Will I find my ancestor in the Court Records of the Manor?

The main records of a Manor were the court records, recorded in rolls and later in books. There were two main manorial courts – The Court Leet (also known as the View of Frankpledge) and the Court Baron. There was also the Customary Court which convened every few years and was responsible for administering the  Custom of the Manor which was set out in the Custumal: a statement setting out the terms of the relationship, administrative control and mutual responsibilities anciently agreed between the lord and his tenants. They would also assess rents. The Customary Court was often held as part of the Court Baron.

Manorial courts were not held in court rooms as we would think of them today. They could be held in the nave of the parish church, a local inn or in the open air. Some manor houses had a hall or room in which the court would be convened. They were held wherever there was sufficient space to hold a large gathering of people.

The court room of Preston Patrick Hall, Westmorland courtesy of Cumbrian Manorial Records (https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/projects/manorialrecords/manors/whatis.htm)

The Court Leet or View of Frankpledge (Visus Francplegii)

The Court Leet was essentially the lowest court of royal jurisdiction, not originally associated with the manor by the regulating the vill, which in medieval times was the smallest administrative unit in the feudal system and consisted of several houses and their land similar to a village or parish. In medieval times, law and order was essentially controlled through a system known as Frankpledge (or Tithing). This was a system whereby a group of men (over the age of twelve years and having lived in the vill for a year and a day) usually ten or twelve, were collectively responsible for reporting any wrongdoing and bringing the culprit to Court.

Not all Lords of Manors had the right to hold a Court Leet thus a Court Leet could cover more than one manor and they would have been convened two or three times a year. There would be a jury made up of free tenants.

All types of wrongdoing were to be reported to the Court Leet, however only minor offences could be dealt with by the court; more serious offences such as felonies would be transferred to the upwards to the appropriate court. Those minor offences which could be dealt with at the Court Leet included, public nuisance, breach of the peace, poaching, breach of the assizes of bread and ale (regulation of the price, weight, quality of bread and beer, i.e., trading offences), obstruction of the King’s highway to name a few.

The penalties there were able to impose on wrongdoers including fines, impound property, time in the stock, whippings and some had their own prisons.

From an engraving of Defoe in the pillory in the early eighteenth century, SANT/BEQ/15/4/40. Daniel Defoe was pitied for his charge of seditious libel, and the crowd threw flowers, a vast improvement on their usual weapons of choice (https://www.northumberlandarchives.com/2017/01/24/privategallows/)

The “power” of the Court Leet began to decline from the 14th Century. The plague had created a shortage of labour and manorial tenants bargaining position strengthened as did their boldness in refusing to pay fines or dues to the Lord of the Manor. The frankpledge system had also begun to decline. The justice system was developing and expanding with Petty sessions (magistrates) and Quarter sessions taking over much of the work the Court Leet had traditionally dealt with. Court Leets did continue but their records become less frequent and less informative and by the 17th Century most had ceased to operate.

The Court Baron (Curia Baronis) (sometimes referred to as the Manor Court) (Curia Manerii)

The Court Baron was essentially the lowest court of feudal jurisdiction based on the Manor. It largely dealt with landholding, in particular customary/copyhold tenants. (holding land by title of copy of court roll, paying a heriot and other services due  to the Lord of the Manor) Freehold tenants (those who paid rent but held from of any other services due to the Lord of the Manor) and Leaseholders (a tenant to whom land was let out without restriction or governance by the custom of the manor) may be found but the transfer of freehold and leasehold was not usually recorded in the Court Baron.

Originally the Court Baron also dealt with enforcing local customs and agricultural practices, settling minor disputes and debts. Disputes between tenants or between the Lord and his tenants would be adjudicated by a jury of tenants. “Presentments” were the presentation of alleged offences at court and if the accused were found guilty, fines could be issued. Free tenants were usually required to attend under the terms of their tenure as well as customary/copyhold tenants.

For family history purposes it is usually records of the Court Baron which are most useful. These proceedings can indicate status, trade or profession, relationships, heirs, and marriages and often name in-laws. Signatures to memoranda, copy and proceedings occur on most originals and these can be evidence of identity, distinguishing one name from another, proving literacy, and indicating that the signatory was alive at the date of the court’s meeting.

The transfer of copyhold land was dealt with through entries of surrender and admissions in the court roll. This was also the case on the death of a copyhold tenant. If a copyhold tenant made a Will, they were required to surrender the property to the use of their Will in order for the property to be devised under the terms of the Will. On death the land was technically surrendered into the hands of the Lord of the Manor and the rightful heir(ess) was required to attend court to claim their right to the property. The rightful heir would be named if known along with their relationship to the deceased.

Rightful heirs were given three “chances” to attend court in the form of “proclamations” by which the court proclaimed the death of the tenant and asked that the rightful heir attended court to make their claim. If no one came, the property would revert to the Lord of the Manor who was free to grant to property to someone else.

A new tenant, be it a rightful heir or other, would then be admitted to the property as copyhold tenant.

The extent and description of the property would be given in both the surrender and admission if they were separate entries. This would include its location and to whose land it abutted to give a precise location (there were no addresses in those days as we have now!) with approximate size in acreage or other land measurement such “Rod”.

Payments were due on these land transactions: a Heriot was paid on the death of a copyhold tenant; a Fine was paid on admission to the copyhold land.

The court records occasionally also include a list of all freehold, leasehold and copyhold tenants. This was often done when there was a new Lord of the Manor, for example when a Lord died and the Manor was inherited by his rightful heir, or also happened, the Manor was sold.

The best way to demonstrate the use of these records is through a case study I undertook for my IHGS diploma.

The Shurlock family

William Shurlock lived in the village of Shere, within the manor of Shere Vachery, and appeared to have owned property in Shere, Albury and Wonersh, both being neighbouring villages/parishes.

Manorial records for the Manors of Shere

The Manorial court records comprise both rolls and books with the courts for the various manors held on consecutive days and largely recorded in the same documents. From 1688 to the end of the 18th century there is an almost continuous run with a combination of rolls and books. The missing years are 1700, 1701, 1707 to 1710, 1738 and 1753 to 1757. Prior to 1688 they are largely for the first quarter of the 17th century with a gap from 1630 to 1663 and then from 1663 to 1688.

Members of the homage/jury

John, William snr and William jnr are named as members of the homage and/or jury of both the court leet and court baron at various times throughout the century, the first entry found being for John at the court leet and court baron for the manor of Shere Vachery held in October 1714.

Lists of Tenant

These were not recorded regularly in the court records however the following entries were found for the manor of Shere Vachery. William (snr) was found listed as a tenant in October 1748/9, April 1750/51, October 1751/2 and 1752 (two years following his death because William (Jnr) had not yet been admitted as tenant to his properties (see below)). William (Jnr) was listed as a freeholder in October 1767 and 1777, with a Robert Shurlock listed as a copyholder in October 1777.

Admissions, surrenders and deaths recorded in the Manorial court baron records

These events are recorded in the minutes of the court baron with all courts being held in or about the 26 October each year save where special court barons were held as necessary.

John Sherlock

In the court rolls for Shere Vachery in 1729/30 the death of John Sherlock, customary tenant, was recorded with William his son and heir being admitted to his copyhold land at West Cotterells for a yearly rent of 13 pence. This entry being a short one, is the first found written in Latin.

John acquired the copyhold land at West Cotterells in 1700 when it was alienated to him at the court held for the manor of Shere Vachery on 2 October 1700 by John Risbridger.

The property was described as land and barnyard known as West Cottells in Shere for a rent of 14d per year. His fealty to the Lord of the Manor in respect of this was reserved until the court hearing in October 1702.

William Shurlock (Snr) and family

The next records was found at a Special Court Baron held on 1 Nov 1736/37 for the Manor of Gomshall Towerhill when William Shurlock (Snr), jointly with John Luck, loaned money to two other copyhold tenants. A conditional surrender was entered into between (1) John Borer and John Dibble and (2) William Shurlock and John Luck in respect of a cottage and garden situate in Peaslake bottom containing by estimation one and a half acres of land in the occupation of John Borer, for the sum of £40 such sum to be repaid “together with lawful interest” to Will Sherlock and John Luck on the 1 May 1737/38 when, if paid, the surrender would be void otherwise the surrender remained in full force and William Shurlock and John Luck could be admitted as copyhold tenants.

Payment in full was made by John Borer in full discharge and satisfaction of conditional surrender which was recognised by William Shurlock at the court held in 1738/39 .

It is yet three years before the next record is found for this family, this time in the court roll for Shere Vachery when William Shurlock (Snr) is found loaning money to another copyhold tenant and is wife. A conditional surrender dated 1 November 1741/42 was entered into between Ralph and Sarah Mitchell and William Shurlock under which Ralph and Sarah Mitchell would surrender their cottage and garden in Shere and Cottage and garden in Ewhurst should they fail to repay William £17 plus interest of £5 in every £100 within a year [thus by 1 November 1742/43]. If the debt was paid the surrender would be void, if they failed to pay the surrender would remain in full force and William would be admitted as copyhold tenant.

In 1744/45 William (Snr) was admitted as copyhold tenant to a cottage and garden in Shere and a cottage and garden in Ewhurst following Ralph and Sarah Mitchell’s failure to repay him £17 plus interest of £5 in every £100 within a year as per the conditional surrender they had entered into in 1741/42.

Whilst these two conditional surrenders do not add anything to the family lineage, they demonstrate the comparative wealth of William (Snr). £40 in 1736 would be the equivalent of £4,711.70 in 2017 whilst £17 in 1741 would be the equivalent of £2,009.69 in 2017. Bearing in mind the yearly rents for many of the properties detailed so far was a few pence rather than pounds, with 240 pence to the pound. William was able to lend quite significant sums of money for the period and demonstrates the family would have enjoyed a comfortable living.

