HOW TO LOCATE AND USE MANORIAL RECORDS
Many people who have studied family history for
a number of years will have met the sheer disbelief from researchers who
felt that manorial records would be no good for their family because their
own ancestors were merely ordinary people. Others might feel that they
had not traced back their line enough to warrant the use of such records.
Herein then lies great misconceptions, for not only are manorial records
a vital data source for all researchers, but next to parish registers and
wills, form what is probably the next most important source of records
available to prove a pedigree.
We must do away with the misconception that our ancestors had to be great lords before turning to manorial records and realise that these records relate as much to ordinary people. Certainly it is true that the more land held by your ancestors, the more likely are their names to be found in such records, but even humble families held at least small parcels of land at some time and subject to chance of survival, their names will be recorded for posterity.
It is not unbelievable that over the past two decades which have seen a spate of text books telling us how to trace ancestry, only a handful give anything more than a casual reference to manorial records? Is it no wonder then, that this misconception should have arisen.
This paper therefore deals briefly with the make-up of the manorial system, its records, where they may be located and how they may be used in terms of genealogical research.
The history and development of any Society has tended to show an evolvement of its members into an organised economic unit for survival. From such units evolved leaders who might consolidate their positions into hereditary rights, subject nevertheless, to being supplanted by rival leaders. Anglo-Saxon England had already established such units as villages with leaders effectively controlling the destiny of their inhabitants. The Norman invasion created a new warrior class of leaders for whom the existing Saxon villages provided a natural unit for manorial grants in recognition of services rendered. Dispossession of over 90% of the Saxon landholders by a military aristocracy was extended by grants of new manors capable of being supported by a population of freemen, husbandmen or villeins, and serfs. This transposition also created a more lasting and systematic method of organising the unit. Manorial land was divided into two categories: the lordís demesne - land for the support of his personal household - and tenanted land granted to the villeins in return for services on the demesne. In the period following the Conquest, the treatment of serfs was not far removed from that of slaves and even the position of the villeins was one of subservience.
The manor operated an open field system of agriculture, each field being divided into strips. The standard unit for each villeinís holding was a virgate, about thirty acres of land, though in East Anglia unique social conditions ascribed to the influx of Scandinavian ideas, used a standard measure of about twelve acres. Services due from the villeins were certainly less arduous than those imposed on the serfs, involving some ten days work each month, but their holdings, although gradually evolving into a semi-hereditary right, were still subject to the legal powers of the lord, a power often exercised over life and death itself, with little redress. Free men, often with fixed rents, were free to leave the lordís domain and choose another lord, as their services were more personal than agricultural. However, many freeholders, sometimes the lords themselves, held manorial land in one or more manors in addition to their freeholds, and for this would have been subject to the same obligation of service.
Continuity of the lordís patronage enabled him to exact payment from his workers for certain everyday occurrences. For example, when a tenantís daughter was married, the lord exacted a tax known as a merchate. When a tenant died a herriot was levied and when the heirs came to take up a property another payment called a relief was charged. In the rare event that a lord allowed a tenant to live outside the manorial boundaries the privilege was paid for by a tax called a chevage. As each parcel of land was conveyed from one tenant to another, the lord in his role as owner, technically regranted the property to the new owner, subject to a payment known as a fine. This perhaps oversimplification of the order of society must be qualified to understand the extent of a manorial holding. Just as one manorial holding could extend into one or more villages, so could one village contain more than one manor, each lord having a claim on the services of the peasantry.
The system was hardly popular and not unnaturally, the peasantry eventually resisted. However, at a time of increasing population and a great demand for land the lord was able to meet such resistance with force, evicting those unwilling to yield to his terms. The Peasants Revolt of the fourteenth century did at least make the lord aware that forced labour was not economically expedient and a system gradually evolved to commute services due for a payment of money, a consequence of which was a great increase in the lordís income. The devastation of the countryside caused by the effects of the Black Death and other ensuing plagues completely changed the social fabric. As demand for land fell, so the demand for labour rose. The recent decimation of the population gave the labourers a strong hand and the lords were forced to accept that they had to increase wage rates and give greater security to their tenants holdings.
