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The manor and its courts

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Manor records contain an enormous amount of information for people tracing their family tree, the history of their home or for those interested in the history of a locality.

The earliest records begin in the 13th century and generally end some 700 years later in the 1920s.

Many people do not use manorial records because they are thought to be 'difficult' - they are written in Latin until 1733 and many legal terms are used.

The form of the documents changes little over time however and by working backwards from the most recent documents (in English), it is quite easy to pick up the basics of what is going on.

The purpose of this guide is to assist in that process by providing a simple overview of the manor and its records in Norfolk.

The manor

A manor is a unit of land owned by a lord and administered by his officials, with a court.

The land of the manor consisted of the demesne - occupied and farmed by the lord - and tenements, from whose holders the lord exacted rents and certain fees or services.

In the beginning the two parts of the manor were intimately linked. Not only did the tenants pay rents to their lord but the services they performed involved working on the lord's demesne, such as ploughing or harvesting.

Tenants held their land in a form of tenure called copyhold, by which their ownership was recorded on the manor court rolls. A copy was given to them as proof of title and of their obligation to the lord.

The lordship of a manor could be owned by one or several persons, or by an institution such as the Great Hospital or Norwich Cathedral.

As a property in its own right a manor could be bought and sold, broken up into smaller units or combined with other manors or parts of manors to form a new unit.

The name of a manor could change to reflect these alterations or could change when a new lord took over the manor.

However, these changes are only likely to occur in the 16th century and before, so will not affect most users of manor records.

At the Norfolk Record Office (NRO) we have standardised the name for each manor in Norfolk, with a note of the other forms used in the documents.

A manor could also be leased out, or 'farmed', especially Crown manors or those held of the Honour of Clare.

Manor boundaries are often not the same as parish boundaries. A manor may extend across several parishes and a parish may contain several manors. This appears to have been especially common in Norfolk.

Identifying a manor

There are various ways of doing this.

Firstly, if you are tracing the history of a house, look at its title deeds. 

If they go back to before 1925, these early deeds will indicate if the house is freehold or copyhold: if copyhold, the deeds will name the manor.

Secondly, use Blomefield's History of Norfolk, available in the NRO, in good public libraries and online.

Volume XI has a parish index. The parish entry describes each manor and may indicate the presence of land held by manors based in another parish.

Thirdly, check the parish Inclosure Map and Award, if it exists. Copyhold land was sometimes affected by the Parliamentary Inclosures of the early 19th century, in which case the manor is named.

Fourthly, use the Manorial Documents Register. If you have still failed to find the right manor, the next step is to look at the records of manors in neighbouring parishes to see if any of them extend into your parish.

You can get the names of these manors from Blomefield or from the card index in our searchroom.

If a manor's name includes the phrase 'with members' (in Latin cum membris) or the word 'outsoken', this usually means it has outlying or detached portions which could well be in nearby parishes.

The manor court

It is the presence of a manor court (curia) which distinguishes a manor from other forms of estate administration.

Two different courts can be found within the court records: the Court Baron and the Court Leet (leta).

The Court Baron recorded changes of tenure and enforced payment of services due to the lord. It regulated the relations between the tenants and the lord and between the tenants themselves, such as punishing the owners of stray animals.

The Court Leet dealt with offences such as common nuisances and could fine or imprison offenders. The Court Leet lost most of its importance by the 16th century.

In practice, the distinction between the two courts is not always made clear in the records, especially as the Court Baron also had the power to impose small fines.

The workings of the court

All the tenants of the manor were supposed to attend the manor court. Those who said in advance that they could not be there paid sessions for non-attendance.

Those who simply did not turn up were said to be in default and they had to pay an amercement.

Then a jury was named, always of men and usually, but not always, 12 in number. They made presentments to the court against people who had committed offences like leaving muck in the highway or failing to maintain fences.

The offenders were then fined: the amount of the fine could be fixed by the Custom of the Manor or it could be decided by the steward.

The most important business was the surrender and admission of tenants to copyhold land.

When a tenant wished to give up his land he surrendered it to the lord. When a new tenant took up the land he came to the court, paid a fine and was admitted to the land.

The usual phrase for this is 'by the rod' - the new tenant would hold a rod held out to him by the steward as a public sign that he had been admitted.

The new tenant would be given a copy of the surrender and admission taken from the court record as proof that he was the rightful tenant.

These copies of Court Roll are frequently found in bundles of title deeds. They indicate that part or all of the land described in the title deeds is copyhold rather than freehold and can therefore be traced through manor court books.

As every change of tenant was recorded, it is theoretically possible to trace every tenant of a copyhold land back from 1925 for as long as the manor court records survive - which could be all the way back to the 13th century.

If a family occupied the same piece of land for generations, the court books may contain a great deal of genealogical information, sometimes more than the entries in parish registers.

For example, the land may pass down to a nephew or other distant relative, perhaps with a different surname to that of the former tenant: it could be difficult to work out this relationship from the parish registers.

If the land passed down under the terms of the former tenant's will, the relevant part of it will be quoted in the manor court book.

The end of the manor court

From 1841 onwards it was possible to enfranchise copyhold lands if both lord and tenant agreed. The land would then become freehold and the tenant could dispose of it as he wished.

The transfer of the land would no longer have to be recorded in the manor court book (or indeed anywhere else) and the lord would no longer receive a fine each time the land changed hands.

Copyhold tenure was finally abolished by the Law of Property Act of 1922, all remaining copyhold land being enfranchised from 1 January 1926. Manorial incidents were abolished on 1 January 1936, but in a few cases where there were disputes they continued down to 1950.

This is why there are occasionally entries in manor court books after 1 January 1926, even though the system of tenure of copyhold land came to an end on this date.

The records of a manor

Manor court books

These are the basic record of the manor court. As we have seen, they include records of people being fined for offences against manorial custom.

The principal record however, is that of transfers of copyhold property. Each entry normally mentions the date on which the property in question had previously been recorded on the court roll.

Therefore it should be possible to trace the history of any copyhold property backwards step by step for as long as the records survive.

Many manor court books have personal names indexes in the back, and these can save a great deal of time in looking through the records.

It should be noted that these are not indexes to every name in the book, just to people being admitted or surrendering property.

Court books or court rolls?

The difference is simply one of format. In the Middle Ages the records were kept in roll form.

At some time around the 16th century (the date varies enormously from manor to manor) the records began to be kept in volume form instead.

However, the information recorded remains exactly the same.

It is common form for the court records themselves to refer to earlier entries as records of court roll, regardless of whether the format is actually that of a roll or of a book.

Minute books

Minute books contain the notes made at the court from which the formal court roll was later drawn up.

They are often written very hurriedly and with many abbreviations, as they were intended for the clerk's own use. This means that they are not always easy to read.

However, they are obviously of great importance if the court rolls for the manor have since disappeared.

Finding the records

Manorial records were created for private administrative purposes, rather than as public documents.

However, many have now been deposited with us at the NRO or at other archives, such as the Bodleian Library.

Some corporate bodies, such as Oxford and Cambridge colleges, still retain their own records, including those of the manors that they owned.

To find the records of a Norfolk manor, use the Manorial Documents Register.