Manor - England

In medieval Europe, this term came to denote a territorial unit comprising an estate held by a feudal lord. This continental idea penetrated England around the time of the Norman Conquest. Historians estimate that medieval England contained between 25,000 and 50,000 manors. Their boundaries did not necessarily coincide with the contemporaneous 11,000 Catholic parishes. Manorial lords held their own private courts. English lords, unlike their European equivalents, maintained detailed records documenting cases heard before their courts. The lord held two courts, the court baron (every three weeks) and the court leet (every six months). In some areas, these two courts fused into a single session. Documents created during these courts, known as manor court records, date from the thirteenth century. For genealogists, they provide detailed biographical information about common people's lives and families in the Middle Ages.

The ability to read manor court records is a specialized skill. Prior to 1733, these records were normally kept in a highly-abbreviated form of medieval Latin. Denis Stuart's two books Latin for Local and Family Historians: A Beginner's Guide (Phillimore, 1995) and Manorial Records: An Introduction to their Transcription and Translation (Phillimore, 1992) provide helpful introductions to the subject for family historians. For help with converting regnal calendars and feast days to our modern calendar, refer to Kenneth Lee Smith's Genealogical Dates: A User-Friendly Guide (Picton Press, 1994) or Cliff Webb's Dates and Calendars for the Genealogist (Society of Genealogists, 1998).

Topics discussed in manor court cases varied over time, but included: the establishment of local customs, lists of jurymen, and regulations concerning inheritance, marriage, and mobility. They also document the payments of a large list of fines made to the lord of the manor as punishments for absence in court appearances, breaking of bread and ale assizes, death, debts, illegitimacy, and violence towards other tenants.

Many manor court records have been deposited in county and national record offices and the British Library; however, some are still in the possession of the current lords of the manor in private archives. The Manorial Documents Register was created to help individuals locate extant records. The Register also helps researchers determine how parish and manor boundaries overlapped. The card index is available for consultation at The National Archives and is also partially available online. See Manorial Documents Register and The National Archives.

See also Calendar Change - 16th Century, Childwite, Chevage, Heriot, Lairwite, Lord of the Manor, Merchet, and Villein.