Skip Navigation

Welcome to Bedford Borough Council

Manorial Records Manorial Court Rolls

II. Manorial Court Rolls


By the 16th century, as explained in Part I, a manor was essentially an area under the jurisdiction of a private court and its records consisted of the writings produced by the court in conducting its business, its Court Rolls. Rolls had been an integral record of the manor and its court in the medieval period but then, the manor being an administrative unit of a landed estate, its records had comprised a wide range of documents produced in the course of the day to day management of the manor.


The idea of keeping a formal and official record of the Manor Court's proceedings appears to have developed and spread in the latter half of the 13th century. The motives were primarily legal, a recognition of the importance of justice being done according to precedent. The formality of Court Rolls and their usefulness to administrators certainly accounts for their careful compilation and retention. Equally, the development of the Court Roll reflects the increasing use of written records in manorial administration and the growing formality of court procedure.


Physically the form and size of rolls varies enormously according to the circumstances of the individual manor (the frequency of its meetings, it size, composition, jurisdiction, traditions, etc.). A bundle of parchment rolls (some a few cms. square) for Eggington, for instance, spanning the period 1297-1572 and easily portable rolled in one hand, can be markedly contrasted with the series of cumbersome books constituting the rolls for one of the Leighton Buzzard manors, occupying almost 2m. of shelf run in the Record Office strongroom and only spanning the period 1704-1867. Court Rolls in the mediaeval period usually consist of parchment strips or skins of varying length sewn end to end or head to head with linen thread and enrolled, the records of several courts being thus `filed' together. From the 15th century, paper is also used as the medium for the record and by the 18th century most active manors had gone over to a book form, often with an index, although the documents are still called Court Rolls.


Despite the considerable variations between manors, much of the procedure and terminology of course was common to all. Whether in Latin (which is used up to 1731 by some Courts) or in English, the reader of Court Rolls will encounter many technical and archaic terms such as essoin (an excuse or apology for absence by someone bound to attend the court) and homage (literally those doing `homage', sometimes the whole court but more usually a body of copyholders or customary tenants bound as a condition of their tenure to attend - suit of court - and under an express duty to `present' all offences against the customary law and regulations of the manor). Recourse to a Law Dictionary and books such as H.S. Bennett's `Life of the English Manor' and P.D.A. Harvey's `Manorial Records' will usually resolve any difficulties caused by such technicalities, particularly in medieval Court Rolls.


Most post-medieval Court Rolls are simpler in format and content. A heading records the title of the court, the name of the Lord (or Lady) of the Manor, the name of the Steward conducting the business of that particular court, and the date. Commonly the names of jurors are then recorded and details of the appointed officers of the manor. Juries, which varied in size but usually consisted of 10-12 persons, first emerged in the 13th and 14 centuries. Like the homage, with which they are often synonymous, they were referred to for statements on manorial custom and decision in court in matters brought by one villager against another. The extent and range of local officials varied considerably in accordance with the nature and size of the jurisdiction of a particular manor. Thus in urban manors, one finds, for example, brook lookers, leather sealers, ale tasters, scavengers and constables to look after the several aspects of town administration, particularly market trading. In rural manors one finds field (and fen) reeves, thirdboroughs, moletakers, pinders, woodwards, heywards, and similar officials appointed to regulate the management of the open and common fields.


The business of Courts can be simply summarised into two principal categories. The administration of copyhold tenure (the subject of Part III of this series), the transfer and regulation of copyhold land ( land held according to the custom of the manor), forms the first category. Increasingly, certainly by the 19th century but often earlier, this formed the staple business of most surviving manorial courts. Secondly, courts created bye-laws and regulated and enforced the same through their local officials.

The bye-laws of a manor, which are often listed numerically by Court Rolls, appear under a variety of names - pains, orders, ordinances, etc. They constituted a law, quite apart from the common law, consisting of the customs of the particular manor and usually involved oversight of the community and its lands. Thus within rural manors they were invariably concerned with agrarian matters - the good management and regulation of the common fields - but also impinged on the social life of the community being concerned with harbouring of strangers, gaming in alehouses, bull baiting, pollution of watercourses, repair of streets, nuisances, and the like. Where leet jurisdiction had been grafted on to a Court Baron, the manorial court maintained the `assizes' of bread and ale ensuring the produce sold by bakers and brewers met required standards of quality and quantity. Tanners and butchers were also closely regulated.
Apart from laying down bye-laws and regulations in written form, Court Rolls record breaches of them by residents within the manor. Details of `presented' (i.e. recorded) offences, verdicts, and punishments (usually a monetary penalty but including, in the case of common scolds, less conventional treatment such as the ducking stool). Presentments (reported accusations) by the homage or individuals (often court officials) are the source of much court business. Thus an official, such as the heyward, might report someone for allowing a pig to go unringed in breach of a bye-law or a juror might present a neighbour for leaving a midden or dunghill in the street, allowing a dog to go unmuzzled, or killing pigeons. Court Rolls are a vivid source, full of richly detailed insights into the social and economic life of local people who often only appear otherwise as mere names in a parish register in the surviving written record.