‘heriot’ (a fee) paid to the Manor when land swapped hands.

By the mid-1700s the manor court usually took place at a local inn about once a month, but often it was less frequent, sometimes only every couple of years if it was a small manor. The Steward of the manor, usually a local solicitor, presided. Copyhold tenure was finally abolished in 1927 when all copyhold land became freehold. If your ancestor held copyhold land, and if the manor court rolls have survived, there is a good chance of finding details about him – or her; widows are often mentioned – which you could not find from any other source. Helpfully, in the rolls the subject of each entry is often written in the margin next to it, and some manor court rolls are indexed.

The Manor Court Rolls

All proceedings at the Manor Court were recorded by scribes on long, narrow sheets of parchment which were stored in rolls which became known as the Manor Court Rolls. Early manorial rolls were written in Latin but by the mid-1700s they are usually in English, though there was a period during the civil war around 1640-60 when they were also kept in English (thank you, Mr Cromwell!). So if you start searching in later years and work backwards you’ll soon become familiar with the terminology and when you get back to the Latin entries they won’t seem as daunting as they may sound. The Latin is not the classical Latin you may have learnt at school but medieval Latin, a much simpler form which is often a direct translation from English by scribes or clerks whose own Latin wasn’t very strong; and the phrases are formulaic.

For instance, if a person is “admitted” to the manor it means he is buying manorial land. If he is “surrendering” land he is selling. If he is admitted “by the rod” it means a ceremonial rod was handed to the buyer, a left-over from medieval days, which tells us too that the person was actually in court that day. “Amerced” means fined. “Distraint” was a fine for not appearing when called, “essoin” an excused absence. There were no national rules relating to manor courts as they had grown up piecemeal in medieval times, but these fomulaic words and phrases appear in all manor court rolls in one form or another. Likewise, each manor had its own “customs” specifying who could do what and where, how much the fines and heriots should be, the rotation of crops, the appointment of constable, aletaster and such like, so copyholders were known as “customary tenants”. The “custom” of the manor was a powerful force in the settling of disputes, and every incoming tenant had to swear “fealty” to the Lord, thereby agreeing to abide by these “customs”.

The Homage or Jury

Every Manor Court meeting had its jury, also known as a homage, which consisted of around 12 local men of good repute who were familiar with the customs of the Manor. Though the Steward presided, it was the homage who “presented” the cases to the court and sat in judgement on them, although very often the matter would have been settled out of court beforehand and only the penalty or fine needed to be fixed. Each court roll starts with a list of these jurors’ names.

If your ancestor was a reputable copyholder he is very likely to appear in the jury or homage, probably time after time as the number of men available was circumscribed by the size of the manor. You’ll often see references to, say, “John Bull senr” and “John Bull junr”, or “John Bull the elder” (or “thelder”) and “John Bull the younger”: the date at which the junior or younger John Bull appears will tell you when he was old enough to participate. When John the elder drops out of the list you know he was either aged and infirm, had moved away, or died.  Court entries will probably give the explanation, and naturally the “junior” or “younger” tag disappears at the same time.

A word of warning though: it sometimes happens that the “junior” is a nephew, not a son. He may even be a more distant relative, or even from an unrelated family altogether so don’t jump to conclusions. All may become clear as you read through the activities of the court over a period of years.

So these records can be very informative, not only for details about individuals but also for giving a picture of the place they lived and the sort of people who lived there. Was your ancestor upstanding and honest or was he the type to try and skip his duties and break the rules? Did he buy and sell property frequently or was he settled in one homestead for most of his life? Did he provide for his family after his death or leave them in difficulties? Manor Court Rolls are an underused resource which can answer all these questions, so if you have ancestors who held copyhold land, and if the manor court rolls have survived, take yourself to the local archives and get searching: you may be very surprised at what you find.

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