Manorial records provide more information about community interests and the lives of ordinary people from the 13th-16th centuries than any other contemporary source.
Special Collections holds a significant number of manorial documents. While not an exhaustive list, they can be found in the following collections:
MS/DEP/Wentworth Woolley Hall contains documents for manors in the North and West Ridings including Woolley, Darton and Notton. You can find a full list is given on the handlist attached to the catalogue record. There are some documents from the Manor of Rullwell in Nottinghamshire. The records date from 15th-19th century.
There are major collections in the YAHS Collections. These include:
YAS/D225/1 Manor of Wakefield Court Rolls are one of the treasures of the YAHS collections. They cover land transactions and other proceedings from the late 13th century to the 1920s. Their significance is recognised by their inscription on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register. Several rolls have been transcribed and published.
YAS/DD57 Wentworth of Woolley contains deeds relating to Notton, Arthington and Creskeld Hall mainly dating from the 14th-17th century.
YAS/DD164 Wentworth Woolley contains deeds relating to various places including 19th century deeds relating to Woolley, Notton, Cold Hiendley and other manors in Yorkshire.
YAS/DD56 Slingsby Family of Scriven Records includes extracts from the Knaresborough court rolls from the 15th-19th century and the court rolls of the manor of Beechill dating from 1540-1719. There are rentals and surveys and stewards’ accounts from the 16th-19th century.
YAS/DD121 Skipton Castle Collection contains manorial documents including court rolls for Skipton manor from the 15th-19th century. There are also records for various manors including Barden Forest, Brompton, Eshton and Stirton with Thirlby.
YAS/DD146 Fawkes of Farnley Collection includes court rolls for various manors including Farnley, Leathley, Hawksworth and Stainburn. There are also rentals and surveys from the 16th-19th century, notably of Otley rectory.
YAS/D99 Foster-Greenwood Collection contains manorial documents for Wakefield, Brighouse, Halifax and other places from the 14th-18th century.
What are Manorial Documents
A manor was an administrative unit rather than a geographic area of land. An administrative unit was known as a manor if the lord who owned it held a court for his tenants. Comprising a few acres or a number of miles, a manor could cover one parish or several. The lord of the manor received rent and service from his tenants. In return they abided by its customs and succeeded to land according to its terms. For routine offences such as grazing animals without right or taking firewood, a manor could operate as a court of law. The lord of the manor controlled transfers of tenancies and could exact fines from tenants. Tenants who held land by custom could turn to the manorial court to settle disputes about their holdings.
Manorial documents were generated by the internal administration of a manor. The earliest one in existence dates from the 12th century, the latest from the 20th.
Manorial documents were originally written in Latin but English became the official language in 1733. You might need skills and experience in reading old handwriting to make full use of the documents, but they are written in a standard order with common terms and wording so once you are familiar with these they are often easier to read.
The documents can be divided into different types. Some of the main formats are:
These contain records of legal proceedings relating to the customs of a particular manor. Separate accounts of rents and fines would sometimes be kept.
Accounts were maintained by the manor’s steward or bailiff, they include records of rents, fines, expenditure on seed and payment for labour.
These record the amounts of rent paid by the tenants of a manor and contain descriptions of the buildings and land. As rents could be paid in cash, produce or labour these documents often include details of customary service or goods due to the lord of the manor.
Maps are more common from the 16th century onwards. Lords of the manor employed surveyors and cartographers to record the extent of their land showing topographical features and boundaries.
Manorial documents are full of research potential. These are some of the subjects they cover:
Economics and finance
They are a rich source of information about land ownership and tenancies as tenants had to pay a fee for the right to inherit and occupy land. One study examined manorial documents for evidence of famine in particular areas. As tenants paid fines to take over tenancies an increase in the record of fines is an indicator that the death rate has gone up. Debts were often called in in times of famine and customary service changed to financial payment because of a lack of labour.
The relationships between tenants were regulated by the manor. There was a degree of coercion as neighbours were expected to inform on neighbours. Records of fines for selling ale and bread without licence or in short measure tell us about women brewers and bakers. Prosecutions and the make-up of juries provide data about relationships among villagers and sometimes between them and the church.
A fine called a merchet was paid to the lord of the manor before a woman could marry. Records of the payment of merchets reveal the number of marriages in a manor. Who paid the merchet is significant as it was usually a male relative of the bride, but could be the woman herself.
History of land
The types of crop mentioned tell us how the land was cultivated. Information about livestock shows what animals were kept. Records of tenancies and inheritances reveal trends in land ownership and the movement towards enclosure.
Geography and geology
Descriptions of land can tell us about natural and manmade features. Some documents record details of mining and mining rights.
Manorial documents are a rich source of information about local families telling us the names of people and sometimes their occupations and relationships. They may mention mortgages and wills.
There is regional variation in what is recorded in manorial documents. For example, The Wakefield Court Rolls contain little data about the crops grown locally.
The Manorial Documents Register
If you are interested in conducting further research into Manorial Documents then a good place to start is the Manorial Documents Register held at The National Archives. This can guide you to Manorial Documents held around the country. The register is almost complete with only Cornwall, Lincolnshire and Durham still to be finished. It does not contain digital images.