Buying and selling and inheriting property - as it is now and as it was then.

It was not until 1935 that all manorial interest in property transfer was finally abolished. The law of Property Acts of 1923-25 provided for the abolition of manorial tenure by 1935, and no manorial courts (apart from ceremonial ones) have sat since then. The records of the courts were thought to be of sufficient importance when the courts were abolished in 1923 for special rules to be made for their custody, and for a senior judge - the master of the rolls - to be put in charge of them. It is often assumed that it was the historic interest of the documents which gave rise to these provisions - it was not. In 1923, manorial records provided crucial evidence for some people's ownership of their houses and land, and it is to such practical concerns that we owe the rules and in many cases the survival of manorial documents.

The principal records used for this survey

Court Rolls and Court Books
Court rolls were used to record the business transacted at the manorial court. They consisted of long parchment sheets, often stitched together at the top and rolled up.

From the end of the 16th century the manor court books gradually took over from the earlier parchment court rolls and became much more formal in their layout. They carried on in virtually unchanged form until the end of the jurisdiction of manorial courts.

Rentals and surveys
Both freehold and copyhold tenants of the manor were liable to pay an annual quitrent to the lord. These sums were listed in rentals, which often described the landholding as well as listing the quitrent. Because freehold tenements are mentioned only rarely in the court books, manorial rentals provide the best and sometimes the only guide to their ownership. Although the document is called a rental they record what we would think of as owners rather than tenants. The land itself is likely to be occupied by a farmer whose identity is virtually invisible to the manorial authorities.

Copies of court rolls
When the transaction at the court was complete, a copy of the entry in the court book was written on parchment and handed to the copyholder. These documents called copies of court roll were the equivalent of a freeholder's title deeds.

The records and their origin

In the medieval period manors played a very important role in the rural life of England and Wales. The manor was the basic economic unit of the country. It ran the agricultural life of the lord's own land (the demesne), and was able to regulate the farming activities of everyone living in the village, parish or other area of its jurisdiction.

All manorial lords were entitled to hold a court called the court baron, which provided a forum for the lord's tenants to settle minor disputes, and to register the transfer and inheritance of the land which they held.

In terms of its feudal tenure (the way the land was held), there were three types of land recognised by manorial jurisdictions:

  1. Demesne land - land owned by the lord of the manor and farmed by the work of manorial tenants or by hired labour.
  2. Freehold land - land owned by people who were themselves personally free, but who paid a rent to the lord of the manor to acknowledge his feudal supremacy.
  3. Unfree, bond or villein land - land owned by unfree people, also known as villains, serfs or bondmen, who paid a rent and also perfomed farming-work for the lord of the manor.

The manorial records for Barcombe and Hamsey are late. By the time those records begin the demesne land, which can usually be identified, was no longer farmed by the work of manorial tenants and the unfree or bond land could not be identified.

Manorial courts, which would probably have atrophied in the course of the 17th century, took on a new life as simple land registries. All the normal transactions encountered in connection with freehold land, sales, purchases and mortgages – could be effected in the manor court, with the additional bonus that details of death and inheritances and licences for a wide range of activities were also recorded in its rolls.

Freehold and copyhold
Although the manor court started life as a general tribunal for disputes, it gradually assumed the powers of a land registry for the landholdings of the tenants. Freehold land could be bought and sold by its owners by means of deeds and the transactions were recorded in the rolls of the manor court. But to begin with, unfree people, who also held land, had no evidence of their tenure. In the course of the 14th century manor courts began to make copies of these entries, to give the holder of unfree land the equivalent of the freeholder's deeds. The land in question became known as copyhold, and the people who held it copyholders.

Language and dating
Like other court documents, manorial records were divided between those which were of record, which until 1733 were written in Latin on parchment, and those which were not of record, which were written in English on paper. The court roll itself, and copies of it fell into the first category and juror's presentments, and files of original transfers, into the second.

The statutory prohibition on Latin in force between 1651 and 1660 (The Commonwealth), applied to the records of manorial courts.

Manorial conveyancing
The records of the manorial courts maintained the fiction that the copyholders tenure was subject to the will of the lord, whereas in reality the copyhold tenant was by 1600 the effective owner of the land and the lord had virtually no power to remove him. The formula used to describe copyhold tenure 'at the will of the lord, according to the customs of the manor, by the rents and services due and of right accustomed', aptly preserves this fiction; it remained unchanged and indeed immutable from the medieval period until the end of manorial courts in 1935.

As a result of the fiction, it was impossible for a copyholder to sell directly to a purchaser. The land or tenement, had to be surrendered to the lord in trust for the purchaser, who then had to be admitted. To assist in understanding this process it is helpful to see the lord of the manor as a brick wall, in front of which the vendor and the purchaser are standing, and the property as a tennis ball. Instead of the vendor throwing the ball directly to the purchaser, the ball has to be bounced off the wall and rebound into the purchaser's hands. As well as reinforcing the lord of the manor's interest in the tenement. This process allowed lords and their stewards (the lawyers who ran the system) to impose financial levies at different stages of the transaction.

Our understanding of manorial records is further complicated by their use of two ambiguous terms, tenant and rent.

In the non-manorial world, a tenant is someone who occupies a property, let us say a farm, by lease, and pays a realistic market rent to the owner or landlord.

In manorial terms a tenant is someone who holds freehold or copyhold property by a small manorial rent called a quitrent, typically a sum amounting to shillings or pence, payable to the lord of the manor. The origin of quitrent was as a sum paid to be free, or quit, of labour services, but its continuing purpose was to acknowledge the feudal overlordship of the manor, and the liability of the land to certain customary outgoings which provided an income for the lords and their stewards.

It is helpful to restrict the term tenant and rent to non-manorial situations. The terms manorial tenant and quitrent should be used to describe these feudal tenures, where the owner, as we would understand the term, was the manorial tenant.

Types of transaction recorded in the court rolls/books

Surrender and admission
The surrender and admission was the most common form of transaction in a manorial court. The vendor or seller, would surrender the tenement into the hands of the lord (usually acting through his steward, a local solicitor) who would then regrant it to the purchaser.

Death and inheritance
The death of manorial tenants had to be presented at court as the lord of the manor was entitled to certainperks when the tenant died. The chief of those was heriot – the lords right to the best animal (or in some parts of the country chattel) which the tenant owned at the time of his or her death. Animals were still being seized on Sussex manors in the early years of the 20th century. If the heir was a minor a guardian was appointed.

Surrender to will
Customs of inheritance differed from manor to manor, but in many areas the manorial or customary heir was not the same as the legal heir. Freehold tenements usually descended according to the rules of primogeniture, but customary of copyhold tenements could descend according to a variety of different systems, of which the most common were Borough English (descent to the youngest son) and gavelkind (descent to all sons equally). If the dead tenants children were all daughters, they would take in equal shares, as co-parceners. Many tenants were able to adjust their landholdings to these rules but especially as farms got larger and single estates were more likely to be held of several manors, owners could not run the risk of some parts descending to one child and some to another. The practice of surrender to the use of the will was developed by which owners, on payment of a fee to the lord, could ensure that their land descended as they had laid down in their wills.

Conditional surrender (mortgage)
It was possible for copyholders to mortgage their property just like freeholders. The transaction had to respect the manorial formula of surrender and admission, but in this case the surrender was conditional, to allow for the ability of the mortgagor to regain his property when the loan was paid off.

Manorial theory held that the lord owned the soil of the copyholders tenements(although he could do nothing to exploit the fact without the copyholders consent) and also anything growing on it. For this reason on some manors it was necessary to obtain a licence and pay a fine for digging minerals, felling trees for repairs or demolishing redundant buildings on copyhold land, or to lease it to an ordinary farm tenant. This gave rise to the maxim 'oak scorns to grow except on free land', as owners would make sure that trees were encouraged to grow on the freehold elements of their estates  where they would not have to pay a fine before felling them.

Grants from the waste
As well as the demesne land of the manor, the lord was the outright owner of the soil of commons, heaths, common open fields and roadside verges. The overall term for all these elements of the landscape was manorial waste. It was possible to turn waste into privately owned land by a process called enclosure. This could either be general, when a whole tract of common was parcelled out among the tenants of the manor (the lord having taken the lion's share), or piecemeal, by which individual parcels of common or roadside waste were tuned into copyhold tenements, to be held by a small quitrent like more ancient tenements.

Tenements - part 1

Tenements - part 2

Tenement List

Tithe Landowners Map


Complete Tenements 3.6 Mb