From the fifteenth century, tenants were granted holdings with full hereditary rights and fixed rents. They received a copy of the entry recorded in the lordís manor records, their holding then being referred to as copyhold. Profits from the lordís holdings did not keep pace with inflation. To counteract this many lords began to sell parts of the demesne to neighbouring tenants and to a growing and aspiring band of merchants wishing to invest in property. Many a visitation family owes its gentle origins to one prosperous member of an otherwise humble family, whose fortune was made from the wealth created by the expanding trade of town and city.
To ensure the smooth running of the manorial unit, members of the lordís community were elected or appointed to offices, each with a functional position to aid that community. The Steward had charge of the records of the manor, the responsibility for holding the lordís courts and of complying with the legal complexities of land conveyancing. By the eighteenth century this office tended to be exercised by a country solicitor, who often performed the office and passed on the role to a successor in his law firm. The Bailiff was the lordís agent and general overseer of his estate. The Reeve was responsible for the cultivation of the lands, the sale of stock and grain and was usually elected from among the lordís copyholders. The Hayward had specific responsibilities for the lordís woods, corn and meadows. The Constable, an unpopular office, was elected, usually annually, to keep the peace, to summon men to jury service and to supervise the pound though the latter was sometimes under the control of a Pindar. When the office of constable in relation to the lordís dwindling number of tenants seemed anachronistic, the office became subject to appointment by the parish vestry or the court of Quarter Sessions.
Perhaps one of the few offices that might be sought after was that of Ale-taster. He had to ensure that a good standard of beer was produced, a practice which in later centuries became subservient to the main task of ensuring that those wishing to make the ale, paid their licence fees to the lord.
Throughout the subsequent centuries the manorial system survived as a focal point for village life with the lord or squire as its central figurehead. As lord, he continued to exercise his manorial authority over his tenants though by the end of the eighteenth century this had been reduced to nothing more than a token gesture. The enclosing of open fields and common lands which permeated Tudor and Georgian England further reduced the need for any judicial overseer, as more and more of the smaller tenants were bought out by larger landowners. Invariably, the lord was appointed a local magistrate and indirectly widened his sphere of judicial authority, but the everyday affairs of the village became more centred around meetings of the parish vestry. Enfranchisement of the remaining copyhold lands into freeholds on payment of a fee, and a series of statutes during the nineteenth century, led in 1926 to the final abolition of the copyhold form of tenure.
Today, the lordship remains a conveyable property in name only, stripped of its ancient rights and privileges although in a few cases, some have retained their rights over common lands and mineral extraction and a handful still retain honours linked to services to the Crown.
Records associated with the manor are numerous. Some of these fell into disuse many centuries ago and it is unlikely that many family historians will have cause to refer to these. This paper therefore covers only the principal sources of use in family research. To consider first in what the lord was primarily interested. He needed to know who owed him money and services, when they became due, and when they were paid. He also had to exercise jurisdiction over the tenants and inhabitants of the manorial land, a special jurisdiction devolved from the Crown. These two functions, mostly held one after the other at the same court sitting, are known separately as a Court Leer and a Court Baron. The Court Leet heard criminal offences not punishable by Common Law usually then referred to the Assizes, and of fences involving sums of money of over 40s in worth. There is a general mis-belief that all offences were heard at the Court Leer and property transactions at the Court Baron. The Court Baron, the tenants own court to ensure the smooth running of the community, was also empowered to deal with minor and Common Law offences involving sums of 40s or less. The main business of the Court Baron however, was to note changes in property ownership and it is this category which proves so valuable to the family historian. This was the category in which the lord had more of a vested interested as he was able to claim payments for each transaction.
Early court records were written on both sides of long sheets of parchment, sewn together at the top, then rolled for storage. Records of later centuries came to be written firstly in minute books, many of which serve as prime source material in the absence of the written up copies which were made in parchment leaved bound books. Often these court rolls and court books overlap one another and occasionally one might find a duplicate set of records written contemporarily with the originals. It was from this class of record that the term copyhold evolved. When tenants were admitted to their property they were given a copy of the entry appearing in the court records. They thus held by copy. These copies of admissions form another category of manorial record, hut because they were given to the tenant they arc more likely to be found with other title deeds lodged with local solicitors or now with estate collections.
