Manorial Documents Register Project Update February 2014

  • 25th February 2014

Today we bring you an update post from Bethany Hamblen, Manorial Documents Register Project Archivist:

This month, it’s back to basics as we begin to look at what a manor actually was, what it did, and how historians believe the manor changed over time.  Future posts will go into greater detail about the manor’s physical makeup and its economic, social, administrative and judicial roles.  Most will also include a brief glossary and suggestions for further reading.

Professor P.D.A. Harvey, one of the most respected authorities on manorial records, established a useful definition of the manor.  He pointed out that when manerium, the Latin word for manor, appeared in Domesday Book, it could mean both the residence of a landholder (what we would later come to think of as the manor house) and a ‘single administrative unit of a landed estate’—whether with or without a manor house. 

This is a pretty broad definition, and covered manors of all sizes and arrangements: anything from a manor whose boundaries coincided with those of the village or parish, to a settlement divided between two or more small manors, to a large manor comprising several settlements and parishes.  Here, it’s important to note that even when the borders of a village, parish and manor were the same, these were actually different units of administration.  Basically, parishes fell under ecclesiastical or Church control, whilst the vill was a unit of civil administration, and the manor was managed as part of a private jurisdiction.  I’ll explain more about how these elements worked together in a future post.

All land in the country was ultimately considered to be owned by the Crown, so that all landholders, even lords of the manor, would have been tenants of some sort.  Just as manors varied in size and value, their lords differed in rank, from the Crown, to a member of the nobility holding land throughout the country, a monastic house, or someone a bit lower down the social scale, like a member of the local gentry (such as a knight).  In Worcestershire, major landholders included the Bishop of Worcester, the abbeys of Pershore and Evesham, and the Beauchamp Earls of Warwick, while smaller parcels of land were held by local families such as the Stauntons, lords of the manor of Staunton—whose overlords were the Abbots of Westminster. 

This corresponds with Denis Stuart’s definition of a manor, ‘ a territorial unit originally held by feudal tenure—held by a landlord, not necessarily titled, who himself was a tenant of the Crown or of a mesne lord who held land directly of the Crown.’

The lord might have land within the manor which he controlled himself and which normally supplied his household, called demesne land.  Apart from the land itself, the manor comprised a package of legal and customary rights over resources such as hunting, minerals and markets.  The lord was owed a variety of payments and other obligations by his tenants, who in turn enjoyed certain rights.  By about the 15th century, holding a court was the most significant manorial entitlement—and the mechanism through which the lord enforced the other rights.  The definition of the manor had evolved to: ‘a piece of landed property with tenants over whom the lord exercised rights of jurisdiction in a private court’.

We’ll look more at the courts, and the obligations and rights of lord and tenant in future weeks.


  • Demesne.  Land controlled or farmed directly on behalf of the lord of the manor.  Sometimes referred to as the ‘home farm’ and normally reserved for the use of the lord and his household, and often containing a capital messuage (a plot of land containing a high status dwelling, such as the manor house itself).
  • Feudal tenure.  The concepts of ‘feudalism’ or the ‘feudal system’ are highly complex subjects which have generated a great deal of debate amongst historians.  A very simplified definition of feudal tenure is the condition of holding land in return for homage (acknowledgement) and service to a superior lord.
  • Gentry.  Another complex term with different meanings depending on context of time and place.  In general included the lesser nobility or ranks below the nobility, such as knights and esquires
  • Mesne lord.  An intermediate lord who held land from someone other than the Crown (a person who held land directly of the Crown was known as a tenant in chief).
  • Further reading

  • M. Bailey.  The English Manor c.1200-c.1500 (Manchester, 2002). Includes a very useful glossary.
  • Cumbrian Manorial Records [Available Online] Includes another very useful glossary.
  • P. D. A. Harvey, Manorial Records, British Records Association Archives and the User no. 5 (Gloucester, 1984).
  • D. Stuart, Manorial Records (Chichester, 1992).
  •   ‘The Manor’ VCH Explore [Available Online]  Do scroll down and explore some of the links that follow this article.
  •  ‘What is a Manor?’  Victoria County History [Available Online]  It is worth checking the other pages on this website as well.
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