Manors and their Records
Using Manorial Records
§ Locating Manorial Records
§ Local and Family History
§ Further Reading
Cumbrian Superior Lordships
History Department
Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
Cumbrian Manorial Records

Manorial Records for Local and Family History

The term 'manorial records' covers a wide range of documents, from the formal records of manor courts to correspondence, maps and plans and financial records. As archives which record day-to-day transactions in local communities, they bring us close to people in the past and have considerable potential for family and local history. The most important classes of manorial record for particular purposes are identified below:

  1. Sources for Family History
  2. Sources for Community History
  3. Sources for Property History
  4. Sources for Local Environmental History

Follow the links within these pages to gain fuller descriptions of the different types of document and to see examples.

1. Sources for Family History

Manorial records can supplement the better-known local sources for family history, sometimes shedding valuable additional light on the lives of our ancestors. Of particular note is their importance as a source in the pre-parish register period. Among the types of genealogical information yielded by manorial records are the following:

Vital dates. Though manorial records do not record births, marriages or deaths as such, they do contain considerable information about individuals, including approximate dates of death. The key records here are those recording changes of tenancy on the death of a tenant: presentments of changes of tenant in a court roll or court book and admittances give the names of the deceased and incoming tenants and their relationships (son, daughter, brother, etc). Call books and call lists are also useful in that they note 'dead' or mort (= 'dead') beside the names of tenants who had died recently. Note, though, that full calls of tenants were seldom made every year, so that the lists were frequently out of date and the note that a tenant had died was sometimes made several years after the event.

Role in the local community. Manorial records can provide considerable information to flesh out the bald names and dates on a family tree. First of all, as records of land holding, they provide details of property held as a tenant of the manor. Surveys and terriers give descriptions of landed property and the names of tenants. One word of warning is necessary: if you compare the names of tenants of a manor listed in a rental or survey and the names of local inhabitants recorded in a parish register, there is often considerable discrepancy. Manorial records of landholding deal with those who held their land directly of the lord of the manor and such tenants were by no means always resident: it is not uncommon to find that successive generations of a family who appear as tenants of a farm turn out to have been merchants in a distant town or city! As such, they would have let their customary estate to an undertenant, who would not appear in the manorial records of landholding but may have been a longstanding member of the local community and hence prominent in the parish register and other local records. Where tenants were resident in the manor, much information can be found about the role played by individuals in the local community. Lists of jury members and of manorial officials (reeve, constable, 'barleyman', 'hedge looker' etc) identity those who took a leading role in local affairs. Presentments and orders give the names of those who offended against local byelaws or committed minor crimes (presentments concerning slander can give a vivid picture of the insults our ancestors hurled at each other!). Civil pleas, where inviduals brought cases of debt and trespass against their neighbours, shed light on economic links between members of the manorial community.

Literacy. Another area in which manorial records can bring us closer to the lives of our forebears is in providing direct evidence for levels of literacy in local communities. Original presentments, and jury verdicts are often recorded in the hands of local people, rather than professional clerks or lawyers, and these (and other records, such as petitions and enfranchisement papers) sometimes bear signatures or marks. Handwriting can provide vivid evidence of levels of education and familiarity with the written word.

2. Sources for Community History

Manorial records, particularly the records of manor courts, are potentially an extremely rich source for studying the workings of local communities in the past. As bodies concerned with patterns of power and authority and with disputes within the community (whether breaches of 'good neighbourhood', the friendly relations between neighbours, or minor civil pleas between individuals), the manor court proceedings enable us to view social and economic interactions in a way that few other medieval or early-modern sources can. Among the topics on which manor court records can shed light are:

Social structure. Patterns of economic power through holding land can be traced through records of tenancies (see sources for property history). The big players can be distinghuished from the 'small fry' and the operations of the land market traced across time, as holdings were subdivided or amalgamated. Patterns of power and authority in the local community can be explored by analysing patterns of jury membership and office holding.

Social tensions. Fracture lines within communities can be identified in two main ways, first through the structural framework of orders and byelaws, which distinguish between 'insiders' and 'outsiders' (as, for example, in the orders differentiating the rights of landless cottagers from those of the farming community); second, in direct evidence for social tension, as in presentments for slanders, affrays and other disorder.

Economic relationships. The pleas heard by the court baron (minor civil cases, where the damages claimed were less than 40s.) are a potentially rich source for employer/employee relationships, credit networks and other financial relationships between members of the manorial community. Pleas have received comparatively little attention from historians but they offer huge scope for recreating the economic bonds of community, particularly when used in conjunction with other sources, both manorial (rentals, surveys, and other aspects of manor court records) and non-manorial.

3. Sources for Property History

Many of the records generated by manorial administration concern property, particularly that held as copyhold or by the customary tenantright tenures which were common over most of Cumbria. One of the functions of the court baron was to act as a register of changes of tenancy and, on many manors, a wide range of other records were kept to assist the lord and his officials to keep track on who held what and (most importantly) what dues and services were owed to the lord. Rentals and surveys provide snapshots of landholding at particular points of time, as do the records of general fines, paid on the death of the lord of the manor. Accounts, recording the dues collected by the lord's reeve, sometimes include references to sums paid for individual properties. Details of changes of tenancy are provided by admittances and records of entry fines (or 'gressums'). The end of customary tenures on a manor is charted in enfranchisement papers. Again, it is important to remember that a customary tenant was, effectively, the 'owner' of a holding and may well not have been resident in the manor: the people recorded as 'tenant' often had under-tenants who were the people who lived and worked the land. For an excellent example of the potential of manorial records in tracing the history of an indivdual property, see the account of the fulling mill and thread mill at Tenters, Lorton, from 1479 to 1912, posted on the Lorton and Derwentfells Local History Society website.

4. Sources for Local Environmental History

Manorial records contain both a wealth of topographical information and important evidence for the ways communities and their local environments. Of particular significance are the byelaws and orders (or 'pains') recorded by manor courts. Many of these concern agrarian matters, particularly the management of common land, the maintenance of water courses and upkeep of hedges and walls, and rights away. Studies of Cumbrian manor court byelaws include those by Robert Dilley and Angus Winchester (listed in further reading), which discuss the management of common grazing rights and rights of turbary and estovers, by which resources of peat, bracken, heather etc. were exploited. Surveys often contain details of field names and other minor names (many now long forgotten) and information on land use and buildings. Boundary perambulations also provide lost landscape details and enable us to recapture some of the richness of lost minor names in the landscape.

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