It must not he forgotten that although court rolls and books form the most important record of the manor, other official records can often be of great use to the historian. Court verdicts, or decisions of the court often appear as separate documents. Rentals, often filed in consecutive years, are a useful record to trace particular individuals over a period of land ownership. Surveys of property often contain drawings and maps enable a more accurate identification of a particular property. Docquet books or indexes are sometimes found as separate documents, usually limited to the names of those being admitted to property, but more likely, these, if they exist, will be found either at the commencement or at the end of each court book.
In seeking to locate the records, it will prove useful at first to determine what exactly you are looking for. Remember that several manors may be involved in a particular area and a preliminary study of published local history works should give a listing of these. Remember also that the chances of survival of records over several centuries must be small, so do not expect immediate success. Many will have been destroyed, particularly those of the medieval period; some will have been split up and some will have simply been lost. In a number of families manorial court records have been lovingly preserved and passed down from generation to generation. The current trend however, is for records to be sold to owners far removed from their place of origin. Once it is known which manors records are being sought, contact should be made with your local record office. Most of these offices have now begun a list of manorial records in their possession and often extend this to list those known to exist in other locations.
If this proves unsuccessful, contact the present lord of the manor, who may well have possession of the records in his home. It should be noted that not all manors were held by individuals; many were in the hands of institutions such as the Oxbridge colleges and ecclesiastical authorities.
The next enquiry should be directed to the Manorial Documents Register. This is a list of manors arranged by county with details of the known records surviving and their present location. This is an official list and comes within the jurisdiction of the Master of the Rolls. The register is held at the Historic Manuscripts Commission, Quality House, Quality Court, Chancery Lane, London WC2. Only personal visits are suggested, but specific written queries will be answered. There is obviously an overlap with the listings provided by local record offices but information is regularly updated. Sadly however, the sales of lordships and the records of manors, have meant a dislocation of the information filed, and although every effort is made to obtain details of new purchasers, the sometimes secretive nature of these transactions makes this difficult. There are indeed certain rules governing possession of manorial documents; the lord must ensure safe keeping, advise location to the Master of the Rolls, and any change of ownership; the lord must also ensure that manorial documents do not leave Britain without the Master of the Rolls permission. But these rules are often, unfortunately, not observed.
Assuming that by this stage particular records have not been located there are still a few avenues worth following. The latest publication of Kellyís directories for each county, usually 1937-40, will give the name of the then lord of the manor. It may be possible to identify that individual with a family of the name at the same address today. A polite enquiry will soon determine if records are still held, their location and content, or whether the identity of the new owner is known. Invariably, the family will have moved away, taking with them their manorial records to be lodged with family solicitors in some distant part of the country. If the family is an old landed one, and entry in Burkeís Landed Gentry or Burkeís Peerage may show the address for the present head of the family.
A further enquiry may be made at the offices of the Manorial Society. Founded in 1906 and publishing a journal for its members, the Society is often aware of the identity of new purchasers of lordships though it should be remembered that it is under no obligation to disclose their identity. Application should be made to the Manorial Society of Great Britain, 65 Belmont Hill, London SE13.
As a last resort, there is the unenviable task of locating local solicitors in the vicinity of the manor in the hope that the records may have been lodged with them. Quite often the older law firms are the successors of earlier stewards of manors and have records deposited with them for safe keeping. Quite often these days, solicitors have little time to spend on enquiries and will charge a fee if they do, often have no knowledge of what records are held, and even if known, need approval of clients before disclosing information from them. Even if records are located, the matter is not so simple. In some cases, records have been held for so long that the identity of the client and owner has been lost and this will frequently deter solicitors from depositing the material in record offices. The problem is a serious one and can result in the searcher going around in circles trying to get correct information. For the moment, there is no answer. One cannot force solicitors to surrender documents if unwilling, neither can they be forced to maintain such records in suitable storage. There will be occasions when the researcher will have to accept that either the record does not exist or if it does, that he or she is not going to be allowed access to it.
