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The Manor was simply the system of local government and local law enforcement system, with the Lord of the Manor, or his deputy (the Steward), holding a meeting of the Manor Court at least twice a year. Every tenant had to attend on penalty of a fine unless he could provide a valid reason for his absence. These excuses or fines were known as 'Essoins'. The Records of Manorial Courts show in great detail the workings of feudal society at a local level, indicating how petty crimes were dealt with, and the changes that took place in the tenancy of manorial property. It was a community tied by bonds of allegiance to the Lord of the Manor, who was answerable only to the King, and preserved his system of law and order. All land was held through him or her, either by free tenants who owed fixed terms of service, or customary tenants whose service was determined by the customs of the Manor. By the 15th Century most, if not all, of these services had been commuted to a money payment, known as a Quit Rent. The Manor Court was held at regular intervals to deal with those accused of breaking the village by-laws. All villages in the 14th Century had a list of local by-laws. These laws were listed in a document called the 'Custumal'. If villagers saw someone breaking the law, it was their responsibility to raise the alarm, known as the 'hue and cry', and chase after the culprit, detaining them if possible. The other villagers, on hearing 'hue and cry', had to stop whatever they were doing, and join in the chase. If anyone failed to do this, they could find themselves standing trial with the person who originally broke the by-law. This took place in one of three places; the parish church, a building owned by the lord of the manor, or by the oldest tree in the village. The manorial clerk wrote down on rolls of parchment everything that was decided at the court; hence we call the court records, the 'Court Rolls'.

The first thing that usually happened at the Manor Court was the selection of the jury. In some villages they used the same people for several years, whereas in others it was the custom for a new jury to be selected every time the manor court met. There were usually twelve people in a jury, but in some manor courts they had as many as thirty members. After the election of the jury, recent changes in the holding of land in the village were recorded. New land holders had to swear on the Bible that "So help me God and all his Saints that from this day forth I will be true and truthful to the Lord of the Manor". If they were also serfs they had to promise to do the required labour services and not to run away from the village.

Once a year the village officials such as the Reeve, Constable, Hayward and Woodward were elected at the Manor Court. People could also bring complaints to the Manor Court about the way the officials had been carrying out their duties. If the jury decided that these complaints were justified, the official would be fined. Witnesses to the crime would give evidence. Before doing so, the witnesses would swear to God that they were telling the truth. This was very important as people in the middle Ages believed that if a person lied in the Manor Court, they would go to hell when they died. In some villages, members of the jury could cross-examine witnesses.

When all the evidence had been heard, the jurors would make their final judgement. This judgement would be based on both the evidence and on their personal knowledge of the accused. The jury's decision had to be unanimous. Therefore, the minority were expected to change their minds in order to agree with the majority. If they failed to do this, they would be fined by the court.

Most of those found guilty of offences at the Manor Court would be fined. The level of the fine was determined by the officer in charge of the court. The lord of the manor had devised this system to raise money as well as to maintain order in the village. When individuals committed offences against the village as a whole, such as selling underweight bread, they were usually punished by spending time in the stocks. If people committed serious crimes they should have been sent to the king's courts. However, many lords of the manor preferred to deal with these crimes in the Manor Court and there are several examples in the court rolls of villagers being executed or mutilated. This usually involved the removal of an ear or thumb.

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Stealing goods worth more than a shilling was a felony. A person found guilty of a felony could be executed. Methods varied from area to area. The most common method was to hang them from an oak tree or on a wooden gallows where two roads crossed Until the eighteenth century manorial records were in Latin, apart from the brief period of the Cromwellian interregnum when they were required to be written in English. Changes in tenures, and the payment or non-payment of rents, were entered regularly in the records of the manor court. Because these were written on strips of parchment which were then rolled up for storage the documents are known as manorial court rolls. In order for the tenants to have their own record of their tenancy they were given a copy of the entry, this document being known as a copy of court roll. From this derives the description of the tenure as copyhold tenure.

There were two types of Courts:-

The Court Leet, which dealt with minor offences like cattle straying or hedges not being maintained.

The Court Baron which dealt with more serious offences, dealt with the legal operation of the Manor, especially land transfers and surrenders. They ensured the Lords and tenants rights to the common land and had to be attended compulsorily. Serious offences from this Court could be referred to the assizes.

The Manor Officers typically were:

Steward - His job was to record events in the Manor, he held the Court and ensured land was conveyed legally.
Bailiff - an overseer appointed by the Steward to announce Court meetings.
Reeve - Elected by the villeins he arranged the duties of the tenants.
Haywood - His job was to maintain fences and hedges, impound stray cattle and acted as the Lords agent for sale of corn etc.
Constable - He kept the peace in the manor, the law officer appointed for a year and was expected to summon the jurors.

Manorial Records include:-

(a) Court Rolls/Books - recording manor court proceedings.
(b) Rentals - listing the tenants, with rents due.
(c) Extents and Surveys - statements of the extent and valuation of the manorial lands and properties, usually made when the manor changed hands, and often accompanied by maps or plans of the estate. Names of tenants are sometimes included.

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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