To mark the International Medieval Congress 2021 Karen Sayers, archivist, writes about the discoveries to be made in medieval manorial documents.

A manor was the district over which a lord exercised rights and privileges in medieval England​. The lord of the manor employed people, including stewards, graves and bailiffs, to administer the manor on his behalf. During their duties the officials generated documents such as court rolls recording the proceedings and attendees at court, together with deeds, rentals and surveys noting the ownership and occupation of property. This makes manorial documents a rich source of information about the people who lived and worked on manors. They allow fascinating glimpses into people’s daily lives. However we must remember that it was those in power who created the framework of customs and produced the documents.

Leeds Special Collections holds a significant number of manorial documents dating from the late 13th century to the 1920s. The majority of them are in the Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society Collections and include the impressive Wakefield Court Rolls series. Our Digitisation Studio recently digitised the Manor of Wakefield Court Roll for 1379. The Wentworth-Woolley Hall and John Wilson of Broomhead Collections also contain manorial documents.

Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society YAS/MD225/1/105. Image of the Manor of Wakefield court roll from 1379 showing its construction. Image credit Leeds University Library.

The lord of the manor through his officials held a ‘court baron’ to enforce the ‘customs’ of his manor and the services and payments due to him. The court also had local legislative, administrative and judicial functions on behalf of the monarch. A group of representative tenants acted as jury.

We find information about women’s status in society in the court baron rolls. Some were not above taking the law into their own hands. At the Wakefield court baron in August 1339 Alice del Kerheved was accused of ejecting Alice Horner, former wife of Richard Horner, from her house and of taking hay from her meadow. She was further charged with removing the goods and chattels of Richard del Kerheved. The jury found Alice del Kerheved guilty of eviction and theft. She was fined 2d (old pennies).

Women were named in disputes about leases, sometimes with their husbands or fathers. At the same court William Walker de Eland claimed that John Lorimer and Idonea, his daughter, had granted him the right to occupy a building and land in Sandal. John and Idonea jointly counterclaimed that they had leased the land to William but the period of the lease had expired. Ultimately William failed to pursue his allegation.

Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society YAS/MD225/1/246. The Manor of Wakefield court roll, 1520. This roll shows how clerks sometimes embellished the heading on a roll. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Many lords had the right to hold a ‘court leet’ which dealt with the regulation of a system called frankpledge under which inhabitants of a manor swore an oath to keep the peace and maintain good practice in trade. Frankpledge relied on inhabitants informing officials of their neighbours’ misdeeds. The court leet judged crimes committed within its jurisdiction and upheld standards relating to agriculture and the sale of food and drink.

Often a court leet heard cases of tenants accused of selling bread and ale ‘against the assize’. The assize regulated quality and measure. In November 1360 at the Wakefield court leet ‘half the township’ of West Bretton accused William de Byngeley for brewing and selling ale ‘against the assize’. He was fined 8d. As this was a common offence it must have been worth people’s while despite the fine.

Richard Adecokes of Kirkburton was found guilty at the same court of selling rotten meat and causing ill health. His fine of 18d or 3 day’s wages indicates the seriousness of his offence.

This is just a tiny sample of the information found in manorial documents. If you are interested in finding out more, see our online guide.