Manorial Courts


This is an updated version of a post I wrote for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. It appeared there on 8th December 2016.

The manorial courts were one step up in law enforcement from the tithings that we looked at last week. Each manor had a court and the court governed the lives of everyone who lived on the manor, even determining when they could plant and when they could harvest. It fined them if they allowed their animals to stray onto the lord’s demesne, and it was where they took their claims against one another to be judged.

The manor was made up of the lord’s demesne as well as the land that he leased to tenants. The demesne was the farm that the lord kept for his own benefit.  The people who worked the manor’s land were both freemen and serfs (cottagers, smallholders or villeins). The manorial court dealt with the serfs’ issues, while the freemen were able to go to other courts, which we’ll come to later.  It was also able to create new bylaws for the manor.

Some lords had more than one manor and could not look after all of them closely, or they were away at war or absent for some other reason. The manorial court was one of the ways in which the manor could be managed whether the lord was there or not. He had a steward, who looked after his interests in his absence, but it was the village officials (reeve, hayward and beadle amongst others) who made sure that things happened as they should.

The manorial court decided the land boundaries and the days on which animals could graze in the fields. The steward presided over the court, but the village elected the officials from among themselves. The steward could not tell the court what to do and the court could appeal to the lord if necessary. Usually the business transacted by the court had no direct reference to the lord’s own affairs since it dealt with village problems such as loans not being repaid; men not turning out to work on the lord’s demesne; theft; the erection of a fence in the wrong place; or one villager injuring another.

The court was run by the rich villeins who provided the jurors and officials. The court was supposed to meet every three weeks, but some met less often. All the serfs in the village had to attend. Those who did not were fined. The court was often held in the nave of the church, the part that ‘belonged’ to the village. There were not many places in the village large enough to hold the court and many were simply held in the open air, often in the churchyard. Some manorial courts met in the hall of the manor house itself.

The jurors pronounced judgement on their fellow villagers (and occasionally on the lord) and this was sometimes put to the rest of the village as well for their assent. When making a judgement they had to take into account what they knew of the law, the customs of the manor and the manor’s bylaws. All the jurors and everyone else in the court knew both parties in every case that was brought before them, which was supposed to make it easier to come to a correct judgement. The system of justice was mostly based on the way in which society worked. People lived in small communities where everyone knew everyone else’s business and character. If you, as a villein, were asked whether your neighbour, Peter, had stolen from another neighbour, John, you would know the characters of both men and could assess whether John was making a false claim against Peter or whether Peter was a known thief. You did not have to have seen the (alleged) crime take place in order to be able to work out what had happened, nor did you need any evidence.

Villagers had to pay a fee to the lord get their case heard. The lord of the manor benefited from any fines issued by the court and the court was often the source of a large part of the lord’s income. The manorial court also required payments to the lord on all kinds of occasions – death, inheritance and marriage all had their appropriate fee. When these things happened part of the lord’s land was transferred from one person to another and the fee was to obtain the lord’s permission for that transfer. The court could generate a lot of income for the lord, and fines and fees tended to increase after the Black Death when there were fewer tenants to pay rents. The steward’s clerk recorded the cases and any fines or fees. As well as fines which went into the lord’s coffers, the court could also award damages to be paid by the guilty party in a case to the injured party.

One of the commonest cases to come before a manorial court was the accusation that someone was selling ale before it had been tasted by the ale taster. Ale was brewed at home and sold to the neighbours, who came to the brewer’s house to drink it. The ale taster’s rôle was to ensure that a consistent quality and price were maintained.

It is thanks to the surviving manor court rolls that so much is known about everyday life in the Middle Ages in England. What they show, however, is the things that went wrong and not the things that happened exactly as everybody thought they should.



