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Interpreting the records

Having located a promising-looking collection of manorial rolls and minute books, how can they be put to use?

Deeds, grants, rentals, compotus rolls and custumnals, being essentially occasional documents, are best studied and analysed individually, though it is extremely helpful to compare them with each other and with the details in the court rolls.

Accounts and court rolls, by contrast, can best be studied by comparing the details logged year by year, sometimes over quite long periods. Small details that may escape notice on an individual court roll often take on a much deeper significance when a whole series of such details can be compared over two or three decades. The study of court rolls is, therefore, a much more detailed and extensive business.

However, before undertaking such a study we must understand how the court operated – and for this, it is helpful to visualise a session of the court, the sort of transactions that took place, and the circumstances, and then to look at a few examples of original rolls.

A Manorial Court Session

The custom of the manor – often unwritten, but remembered and undisputed by all – determined when and where the court would sit. Most manors held the courts twice yearly around the equinoxes, on Lady Day (Feast of the Annunciation, 25th March), and at Michaelmas (Feast of St. Michael and the Heavenly Host, 29th September). All tenants were expected to attend – but as this was often impractical, those who could not attend were represented by ‘tithing-men’ (also referred to as ‘decenarii’, ‘headboroughs’ or ‘thirdboroughs’); one older or senior man was appointed to represent every ten tenants. Thus, for example, in a manor with 39 tenants, 12 men would typically be elected as the jury, and the other 27 tenants would be represented (in this example) by 3 elected tithing-men, each representing up to ten of his neighbours.

A single session usually combined the two classes of regular administration mentioned above – the courts leet and baron.

The Court Leet

The leet court was held first; it judged any offences against the norms of behaviour. It commenced with an examination of the freedoms and privileges, responsibilities and rights enjoyed by all; this "view of frankpledge" had become a ritual formality by the 1400s, and was quickly dealt with. This was followed by election of the "homage" or jury (those sworn in) to be responsible for the good behaviour of the whole community. They, in turn, determined the common fines and selected and appointed to their various policing duties the constable, the hayward, and any other officers.

After that, the jury heard any "essoins" (excuses for absences or refusals to take up offices), then heard accounts of misdemeanours committed since the last court. Serious offences were usually referred to the justices of sessions or to the assize, though in earlier times lords of manors often maintained their own pounds or prisons, stocks, pillories, whipping posts etc. Taking saplings for firewood, permitting animals to trample crops, grinding too much of one’s own corn or malt at home instead of at the lord’s mill, blocking a drain or gutter or fouling a public way, operating an unlicensed alehouse, allowing gaming or gambling, fighting or causing an affray – such offences all came before the steward and jury, who imposed fines.

The Court Baron

The court baron, the lord’s court to determine incidences, rights and privileges due to him, was held immediately after the leet had finished its business.

Leases and sub-lettings were confirmed or denied by the court baron, and the lord received a ‘fine’ 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. The supposed heir would be called three times, usually at successive meetings of the court, so that every opportunity was given for the heir to come along and make a claim. If none did, then the property would revert to the lord’s holdings.

For instance, if the son of the deceased 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, and to hold this was a 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 with authority in the village – perhaps a midwife or a parson – would come forward and swear that the boy was an adult (usually over sixteen, eighteen, or twenty-one); and after paying the "heriot" for the death of the copyholder (originally the best heifer or other young beast, by the 1500s this was often commuted into a sum of money) and the fine for admission into the community, the steward would enter the young man on the rolls, with the full description of the property that he was inheriting. His petition for admission would be signed in the presence of witnesses. This, together with the notes made by the steward, would be the original presentment, and would be put into the muniments of the manor, along with the sworn statements and depositions of witnesses to age and relationship. At his leisure between the holding of successive courts, the steward would write out the fair copy of the proceedings in the court roll. All the legal wording would then be expanded according to the agreed formulae. 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 occupied the same land, its cottages, orchards, etc., and those documents constituted the title deeds to his tenure 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 favour for them to be relieved of one tenure or another and for the court to admit their nominee or nominees to it. Again, fines were payable to the lord (for upsetting the status quo) but this was often a solution to the provision of subsistence for children, for dowries and marriage settlements.

(For more about the development of the copyhold system, click here.)