For those researchers who have reached far back into their ancestral past, there is some glimmer of hope. Whilst it is true that the older the record the less chance of survival, there is a large collection of manorial court records in the Public Record Office. A list of these has been published by HM Stationary Office (1896) and copies may be found in the more important reference libraries. Another large collection will be found in the British Library among family and estate archives which the library has either purchased or acquired by gift.
What can you expect to find in the court rolls and books? The first thing that becomes apparent is that the early records are written in Latin. This in itself might deter many enthusiasts and no doubt is the principal reason why this source has been so little used in the past. Whilst a knowledge of Latin is obviously an advantage, it need not deter the searcher willing to make an effort to understand the system. During the period of the Commonwealth and after 1733 the records were written in English and it is a useful first step to spend some time examining these periods in the records to become familiar with the fairly standard phraseology used. The style and format of the English is identical to that of the Latin, and very quickly you will be able to determine just where the important parts of the text lie and which parts of legal jargon can be ignored.
The usual heading for each court gives the name of the manor, the type of court, the name of the lord and the date. For those searching families who actually held the manor, this can sometimes be misleading. especially where descent of the manor has passed through several generations bearing the same Christian name. Many an early pedigree has been concocted on this basis drawing completely wrong conclusions.
A roll of those who should have been present was then called and those absent were then fined a nominal sum depending on the validity
of their excuses if any. The word Ďessoinsí or Ďdefault of tenantsí usually appears here as a marginal entry. Then comes the list of jurymen known as the Homage, usually drawn from local farmers, duly sworn to act as adjudicators over the courtís business. A list of complaints follows, criminal offences for the court leet and common law offences for the court baron, the latter recording such punishments as the pillory, stocks or a fine. These offences, which to us would seem quite trivial, can be most informative to the family historian for it is from them that an ancestorís character may be discovered. Finally, comes the important business of the court, to record changes in ownership of land. For the genealogist it is this part of the record which will be most rewarding.
To take an extreme example: if a family held a particular piece of land, no matter how small, over several centuries, and the manorial records covering that property can be found and are extensive, then it is possible to find sufficient information to draw up a pedigree, provable beyond doubt. How many data sources can it be said are so obliging?
When a tenant died, his death was usually reported to the next court sitting. Up to three proclamations were then made at three successive sittings, each asking for the heir of the deceased to attend the court and be admitted to the property. If none came, the property reverted to the lord, although the lord would often re-grant to the heir at a later date of the heir came forward. Where property was widely held, it could not always have been easy to ensure that an heir was notified of his entitlement. The heir might attend the court personally or he might appoint another to deal with the matter on his behalf, usually referred to as his attorney but not necessarily being a solicitor. At the hearing, the death of the tenant would be presented again stating whether or not he had made arrangements for its disposition. Usually, a copyhold tenant surrendered his property shortly after admission back into the lordís hands, only to receive it back with permission to dispose of it under the terms of his will, subject only to the services due to the lord. Sometimes when properties so surrendered were disposed of by will, the will itself is entered on the court roll or in the court book, even in cases where an original will has not been located by the searcher in the usual probate courts. The manorial court record may then be the only record of such a disposition. It should be noted however, that only the terms relevant to the property and heir are likely to be recorded in the text of the court record. A list of the deceasedís property is then recited giving details of from whom it was purchased or inherited and when. A simple acquisition by purchase is not very helpful to the researcher, but where the property has been inherited and reference is then made to the record at the date the inheritance was acquired by the deceased, then the chain starts all over again. Clearly then, a good set of records can take a line backwards to the ancestor who first purchased the property. One point to remember here however, is that all manors had their own custom regarding descent of land. Whilst by far the majority of land usually passed to the eldest son, it was also customary in some areas, especially southern England, for the property to descend to the youngest son, a custom known as Borough English; the custom also applied if the deceased left only daughters. This practice, once more widely known, will tend to turn upside down the recognised history of our social mobility. Records of changes in land ownership were not limited to heirs taking up their inheritances. A simple sale of land from A to B will be recorded as a surrender from A and an admission to the land by B. Sometimes, to raise money, or for reasons of convenience, copyholders mortgaged their property. Court records showed this as a conditional surrender and when the mortgage was repaid the mortgagor had to acknowledge satisfaction of the debt. Sometimes the mortgagee was unable to repay, and then the mortgagor applied to the lord to be admitted to the land as the new owner. These are all transactions with which we must be familiar today but recorded in the manorial records in a format unique until the Law of Property Act of 1922 and the Law of Property (Amendment) Act of 1924 which effectively abolished the copyhold form of tenure.
