Manorial records can be a marvellous complement to or substitute for parish
records. They record their own ancestors inheriting land, from large farms to
tiny rented cottages and vegetable patches, generation by generation, often
providing more detail and going much further back than parish records. Their
slight drawback is that they can be harder to use, but they will often repay
your trouble handsomely.
Manorial documents record the proceedings of courts attended by the local
community, at which people had to make statements and give evidence in front of
the people they had lived and worked with all their lives. Accidental mistakes
could be contradicted by those listening, and hoodwinking others was virtually
impossible. Manorial records are more likely to be accurate than practically any
other records you will encounter in your research.
Manors arose in the Middle Ages as units of land held by lords from the Crown,
and by tenants from the lord. Besides thus controlling most English land tenure,
the Medieval Manor also exercised many of the administrative functions later
carried out by the Post-Reformation Parishes. Yet the manorial system remained
the basis under which most our ancestors lived until its abolition in 1922 (the
final pieces of copyhold land being turned into freehold in 1926) and the
records they generated from 1066 onwards forms one of the cornerstones of
As Manors evolved, some were subdivided into what ended up as tiny Lordships,
while others consumed neighbouring ones and grew vast－the largest was the Manor
of Wakefield, covering over 150 square miles. Nobody knows how many Manors their
were- estimates vary between 25,000 and 65,000. Each was administered by the
Lord's Steward, who managed the Manor, with a bailiff to collect rents, a reeve
to collect fines, a Hayward to maintain the infrastructure of fences, barns and
so forth, and a constable to keep law and order and see off vermin.
Excellent accounts are given in J.West's Village Records (Phillimore,1997). For
genealogical purposes, however, the records and their uses are fairly
There were many sorts of Manorial Court but the three main types were:
Court Leets. These evolved from the Saxon View of Frankpledge, which reviewed
the grouping of men into bands of ten or twelve, each man held communally
responsible for the others' behaviour. It became a court to maintain order
within the manor, a function that was largely superseded by the parish constable
and Justics of the Peace by the 17th Century.
Court Customaries. These were technically for customary rather than freehold
tenants but in practice, it was usually absorbed within the Court Baron.
Court Baron (or Halmote). These dealt with the management of the Manor and, very
importantly for genealogists, the transfer and inheritance of land. If your
ancestors held copyhold land-and very many did the Court Baron records should
tell you from whom he inherited it, and from whom that person inherited it, and
so on the very backbone of the family tree.
Manorial tenants had obligations to fulfil, either by labour or surrender of
produce or money, but possession of their ancestral tenancies was guaranteed by
inviolable rights. These obligations and rights were recorded in Court Rolls.
When someone became a tenant, whether, by inheritance or purchase, they would be
given a copy of these obligations and rights, and were thus known as
When a tenant died, the heir would appear at the next Court Baron and state
their right to inherit the tenancy. They would then have their right
acknowledged, thus being 'admitted' to the tenancy, and paying a forfeit to do
so. The forfeit was traditionally a 'heriot', the tenant's best beast, but after
the Restoration (1660) a money payment was made instead.
Copyhold tenancies were hereditary and could not technically be sold. Of course,
in reality, they were all the time, both to neighbours and incomers. This
involved a little pantomime, by which the vendor would attend the Court Baron
and surrender their holdings to the lord, who would then admit the purchaser,
while cash changed hands behind the scenes.
Copyhold land fell into two categories, heritable copyhold and copyhold for
lives. Heritable copyhold passed to the holder's heir, according to the custom
of the manor. The heir was usually the eldest son, but manors in some areas
practised 'gavelkind' (dividing the land between all sons, with the hearth - the
family home - going to the youngest) or 'borough English' (which allowed the
youngest son to inherit). Copyholders sometimes managed to overcome these strict
rules by attending the Manorial Court to surrender the holding 'to the use of
his Will', and then bequeathed the land to whomever they wanted.
Copyhold 'for lives' allowed the holding to remain in the family during the
lives of a set number of people, usually, three-holder, wife and son and when
all three had died the land reverted to the lord, though the custom of 'free
bench' allowed the widow of the last 'life' to keep her deceased husband's
holding for life. Copyhold for lives often altered over time to become
straightforward leasehold land.
Manors generated other sorts of records too, such as:
- Surveys (also called extents) of the Lord's holdings, which can include
the tenants' names and obligations of rents.
- Custumals setting out the manor's customs and sometimes naming tenants.
- Relief rolls recording freeholders paying what was usually the
equivalent of a year's rent to inherit freehold land within the Manor.
- Rent roils, which came in as paying of rent started to replace the
performance of services.
When you examine these records, you may notice that, for his own ease of
searching, the Steward had written the names of those concerned in the margin.
- Navin Kumar Jaggi
- Gurmeet Singh Jaggi