The next entry found was William’s (Snr) death being noted in the court for the Manor of Gomshall Towerhill. Two entries were found, the first in 1750/51 being the death of William (Snr) and the first proclamation for his son William to attend court to be admitted to a moiety of two customary messuages or tenements and two gardens, one in Shere the other in Ewhurst, by the yearly rent of [left blank] heriot for which a horse had been seized and sold to the Executors for £3 10ds, but he failed to attend.

The second proclamation for William (Jnr) to attend and be admitted was made at court in 1752 but again he failed to attend. Court records for 1753 when the third and final proclamation would have been made, are amongst those missing and therefore it is not cannot be said where William did then attend to be admitted but no later record for William (Jnr) was found in the court records for Towerhill.

In the court rolls for the manor of Shere Vachery it was not until 1752 when a record of the death of William (Snr) was found. William’s son and “next heir” (William (Jnr)) was admitted to lands called Parkland by a yearly rent of 13 pence for which a horse had been seized to for the heriot and sold for £5 19s. William was aged 18 year so his fealty was respited until he is 21 years old.

William Shurlock (Jnr) and family

The next entries found in the manor of Shere Vachery were three connected entries in respect of the death of “Elizabeth wife of William Shurlock (late Eliz(abeth) Parkhurst Spinster)” (most likely the wife of William (Jnr)) being a customary tenant of “Messuage or Tenem(en)t Barns Outhouse and One Acre and an half of land called Smyths lying in the lower Street of Shere by the yearly Rent of Eight pence heriot Suit of Court and other Services therefore due and of eight accustomed” and whose heir is her only infant son, Robert aged about 5 years. The first entry is in 1761 noting her death (since the last court in 1760) and being the first proclamation for someone to come forward to claim her land and premises. The second proclamation was found in 1762 and in 1763 Robert Shurlock was admitted as customary tenant to her land and premises. The next entries found are three connected entries in respect of the death of “Elizabeth wife of William Shurlock (late Eliz(abeth) Parkhurst Spinster)” being a customary tenant of “Messuage or Tenem(en)t Barns Outhouse and One Acre and an half of land called Smyths lying in the lower Street of Shere by the yearly Rent of Eight pence heriot Suit of Court and other Services therefore due and of eight accustomed” and whose heir is her only infant son, Robert aged about 5 years. The first entry is in 1761 noting her death (since the last court in 1760) and being the first proclamation for someone to come forward to claim her land and premises. The second proclamation was found in 1762 and in 1763 Robert Shurlock was admitted as customary tenant to her land and premises.

Robert was described as an infant and was admitted by William his father and next friend who was also admitted as Robert’s guardian until Robert should attain the age of 21 years, with William paying the fine for the admittance of £9 9s.

In 1779 William is acknowledge as having erecting, with the permission of the Lord of the Manor for the manor of Shere Vachery, a gate across a lane leading from Shere Heath to Ewhurst Windmill, near Shere Heath, to protect his cattle. Directly above his entry is a similar entry naming Catherine the wife of John Shurlock. Whilst the land of William Shurlock is not named it identifies the ‘rough’ location of some of his property.

The next entry was not found until nine years earlier in 1785 when the death of Robert Shurlock was recorded (having died since the last court in 1784) along with the admission to his copyhold land of his sister Catherine, the wife of John Hicks. His property was described as a tenement garden and an acre and half of land held at Shere called Smiths by the yearly rent of Eight pence heriot suit of court and other services and customs.  At a court baron held on 30th April 1787 Catherine and John Hicks surrendered this property with George Francis (who had also been an undertenant of William Shurlock) being simultaneously admitted as tenant.

Comparing the names and property details confirms Robert is the son of William Shurlock whose wife was Elizabeth nee Parkhurst the mother of Robert and most likely the mother of Catherine, thus extending the family tree further.

In 1794 the death of William Shurlock is recorded  having died since the last court was held (1793), his daughter and Catherine being admitted as tenant, to his freehold messuage and lands called Cottells, a wood part of Staple lands and a messuage and lands called Dilton. The heriot due on William’s death was not paid because his Cattle were seized by other Lords but the relief to be admitted by attorney as tenant to the property

was paid by his daughter Catherine. Her fealty was respited because she had not appeared in person to take the oath of loyalty to the Lord of the Manor, her husband, John Hicks, having appeared on her behalf as next friend.

The total yearly rents for the properties amounted to 13 shilling 6 pence. The fact other Lords of manors had already taken his cattle suggests William also held in other manors.

From the above records alone, a family tree can be drawn.

All records referred to are held at Surrey History Centre under references: G85/6/43, G85/6/44, G85/10/16, G85/108/24, G85/10/20, and G85/10/23.

In my case study I then used parish registers and Wills to take the family further with the complete family tree being:

This is a relatively simple case study but manorial records can provide details of the interrelationships of several families. One research project I have recently undertaken on behalf of a client explored the four interconnecting families around Woking Surrey and help my client to determine which generations were which from the parish register entries she had found and untangle the various interfamily marriages where names were passed down the generations. It also demonstrated just how land holdings also connected the families.

My next blog will explore some of the other records of the Manor such as Estreat Rolls, Rentals/Rent rolls, Customals, Extents and Presentments.

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