Manorial documents

The manor was the building block of feudal society. As such it embodied the 'government' of the local community in medieval times. It not only had administrative control over matters such as the succession to land tenure within the manor, but also often functioned as a local court of law for routine offences. Manorial documents are among the few types of records where genealogical information about ordinary people - rather than the upper classes - is likely to survive from medieval times.

Within the manor, land could be held in several ways. The fullest information in the records is about those who held land by customary tenure, that is, traditionally, in return for labouring on the lord's own land, the demesne. The descent of these holdings was governed by the custom, or accepted rules, of the manor in question - the commonest form of customary tenure, which evolved in late medieval times, was known as copyhold tenure, because each tenant would be given a copy of the entry recording his succession in the manor court roll. Freehold land was held primarily in return for a fixed rent, and its descent was not governed (or recorded) by the manor. However, freeholders were still subject to manorial jurisdiction in other respects, so that they do also appear in the records. Others held leasehold land, usually for a year at a time in the medieval period, but later for longer terms. In general, there was a tendency over time for the rights of the lord to be eroded, and for freehold tenure to become the norm - although the last vestiges of the copyhold system survived until the 20th century.

The records

Generally the most useful manorial records for the genealogist are those of the court baron, which dealt with the everyday business of the manor, meeting typically every 3 or 4 weeks. This business would include the reporting of tenants' deaths - in theory, freehold as well as customary tenants - and the payment to the lord of the corresponding feudal due, called a heriot. When the heir of a dead customary tenant succeeded, the surrender of the land and the admission of the new tenant would be recorded, and the relationship between the two would normally be noted. Occasionally, there are also payments for the marriages of the daughters of customary tenants (merchets) or records of the remarriage of widows. As well as these specific records of the events that are crucial to the genealogist, many tenants will be routinely named for a variety of reasons - they may appear as officials or jurors, they may be noted as absent (with or without leave), or they may be fined (amerced) for some minor offence.

Many manors also held a court leet, which acted as a court of law dealing with routine local matters (and even with capital offences in earlier times). This jurisdiction declined rapidly during Tudor times.

Another important record is the manorial survey. Surveys assumed different forms - and are known by different names - in different periods. Usually they include at least a list of the names of the manorial tenants, and may give much fuller information. The main categories are the custumal, common in the 12th and 13th century, which records the tenants, their holdings and their obligations to the lord; the extent, a valuation of the manor, including the demesne, which seems to have been inspired in the 13th century by official surveys connected with inquisitions post mortem; and rentals, lists of tenants and the rents payable, beginning in the 14th century, when it became common for the lord to rent out the demesne rather than working it himself. Very detailed surveys were also produced in Tudor times. Similar information may also be gleaned from manorial accounts, where they survive. Surveys can obviously be very useful to the genealogist, in that tenants are often associated with an identifiable land-holding, although explicit genealogical information is rare.

Although the focus in manorial documents is on the ordinary tenants, it is worth remembering that they often also identify the lord of the manor. In medieval times, such a dated reference can sometimes provide a useful chronological clue - for example, to the date of the death or remarriage of a widow holding the manor for her life.

Some problems

The difficulties of using manorial documents include the common ones of handwriting and language. The language in medieval times is Latin, often heavily abbreviated. English became more common in Tudor times, but many manorial court records continue in Latin until the 18th century. On the other hand, as is the case for many medieval records, the form of the proceedings and the terminology are often very standardised. A number of manorial records have been published.

A more serious problem is the large number of medieval manorial documents that have been lost. These were private, not public, records, and so their survival is a matter of luck rather than administrative routine (except for manors owned by the crown or the church, which have generally fared better). Nevertheless, the Public Record Office has a large collection, and many of those previously in private hands have been deposited in local record offices. Fortunately, because of their legal significance, there is an official listing - the Manorial Documents Register - of known surviving records and their location, so that it is not too hard to determine whether material has survived for a given manor. This information is already available online for part of the country (see below).

Links and bibliography for manorial documents

For source material on the internet, click here

The following are available online:

Published works: