An introduction to Manorial Courts and their records

One source for researching your ancestors beyond the 19th Century is the records of the Manorial Courts. You would be forgiven for thinking that only landowners may appear in such records however this is not the case! From the time of the introduction of the manorial (or feudal) system by William the Conqueror to, in some cases, the 20th Century, Manorial Court records can provide a significant insight into our ancestors and how they lived their lives.

The Manorial Courts, were essentially the ‘local government’ for their area, both in terms of what would we would think of today as civil law and administration and in terms of minor criminal offences. Of course what were criminal offences in those days may no longer be deemed as criminal offences today.

The ‘heyday’ of Manorial Courts could be said to be from around the 12th/13th Century to the 16th Century when much of their local government functions were taken over by the parish, however the manorial system remained in place until the 20th Century with regard to ownership and occupation of property, generating a great number of records with much genealogical value.

The most useful records are those of the Court Baron. The Manorial Court dealing with minor ‘criminal’ offences was the Court Leet, also known as the View of Frankpledge.

Court Baron (13th to 19th Century)

The Court Baron was the principal manorial court, where the everyday business of the manor and its community was conducted. Typically, the court sat every three weeks, and was responsible for enforcing: local manorial customs and ensuring they were not breached; local agricultural practices; resolving minor disputes and debts disputes between tenants or between the lord and his tenants; and dealing with the transfer of property rights. The court would be overseen by the Lord of the Manor or more often their Sheriff sitting with a jury, made up of local tenants.

It was the jury’s role to declare and create (when necessary) manorial custom, to present offenders to the courts, act as witnesses and decide issues of fact before the court. Often known as a ‘jury of inquest’ adopted by the manorial court from the king’s courts.

Jurors would be fined (amerced) for not attending and even “for failing to perform their duty properly (which might mean failing to present or wrongly doing so) …. as in Sandal in 1348, when the jury were amerced for putting their verdict ‘in the mouth of one insufficiently knowledgeable’. They could also be punished by attaint for wrongful verdicts. It is perhaps not surprising that in the manor court of Wakefield in 1316 John Swerd gave 6d for leave to retire from the inquest jury”[1]

The Jury was described by Harvey[2] as “a group of usually about a dozen local tenants, free or villein; where a single court met for more than one manor, or where a single manor included several vills[3], there might be more than one jury, and sometimes a separate jury would be chosen for court leet business.”

How they were selected can be difficult to discern. “They are generally spoken of as ‘elected’ though we know nothing of how this took place. They seem to have been elected before the actual sitting of the court, for we find men fined for their absence. In some rolls a long list of names is given, and marked ‘Nomina juratorum’, and it may be that these were a panel from which the twelve sworn jurors were chosen.” [4]

Studies conducted of different manors and their court and jury systems[5] suggest that each manor had their own system for electing jurors; some jurors were elected and served for many years; others elected different jurors either each court session or annually. Certainly, form the records I viewed for assignment 1 it appeared the jurors were selected at each court session.

In the Court Baron, customary/copyhold tenants were usually obliged to attend; in some manors, it was mandatory for Free tenants to attend.

It is likely jurors were the most prominent, respected of the tenants, possibly including officials such as the reeve who themselves were elected from and by the tenants. Jury lists can therefore depict social standing; jurors were often elected for a particular reason, such as their knowledge of the customs of the manor, whilst others may have been elected because of where they lived “often drawn from the actual vicinity of the matter in question,…. Other juries were composed of the men from one or more neighbouring vills; others again were carefully selected, apparently, so as to include representatives from all the vills of the manor”[6]. Perhaps the selection of jurors was determined by the matters they had to deal with at the court session.

Because of the nature of the business undertaken by the court, many tenants will be named routinely for a variety of reasons – they may appear as officials or jurors, noted as absent, with or without leave, or they may be fined or amerced for some minor offence. The fines were recorded with details of the incident that gave rise to them in the court roll.

In the records for the Manor of Gomshall Towerhill in Surrey (records held at Surrey History Centre) there are cases concerning acts against customs of the manor, providing names and details of the cases, including a case against a tenant for his failure to keep a gate in repair, and others for failing to keep a ditch and a highway is repair.

Towerhill Manor, as portrayed by Lewis Pinhorn Wood in 1880, was bought by Sir Edward Bray of Vachery in 1550 and remained in the Bray family until 1972.
Towerhill Manor, as portrayed by Lewis Pinhorn Wood in 1880, was bought by Sir Edward Bray of Vachery in 1550 and remained in the Bray family until 1972.

