Will I find my ancestors in Manorial Records?

Following on from my last blog in which I introduced the Manor, in this blog I will start to look at the records they kept which can be of use to family history research.

Firstly, I would like to bust a few myths around Manorial records. I think it is fair to say that many people shy away from them because they are thought of as difficult to read. It is true that manorial court records are written in Latin before 1733 (which can be highly abbreviated), as were all legal documents, however not all manorial records before this date are in Latin and those that are, in particular the court records, are formulaic in nature and therefore if you look at later records in English you should be able to, with a few Latin phrases, work out what the Latin records are telling you. Often , you will not need to read every word to be able to understand an entry.

Entry from the Manor of Woking Court Baron October 1704 SCH Ref: G97/5/2

The handwriting can often be difficult to read, especially the further back in time you go, however, again the formulaic nature and practice will help with this. Palaeography is a useful skill for the family historian, which is only helped with practice, not just reading manorial records but all sorts of records in the various old styles of handwriting. Reading Wills is often good for practice and there is a vast number of Wills provide in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury available at the various commercial websites. The National archives has a free online tutorial (https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/default.htm) as does Cambridge University (https://www.english.cam.ac.uk/ceres/ehoc/lessons.html). There are also many books available, a selection of which I will list at the end of the blog.  

Entry from the Manor of Pyrford Court Leet 21st April 1658; SHC Ref: G97/4/2

As with any resource, these should not but used in isolation but can be used to fill in gaps, identify generations where the same name appears in several generations of a family, provide an insight into how our ancestors lived, identify other family connections and interrelationships between families and identify land our ancestors held and how that may have changed over time. Thus, not only are they helpful for family history but also for house and land history.

Where can they be found?

These records are usually located in County or local records offices thus a search of their online catalogue may identify their holdings. However, as was suggested in my earlier blog, it is not always clear which Manor held what land and encompassed what villages and areas. Also, as several manors across different locations may be held by one Lord, the record office in which the records may have been lodged may not always obvious.

The Manorial Document Register (MDR) which is searchable online in the National Archives (TNA)  Discovery website (https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/manor-search) provides the location of known manorial records. Some may still be held in private hands, particularly where the residual estate still exists today, such as the Manor of Arundel in West Sussex whose record are held at the Archives in Arundel Castle.

The number of manors which existed in England was vast. According to the MDR, there were 454 Manors in Surrey, of which about a third have no known surviving records, possibly because they were smaller Manors which became amalgamated with larger neighbouring Manors and the records were lost. It is possible that records are still held in private hands and have not been identified as such records or made public for some reason. They may be hidden away amongst old family papers somewhere. Some Manors only have a smally selection of records surviving whilst others have a vast number of records which survive.

The records which do survive are largely held at Surrey History Centre (SHC), although some are held at other archives and some Manors have records held across more than one archive. Other archives include, but are not limited to: the British Library, London Metropolitan Archives, TNA, Lambeth Palace Library, Guildhall Library. For example, the records for Merstham Manor in East Surrey, are held across four archives – Canterbury Cathedral (which holds the vast majority), Somerset Heritage Centre, TNA and SHC.

What date do records cover?

The dates covered by manorial records various depending on their survival. It could be said the records begin with the Doomsday book of 1086 although that only lists landowners and the status of those paying taxes. In 1198 a list of feudal landholdings was made, known as the Liber Feodorum which is available online at the Internet Archive website (https://archive.org/details/liberfeodorumboo01grea) and in print. The list is of course in Latin.

Liber Feodorum

It was after this when administrative records of Manors/estates began, with widespread use by the end of the 13th century. Where records survive for the Manors of Surrey, the MDR generally gives a starting date of 1186 although very few survive from that date. Indeed, few survive from the 13th Century, many survive from the early 16th century but in some instances, records are from later periods. Further, where records do survive there is not always a continuous run of records.

Whilst the “power” of the Manors declined from the 14th Century, their records of landholding can continue until 1925. Copyhold land, which was a unique landholding feature of the Manors, continued in many areas until the Law of Property Act 1922, which came into effect on 1st January 1925, finally abolished copyhold land converting it to freehold. Thus, manorial records can be useful in tracing the lives of our ancestors into the 20th century.

Who will I find in Manorial Records?

Broadly speaking, anyone living on land owned by the Manor could be found in one or more of the various types of records. More specifically, The name of the Lord of the Manor, the name of the Steward (the estate administrator), Leaseholders, Freeholders, Copyholders (tenants) and occupiers (subtenants), and their wives and heirs. Everyone had to live somewhere, however if your family were transient workers or vagrants, it is unlikely you would find them in manorial records.

What types of records exist which may be useful to the Family historian?

Court Rolls

The court rolls (originally rolls but later books) 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.

Court roll for Shere Vachery 26 April 1750 SHC Ref: G85/10/16

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 originals rolls or associated records and can be used to as evidence of literacy and existence at the date of the court’s meeting.

The rolls of the Court Leet or View of Frankpledge recorded minor criminal offences within the Manor, such as assaults, obstructions of the highway, breaking the assize of bread and ale etc.

The rolls of the Court Baron, recorded property transactions, details of any fines paid and any relationship between the old and new tenant along with their ages (if under twenty one), were recorded.

I will discuss the different courts and their records in more detail in my next blog.

Estreat Rolls

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

Manor of Gomshall Towerhill, 8th October 1649 SHC Ref: G85/10/45

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.


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


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 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.

These latter five records will be discussed in more detail in a later blog.

You may also be lucky enough to find manorial maps such as these from SHC

Manor of Woking; SHC Ref: G97/5/63/1-2
Manor of Pirbright SHC Ref: 7675

Discover more about these wonderful rich records over the coming couple of weeks. Next time – Manorial Court Records.

A small selection of suggested reading

“Reading Old Handwriting” by Eve McLaughlin (published by the Federation of Family History Societies in 1987 and later editions)

“A Latin Glossary for Family and Local Historians” by Janet Morris (published by the Family History Partnership 1989 and later editions)

“Palaeography for Family and Local Historians” by Hilary Marshall (published by Phillimore 2004, reprinted 2010)

“Latin for Local and Family Historians” by Denis Stuart (published by Phillimore 1995 and later editions)

“Manorial Records” by Denis Stuart (published by Phillimore 1992 and later editions)

“Using Manorial Records” by Mary Ellis (published by TNA 2001)

“The English Manor c.1200 – c.1500” by Mark Bailey (published by Manchester University Press 2002

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