Manors and their Records
§ What is a Manor?
§ Classes of Manorial Record
Using Manorial Records
Cumbrian Superior Lordships
History Department
Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
Cumbrian Manorial Records

What is a Manor?

  1. The Manor
  2. Manor Courts
  3. Subjects of Court Jurisdiction and Enquiry
  4. Manorial Tenants
  5. Manorial Rights

1. The Manor

The word 'manor' (from the Latin manerium) is used in two distinct ways, to refer to:

  • the seat of a gentry landowner: a 'manor house' or, to use the English vernacular term which survives still in the names of many country houses and farms, a 'hall';
  • a landed estate, the property of a landowner, the 'lord of the manor', whose manor house was the administrative focus of the estate.  Large landed estates were divided into more than one manor, each an administrative unit used for accounting and rent-collecting purposes.

By the later middle ages manors had acquired a third characteristic, which came to define them, distinguishing a 'manor' from other types of landholding:

  • the right of the lord of the manor to hold a manor court, through which he exercised jurisdiction over his tenants who held land in the manor.

Manors varied widely in size.  A typical manor consisted of a village and its lands (a territorial unit termed a 'township' across northern England) but a single village might contain two or more manors or, more commonly in Cumbria [check], a manor might cover land in more than one township. The land within a manor broadly fell into two types:

  • demesne land: the land farmed directly on behalf of the lord himself as a 'home farm';
  • tenant land: land granted out to tenants who farmed it on their own behalf, paying rents and services to the lord in return for their use of the land.  Tenants were of two broad classes; freeholders and those holding by 'bond' or unfree tenures, the villeins of the middle ages, who came to be known as copyholders or (in northern England) tenants holding by customary tenantright, by the 16th century.

2. Manor Courts

Manor courts were held 'for lord and neighbourhood', their principal functions being the preservation of the rights of the lord, on the one hand, and the regulation of relations between tenants, on the other.  The latter function merged into dealing with breaches of the peace, and a third strand in the work of the court leet was their public role of dealing with criminal affairs and carrying out the various statutory obligations laid on them.  This combination of being a branch of the King's judiciary, an arm of the lord of the manor's estate administration, and a forum for the discussion of matters of concern to the community as a whole is well illustrated by the compilations of byelaws which survive for some manors.

Picture of the court room of Preston Patrick Hall, Westmorland

The court room of Preston Patrick Hall, Westmorland

There were two main types of manor court, the court baron and the court leet, though some early manor court records do not specify the type of court, stating simply that it was the 'court' (Latin curia) of the manor in question.  On many manors by the late-medieval period courts baron, dealing largely with minor pleas, were held every three or four weeks, while agrarian business was dealt with at the 'head court' (curia capitalis), which was generally a court leet and was held twice each year, in Spring and Autumn. The pattern is described in a survey of Burgh by Sands barony in c.1589, which reads (spelling modernised):

Also there hath been accustomed to be kept within the said manor, time out of mind, every three weeks in [the] year a Court Baron, saving in the time of harvest, viz. from Lammas [1st August] to Michaelmas [29th September], and two Court Leets, the one within a month after Michaelmas and the other within a month after Easter, by reason whereof the lord of the said manor was yearly answered of all such escheats, fines, amercements, casualties and other profits as were found to be due within the time of every of the said courts. (Cumbria Record Office (Carlisle), D/Lons/L5/2/41/49).

This extract also demonstrates the importance of manor courts as a source of income for the lord. Money flowed into the lord's coffers from most aspects of the courts' proceedings, particularly in the form of amercements from people infringing byelaws and the lord's rights and entry fines when tenancies changed hands.

The three-weekly meetings of courts baron tended to decline across time. In many Cumbrian manors by the later 16th century only two courts were held, usually in April or May and in October; sometimes only one court was held each year.

2a. The work of the manor court may be divided into three main areas:

  • providing a record of changes of tenancy by recording surrenders and admittances to copyhold land.  In manors with much copyhold or customary tenantright land, although transfers of such land by death or alienation continued to be recorded on verdict sheets of the manor court, a separate court of dimissions was sometimes held to provide a more formal record of the transfer and of the entry fine paid to the lord. 
  • making byelaws and punishing wrongdoers (orders and presentments).  Byelaws (pains) and more specific orders aimed to uphold the lord's privileges and 'good neighbourhood'(neighbourly relations) within the manorial community.  Those offending against the orders and byelaws made by the manor court, or breaking the King's peace or statutes which fell under the jurisdiction of a court leet were 'amerced' or fined.
  • hearing pleas between tenants of the manor in cases of alleged debt, trespass, etc.  These minor civil cases often formed the bulk of business at courts held between the head courts, the customs of the manor often requiring tenants to bring such pleas to the manor court rather than any other body.

2b. The principal types of manor court may be summarised as follows:

Court Baron.  The basic manorial institution, dealing largely with internal matters on the estate, including infringements of the lord's rights and prerogatives, agrarian disputes between tenants and changes of tenancy.  At the heart of the court baron's work lay the customs of the manor, which varied from manor to manor and governed the details of how tenants held their land (hence the term 'customary tenure').  Courts baron also had the power to hear civil pleas involving sums of up to 40s.  Some courts baron met every three weeks, particularly where pleas formed the core of their business.

Court Customary.  Legally, a court for customary tenants rather than freeholders.  In practice, the term is rarely encountered and customary tenants did suit at the court baron.

Court Leet. Some manorial lords also had the right to hold a court leet with view of frankpledge, which was required to meet twice a year and had a wider remit as an arm of royal justice dealing with minor breaches of the peace and public order and administering the provisions of a series of Tudor statutes.  The term 'view of frankpledge' (Latin: visus franciplegii) harked back to the Anglo-Saxon system of peace-keeping where groups of ten men undertook to be responsible for each other's behaviour.  In the context of the court leet, the phrase 'view of frankpledge' was short-hand for the additional judicial rights held by the court.  Courts leet upheld the 'assize of bread and ale' by appointing ale-tasters to ensure that standards were maintained, and also had the right to appoint township constables.

Byrlaw court.  Byrlaw courts (rendered in Latin as plebiscitum) were found in Scotland and parts of northern England, including southern Cumbria.  The name (and its variants, such as 'birlie', 'burlaw', 'bireley' and 'barley') derived from the Old Norse byjar-log ('law community' or 'law district'), suggesting that byrlaw courts originated in assemblies of the local community.  The remit of byrlaw courts in Scotland was spelt out by the sixteenth-century lawyer Sir John Skene, who wrote that 'laws of "Burlaw" are made and determined by consent of neighbours, elected and chosen by common consent, in the courts called the Byrlaw courts, in which cognition is taken of complaints betwixt neighbour and neighbour.'  Their function was therefore very close to that of manorial courts and, in Cumbria, byrlaw courts appear to have been subsumed into courts baron.  The name was preserved in the seigniory of Millom, where the local manor courts were termed 'court baron and bierley.'

Court of Dimissions. Separate courts to which customary or copyhold tenants came to surrender their tenancies and be admitted tenant.  They were held, for example, for the manors of the extensive estates of the earls of Northumberland (and their successors) in western Cumberland.

Court of Survey. A special meeting of a manor court, called to produce a written survey, listing the tenants, their holdings and the terms of their tenures.

Picture of Lowbyre, near Alston, the meeting place of the courts of the manor of Alston Moor, Cumberland.  Surviving court rolls from the 17th century state explicitly that the courts were held here and a reference to the manor as 'the manor of Alston alias Lowbyre' in 1507 (Calendar of Patent Rolls, Henry VII, ii.542) suggest that they had been held here at an earlier date. The 1507 reference also illustrates how the name of the place from which a manor was administered could be used as the name of the manor itself.
Lowbyre, near Alston, the meeting place of the courts of the manor of Alston Moor, Cumberland. Surviving court rolls from the 17th century state explicitly that the courts were held here and a reference to the manor as 'the manor of Alston alias Lowbyre' in 1507 (Calendar of Patent Rolls, Henry VII, ii.542) suggests that they had been held here at an earlier date. The 1507 reference also illustrates how the name of the place from which a manor was administered could be used as the name of the manor itself.

3. Subjects of Court Jurisdiction and Enquiry

Manor courts dealt with a wide range of subjects. They made orders and formulated byelaws. People who infringed them were 'presented' and were subject to a financial penalty. The orders and presentments of the courts can be grouped under the following headings:

a) Public order offences:

  • breaches of the King's peace, whether fighting (affrays), uproar or hubbub ('hubbleshows'), drawing blood ('blouds'; 'bloodwites'), pilfering ('petty micherie') or slanders;
  • potentially inflammatory behaviour, such as eavesdropping or walking by night;
  • rogues and vagabonds.

b) Infringement of the lord's privileges:

  • fishing and hunting without licence.  Statutes forbade the keeping of greyhounds and the tracing of hares in the snow;
  • cutting timber and underwood without licence;
  • breaking the lord's soil (generally by encroaching or making 'intakes' on the manorial waste);
  • failing to grind corn at the lord's mill. 

It should be noted that the lord also had a financial interest in several of the concerns included in the following two groupings -

c) Offences against the stability of the community:

  • allowing houses to fall into decay;
  • subdividing or 'taverning' of holdings;
  • keeping undertenants or 'inmates' (also referred to in northern England as 'byfires', 'byholdes' or 'undersettles').  This attempt to limit the numbers of the poor in a community was reinforced by statutes which forbade the building of cottages without land, and the harbouring of inmates (1 Eliz I, c.17; 31 Eliz I, c.7.)

d) Offences against good neighbourhood and common rights:

  • infringements of the customary practices regarding the impounding of stray livestock.  These included 'rescues', when an individual attempted to recapture animals when they were being driven to the common pound or pinfold by an officer of the lord; and 'fold breaks', when stock were taken from the pinfold without making the necessary payment to the lord, known as 'pound loose'. 
  • overcharging the common with livestock which had no right there.  This could include 'foreign cattle' belonging to people without a right of pasture; 'overstint' by putting on the pastures more animals than an individual had a right to; and bringing livestock into the manor by agistment. 
  • unneighbourly or inconsiderate livestock management, including driving stock to the common by the wrong route or 'drift'; using the wrong marks on sheep and cattle; putting diseased stock on the common; and hounding the livestock of others. 
  • failure to maintain fences, walls and gates, and to keep water in its right course. 
  • breaches of statute, such as the act of 1540 specified a minimum height for stallions put on to common pastures (32 Hen VIII, c.13); or the legislation controlling the dates on which moorland could be burned (7 Jas. I, c.17)

4. Manorial Tenants

Freehold.  The freeholders or 'free tenants' of a manor held their land 'for ever'; in other words there was no known date by which the tenancy would end.  Freehold land was not subject to the customs of the manor.

Copyhold.  The form of tenure which descended from the unfree, villein tenures of the middle ages.  Copyhold land was defined legally as land held 'by copy of court roll [hence the term 'copyhold'] at the will of the lord, according to the customs of the manor.'  The precise nature of the tenure (the customs governing payment of entry fines, for example) thus varied from manor to manor.  In Cumbria most copyhold tenures developed by the 16th century into customary tenantright.

Customary tenantright.  A form of tenure common throughout Cumbria and adjacent counties, which gave the tenant a security akin to a freehold (in that he could devise or sell his property freely) but required the payment of both an entry fine on change of tenant and a general fine on change of lord, as well as other customary dues, such as the payment of a heriot.  It was thus a variant of copyhold: tenants were admitted by the manor court and held their land by copy of court roll.  The roots of customary tenantright have been much debated: the security that the tenure gave to tenants was fiercely contested by manorial lords in the 16th and early 17th centuries but the royal courts ultimately upheld the tenants' rights. 

5. Manorial Rights

Lordship of a manor carried with it a bundle of rights over land within the manor, even over land that was in the hands of tenants.  Manorial records therefore include much material about these rights, including the lords' rights over the following:

Manorial waste.  Common land, the unenclosed moorland, fell, mountain or marsh, which remained in its semi-natural state, not appropriated to any individual.  By the Statute of Merton of 1236, ownership of such 'wastes' in a manor were vested in the lord of the manor.  In practice, the lord's ability to change the use of the waste (by enclosure) was restricted by the common rights of the tenants of the manor, rights which normally included common rights of pasture, turbary and estovers.  Tenants often encroached on the waste, by enclosing 'intakes' of land, which were frequently accepted on payment of rent to the lord.  Over 370,000 acres (152,850 ha) of manorial waste were enclosed in Cumberland and Westmorland during the Parliamentary enclosure movement between 1760 and the late 19th century but over 276,000 acres (112,000 ha) of remains as common land in Cumbria today.

Game. The right to hunt wild animals on the demesne and on the wastes of the manor was generally the lord's privilege.   After 1710, lords of manors were required by the Game Acts to register the appointment of gamekeepers with the county authorities, the Clerk to Quarter Sessions. These registers are usually preserved with the Quarter Sessions records in county record offices.

Fisheries.  Similarly, the lord of the manor generally retained the right to wild fish (i.e. fish in rivers rather than contained in fishponds) and could demand payment from people fishing in rivers and lakes within his manor.

Mills. The lord of the manor could require his tenants to grind their grain at his mill, extracting from them a mill toll (called 'multure').  An equivalent system of binding tenants to use the lord's mill was found in Cumbria in the case of fulling mills (mills for thickening woollen cloth), where a toll called 'walker' or 'walking silver' was sometimes paid. 

Minerals. The lord of the manor retained rights to the minerals under copyhold land.  Mineral rights might become extremely valuable, where the manor lay on a mineral which could be exploited commercially.  In parts of Cumbria the greater part of the value of a manorial lordship lay in the possession of mineral rights during the centuries of the Industrial Revolution: coal and iron ore in West Cumberland, lead in the North Pennines; slate and metal ores in the Lake District.

Woodland.  Manorial custom drew a distinction between timber (particularly the large and valuable species such as oak and ash) and underwood, the scrub and bushes.  Tenants usually had the right to take underwood growing on their lands but lords retained the right to timber growing on copyhold land, as well as the rights to woodland on their demesnes.  The lords' timber rights meant that tenants could not fell mature trees on their land, even for use on their holding: instead they had to apply to the manorial officers for licence to fell timber.  When copyhold or customary tenantright land was enfranchised, the value of woodland was often valued in detail, since timber rights were one of the rights the tenants were buying from the lord.

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