England in the Reign of Edward III – Scott L. Waugh

Medieval Lives – Terry Jones

Life in a Medieval Village – Frances and Joseph Gies

Making a Living in the Middle Ages – Christopher Dyer

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

41 responses to “Manorial Courts

  1. Interesting as always April. I was amazed at how often “fines” appeared in the text. There seemed to be a fine for almost everything. Hey, what’s changed?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. They had to pay fines and fees for everything, but most of them made sense to them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Just a thought. Were the fines collected taxable? Did the lords of the manors pay tax to a higher authority? I guess so, the King perhaps? Or maybe fines were exempt from taxation.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Shaunn Munn

          I’m sure Ms. Munday has more info & the correct terminology, but I remember reading of many instances where payments were made by minor lords to their “betters”, including the king.

          I think a great deal of land was owned by the monarch outright. That entitled him to rents, fees & services. How many hands those payments went through before they reached the king’s coffers! I’m pretty sure tenants were often bilked,creating tension & mistrust of the king!

          The king also was the realm’s chief overlord, and he was owed for protecting the kingdom, keeping the peace, and internal fabric maintenance. Just reading the bios of individual kings gives a good, overall idea of how effective his rule was in the above matters. Weak rule, doubtless, gave mighty overlords the opportunities to create as much grief. Northumberland, Warwick and Mortimer come to mind as men who assumed too much power than was healthy for the realm! Henry VII understood that clearly, and was determined to consolidate & control his hard-won kingdom!

          Imagine trying to collect taxes, tolls and other kingly dues when large portions of the kingdom were in rebellion! Many royal tax collectors actually lost their lives in their line of work! Great overlords had no qualms about sending a body part to the King as a warning!

          Yes, the upper nobility & King were owed. But did they GET what they were due?

          Look forward to Ms.Munday’s answer to your question!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Being a tax collector, or someone who appointed the tax collectors, was a dangerous job in 1381, when many were killed in protest at the poll tax. Otherwise it was fairly lucrative in the fourteenth century. Tax collectors could be bribed to accept less tax than was due from certain people. It was also very difficult for the king’s exchequer to know exactly how much tax was due across the country. No one knew exactly how many people there were in the country or where they lived, and this problem only grew worse after the Black Death when people started to leave manors and towns that had lost too many people to survive. They often overestimated how much tax could be raised.

            The king was, indeed, the lord of many manors and they provided most of his income. I think he also had levies on things like wool and wine, but I’d have to do some reading to be certain how that worked.

            Things were fairly stable during the reign of Edward III, which is the period I’m mainly interested in. There were rebellions during the reigns of his father (Edward II) and grandson (Richard II), but not during his. He did, however, ask for a lot of money to be raised in taxes in order to fight the war with France, which caused him to be very unpopular in the early 1340s. Once he started winning victories and gaining territory, however, the taxes became less controversial.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Shaunn Munn

              I, too, am particularly interested in Edward III, especially of his third son, John of Gaunt. Misunderstood and mistrusted by many in his day; feared, loathed, loved, admired, and immensely powerful ,he was the progenitor of many crowned heads and his Duchy of Lancaster is still a Royal title!

              Whatever one might believe of Gaunt, his bloodline was responsible for sweeping changes & events throughout western Europe! Not bad for a third son! I believe he was the best of Edward’s children. I know I’m probably ticking off a lot of folks by saying that. I certainly don’t feel that way about a some of his progeny, but I really like old Gaunt!

              Liked by 1 person

              • I don’t know much about John of Gaunt, except that he was hated so much that it was rumoured that he was illegitimate. Edward of Woodstock is the son who interests me the most. The daughter who married a prisoner of war is rather interesting as well.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Shaunn Munn

                  Don’t know if you read Alison Weir’s works, but if you get a chance to read “Mistress of the Monarchy”, it is well worth it for the intense research she employs. It is about Katherine Swynford, Gaunt’s mistress & 3rd wife. Until I read it I was content to let Walsingam’s opinions rule about Gaunt. I was unaware that Walsingham hated Gaunt for his early protection of Lollards and for keeping a mistress, even though it was common for most powerful men of the times. He also denigrated Katherine, who might not have deserved the vitriolic censure.

                  Walsingham’s chronicles colored scholarly opinion for centuries, due to his being a monk, thus supposedly, a reliable historian.

