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Discovering Ordinary Folk in Manorial Records

by Lise Hull

Britain's manorial system became entrenched with the Normans, who introduced feudalism, whereby territory (the manor) was granted by the king to his loyal lords, or vassals. The lords in turn might "subinfeudate" their lands, retaining only the best estates (or "demesnes") for themselves while granting parcels to lesser men (tenants who might be freeholders, copyholders or leaseholders) to manage on their behalf. In return, those men who acquired landholdings from the king or a lord agreed to provide military and other services, or rent, when called upon. The system was finally abolished in England and Wales in 1922, when the Law of Property Act ended copyhold tenure, and all such property was converted into freeholds or granted a 999-year leasehold by 1926.

As the administrative and economic center and governing entity for landed estate, a manor could range from a few acres or encompass several parishes within a huge area. Within each manor, the lord relied upon the work of ordinary folk -- peasants, craftsmen and tradesmen and women -- for the estate's survival and his own financial success. In order to ensure the proper management of the manor and the activities of its peasant population, each lord had a duty to hold a private manorial court, or court baron. Not surprisingly, along with these responsibilities came the creation of a variety of official documents, which can be a boon to family history researchers who want to learn more about their ancestors but cannot find what they want in parish records.

Even though you may reasonably assume that manorial records deal with a lord, his family and his wealth, be aware that these records also include information -- sometimes in fair detail -- about tenant farmers, families, livestock, jobs, rents, wages, deaths, crimes, and even local events, all of which the lord would have tracked as he assessed his fortunes. The facts may need some interpretation, but with careful study and knowledge about the time frame and regional issues that may have effected your ancestors, you can glean a great deal from these records.

Types of manorial records

Manorial records either deal with estate management or the business of the manorial court (court baron or court leet). They include surveys (often with maps); rentals or rent rolls and terriers, which covered the management or the estate; and court rolls, estreat rolls and custumals, which were produced by the manorial courts. A nice transcription of a manorial record can be viewed at http://www.shsu.edu/~his_ncp/Manor.html or at http://www.hertfordshire-genealogy.co.uk/data/places/tring-pendley.htm.

Surveys: One of the best resources for family historians, manorial surveys are valuable because they actually name tenants, note the terms on which they held the land (including the rent they paid), and give an idea of their status and place within the community -- whether they were successful or poor, freemen or not. Surveys may also include a map of the area. Manorial surveys normally identify the men who were tenants, but not their wives and children; however, by the 14th and 15th centuries, some women had also become tenants, so they may appear in these documents. Please note that these records do not necessarily provide all the tenants' names. Some tenants may have held lands on adjoining manors, so their names could appear in those records instead. Refer to the relevant terriers to check for this possibility.

Terriers described the lands belonging to a particular manor, and are arranged topographically. A terrier is a manorial document listing holdings and tenants with their obligations in labour services and rent, and is also known as an extent.

Rentals or rent rolls: Lists of tenants and their rents, as paid in cash or produce.

Court rolls or books: These record the proceedings of the court baron and court leet, which were held regularly (at least twice) during a year. They deal with disputes between the lord and his tenants, or between tenants. Most often, the crimes that were documented in these records were minor. (Editor's note: You can view an original court roll at http://www.gtj.org.uk/en/blowup1/5770.)

Court rolls also often record tenant deaths, the remarriages of widows whose new husbands would become the new tenants of the land, payments due to the lord (or his representative, often the sheriff or bailiff), and land acquisitions. Tenants had the right to purchase a "copy" of the court record that documented the exact terms of their tenancy. With this, they became "copyholders."

As with manorial surveys, women and children are less likely to be mentioned in manorial court records than men. Interestingly, the records may also identify people who came to the manor for a particular case but who actually lived elsewhere, such as on another manor owned by the same lord, or on an adjacent manor. Researchers may want to check those records for additional information.

Estreat rolls: Extracts from court rolls dealing with the moneys a tenant owed the lord.

