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 English genealogy.
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 straightforward.
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 It became a court to maintain order within the manor, a function that was largely superseded by the parish constable and Justice of the Peace by the 17th Century.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 copyholders.
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.
By: Navin Kumar Jaggi & Gurmeet Singh Jaggi