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Manorial Courts: an introduction

Types of manorial court

Essentially, there were three courts governing the relationship between the lord and the community for which he had responsibility – the customary court, the leet court, and the court baron. ,

  • The customary court was also responsible for rent assessments, and met from time to time (typically every seven years) to assess the rent due from freeholders, leaseholders, and copyholders. When a new lord succeeded, it would call all tenants of the manor and produce a list of them, a most valuable directory. Occasionally, the steward would also recite the customs of the manor, the age-old agreed terms of the relationship between the lord and his tenants.
  • The open-field assembly was originally known as the ‘leet’. This term was continued through the medieval period, to denote the ‘police court’, at which the ‘homage’ swore fealty (by the ‘view of frankpledge’, see below), and an elected jury decided on the fines payable for offences, appointed the officers of the manor, and heard cases against offending tenants.
  • The court baron was concerned with the lord’s ‘incidences’ (what was due to him, especially from the movement of his tenants). Surrender of property, admission to a property, death, marriage, making over to the use of a will – all these events entitled the lord to a monetary payment in lieu of payment in kind. These fines were recorded in the court roll, with details of the incident giving rise to them.

Types of court records

The type and extent of records that may have survived for any specific manor depend very much upon the way in which its courts were conducted over the centuries, and by what kind of administration.

  • Larger manors (derived from the holdings of feudal barons and/or by acquisition of land and rights distributed from monastic territory after the Reformation) often include many smaller units; their muniment rooms include cartularies, 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.
  • At the other end of the scale, a small sub-manor may have nothing more than a simple minute book compiled by the lord himself or by his bailiff, with some accounts of income and expenditure.

The value of these records is that they can provide a vivid account of the daily lives of the ordinary people of the English village. 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 the administrative unit controlling the local population, their comings and goings, good and bad behaviour, loyalties, and commerce.

Cartularies contain extensive descriptions of the properties, buildings, and rights conveyed by charters, by whom, to whom; the juxtaposition of fields and estates to highways and to named neighbours or neighbouring properties are well defined. Persons are identified in place and time (or date) and often by reference to relations and occupations.

Deeds also contain many of the details found in cartularies. However, deeds must also be understood in their legal context.

Rental books or rolls are especially useful forms of directories, though they are rare.

Original presentments – also rare – are the steward’s minutes and notes made at the time of holding the court. In most cases they include the petitions of those claiming the right to be admitted to tenure and other miscellaneous material, and serve as the steward’s basis for producing the final version of the court roll.

By far the most important manorial records are the court rolls. All the other types of manorial documents mentioned above give isolated instances in the lives of the inhabitants, while the rolls provide a regular twice-yearly account, in which individual persons may often be traced over several decades, giving a clear picture of their lives, and also the way of life of the community that bound them all together.

Many of the earliest court rolls were destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt in the 1380s. The few that survive from that period, and those which have been kept since, are often dispersed, because the whole system upon which manorial jurisdiction was based began to decline as early as the fifteenth century and finally came to an end with the Law of Property Act of 1922 and the Land Registration Act of 1925. But by 1925 the manorial system was already dead in all but name – many lords were no longer collecting their dues or rents; solicitors and local country lawyers, who had acted as stewards to several manors for generations, now wanted to clear the space in their offices taken up by what they considered as bulky and useless old documents; there was little or no sense of record preservation, and much was thrown out. The 1920s changes in the law, placing all such records under the protection of the monarch’s Master of the Rolls, thus came too late to prevent most of the disaster that had already silently occurred.

Survival of court rolls depends on many factors, not least the stability and continuity of ownership of a particular manor which is usually greater in the case of Crown and ecclesiastical estates. Where estates, perhaps containing several manors, have been fragmented (as happened at the Dissolution of the Monasteries for instance) records may end up in all sorts of places or repositories.

Nevertheless, a great deal has survived – particularly where a manor or part of a manor is owned by some large and permanent organisation such as a university college – as is the case at Crick, Northamptonshire.