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Manorial Records 1 Manor and Court

The history of the Manor and its jurisdiction are complex subjects requiring quite lengthy consideration to cover even the most elementary points. The article which follows will be helpful as an introduction to a class of records useful to genealogists and local historians alike.

I. The Manor and its Court

A manor was first and foremost a territorial unit forming part of a landed estate. As Jacob's Law Dictionary (1762) put it: `... after the Conquest [1066] there were certain circuits of ground granted by the King or Conqueror to some Barons or men of like worth, for them and their heirs to dwell upon and exercise jurisdiction, more or less within their territories, as the King thought fit to grant...'

As an administrative unit of local estate management the manor produced a range of records - accounts, rentals, surveys, terriers, etc. - common to any estate. Holding a private court incident to a manor had been commonplace long before the 15th century but by that date the court, as P.D.A. Harvey has written, `served to define the manor itself': `If there was no court, there was no manor, and the word moved from the vocabulary of estate management to become a technical legal term, a position it retained from the 16th century to the 20th century'.

Thereafter, a piece of landed property was manor only if its owner held a court for the tenants over whom he exercised certain rights of jurisdiction. For this reason the manorial court rolls, the formal record of the court's judicial and administrative proceedings, are the principal manorial record and the only records peculiar to manors. Part II of this series will look at these records in detail.

Thousands of territorial units were granted as manors after the Conquest but it must not be assumed that counties were all neatly divided into manorial units like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle as they were with ecclesiastical parishes (a wholly different set of administrative units). The variations in size, composition, and management cannot be overstressed. A manor might comprise a whole village (its boundaries being coterminous with the boundaries of the ecclesiastical parish) or extend beyond and overlap more than one village. More often, however, villages were divided between several manors. Thus Potton, for instance, has four traceable manors - Potton Regis, Potton Burdetts, Potton Rectory and Potton Much Manured - whereas Sutton had only two. Eaton Socon on the other hand has at least ten traceable manors. Often one particular manor is clearly identifiable as being the principal unit and may have assimilated smaller sub-manors whose level of activity had often waived considerably even by the 16th or 17th century. The descent of each known manor within a parish is recorded in brief in the Victoria County History which is a useful starting point for research. Scores of manors will have foundered long before the 20th century and it should never be assumed that any records will have survived for a particular manor.

Survival of court rolls depends on many factors, not least the stability and continuity of ownership of a particular manor which is usually greater in the case of Crown and ecclesiastical estates. Where estates, perhaps containing several manors, have been fragmented (as happened at the Dissolution of the Monasteries for instance) records may end up in all sorts of places or repositories. Diversity of location for records of manors within a particular county should not be underestimated but searchers can take consolation in the fact that the Manorial Documents Register (Quality House, Quality Court, Chancery Lane, London, WC2A 1HP) exists to record details (alphabetically by manor within each county) of all known surviving manorial records and is available for public inspection. Usually, however, as at Bedford, local Record Offices will have details of court records relating to their area held by other repositories or custodians. The BLARS subject index includes several sub-headings under the heading `Manor'. These include sub-headings for `Title Deeds' (i.e. deeds to the title of the manor which as a piece of real estate or land could be bought and sold with the right to hold a court etc.), 'Court & Account Rolls, rentals, surveys, and extents' and `Copies of Court Rolls' each of which are organised alphabetically (under parish) by the name of each manor, as well as other more specific subheadings.

The manorial court was administrative and judicial. If often comprised a Court Baron and a Court Leet. The Court Baron administered a law consisting of the customs of the particular manor and regulated the tenure (including the transfer of land) and various aspects of the life of tenants within the manor. Its rights of jurisdiction were very important within the community and included managing the use of the common fields and settling disputes among manorial inhabitants. Wider rights of jurisdiction which belonged to the Crown but had been franchised to a local manorial lord were administered through the Court Leet, often referred to as View of Frank Pledge, and grafted on to the Court Baron. The distinction between Baron and Leet is seldom clear in Court Rolls, the two types of jurisdiction usually being confused and intermixed and both being referred to in the title of the Court.

By the 16th century both Courts Baron and Leet were `reasonably thriving institutions' (Harvey) although Royal Courts had by this time taken over dealing with serious crimes formerly within the Leet's jurisdiction.

After that time their functions were gradually eroded and their authority declined up until the abolition of copyhold tenure in 1922 which left little effective manorial jurisdiction. The reasons for this decline are complex and varied but usually included the appropriation of responsibilities by new units of local government, inclosure and agricultural improvement, and the increasing enfranchisement of copyhold land. Yet, the rate and decline can be overstated. The process was governed by particular and individual local circumstances and the chronology of the disappearance of courts differed considerably from place to place. It is clear that land transactions were the most enduring business in most courts and where copyhold tenure continued a court had to continue to administer it.