Really interesting article about peasant life - has anyone accessed the archives of English manorial courts mentioned?

+4 votes
in The Tree House by Randall Merriott G2G4 (4.5k points)

1 Answer

+3 votes

Yes, I've used manorial court records but not from the early period discussed in the text. 

These early records tend to be in latin, use a lot of abbreviations and reading the script is a  very specialised skill. I once requested a manorial roll from the 1400s. I'd previously spent quite a bit of time trying to  teach myself some of the skills for earlier records .(you might like to look inside; amazon  one of  the books I used; it shows you some of the language and writing from these records) It was extraordinarily difficult to unravel the roll and then interpret more than a few words. 

But manors and their courts continued for many centuries.  The legal definition of manorial records continues until 1925 when copyhold tenure was abolished  (description of the types of records produced by manors and their courts National Archives)

 Even today the manor of Laxton has open field farming and an annual court.  Portland Leet near me administers common land on behalf of the Crown who still  own the manor.Several others remain but are largely  ceremonial.

Post medieval  manorial  records are much more readible  but  they are unlikely to be digitised and may be in various archives miles from the manor. (some are still in private hands. ) Unfortunately, there are big gaps. Gradually, the role in controlling wrong doing was taken over by magistrates Manor courtsv still  dealt with items such  as blocking foot paths, not clearing ditches, gathering furze or encroaching on the common land; interesting but of limited use to the family historian (unless it was your John Smith that repeatedly failed to dig his ditches and caused a flood). Of more use is the court's function as recorder of tenure and property.

The descendants of the medieval serfs became copyholders. They held their land from the manor, paying an annual rent. This rent gradually replaced  requirement for  work on the lord's land.

 The copyhold was most  often held for three lives. When one life died, the new life paid a fine or heriot to the landowner . This again gradually changed from goods to money.  These  copyholders  also paid a fine to put another life on a lease. 

A couple of examples:

At a court held in 1582, one of my husband's ancestors, Henry Ford presented his copy dated 1574. His rent was £2.3s 3d, the fine was £50. The three lives were Henry and his sons Henry and Walter. A manorial survey two years later  describes in some detail  exactly where he and the other copyholders  held land.  Later records and estate  maps show that this copyhold and another held by Henry's brother  endured, or at least were held by Fords  until the 19th C.

 Using, in part, a manorial court record, it was  possible to demonstrate relationships between a 17th C individual  and his  hitherto unknown family. A survey presented at the court  mentioned each copyholder together with their  name  and relationship to the previous copyholder. This was often  a father or husband but  in some cases, the land was held in the right of a wife and the last owner, was  her father (hence revealing  maiden names).

by Helen Ford G2G6 Pilot (376k points)
Like Helen I have also used them. They may be particularly useful around the period where there are no extant parish registers but some manorial court records survive.

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