It should now be possible to see that only certain parts of the text need concern researchers in the quest for family historical information. At either end of the later court books there should be an index of those tenants admitted to property. This should be checked and page references noted. If an ancestor sold property this will not be recorded in any index and it may prove necessary to search the whole book, paragraph by paragraph, if the entry has to be found. Most books and rolls do have marginal entries against the text where the new tenant has been admitted, and this can prove useful in the absence of an index. The use of Latin may prove a stumbling block at first but should not be regarded as an insurmountable barrier. Perhaps some of the greatest difficulties are caused by the use of abbreviations in the records. No textbook can attempt to give a definitive guide to these and researchers must discover such local variations themselves. Not every record follows an identical pattern, but the events before described do form the basis of what is covered, and if the manual of court procedure has been followed there should be little difficulty in following the text.
The first heading is a simple one, merely identifying whether the proceedings are for the court leet - Curia Leta - or for the court baron - Curia Baron; the word court is usually abbreviated to Cur. Remember that in later court books it is unlikely to find entries for the court leet as by this time the lordís judicial function had become almost meaningless. The lists of presentments that follow may be prefaced by, Presentatum est quod (It is presented that), or Compertum est quod (It is found that), both usually abbreviated; sometimes presentments are simply prefaced by the word Item. At times the presentments will refer initially to the happenings of an earlier court and then the first words will be Cum ad Cur (Whereas at a court). Shortly after this the first name should appear indicating who has done what. Where a tenant has died it is presented that at a previous court he surrendered (Sursumreddit abbreviated to Surd) the property. The phraseology used always refers here to the surrender being into the hands of the lord (in manum Domini - Man Dni) by the hands of (per manun - per man) the steward to the use of (ad opus) the last will and testament (ultimo voluntatis - uit vol) of the said deceased dated .... of which the terms are as follows (Viz:). The recital of the relevant extract of the will that follows is always in English so this is an easy part to identify. The applicant then begs the favour of the lord to be admitted to the property which is then itemised piece by piece. Sometimes the name of the property is given in English. Usually the names of landowners whose property borders on to that of the deceased is also given.
The deceased often acquired property from more than one source and the list of such holdings can often take up several pages of text. The important section to determine at what point in the text does the listing from one source come to an end, for at this point the source and the date of acquisition will be listed. These check-points are prefaced by the words Que premissa (which premises) but the use of so many abbreviations for these words often makes it difficult to spot the entry. Then follows a description of how the deceased acquired the property usually taking it upon himself and his heirs (sibi et heres) either on the death of (post mortem) someone else or if he purchased the property, by the surrender (ex sursumred) of the named vendor. The date when all this happened should then be given but unfortunately this is not always done particularly in the early records.
With the case of a straightforward sale and purchase of land, the purchaserís name is sometimes found in the earlier part of the text or after the full description of the property being sold. The key words to look for here are ad opus (to the use of) which are usually written in capitals to highlight their importance and can quite easily be recognised, followed by the name of the purchaser.
When a new tenant applied to the court to be admitted, the steward had to satisfy himself that the applicant had good title. The steward would refer to the entry in the court record to show his entitlement and would often make a marginal note against the entry giving the name of the new owner with date of admission.
No article of this briefness can expect to give definitive answers to all the problems raised by styles and procedures varying so much by the different localised versions as by the different hands compiling the records within each locality. Basically however, rules of court procedure were clearly laid down and manuals used by court stewards should have evolved a high degree of uniformity in procedure. Like most fields of study, patience and determination are likely to be rewarded and it will surprise many previous sceptics just how adept they can become by persevering.
Family History Annual, ed. Michael J Burchall, Brighton, 1985. ISBN 0 907084 13 3 ISSN 0267 5269.
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