Manorial Documents Register Project June 2014: The Landscape of the Manor

  • 24th June 2014

This month, in order to set the documents covered by the Manorial Documents Register project in context, we will look at what a manor looked like in the landscape.  This is a really brief overview, but if you wish to find out more, lots of exciting work has been done by archaeologists and historians—please do come along to The Hive to explore the resources in our Local Studies and Archaeology Library, as well as archives and the Historic Environment Record.

In theory and popular imagination, the medieval manor was a self-contained system, governed by a lord under the jurisdiction of his court.  Peasants produced food and resources for themselves and for the lord’s household to consume and sell surplus. Reality was not always so clear cut, however.  Market production, trade and contact with other settlements, including towns and other manors in a big estate, was more extensive than previously believed, and manors became less self-sufficient with time. 

The shape, size and composition of a manor varied through time and depended on the local geography, economy and jurisdictional arrangements.  In some upland or rocky areas of the country, manors were long and thin, or consisted of scattered parcels of land and resources.  A more ‘typical’ manor, however, is often imagined as a village, consisting of the manor house and outbuildings, peasant dwellings, perhaps a church, a mill, and some fishponds.  This compact or nucleated settlement would be surrounded by fields, pastures, meadows and woodland. 

This type of compact unit did exist, and there are Worcestershire examples, particularly in the south east and central east of the county.  We must remember, though, that manors could contain more than one village or parish and vice versa.  The manors forming the large estate of the bishops of Worcester often contained one or more complete settlement, as at Alvechurch and Hartlebury.  The county also included many hamlets and other dispersed settlements.

This is a detail of a mid-18th century map of Clifton manor in the parish of Severn Stoke, by John Dougharty.  The map was made prior to enclosure: note the manor house, tenant houses and ponds surrounded by fields divided into strips.  Meadows are represented elsewhere on the plan.  Clifton was part of the estate of the Earls of Coventry.  This document is held by Worcestershire Archive Service and can be viewed in the Original Archive Area at The Hive at reference x705:73/BA14450/246.

Imaginative illustration of Grafton Flyford during the 14th century.  Illustration by Deborah Overton

The following list gives an idea of what might be found on a manor, but it is not exhaustive, and not all manors contained all of the features described.

Capital Messuage    

  • Manor House
  • Fishponds and moats. These are still visible as earthworks on the episcopal manors of Alvechurch and Hartlebury
  • Dovecotes
  • Barns
  • Granary 
  • Stables
  • Bakehouses
  • Brewhouse or Cider-press—for example at the manor of Elmley Castle
  • Demesne

  • The lord’s own land, sometimes a single unit with arable, pasture and meadow; otherwise strips of demesne land be scattered amongst those of tenants in the open fields.  The amount of land ‘in demesne’ and how much of it was cultivated as opposed to pasture, depended on the lord and fluctuated with the economy, with some lords choosing to let out, or farm land during times of economic downturn. In the 14th century, the bishops of Worcester reduced their demesne arable by converting some land to pasture and by leasing out other land.  The lords of Elmley Castle similarly leased demesne after the Black Death.
  • Land let to tenants in return for rent and/or labour services

  • The size of peasant holdings varied from manor to manor and within a single manor.  A holding could consist of a house within an enclosure known as a toft, and often next to another enclosed piece of land or garden known as a croft, along with strips of arable land and pasture in the open fields.
  • Larger peasant tofts could include outbuildings for animals, granaries, malthouses, kitchens, etc.  Buildings were usually about 15 feet by 30 or 45 feet, single story, and of cruck frame construction.  Archaeology and court rolls can tell us about these buildings and their repair.
  • Land and land use

    Open Fields

    The term ‘open fields’ does not just mean land that was unfenced—it also usually implies communal[1] use of land (especially pasture) and cooperation in cultivation and animal husbandry, according to by-laws set out in the manor court.  During the middle ages, a crop-rotation system of agriculture was prevalent, where one field would lie fallow to prevent soil exhaustion while the other one or two were cultivated.  Different fields would be used for growing different seasonal crops, such as corn, wheat, rye, barley, peas, beans and oats.  Before the Black Death, a two-field system of agriculture, with one field left fallow, was used in south east Worcestershire, but there was flexibility—for instance, after the harvest, arable fields could be used for grazing.

    Fields were divided into furlongs and further subdivided into ploughstrips held by individual tenants and ploughed by teams of oxen.[2]  The strips were divided by un-ploughed raised, grassy ridges, or marked by stones in the 16th-century manor of Elmley.  Peasants’ strips would not be concentrated in a compact block, but scattered throughout the open fields, to ensure that each holding would contain a mix of lands of different qualities.  The lord’s demesne strips would often be scattered amongst those of the tenants. 

