Medieval manors and their records

Chess pieces illustrating king, barons and knights.

People often use the word 'manor' to mean a manor house. The manor was actually a country estate, which was run from the manor house. So manorial records can tell us about other buildings on the estate, as well as the main house. Don't expect detailed information though. Medieval records tend to give tantalising glimpses rather than full descriptions.

In the Middle Ages land ownership was tied to national security. Under the feudal system all land was owned by the king. He granted territories to his earls and barons in return for military aid in need. They in turn granted lands to men who fought for them. Thus the land and its people could be protected without a standing army. The system broke down in the later Middle Ages and feudal tenure was finally abolished in England, Ireland and Wales in 1660.

The basic administrative unit was the manor. Ideally a manor was enough land to support a cavalryman - a knight's fee. He needed not only food and clothing for himself and his family, but armour, weapons and horses. The acreage needed varied according to the quality of the land. England had about 5,000-6,000 knights' fees.

It was natural for a son to follow in his father's footsteps, taking over a manor and the duty to fight. But once it was accepted that fees were inherited, then a manor could be held by a disabled man. Or it could be divided between daughters. So it might be more convenient to commute military service to a money payment. Over the centuries this gradually became the norm. So knighthood was not inherited with the manor. As a code of chivalry developed in the Middle Ages, so the prestige of the knight rose, and with it the expense of maintaining armour and trappings. Knighthood became an honour, but one that some manorial lords preferred to avoid. Even today a knighthood remains an honour to an individual person. It is not inherited. The lord or lady of a manor was simply the person who held it. Manorial lordships are not part of the peerage.

Those holding manors direct from the Crown were called tenants-in-chief. Mainly these were barons and earls. In 1086 they held half of England. However the king kept about a fifth in his own hands. His manors could be granted direct to knights, who would then be tenants-in-chief. The rest of the English manors were held by the Church - mainly by monasteries or cathedrals.

Manorial administration and its records

Reconstruction of the medieval village of Wharram Percy (English Heritage)The lord of the manor kept some land in demesne - farming it himself. The rest he let, or left as common pasture and wasteland. (For more details and a generic plan, see Wikipedia: Manorialism.) There were two types of manorial tenant: villein and free. The freeman held land by deed and paid a fixed money rent. After centuries in which the rent remained unchanged while its value fell, such rents were nominal. The villein worked on his lord's land for certain days in return for his own.

All tenants had to attend the manorial court, held usually in the manor house. (House names like Westbury Court are reminders of those days.) The lord or his representative presided. From the 13th century onwards the business done was recorded on court rolls. That included the lord's decisions on which villein would hold what land. As it became usual for the villein to be given a copy of the entry in the court roll relating to his holding, such a tenure became known as copyhold. In Tudor times copyholds began to be replaced by leaseholds. The 1922 Law of Property Act finally abolished copyhold tenure. Because manorial rolls might be needed as evidence of former copyhold tenure, it was decreed in 1924 that all manorial documents should be under the superintendance of the Master of the Rolls, who set up a Register of Manorial Documents to record their ownership and location. This is now held by the National Archives (see Primary Sources below).

Not all manors had a resident lord. A lord who held several manors might chose to live in one, and place a resident bailiff in charge of each of the others. Or the demesne farm could be let on a leasehold. In either case a chief house for the manor would still be needed, but it might be known as the barton, grange or manor farm. The manorial lord not only built the manor house, but frequently founded a church beside it or chapel within it. He could be involved in much other building in the manor too - see villages. Any building expenses would be recorded in the manorial accounts.

Sometimes a survey of the lord's land would be made. A medieval survey was not a map, but a written record of property, listing tenants and their acreages, rents and/or services to the lord. Little if any mention of the tenants' houses can be expected, but the manorial mill should be listed. One type of survey - the extent, made on the death of any manorial lord or baron holding land directly from the Crown, did briefly describe the manor house and its surrounding farm buildings. A detailed inventory including contents might be made for special purposes, but medieval examples are very rare. (For later inventories see wills.)

Where to find manorial records

Do not expect an unbroken run of manorial records from medieval to modern. The pattern is more usually patchy survival. Be prepared to find that nothing survives. Those in Crown hands are not as well preserved as we might expect. Those of institutional landowners, such as cathedrals, monasteries or colleges, were well kept in the Middle Ages and may survive in long runs today where the institution itself survives, or where monastic archives were handed over to a particularly retentive owner at the Dissolution. The records of Glastonbury Abbey are unusually complete; they have been preserved in the archive of the Thynn family at Longleat since the 16th century. Those of some other monastic houses have been lost entirely.

Secondary sources:

Primary sources

Crown Records

The Crown kept records of who held what land, in order to claim various feudal dues. There was an additional layer of administration for manors which lay within a designated royal forest, which was not necessarily a solidly forested area, but one in which royal hunting took place. Whole counties were at one time subject to forest law. See J. Langton and G. Jones (eds.), Forests and Chases of England and Wales, c.1500-c.1850 (2005), for which there is a companion website with maps. In addition crown records include property that passed through the hands of the Crown, and that held directly from the Crown.

Parish and manorial histories

Local history can be colourful but unreliable. Place no faith in statements made without a source supplied. You can track down local history via bibliographies listed under local listory, or in the catalogues of local studies libraries. A few general hints: