The Dorney History Group
The Dorney History Group

Dorney Manor Court Rolls

 

The Dorney History Group has been given access to the Dorney Manor Court Rolls from 1514 to 1949. We would like to thank the Palmer family for their kind assistance to enable these important records of the village life of Dorney to be made public.

 

The Dorney History Group is currently, from the 1960s translations, converting the records into a searchable PDF format. The progress of this is shown below, with those Courts showing full dates being available in PDF format. Please click on this link to be taken to the PDF files.

 

Dates of the Dorney Manor Court Rolls:

26th June 1514                                                         

1616

11th June 1526

1630

1st October 1528

1637

23rd September 1540

1638

16th April 1543

1692

31st May 1544

1693

1546

1694

1548

1712

1549

1713

1556

1714

1560

1719

1563

1730

1578

1782

1580

1911

1607

1948

1612

1949

 

1949 (Court Leet)

 

 

 

 

Before going any further, it might be helpful to clarify what Manorial Rolls are. We are grateful to the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies for the use of extracts of their paper on the subject:

 

Records of Buckinghamshire’s manor courts span 750 years and provide unparalleled insight into rural life at ground level. The system that they reflect used a vocabulary all of its own (See Glossary at the end) and bears little resemblance to modern social structures.

 

What can manorial records tell us?

Manorial records are notable for being one of the types of document where information about ordinary people - not just the upper classes - is likely to have survived, perhaps even from the medieval period.

Manorial papers can be an important source for the history of the land. They reveal information about how land was managed and cultivated and also give insights into the nature of land tenure and patterns of inheritance, the developing movement towards enclosure and changes in agricultural practice - for example, what crops were planted and how, and what livestock were kept and why.

Manorial records also contain a wealth of economic and financial detail. It is possible to see changes in accounting practice, to glean information about the changing value of land and of goods, to chart variations in income and expenditure levels, or to follow patterns of inflation, for instance in food prices. These, in turn, may reflect wider economic factors such as a nation-wide crop failure. It is also possible to chart the development of the monetary economy, with the movement away from payment in goods or service towards pecuniary payment.

For family historians and genealogists, manorial records are a useful, if sometimes neglected, source, particularly for the period before extensive parish registers were kept. They are packed with lists of names, sometimes associated with details of occupations or of relationships. Sometimes they may include the age of an individual, perhaps at the time of a surrender or admission, and they may include copies of wills, conveyances or mortgages. In this way, they can be invaluable in helping to build up rounded pictures of individuals.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of manorial records is the fascinating insight they provide into the day-to-day life of ordinary people. By recording details of what people did, when and why, by showing what their individual and common responsibilities were, by noting what they considered to be crimes and how those crimes were punished, by showing which officials operated within communities, they provide a window on the workings of past societies. It is possible, for example, to see who had failed to repair their hedge or ditch, or who had grazed their cattle in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  

There is much else to be learned from manorial records. They contain, for example, a great deal of topographical information - the location of particular features, information about field and place names. They may also contain information about the exploitation of minerals in a particular area. Finally, they can even provide evidence for use in population studies.

 

Lords of the manor and their courts

Following the Norman Conquest in 1066 a system of land tenure and local government developed that was based on the manor. A manor could be small or large, based in one geo-graphic locality or with different parts (called members) scattered across a larger area. At the head of a manor was a lord who might be a local knight or one of the king’s chief barons. The lord had rights over the people within his manor, but he also had responsibilities to protect them against marauders and enemies - a situation that was a reality in much of 11th and 12th century England. The lord drew income from the people under him and the land that they worked for him; the manor court developed as the forum for interaction between the lord and his tenants. Before the fifteenth century almost any lord could hold a manor court if he had sufficient tenants, or sufficient business, to make the exercise worthwhile and it became the normal mode of running a landed estate. The court lay at the heart of each manor and it was here that officers were appointed, disputes settled, land transferred and all fines, dues and rents paid to the lord of the manor.

The lord might live locally in the manor house or he might not; the court was run by his steward or reeve and met locally, perhaps in the manor house or an inn or a purpose built courthouse. Rules were drawn up within each manor as to how land was inherited, where animals could be grazed, what payments the lord should expect from his tenants etc. These were called the Customs of the manor and, although they were broadly the same from manor to manor, there were distinctive local variations.

An explanatory paper by Philip Palmer in 1966 regarding the Dorney Lord of the Manor can be seen by clicking here.

 

Free and unfree tenants

Between 1066 and the mid-14th century the tenants of a manor were broadly speaking free or unfree. The free tenants comprised as much as 40% of the manor’s population. They paid rent to the lord, were required to attend his court, and might be required to perform certain tasks. More importantly they could also dispose of their land as they pleased, although any incoming tenant had to pay homage to the lord and swear fealty to him in the court as well as paying an entry fine.

 

The rise and fall of the manor court

Manor courts were at their most active and influential from the 13th to the 16th centuries when the lords were at their most powerful (as shown by the Wars of the Roses). The Tudor monarchs removed much of the power of the manor courts, thereby affecting the lords who benefitted from them, by instituting magistrates, Quarter Sessions and the parish vestry, who were all answerable to the king.

 

Serfdom was inherited but could be broken by manumission (ie set free), whether granted or purchased. The late 14th and 15th century saw the disappearance of serfdom and the demise of villeinage. As well as shedding many of the hated and onerous physical services, villeins sought greater security of tenure and this led to the recognition of Copyhold tenure by the courts of Chancery. From this time the court roll entry recording the transfer of property was regarded as a title, and a copy of it (hence copy of court roll) was given to the incoming tenant as such. In the 18th and 19th centuries the distinctions between free and unfree tenants became increasingly blurred, both having much the same rights over their lands. Converting copyhold into freehold in 1922 recognised an existing state in terms of rights of tenure, although the loss of income to the lord in monetary payments could be considerable.

 

Manor courts continued but dwindled and in the 17th and 18th centuries many disappeared altogether. The way in which landowners managed their estates also changed, many preferring to employ a single land agent to collect rents and oversee an estate rather than using the cumbersome machinery of a manorial court to regulate agricultural routine. The records we have of Dorney Manor Court shows that it existed between 1514 and 1949.

 

There were several classes of unfree tenant called serfs, cottars, borders and villeins. Their status was inherited, and they were expected to do onerous labour services in farming the lord’s personal land –called his demesne- as well as farming their own strips of land. They could not dispose of their land to whom they wanted nor defend their title outside the manor court, although in practise it did descend through the family according to the custom of the manor which bound the lord almost as much as did the tenant. The services required varied from manor to manor according to the custom there, but generally as well as weekly labour services on the lord’s land they included: a list of payments at different times, in kind or, as time passed, in cash; attendance at the manor court; tenure of office, e.g. reeve, hayward, constable. Their property could only be passed on to another by surrendering it in the manor court. For a villein his land was not free; for a serf, he himself was not free: in effect a slave.

 

Different types of manor court

In the medieval period there were three types of manor court operating in Buckinghamshire: the honour court, the court leet, usually with View of Frankpledge, and the court baron. After the 16th century the honour court generally died out and the courts leet and baron were increasingly held together. In theory the court baron was supposed to be held every few weeks, but in practise it was often less frequent. The court leet, often referred to a the View of Frankpledge, was held once or twice a year.

By the close of the 19th century the main purpose of the manor and its remaining courts was the transfer of the particular type of land that belonged to the lord called copyhold. By this time copyhold land could be sold, mortgaged or inherited like freehold land, but it still had to be done through the manor court. This changed in 1922 when the Law of Property Act finally rendered manorial courts obsolete by converting all the lands held as copyhold into freehold.

 

Court Baron

Theoretically held every three weeks, this was a manor court attended by unfree tenants (villeins), and from time to time the free tenants, who owed suit to the court. If they could not attend they were essoined (excused) but had to pay a fine. A jury or homage was empanelled from the better off tenants. Agricultural customs were promulgated and those who had broken them were brought to book. The customs set out the penalties to be paid. Disputes relating to trespass, assault and debt could be brought and fines levied. Other customary dues were paid at this court: merchet on the marriage of a tenant’s daughter; heriot on the death of a tenant; an entry fine on being admitted to property; leyrwit(e) on the birth of an illegitimate child. The transfer of manorial land held by the tenants whether by inheritance or sale was an integral part of court business.

The Dorney Manor Court, based on the translated records available, show that there were 32 Court Barons between 1514 and 1949 and one Court Leet record for 1949. It appears that the 32 Court Barons were all there were given the references to previous decisions at Court Barons. It is not clear, at this time, whether there were other Court Leets.

 

Court Leet with View of Frankpledge

Held only once or twice a year the core business of the leet court was to review the tithings within its jurisdiction, called View of Frankpledge. Originating in Anglo Saxon times this meant submitting the names of men over the age of 12 who guaranteed the behaviour of those within their jurisdiction and presenting miscreants and reporting misdeeds. The tithings were usually small parts or members of an individual manor which held both courts leet and baron. In theory the leet courts dealt with more serious matters like crime, affray, assize of bread and ale, and appointment of officers. However, the differences between the court leet and court baron are in practise rather blurred and with the passage of time the two courts become intermingled.

On each occasion the incoming tenant had to be “admitted” to the property by the physical action of receiving a rod from the lord’s steward, taking an oath of fealty and paying an entry fine. Similarly, an outgoing tenant had to “surrender” his property to the lord by passing the rod to the steward. This physical ceremony is mirrored in freehold by the livery of seisin. In a similar way, it was the transfer of the rod and accompanying oath which effected the conveyance.

 

The Records of a manor court

The main types of record produced by Buckinghamshire manor courts are as follows:

 

Court Roll

This is the main final record of the court. There is a great deal of uniformity about the structure of a court roll, even from the earliest times. Unfortunately, it was written in abbreviated Latin until 1733, usually on unwieldy rolls of parchment. The heading describes the name of the manor, the name of the lord, and the date. Then follows a list of the jurors who were empanelled to make pre-arranged presentments, award payments and confirm the custom of the manor. The presentments are laid out in order, often each is prefixed with the word “Item”. The appointment of the officers of constable, hayward and ale taster are recorded. Presentments are made of those who have broken the customary byelaws, whether by enclosing part of the common land, leaving a dung hill in the street or grazing their animals in the wrong place. Presentments of a criminal nature like assault or affray, trespass and debt can also be recorded in court rolls. Penalty fines called amercements are often included after the presentment. Many entries are to do with the transfer of property, whether by inheritance or sale.

With regard to the Dorney Court Rolls, we are very fortunate that Philip Palmer commissioned a translation to be done of all of the Court Barons in the early 60s when he was researching the legal status of the Dorney and Lake End Commons at the time of the Commons Registration Act 1965.

 

Account Roll

Accompanying the court roll was the equally important account roll (also known by its latin name of Compotus), usually annual, on which was enumerated the money received by the bailiff or reeve. Like the court roll it is written in Latin and unfortunately the abbreviation is even more tortuous. On the front side of the roll is an account of receipts generated within the manor and those generated without.

Manorial accounts were not kept like modern accounts recording income and expenditure with profits and losses, but were written on a charge/discharge basis – what the bailiff ought to receive rather than what he actually did. Nor is there a capital value placed on, for example, the stock or the grain.

Regarding the Dorney Manor Court Rolls, at this time we are not sure whether any of the Account Rolls are available. If they are, they have not been translated.

 

Rental

This was a list of tenants and the amount of rent paid for the property they held, whether land or dwelling. Sometimes it included a brief description of the property. The rent was normally expressed as a monetary value although sometimes it might be livestock, (eg a capon or hen). Rentals are often in English and are found from the 14th century onwards.

There are some lists of rentals in the Dorney Court Archives. These need further examination and translation.

 

Custumal

The custom of the manor was all important in directing how a manor was run, in terms of services rendered to the lord and also how farming was arranged. A custumal or list of customs sets out in black and white, details of rents, services and customs by which tenants held their land. They also often contain what we would call byelaws, detailing local agricultural practices like pasturing of animals, arrangements for harvest and also edicts to promote good conduct among the tenants. Associated and sometimes accompanying this was a list of Pains which stated how much should be paid if any of these local laws were violated. Like the survey this was often part of the court roll. Separate lists, rolls or even books also survive.

These are incorporated within the Dorney Court Manorial Rolls.

 

Survey

Surveys before 1400 comprise a description of property, by whom held and what manual and monetary services were rendered for it. By 1400 the services began to be replaced with a more detailed description of where the property lay, its boundaries and acreage, and financial payments attached to it. Sometimes the manor court held a court of survey where particular questions called articles about who held what were posed to the jury and their replies recorded. They vary in detail, but some are accompanied by a rental and list of customs. From the 16th and 17th centuries survey books with detailed descriptions of every piece of land on a manor become more common. Regrettably maps rarely accompany the written survey before the 18th century, and even then, the map has not necessarily survived. Before 1733 surveys might be in Latin or English.

We are fortunate to have two Survey Maps for Dorney – one c. 1800 and another in 1812

 

Terrier

Similar to a survey, a terrier is a topographical description of the manor arranged by field, giving acreage rather than value or rent. Where there were open fields the property was described strip by strip. The two Survey Maps (above) are, effectively, terriers as they show acreage.

 

Glossary

The following list is not exhaustive but aims to cover most of the terms which may be encountered by modern researchers.

Term

Definition

admittance (or admission)

ceremony by which a new tenant gained entry to a customary holding, by paying a fine; usually preceded by a surrender

affeerer

person chosen to assess the level of a fine

amercement

a penalty, or fine

assize of bread and ale

system regulating the price and quality of bread and ale

bailiff

oversaw day-to-day running of a manor

bovate

measurement of land

burgage

a freehold property in a borough, or a property held by burgage tenure

commutation of services

replacement of labour services owed with a money payment

copyhold

form of holding land, marked by the fact that the tenant would have a copy of the court roll recording his admission

court baron

court held by the lord of the manor for his local tenants to administer the customs of the manor and enforce payment of dues and services

court leet

of the frankpledge and dealt with the administration of local justice for common offences

curtilage

a piece of ground attached to a house

customary tenant

tenants holding land according to the customs of the manor

customs of the manor

the set of rules by which manors were governed/administered

demesne

the property held by the lord of the manor himself

distraint

impounding of goods/chattels until a payment is made

enfranchise

convert copyhold land into freehold tenure

entry fine

a payment due when a new customary tenant entered land

essoin

payment made in lieu of attending court in person

estreat

collective term for fines and amercements imposed in the manorial court

fealty

allegiance or fidelity

frankpledge

see view of frankpledge

freeholder

tenants who paid a money rent to the lord of the manor

hayward

oversaw the making of hay and harvesting

heriot

payment made on the death of a tenant

homage

the tenants who attended a manor court

leasehold

land let out in a way which was not restricted or governed by the custom of the manor

merchet

payment made for obtaining permission for a daughter to marry

pain

a rule/regulation of the manor

pinder

kept the manorial pound/pinfold

precept

order issued to the bailiff of the manor for the holding of a court

presentment

a statement by the jury of matters to be dealt with by the manorial court

reeve

'foreman' of the manor

resiant

resident of a manor

rood

a measurement of land

seisin

possession of land or other property

steward

chief officer of a manor

suit of court

attendance at the manor court

suit service

service rendered by attendance at the manor court

surrender

ceremony by which an existing tenant gave up a customary holding; usually followed by an admission

tenant at will

tenants who paid a rent and whose tenure was entirely dependent on the good will of the lord

tithingman

one of a group of ten men with a mutual responsibility for their good behaviour

view of frankpledge

a system of mutual responsibility for the maintenance of law and order, usually consisting of around ten households

villein

tenants who occupied lands on condition of performing services for the lord of the manor

virgate

a measurement of land