My ancestors lived on land belonging to a Manor

One source for researching our ancestors beyond the 19th Century, which I particularly like, are 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! How land was owned and held was different under the Manorial system than it is today.

From the time of the development 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 System

The Manorial system developed from the Anglo-Saxon system of “Hundreds” (akin to districts). Several homesteads (or family settlements) were built around a large house called a “Hall” where the chief, known as the “Thegn” lived. Below the “Thegn” were peasants who were either free landowners or serfs who were tied to the lord and the land. Below the peasants were slaves, either captured or bought. Several villages together would form a “hundred”, a division of a shire for administrative, military and judicial purposes under the common law. Originally introduced by the Saxons, the hundred was so called as it would have enough land to sustain approximately one hundred households headed by a hundred-man or hundred Ealdorman (a local man of high importance). The local court being the “Hundred Court” dealt with local small matters and was presided over by the King’s Reeve with judgements being made by the local peasants.

Several “hundreds” together formed a Shire (akin to county), where matters were dealt with at the Shire Moot or Court presided over by the Sheriff. Above the Shire Court as the Royal Council or “Witenagemot” presided over by noblemen and landowners and who advised the crown on matters of both national and local significance.

Following the Norman conquest this system developed into the perhaps more familiar manorial system with all land being owned by the crown; Lords of the Manor, being direct tenants or tenants-in-chief, were personally granted land in return for services and their fealty or loyalty to the crown. Lords of the Manor could also be either mesne lords (had the right to the profits from the land) themselves or could grant tenure to another under subinfeudation (the splitting up and selling of the rights or portions of the rights in a Manor but being held from the Lord of the Manor not directly from the crown) until 1290 when subinfeudation was abolished.

The Lord of the Manor could then grant land holdings to tenants (peasants in the medieval period), subject to dues and services owed to the Lord. Until the 14th century, these tenants were either unfree (known more commonly as villeins, surfs or bondsmen) or free (in the minority). Unfree tenants largely worked on the Lord’s demesne (the land he retained for his own use), in return for their tenancy on his land and were bound to the Lord of the Manor; free tenants were granted their own land to farm in return for less restrictive services to the lord, and payment of dues. A free tenant might also work in other trades such as carpentry, pottery, weaving or as a blacksmith.  

Manorial land broadly fell into two types, either demesne land, that being the land farmed directly on behalf of the lord himself as a ‘home farm’; or, tenant land which would be granted to tenants who farmed it on their own behalf, paying rents and services to the lord in return for their use of the land.  Tenants were of two broad classes; freeholders and those holding by ‘bond’ or unfree tenures, the villeins of the middle ages, who came to be known as customary tenants, so called because they held the land subject to the obligations set out in the “custom of the manor” which was largely unwritten until the second half of the 13th century when many began setting out the custom of the manor in writing and thus customary tenure began to emerge. These later became known as copyhold tenants, because they held by copy of the manorial court roll in which their holding would be recorded (see below).

Following the black death in the 14th century and the shortage of labour the unfree tenants bargaining position strengthened. The ability to obtain better terms elsewhere and the increase in labour services being commuted into rental payments, meant Lords became increasingly willing to grant their villeins freedom with villeinage disappearing by the turn of start of the 17th century.

Manorial Courts

The Manorial Courts were essentially the ‘local government’ for their area, both in terms of what 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 was 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.

Land holding under the Manorial System from the 16th century onwards

The most common manner in which manorial land was held from the Lord of the Manor was through the custom of the manor, known as customary tenure. This led to a form of land holding unique to the manorial system called Copyhold tenure, i.e., land was held by copy of the manorial court roll and permission was required from the Lord of the Manor, through his manorial court, for such land to be inherited, sold, sublet, bought (alienated) or mortgaged (collectively known as surrenders and admissions in the court rolls). Copyhold itself could either be heritable, i.e., could be inherited by the copyholders heir(s) subject to the agreement of the manorial court, or for lives, i.e., the life of the tenant or a specified number of lives such as the tenant, his wife and his heir, following which it would be surrendered to the Lord.

Land could also be held as freehold, by which the tenant paid a fixed rent (quit-rent) and its descent to heirs was not governed by the Manor or recorded in the court roll. Land could also be held under a lease for a fixed term for a life or a number of lives, in return for a market rent with no obligations to the Lord of the Manor.

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.

It is often thought that a Manor comprised of a grand Manorial house and a country estate but not all manors were such. The size of Manors varied widely. Whilst a typical Manor may consist of a village and its surrounding land, one single village may in fact contain two or more Manors. Similarly, a Lord of the Manor may own one Manor or several Manors which may either neighbour each other or could be in different places across England.

The Manor and the Manorial courts created various records, many of which survive today. Many of these will be covered in my next couple of blogs, before moving on to other pre-19th century source.

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