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Manor records - the basics

Manor records are a key source for anyone interested in family history, the history of a house, or who wants to know what it was like to live in their town or village in the past.

They can be more informative than parish records in many cases - and they go back many centuries further.

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

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

This meant that every time a property changed hands, it was recorded on the court roll. So if a house or field was copyhold it should be possible to trace back its occupiers, which may be the same family, over many centuries.

The only places not to have manors are large towns that are boroughs such as Norwich, Yarmouth and Lynn. However, even in those cases most of the present built-up area will be covered by the manorial system.

If you walk down Unthank Road in Norwich, for example, you are in the manor of Heigham, while County Hall and The Archive Centre are within the manor of Lakenham.

Manor records are full of richly detailed insights into the social and economic life of people who often only appear otherwise as mere names in a parish register.

The court books can appear very long winded, but with a little practice it is easy to skim through an entry to pick out the important facts.

There are really seven pieces of information that need to be noted: these are listed below.

1. ­The name of the manor

This will be at the front of the book and at the beginning of the entries for this particular court.

It may be necessary to search several different manor court books if you do not know in which manor the property lies.

However, once it is found the searching is over. It will always be within that same manor as their boundaries do not change over the years.

2. The date of the court

This will be in the margin of the heading marking the start of the court and also in longhand in the first sentence of that heading.

3. The name of the person who formerly held the property

This person may be giving up the land (the term used is surrender) because he/she has sold it, or may have died. The text will make it clear which is the case.

4. ­The name of the person who is coming into the property

The technical term is admission. The person being admitted may be a complete stranger who has bought the property, or may be an heir who has come into the land.

The relationship between the new tenant and the previous tenant will be made clear in the text.

  • Tip: most manor court books have an index of people being admitted (often of those who are surrendering land as well). This is often missed, especially if a microfilm is being used. Always look at the first and last few pages of a manor court book to see if there is an index.

5. A description of the property

This may be a few lines or several pages, depending on how many pieces of land are involved.

Each piece will be described in terms of its abuttals: that is, who owns the surrounding pieces of land.

6. The date of the previous entry in the court book for the property

This is most important as it tells you where to look for the next piece of information. That entry will give the date of the court entry before that and so on, so it is possible to trace the history of the property back step by step.

  • Tip: The date of the previous court is very commonly in either the first paragraph or the last paragraph of an entry. It is often (but not always) within a sentence beginning with the word ‘Whereas …’

7. Any extra details

It is always worth skimming through the whole text of the entry as it can give a lot of further information, such as family relationships, young people holding the land in trust, etc.

The great prize for people tracing the history of their home is finding the phrase ‘with a house newly built’, as this tells when a house was first erected on the site: this will occur within the description of the property.