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Explore England's Past

The Manor

The ruins of the 15th century riverside manor house at Minster Lovell, including a fine hall and south-west tower

In the medieval period the dominant form of tenure was the manor, which was concerned with land, with rights and with civil administration. The manor is not the same as the village or the parish. In some places manors shared the same boundaries as parishes, but this was rare in the former Danelaw territories of the Midlands. As a result, there might be several parishes in a manor, or alternatively several manors within a parish. A manor might spread across more than one parish. It might be a single piece of land, or several fragmented pieces which were not physically connected. And the manorial structure might be overlain by other jurisdictions, as for example with Forest Law. The manor was essentially an administrative unit of a landed estate. In origin the word is derived from the Latin word manerium, meaning a residence, and the manor was a territorial unit of lordship, the basic unit of estate administration. The lord had customary and legal rights over the manorial land and its resources. The rights included markets and fairs, warrens, fisheries, commons, mineral rights, parks, woodlands, and mills (both water and wind). These rights were exercised through a manor court.

The main features of the manor can be broken down as follows:

The capital messuage

  • The residence (better known as the manor house)
  • Fishponds
  • Dovecotes
  • Stackyard
  • Barns
  • Granary 
  • Stables and animal sheds

The demesne

  • The lord’s own land, usually a single unit with arable, pasture and meadow 
  • The lord’s own food grown and profits made from grain and livestock sales

Land let to tenants (copyhold)

  • Tenants/peasants work land in return for rent and/or labour services

Physical and jurisdictional rights

  • Markets and fairs 
  • Warrens (rabbit warrens and ‘free warren’)
  • Fisheries and marshes (several and common) 
  • Commons 
  • Mineral rights 
  • Parks 
  • Woods (several and common) 
  • Mills (water and wind)

Manor Court

  • Court Baron 
  • Court Leet

In the Middle Ages the manor was an economic unit, which included the demesne which the lord farmed by paying wages or by requiring labour services. Produce of the demesne would be used to feed the lord and his family, while any surplus grain or livestock would be sold at the market. The rest of the land was farmed by tenants or used as common pasture and waste. Villeins occupied their lands in return for certain defined services to the lord, and freemen paid a nominal money rent to the lord. The system of labour services declined from the mid-14th century. Villein tenure evolved into copyhold and then leasehold. Labour services included obligations over bridges and roads, and the performance of manorial offices such as the hayward. This type of tenure eventually evolved into copyhold, because unfree land could theoretically be seized by the lord, and unsurprisingly tenants wanted security for their title. Each manor developed customs, rights, obligations and rules which governed the manor, such as pasture rights and rights over commons, the maintenance of roads and bridges, and the performing of manorial office. Other obligations included Chevage, Childwyte, Foldsuit, Herbage, Leyrwite, Merchet, Millsuit and Tallage. These were all in effect additional payments to the lord.

To provide the tenant with greater security, the surrender and admittance, with terms and conditions, could be recorded in the manor court roll and serve as a proof of landholding, and the tenant would have a copy of the court roll (hence, copyhold, or holding by copy of the court roll) as evidence confirming their title. Manor court owners would keep courts once or twice a year, and sometimes more often on large manors. The court baron dealt with the affairs of the manor and was held every three weeks or so, with the timing partially dependent on the size of the manor. All villeins were required to attend. Free tenants would attend about once a year or more often if they were involved in a dispute. The Court would have a jury, sometimes known as the homage, and anyone who was unable to attend (excuses) had to pay a fine, an essoin. Jurors were drawn from among the leading tenants, and could demand that their lord carry out duties such as repairing the animal pound. The court baron recorded copyhold land transactions, implemented the customs of the manor and the charges to be levied, as in the case of merchet, resolved disputes over property rights, damage, trespass, debt and defamation, and also regulated local agricultural practices where this was appropriate. Punishments were imposed for failure to perform services or disputes, or simply failure to attend the court. The fines were known as amercements. Other court baron business included changes of tenancy, payment of heriots (an animal or money due to the lord after a tenant died), and cases between tenants.

Some manors also had a court leet which dealt with community business such as nuisances and disputes. It met less regularly, perhaps only once or twice a year, and dealt with local policing and more serious offences such as breach of the King’s peace. It was also responsible for regulating the price, quality and the measure of bread and ale. It dealt with criminal matters through the View of Frankpledge.

The findings of the courts were recorded in a court roll. This included the name of the manor and the date; essoins and homage listed with amercements (usually recorded in the margin) and known collectively as estreats (lists of fines and amercements); and land transactions recorded on the rolls.

The manor house was the residence of the lord, and usually had fish ponds, a dovecote, a stackyard, barns, a granary, stables and other sheds for animals. The lord himself might not be resident, since many lords came through time to own more than one manor. In this case there might not be a physical manor house, or it might be occupied by the lord’s steward or bailiff. The house called the Manor House in any village today may never actually have had that role in practice.

During the Tudor period many of the civil functions of the manor were transferred to the parish. As a result, from about 1600, the main benefits enjoyed by lords of manors were land (the ‘demesne’), sporting and mineral rights, and the revenue from copyhold properties, particularly quitrents, entry fines and court revenues. The main function of the manor court after this time was to register title to copyhold land. The decline of the manorial system forced the Elizabethan central government to give civil responsibilities to the townships and parishes (poor, highways, law and order). In 1841 Parliament passed the Copyhold Act and by successive Acts the rights of copyholders to enfranchise cheaply and easily was improved. But copyholds were converted to freeholds (with a few exceptions such as copyholds for years which became leaseholds) and the lord was compensated by a payment calculated according to rules laid down by Parliament. Feudal tenures were formally abolished in 1660 and all remaining manorial incidents in 1926. Some manorial courts continued to meet in the 20th century and technically courts can still meet, although they would have no real business to transact.

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