Manorial Court records: for family and house history research

Manorial records, in particular those of the manorial courts, are one of those under used, often shied away from, record sets which can be really useful for both family history research and house history research. I think one of the reasons they tend to be overlooked is the myth that they are all in latin and are more relevant to the medieval period, but this is SO WRONG!

Yes it is true to say that before 1733 manorial court records are written in Latin and can be difficult to read, even the later ones in english. It is also true to say they can be very useful in tracing family members pre-parish registers although even then they have their limits as they will only record those who were copy/customary tenants of the Lord of the Manor. So not eveyone will be found in them.

However, their use extends into the 20th century, yes the manorial system was only abolished 98 years ago by the Law of Property Act 1925 and copyhold/customary tenancy was abolished 3 years prior to that by the Law of Real Property Act in 1922. They can therefore be particularly useful for tracing ancestors post the introduction of parish registers where the registers have not survived. They can also be useful in determining the different family units where there are people with the same name.

What was a Manor?

As suggested above, the manorial system has its roots in the medieval period. It dates back to the Anglo-Saxon system of the local Hundred courts and the village chief known as the thegn.

The Normans, following their Conquest of England, developed the system further a system which continued until it was finally abolished by the Law of Property Act 1925.

In its simplest terms the manorial system was a system of administration of land under a Lord of the Manor who held land directly from the Crown as “tenant in chief”.

Originally the Lord of the Manor was granted land usually in return for military service. He would be obliged to provide an agreed number of trained armed men to fight in the crowns army. From the 13th century however the need for such military might was greatly reduced and the provision of military men was replaced with a payment known as Scutage.

There were also ecclesiastical lords who provided ecclesiastical services to the crown rather then miliary men.

Lords of the Manor could grant their Knights land in return for their service these would be “mesne” lords i.e. not holding directly from the crown.

The Lord could also grant land within his manor to tenants, most commonly as copyhold tenants i.e., by copy of the manorial court roll in return for services to the Lord such as working manorial land and fealty, or sworn loyalty, to the Lord although over time the feudal system of people owing services to their “superiors” died out and by the mid to late 17th century was replaced by monetary payments. Such tenants represented the larger part of the population by this period.

Such land could be inherited (by custom of the manor or from the mid-16th century by enrolling a copy of the tenants will in the court records), bought and sold, sublet and mortgaged subject to the agreement of the Lord of the Manor.

As stated above, Copyhold land continued until it was abolished in England and Wales by the Law of Real Property Act in 1922 which required copyhold tenure to be converted into freehold on the payment of compensation to the Lord of the Manor (enfranchisement). The Lord of the Manor retained rights over the land which was converted to freehold before the manorial system with finally abolished by the Law of Property Act 1925.

Manors varied greatly in size and often spanned parish and county boundaries and may be spread over different locations.

What were the manorial courts?

The manorial courts were essentially the central administration for the manor.

The Court Leet, usually held every 6 months, was responsible for minor criminal offences which occurred on the Lords manor such as breach of the peace. In particular it was responsible for the effective working of the system of Frankpledge in which areas were divided into groups of 10 or 12 households known as tithings whose members were responsible for the good behaviour of each other. This system began to decline from the 14th century with the emergence of the Justices of the Peace following the Justice of the Peace Act 1361, the developing criminal justice system and the introduction of Quarter Sessions.

The Court Baron was responsible for regulating and administering the affairs of the manor. It was this court which enforced local customs, dealt with minor civil disputes such as boundary disputes and debts, and the transfer of land and property rights, most commonly customary or copyhold land. Freehold and leasehold land was less likely to be recorded in the court records because these did not need the permission of the Lord of the Manor to be conveyed. Lists of freeholders and leaseholders however may be found in court records particularly when the Lord of the Manor changed. The court baron was originally held every three weeks, although its sittings became increasingly infrequent during the 14th century, and by the 15th century it was often convened only twice a year and even less frequently in more recent centuries.

What are the records?

The records of the Court Baron are the most useful for family history research although Court Leet records should not be over looked. These consist of Court rolls or books depending on the period.

Most records pertain to land transfers of copyhold land, so called because they hold property by copy of the court roll/book –  the transfer would be recorded in the manorial court roll or book and a copy would be provided to the tenant. The types of entries include:

Surrenders and Admissions
Conditional Surrender
Surrender to Will
Death and inheritance

Whether the records are in court books (from about the mid to late 18th century) or court rolls (earlier records), these records usually begin with an entry in the margin detailing the type of entry e.g. admittance, surrender, death etc, and the names of the parties involved.

Also often given in the margin will be the “Fine” that is the fee paid to the Lord of the Manor for the admission to the land and the rent to be paid.

