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Evolution of the English manorial system

Thousands of territorial units were granted as manors after the Conquest, but it should not be assumed that counties were all neatly divided into manorial units like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle as they were with ecclesiastical parishes (a wholly different set of administrative units). The variations in size, composition, and management were enormous. A manor might comprise a whole village (its boundaries being the same as the boundaries of the ecclesiastical parish) or extend beyond and overlap more than one village. More commonly, however, villages were divided between several manors (and this is the situation in Crick, Northamptonshire, where the original single Domesday manor became split into three manors in the 1100s, reduced back to two in the early 1300s, and was once again split into three in the mid-1500s).

Often one particular manor is clearly identifiable as the principal unit and it may have assimilated smaller sub-manors whose level of activity had usually declined considerably by the 16th or 17th century. The descent of each known manor within a parish is recorded in brief in the Victoria County History, which is a useful starting point for research. Scores of manors collapsed long before the 20th century and it can never be assumed that records have survived for any particular manor.

(For more details of manorial divisions and successions in west Northamptonshire, click here.)

Rolls were an integral record of the manor and its court in the medieval period, when the individual manor was often just one administrative unit of a larger landed estate, whose records also included a wide range of other documents. By the 16th century, a manor was essentially an area under the jurisdiction of a private court and its records consisted mainly of the documents produced by the court in conducting its business – the Court Rolls.

The idea of keeping a formal and official record of the Manor Court's proceedings appears to have developed and spread in the latter half of the 13th century. The motives were primarily legal, a recognition of the importance of justice being done according to precedent. The formality of Court Rolls and their usefulness to administrators certainly accounts for their careful compilation and retention. Equally, the development of the Court Roll reflects the increasing use of written records in manorial administration and the growing formality of court procedure.

Most post-medieval court rolls are simpler in format and content. A heading records the title of the court, the name of the lord (or lady) of the manor, the name of the steward conducting the business of that court, and the date. Usually the names of jurors are then recorded and details of the appointed officers of the manor. Juries, which varied in size but usually consisted of 10-14 persons, first emerged in the 13th and 14th centuries. Like the homage, with which they are often synonymous, they were referred to for statements on manorial custom and decision in court in matters brought by one villager against another.