Custumals: From the 11th to 14th centuries, these records documented not only rents and services owed by tenants but also manorial customs. Beginning in the 13th century, they were replaced by documents known as extents.

Where to find manorial records

A word of warning: prepare yourself for some disappointment. While the National Archives, national libraries and local record offices do act as repositories for private collections and manorial records, many have been lost over the course of time and others remain in private hands. So, it may take some diligence for you to locate where the records pertaining to your ancestors are actually stored. Harvard University Law School maintains some 170 parchment rolls for a variety of English manors dating from 1305 to 1770, and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City may also have copies of the records you seek.

That said, begin your search by identifying for which manor or lord your ancestors may have worked. You may have this information from the research you have already undertaken; if not, check in Lewis' Topographical Dictionaries for England and Wales, excerpts of which appear on the GENUKI website and which should also be available at your nearest Family History Center. They are also often located in the local history sections of UK libraries or local records office in the region where your ancestors lived. Other useful publications are Bartholomew's Gazetteer, Kelly's county directories, and the Victoria History of the Counties of England, which contain a wealth of historical information and details on specific manors but do not cover all counties.

Potential problems

Besides the issue of identifying where the records are stored and if they are accessible to the public, you will also have to contend with the fact that, until well into the 18th century, these documents were handwritten in the standard language of the times -- Latin -- so they may not been translated into English or transcribed into legible script. That's where an archivist can become your best friend. Most are skilled in Latin and in palaeography, the study of old handwriting, and should be able to help. Remember, though, they are often overworked and understaffed and you may want to request their help before you arrive at their doorstep.

The records for the manor you believe an ancestor was associated with may not in fact include those ancestors' names. That does not mean your family did not live or work in the particular manor, but rather that they may have been too poor to be in the records or that their details are recorded in those of an adjoining manor or in the records of another manor owed by the same lord. So, be sure to extend your research to cover those possibilities as well.

The Manorial Documents Register

An excellent resource for your research and to help sort out any confusion is the Manorial Documents Register (MDR). Established in 1926 and maintained by the National Archives on behalf of the Master of the Rolls, the MDR is organized by historical county (pre-1974 names) and cross-referenced to the relevant parish.

You can use the MDR in person or via the Internet, and you may also want to correspond with staff prior to any visit to identify where the records you need are actually located if you cannot find that information on their website. The online version of the Manorial Documents Register, at http://www.mdr.nationalarchives.gov.uk, is still incomplete. The database presently covers all of Wales, Yorkshire, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, Norfolk, Surrey, and Middlesex, and can be searched by manor, county or honour (a group of manors under the same jurisdiction). To use the service in person, head to the National Archives, off Ruskin Avenue in Kew, Richmond, near London. For directions to Kew, visit: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/visit/where.htm.

Further reading:

Ellis, Mary. Using Manorial Records. (London: PRO, 1994). Franklin, Peter. Some Medieval Records for Family Historians. (Birmingham: The Federation of Family History Societies, 1994). Harvey, P.D.A. Manorial Records. (London: British Records Association, 1984). Stuart, Denis. Manorial Records, an introduction to their transcription and translation. (London: Phillimore, 1992).

More Information

GENUKI: UK & Ireland Genealogy

Manorial Documents Register

Related Articles:

Lise Hull is a recognized authority on British castles and heritage, with a Master of Arts degree in Heritage Studies from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, as well as a Master of Public Affairs degree, specializing in Historic Preservation, from Indiana University. She is the author of several of books on Britain, including Britain's Medieval Castles (Praeger: 2005), Great Castles of Britain and Ireland (New Holland: 2005) and Castles and Bishops' Palaces of Pembrokeshire (Logaston Press, 2005). Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Military History Quarterly, Military History, Renaissance Magazine, Family Tree Magazine and Everton's Family History and Genealogical Helper magazines; she is also a regular contributor to Faerie Magazine. Visit her websites at http://www.lisehull.com and http://www.castles-of-britain.com.

Article and photos © 2005 Lise Hull


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