                  Weir uncovered a wealth of data about Gaunt that refutes the Walsingham conceptions. I ended up admiring Gaunt (reservedly; he WAS a man of the times)
                  for being a man who did NOT appear to crave Richard II’s throne, but wanted to rule Spain through his 2nd wife, Catalina, eldest daughter of Pedro the Cruel. Of Edward III’s sons, Gaunt seemed to embody the best ideals of a knight, difficult, considering the temptations available to a prince.

                  Well, I need to stop. Your research & scholarship are just as careful as Weir’s, and just as interesting, as you also deal with the lesser folk from whence most of us spring! Thank you for that! Hope your Monday is a fun day!

                  Liked by 1 person

        • The king had to get taxes approved by Parliament and they could only be for specific things – usually a war. This meant that there weren’t permanent, general taxes. I don’t know much about taxation, , but I do know that it was rather complicated.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Cool info as always April, lots of scope for corruption in that set up 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Shaunn Munn

    I’m thinking that if the ale tasters had it in for a publican (as in alehouse proprietor , not a Roman tax collector), they could make it very difficult to sell the new ale!

    Fresh ale, without stabilizers, goes off quickly, becoming quite unpleasant. Medieval brewers had not yet the benefits of hops. Ale tasters, if they chose to lollygag & delay, could cause a batch to go bad. What a power trip!

    And I just bet the alewife STILL had to pay taxes for the batch, sold or not.
    It could quickly put her out of business. Wonder if it ever happened?

    Thanks for the spackle! More cracks covered! Ms .Munday, I hope your weekend was delightful!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Shaun. I think it’s more likely that people wouldn’t wait for the ale taster. You’re right that ale would go off very quickly. Women were making ale for their household and often made enough to sell to their neighbours. It meant that each household didn’t have to have ale at various stages of production all the time, because they could buy it from a neighbour while they were starting a new batch. I doubt the fines for selling ale before it had been tested were punitive, as nobody would want to discourage the practice of selling it to neighbours. I’ll have to look at the size of the fines and write a post about them.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post, lots of detail and research…I love that bit about the ale taster. Knowing that ale was drunk instead of water I had occasionally pondered the relative tastes and quality of individual brews…we humans can be good at putting useful systems in place…sometimes.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Legal history is fascinating. Interesting how requirements of jury neutrality have done a complete about-turn over the centuries.
    From: Jack may not have stolen that particular hen, but we know he’s stolen others…
    To: Did Jack steal that hen? We don’t know Jack, or if he’s a hen-stealer…

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Shaunn Munn

    Sounds to me that neighborliness would be a huge asset in medieval days. Honesty and keeping one’s word would be vital to keeping off the radar of the Lord’s officers. Doubtless many a promise or deal had witnesses to attest, especially if contention was probable in the future!

    And thinking about the issues of keeping boundaries; I know that beating the bounds was a way to impress upon the young where the location of borders. If I recall correctly, an authority would take boys around the area & either beat THEM at, or have them beat landmarks, with withy wands. Isn’t this still a custom at the Tower of London? Do you know if the lads were actually themselves beaten to impress the landmark locations upon their brains? Or is this fanciful tinkering with fact?

    Thank you & have a great day!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve heard things about beating the bounds, but I haven’t come across it in any of the books. I can’t think that they’ll have beaten the boys, as that would have been a bit counterproductive. I bought a new book about medieval manors lately, so I’ll see what it has to say about beating the bounds.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. April, glad tidings on the day after Twelfth Night (actually my historical reenactment group will be doing another Twelfth Night next weekend LOL): I finally was able to download “The Earl’s Tale.” Huzzah! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Fascinating – I didn’t know most of it and a lot of the rest I’d forgotten. Your last sentence is a good point – I remember my history tutor saying something similar. I’m sure I was an ale taster in a previous life…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Another fascinating post, April. I love learning more about the medieval lifestyle although it appears money (fines) has always made the world go around! I’m also going to check out your source material as they looks interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

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