In the fourteenth century, land ownership was split almost equally between lay lords (including the king) and ecclesiastical lords. In theory, all land in England belonged to the king, but, in practice, much of it had been given to the church. This was partly as a means of ensuring that prayers were said for the souls of the donor and his family after their deaths and partly because it was sometimes politically necessary to do so. Sometimes, of course, it was simply an act of piety. Lay lords held land from the king in return for paying him homage and promising to support him, with arms if required. The land that these tenants-in-chief held was sometimes given to their followers in turn, and these followers pledged their support to the tenant-in-chief. At the bottom of the ladder, the land was tended by tenants who paid rent for it by means of grain, livestock, their own labour on the lord’s demesne or money.
Some manors were vast, especially those belonging to bishoprics and earls. The ecclesiastical manors were the slowest to change and, throughout the fourteenth century, there were more serfs living and working on these manors than there were freemen. This was reversed on the manors belonging to lay lords, and the proportion of free to serf increased as the size of the manor decreased.
The demesne was the lord’s own land. Its produce was used to feed his household and any excess could be sold at market. If he had serfs who owed him labour services, they would work on the demesne for a specified number of days each week, as well as at plough time and harvest. Where there were no serfs owing labour services, the lord had to hire men (usually his tenants) to work on the demesne for him.
The produce of the demesne provided only part of lord’s income. He also made money when the land his tenants rented from him changed hands. If there was a marriage, or a death, or if a tenant took over from another tenant, a fee had to be paid to the lord of the manor. Because the lord technically owned the serfs, they also had to pay him a fee to be away from the manor for longer than one day. He also benefited from fines. If a villein left the manor for more than a day without the lord’s permission and was found out, he had to pay a fine.
I have so far been referring to the lord as a man, but often they were women. Just as land was given to monasteries, so it was also given to convents, which meant that many abbesses were lords of manors. Women also inherited manors. Joan of Kent inherited many manors all over England on her brother’s death.
Being a lord of a manor meant that the lord had to put in place the machinery to run the manor. If he was away from the manor frequently, and some lords had so many manors spread over a wide geographical area that they couldn’t hope to visit them all, they had to have officials in place to run the manor for them. These included a steward, a bailiff and a reeve, plus others depending on the size and type of manor.
Because they were the only ones with capital, lords of the manor usually provided the local infrastructure. As with giving land to the church, this was sometimes done because it benefited the lord himself and sometimes it was the result of a charitable impulse. Lords of the manor frequently built bridges, especially if these were on roads leading to a market to which the lord had the rights. Once built, the lord would charge people wishing to cross the bridge a toll, ostensibly for the bridge’s upkeep, but sometimes just as a means of making money. Where it was not practical to build a bridge, the lord might maintain a ferry to enable people to cross a river. They often built mills on their land. Their serfs had to use them and the lord of the manor benefited from a tax on their fee for using the mill, or a fine if it was discovered that they were not using it, either because they were taking their grain elsewhere or because they were grinding it at home. Lords of the manor endowed churches, both for their own use and for the use of their tenants. By far the most popular right with the lord’s tenants was his right to establish fairs and markets, as this provided them with somewhere to sell their surplus and to purchase things they could not make.
Among the lord’s less popular privileges was his right to fold all his tenant’s sheep on his demesne so that he could have the benefit of their manure. Conversely, if a tenant’s animal strayed onto the demesne, the tenant would have to pay a fine to have it released to him.
Wealthy lords with extensive estates might have forests, parks or chases where animals were protected so that the lords could hunt them. The kind of hunting they undertook was both prestigious and necessary. Hunting was a skill highly esteemed by nobles. It was necessary, in that it put meat on the table of the lord and his household.