The manorial system divided up the land in rural England from the reign of William the Conqueror to the Victorian age.
Each manor had a lord or lady, to whom all inhabitants and landholders within its bounds owed a form of allegiance according to the unique customs of the manor. The lord usually appointed a steward to preside over the various courts that were held to uphold the various customs and bylaws, among other administrative tasks.
The tenants, often referred to as ‘villeins’, were closely bound by the customs of the manor, in particular restrictions that were imposed on property transfer through a family. On the death of a customary tenant, the land was surrendered back to the lord’s possession during a session of the court baron. The new tenant – usually the next of kin – was then admitted to the land, and the details noted in the written rolls of the court.
Crucially, they were handed a copy of the relevant court roll entry, which is why the land tenure is referred to as ‘copyhold’. The records of the manorial courts often survive in unbroken sequences as far back as the 13th century.
Even if your ancestors did not possess copyhold land, their names may still be recorded. The manorial courts dealt with petty squabbles, encroachment on the lord’s land, poaching, illegal cultivation on waste ground, and misdemeanours relating to the right to graze livestock on common land for example, so these records are a colourful snapshot of our relatives’ lives.
For those of us with ancestors who were customary tenants, court rolls can be a gold mine of information. By the 18th century many rolls started to include an internal alphabetical name index, or had separate registers of admission and surrender. Because of the nature of the entries, you should be able to follow a chain back in time from generation to generation.
Sometimes tenants surrendered land back to the lord so that it could be re-granted on more favourable terms, often including a named series of successors “to the use of a will” – a loophole designed to get round restrictions on passing copyhold property via a last will and testament that remained in place until the law changed in 1815. Because they were used relatively recently, you can connect them to more familiar sources such as the aforementioned surveys as well as parish registers, census returns and wills.
Manorial records are scattered around the country or may even still be in the hands of the current estate owners. The Manorial Documents Register was created in 1924 to help researchers locate the whereabouts of relevant material.
Digitised entries for most counties can be searched on The National Archives’ website. It’s worth bearing in mind that you can search by manor or parish, which is important given that a manor may straddle more than one parish, or a parish could contain several manors. A match will provide you with the name of the record office where the item is located, along with a rudimentary document reference. The records of crown manors, as well as lands taken into royal possession, should be at The National Archives.
Although court rolls are the most important source for investigating your family history, there are many other types of manorial records that contain valuable information:
• Later court rolls are often accompanied by minute books, which may have notes taken during the course of a court session – these have been known to contain genealogical data about newly admitted tenants.
• Custumals contain lists of all of the tenants residing in the manor, together with their customary obligations.
• Rentals are similar, but are more closely linked to land leased from the lord’s ‘demesne’ – land held for personal use – or waste converted to agricultural use. These also list the names of tenants, plus the amount of rent they pay.
• Surveys were conducted on an irregular basis, but more frequently from the 17th century onwards, and often link tenants to a particular parcel of land. As well as detailing rent, surveys began to incorporate maps showing where tenants held land, as well as the sort of landholding, so are a great way to see whether your ancestor was included.
• Estreat rolls were compilations of fines made during a court session, another rich source of name data – as well as an indication of the petty offences our ancestors were charged with!
• Accounts were prepared by the steward according to a ‘charge and discharge’ system, noting all of the rents and revenues due each year, offset against expenditure authorised on behalf of the lord. These records can provide a detailed insight into local suppliers, and typical repair work undertaken around the manor.