    The remains of medieval agriculture may still be seen in the form of earthworks known as ridge and furrow.  These, and the remains of shrunken or deserted villages, can be seen in aerial photographs and a technique known as LiDAR.

    The landscape began to change during the later medieval period, particularly the fifteenth century, as tenants began to consolidate these strips into single holdings by exchanging land with other tenants, and enclosing the new bigger parcels of land.  These enclosures could then be used as pasture or meadow in addition to arable.

    Pasture and Meadow

    Manors had common pastures, shared by lord and tenants, as well as individually held pastures.  Pasture became more important from the late medieval period right up to the 18th and 19th centuries, as sheep farming became more profitable.  Through the process of enclosure, lords and tenants converted former open fields and common pasture to private ownership, and physically enclosed the land to use as pasture.

    Woods and Waste

    Woodland, like arable, pasture and meadow, could be held by individuals or shared in common.  Northern Worcestershire contained manors featuring woodlands, such as Hanbury and Alvechurch.  Some of these woods were within royal forests, such as Feckenham.  Clearing land for cultivation, or assarting, was practiced on woodland manors, particularly in the 13th century.  Marginal or waste land was also improved for cultivation.  Land that had been cleared would often look different, as these assarts were taken into private ownership and enclosed with hedges—here is where you might find lots of hamlets and scattered farms. 

    Other features

  • Orchards
  • Markets and fairs 
  • Warrens.  The lord had often been granted the right of free warren
  • Fisheries and marshes
  • Mines and quarries.  The lord of the manor normally possessed rights to any mineral resources within the manor.  Dudley, for example, had coal and iron mines, and Elmley Castle had quarries.
  • Parks—e.g. Hartlebury.  As they required a licence and were fairly expensive to run, they were found on the estates of higher status lords such as the bishops of Worcester or the Beauchamp Earls of Warwick, the lords of Elmley Castle.  They provided timber and pasture as well as hunting.
  • Mills (water and wind)
  • Infrastructure for industries such as cloth making or like tile-making, as  at Welland
  • Roads
  • Some manors may also have contained a parish church and vicarage, or chapel.  Many parish churches were originally founded by the lord of the manor, who held the advowson, or right to select the incumbent.
  • Glossary

  • Arable land.  Land used for growing crops
  • Assart.  Woodland cleared, enclosed, converted to arable
  • Capital messuage.  Plot of land containing manor house and outbuildings
  • Croft.  Enclosure, adjacent to a dwelling, often used as a garden
  • Cruck building.  Structure based on a frame formed of twin curved, vertical timbers
  • Dispersed settlement.  Area characterised by scattered farmsteads and hamlets, with few nucleated villages     
  • Farm.  Fixed sum or rent paid for leasing land
  • Free warren.  The right, granted by the sovereign to the lord of the manor, to hunt small game
  • Nucleated settlement.  Settlement characterised by buildings clustered around a focal point         
  • Toft:  Enclosure containing a dwelling and outbuildings
  • Waste.  Marginal land occupied by rough grassland or woods, used as another source of common grazing, and often the subject of assarting in the 12th-13th centuries
  • Further Reading (also click on the links in the text above)

  • Dyer, C.  ‘English peasant buildings in the Later Middle Ages (1200-1500)’. Medieval Archaeology 30 (1986): 19-45. 
  • Dyer, C.  Lords & Peasants in a Changing Society.  The Estates of the Bishopric of Worcester, 680-1540.  Cambridge, 1980.
  • English Heritage.  West Midlands Farmsteads and Landscapes.  County Summary Report for Worcestershire.  
  • Field, R.K.  Ed.  Court Rolls of Elmley Castle, Worcestershire, 1347-1564.  Worcestershire Historical Society.  New Series Volume 20.  2004.
  • The 14th-century Luttrell Psalter (British Library Add. MS 42130) which features some of the most well-known images of medieval peasants at work. 
  • For a good rendering of an ‘ideal’ or classical manor in diagram form, click here.
  • [1] The terms ‘open fields’ and ‘common fields’ are often used interchangeably, but agricultural historians have argued that ‘common fields’ in its strict sense denotes the carefully managed two and three field crop rotation system described above, while open fields refers to a more flexible system.  Both terms are usually applied to the region of central England sometimes termed ‘midland’ or ‘champion’.

    [2] Horses were also used as beasts of burden, but became more important during the later medieval and early modern periods.

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