In the records for the Manor of Gomshall Towerhill in Surrey (records held at Surrey History Centre) there are cases concerning acts against customs of the manor, providing names and details of the cases, including a case against a tenant for his failure to keep a gate in repair, and others for failing to keep a ditch and a highway is repair.

The Court Baron also dealt with the ownership/occupation of property, thus its records also include details of transfers of property which had be approved by the Lord of the Manor, including and particularly on the death of a tenant (I will look at the ways in which property could be owned/occupied in my next blog).

The records of the court baron therefore contain particularly valuable genealogical information including names, dates of death and marriage, family relationships, occupation, status, address. Roll calls name those that died since the last court sitting and presentments include deaths of copyholders with the names of heirs.

These records are usually located in County Records offices but the Manorial Document Register searchable on the TNA discover website (Discovery) provides the location of many manorial records. Some may still be held in private hands and many estates which continue to exist today, which were originally manors.

Court Leet (13th to 19th Century) aka View of Frankpledge

The Court Leet was essentially the manorial ‘criminal’ court of law sitting largely to determine those who had offended against the behaviour expected and agreed upon by the community as decent conduct.

Most of the offences brought before the Court Leet often resulted in ancestors making several appearances in their lifetimes with names, details of offences and fines etc being recorded in the various records. Records may also include family relationships, occupation, status, address.

In the records for the Court Leet for Gomshall Towerhill manor there is a case concerning a husbandman who was accused of stealing (“gratis juxta”) grapes of the abbot to the value of 20d. He pleaded not guilty. The record includes the name of his wife and gives some details of his history of his time as a tenant. It appears he may have been trying to graze his cows and sheep on the land which is described as 1000 acres.

The court Leet also became known as the view of frankpledge when members of a tithing (a group of 12 men responsible for the good behaviour of each other) were held answerable for any poor conduct or damage done by another member.

The court was held every three weeks with the records written in Latin until 1734 which generally follow a set format with standard phrases. Most of these courts had died out by the 18th century, their work having been superseded by the criminal courts.

Again the Court Leet was overseen by the Lord of the Manor or his Sheriff sitting with a Jury or homage. The Jury was usually made up of local freeholders, copyholders and leaseholders. Individual names can be found in the essoins (excuses) made by people for not attending and the amercements which record fines made against those for offending against the laws of the manor.

THE RECORDS

Manorial Court Rolls

The court rolls are perhaps the most important records from a genealogical view point as they can be used to trace an ancestor from their first tenancy through their heirs to the last of their descendants to hold the tenancy, including where ancestors moved and/or died.

The rolls (originally in rolls of parchment but often later in books) are the records of the business of the courts, essentially the minutes. The records can include status, trade or profession, livery, relationships, heirs and marriages and often name in-laws of ancestors. Signatures may be found in the records on most originals rolls and can be used to as evidence of literacy and existence at the date of the court’s meeting.

In the Court Baron, it is in the court rolls where property transactions (usually the surrender and admission of changes in tenancy), details of any fines paid and any relationship between the old and new tenant along with their ages, were recorded.

Estreat Rolls

The fines or amercements imposed by the courts were also recorded in Estreat rolls which include the names of the tenants, their offences and the amount paid.

Rentals/Rent rolls

From about the 14th century lists of tenants and the amount of rent in cash and/or produce they paid were recorded in Rentals or Rent rolls. They set out in detail exactly what was to be demanded of every landholder/occupier on the manor.

Custumals

These recorded each tenant and their holdings along with their customary obligations as set out in “the custom of the manor”.

Extents

An extent was a list of every building and piece of land on the demesne (the land retained by the Lord of the Manors), but also included every labour service and rent due from tenants. Many Extents go further and cover all of the manor or large areas of it and not just the demesne.

Presentments

Presentments are the steward’s contemporaneous written record he made as the court proceedings took place courts which were then written up in the court rolls or books as a fair copy. In many cases these contemporaneous records can include petitions by those claiming the right to be admitted to tenure along with their signatures or marks and signatures of witnesses which can yet be a further aid to identification or confirmation of existence of an ancestor.

[1] Trials in manorial courts in late medieval England by Maureen Mulholland https://www.manchesteropenhive.com › 9781526137463.00011.pdf

[2] “Manorial Records” by P. D. A. Harvey page 49

[3] essentially a village

[4] “Life on an English Manor: A Study of Peasant Conditions 1150 – 1400” By H. S, Bennett page 211

[5] P. L. Larson’s study of the Durham Halmote Court; Bennett ibid discusses various Court rolls

[6] Bennett ibid page 212

Pictures copyright wiki

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