Manor records are a key source for anyone interested in family history, the history of a house, or who wants to know what it was like to live in their town or village in the past. In many cases they can actually be more informative than parish records – and they go back many centuries further. The earliest records begin in the 13th century and generally end some 700 years later, in the 1920s.
A manor is a unit of land owned by a lord and administered by his officials, with a court. Tenants held their land in a form of tenure called copyhold by which their ownership was recorded on the manor court rolls and a copy given to them as proof of title and of their obligation to the lord. This means that every time a property changed hands, this is recorded on the court roll. So, if a house or field was copyhold, it should be possible – and easy – to trace back its occupiers over many centuries. If the property was owned by the same family over several generations, you will at the same time be tracing the history of that family.
The only places not to have manors are large towns that are boroughs such as Norwich, Yarmouth and Lynn. Even in those cases, most of the present built-up area will be covered by the manorial system: if you walk down Unthank Road in Norwich, for example, you are in the manor of Heigham, while the County Hall and the Archive Centre are within the manor of Lakenham.
Manor records are a vivid source, full of richly detailed insights into the social and economic life of local people who often only appear otherwise as mere names in a parish register. Every adult male and many adult females will probably appear by name in the court book in some capacity or other.
Like wills or title deeds, manor court books can appear very long winded, but with a little practise it is easy to skim through an entry to pick out the important facts. There are really seven pieces of information that need to be noted:
- The name of the manor.
This will be at the front of the book and at the beginning of the entries for this particular court. If you do not already know in which manor the property in which you are interested lies, it may be it is necessary to look at several manor court books for several manors to find it. However, once it is found the searching is over: it will always be within that same manor as the boundaries of manors do not change over the years.
2. The date of the court.
This will be in the margin of the heading marking the start of the court, and also in long-hand in the first sentence of that heading.
3. The name of the person who formerly held the property.
This person may be giving up the land (the term used is SURRENDER) because he/she has sold it, OR may have died. The text will make it clear which is the case.
4. The name of the person who is coming into the property.
The technical term is ADMISSION. The person being admitted may be a complete stranger who has bought the property, or may be an heir who has come into the land because of the previous tenant’s will, or because the previous tenant has died without leaving a will. The relationship between the new tenant and the previous tenant will be made clear in the text.
Top Tip: most manor court books have an index of people being admitted (often of those who are surrendering land as well).This may be at the front or back of the book, and is often missed, especially if a microfilm is being used. Always look at the first and last few pages of a manor court book to see if there is an index.)
5. A description of the property.
This may be a few lines or several pages, depending on how many pieces of land are involved. Each piece will be described in terms of its abuttals, that is, who owns the surrounding pieces of land.
6. The date of the previous entry in the court book for the property.
This is most important as it tells you where to look for the next piece of information. That entry will give the date of the court entry before that and so on, so it is possible to trace the history of it back step by step.
Top Tip. The date of the previous court is very commonly in either the first paragraph or the last paragraph of an entry. It is often (not always) within a sentence beginning with the word ‘Whereas …’
7. Any extra details.
It is always worth skimming through the whole text of the entry as it can give a lot of further information, such as family relationships, young people holding the land in trust etc. For people tracing the history of their house, the great prize is finding the phrase ‘with a house newly built’ as this tells when a house was first erected on the site: this will occur within the description of the property.
More detailed information on how to identify a manor, manor records that can be consulted and how to find them can be found in our new Manor Records research guides. These are available to consult in the Norfolk Record Office searchroom and will shortly be available online.