Anatomy of an Admittance and Surrender

This is an admittance from 9th October 1835 in the manorial court book for the Manor of Shere vachery and Cranley (aka Cranleigh) and is quite typical of the entries you might find setting out:

Names, address and occupations of parties

Description of property which beings “ALL THAT COPYHOLD OR CUSTOMARY …”

Details of the surrender which would usally in effect be conducted between court session by the Court Steward and witnessed by two other copyhold/customary tenants

Who is being admitted “TO THE USE OF …” and “TO HAVE AND TO HOLD … by copy of court roll at the will of the Lord according to the custom of the manor”

Amount of Rent and any other customs and/or services due to the Lord of the Manor (usually set out in the Customs of the Manor)

BY THE ROD – a rod/staff would be held out to the new tenant by the steward as a public sign that he had been admitted.
HERIOT– confirming there was also a payment to be made to the Lord on the death of the tenant
FEALTY – oath of loyalty to the Lord of the Manor

Surrenders and admittance could be made between family members for example one entry I found stated it was made

“in consideration of the natural love and affection which he the said George Holden has and beareth for his son David Holden of Cranleigh …Plumber and Glazier”

Surrey History Centre; Ref: G85/6/46

What was a conditional surrender?

A conditional surrender was a secured loan or mortage taken out against the property. The court roll entry would be similar to any other admittance save it would include the terms:

“….Subject nevertheless to and upon this express condition…”
“Shall well and truly pay or cause to be paid unto [name of grantor] the sum of £xxx on the [date due] next ensuing together with interest on the same at the rate of xxx pounds per centum per annum clear of all taxes and deductions whatsoever (and being the principal and interest money as are mentioned to be secured to the said [name of grantor] by a certain Indenture bearing date the xxxx) then this surrender to be void and of no effect otherwise it is to remain in full force and virtue”

Although the pay back date was 6 months it is often found that these conditional surrenders where not enforced if not repaid on the day specified. I have found many where they have been repaid years later and often by an executor the death of the grantor or indeed the grantee whose executors may wish to enforce the surrender to raise the funds for the distribution of the deceased’s estate.

Entries of death and proclamations

Surrey History Centre; Ref: G84/10/16

When a tenant died, an entry would be made in the court roll/book and a first proclamation would be made. That is declaration for those with an interest in the land (heirs) to attend court and claim the property. There could be up to three proclamations made which would take place on three consecutive courts until someone came forward, and if no one came forward the property fell back to the Lord of the Manor. In the case of a death, the Lord of the Manor would then be free to admit anyone who so wished to be admitted.

A tenant may have surrendered the property to the use of the Will, in which case the will would need to be proved and then brought before the court for the heirs to then be admitted to the property. If the tenant had not so surrendered the land, inheritance would be in accordance with the custom of the manor which in England was generally the eldest son but each manor may have had their own customs. Documents setting out the “Customs of the Manor” may have survived but if not many of these can be inferred from how the manor was managed in the court records.

In either case, where the heir comes to court to claim the property, an entry will be found. That entry will state their relationship to the deceased and in the case of a will, the terms of the will may be included in the entry. Thus providing evidence of family relationships.

Manorial records for property history

Because admissions and surrenders provide the names of both parties (i.e those surrendering and those being admitted) along with a description of the property, which particularly in older records can include details of neighbouring properties and their owners and occupiers) the occupation of a copyhold property can usually be traced back as far as the records survive, which in some cases could be to it being built and the use of the land prior to it being built on.

This can of course mean trawling through the the records backwards to find the previous entries, however this is made easier where the court records have the entries in the margins. Beware though, as the further you go back, margin entries my not exist and a thorough read through the documents may be necessary.

One tip though is that sometimes entries also contain details of when the person surrendering had been admitted making the research process much easier!

Even going back into latin records knowing the name of the previous tenant makes it much easier (subject to your paleaography skills) to pick out names.

My tips for using Manorial Records

Most relevant for copyhold/customary land holders
Start with later records in EnglishSurnames/full names often in margin
Manorial Court books are often indexed
Latin lessons at
Useful Latin terms to known
University of Nottingham glossary of terms
Cumbria Manorial Records website

How do I know my ancestor was a manorial tenant?

The most likely way is through them refering to copyhold or customary land in a will. What if there is now will? Did you ancestors live in the same place for generations? Were they farmers? Yeoman? or similar? If so then they may well have been copyhold tenants.

Manorial court records are some of my favourite records to use for both family and huose history. If you have found a copyhold/customary tenant in your family then these records where they survuve could prove invaluable to your family history research.

If you would like my help researching your manorial tenants contact me

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