Tag Archives: Medieval Bailiff

The Medieval Bailiff


Whilst I was finding out about stewards last week, I was also reading about bailiffs.  The bailiff was the senior person living on the manor if the lord was absent.

Whereas the position of steward was one of honour, demonstrating the regard in which a man was held by his lord, that of bailiff was much lowlier. He was likely to be a younger son of the gentry or the member of a better-off peasant family and was appointed on the steward’s recommendation. That means that somehow or other he had to have come to the attention of the steward. In the worst cases this might be through bribery,  but you can also imagine pushy parents putting their sons in the way of local stewards, or stewards appointing their own illegitimate sons. Often, of course, the steward would simply come across a young man who impressed him.

The bailiff was an employee of the lord of the manor and he collected the rents, so reading and writing were necessary skills. As the lord’s permanent representative on the manor, he didn’t just represent the lord to its inhabitants, but also to strangers and visitors. When the lord was absent, the bailiff lived in the manor house. His life would have been fairly comfortable, except that he was usually hated by the tenants and villeins.

In many ways, his duties were the same as those of the reeve, the chief villein on the manor. There were major differences between them, however, not least that the bailiff was paid and the reeve was not. The reeve was compensated in other ways, and occasionally helped himself to compensation, but the bailiff was paid with money.

The bailiff’s first priority was the demesne, the part of the manor that was solely for the support of the lord. It was the bailiff’s job to manage the livestock and the crops, and to make sure that as little as possible was stolen. He was also responsible for buying in from outside things that couldn’t be grown or made on the manor, such as salt, iron, tar, parchment or nails.

The bailiff was supposed to view the whole manor every day so that he could decide when the land was to be manured, and when the threshing, ploughing sowing and harvesting were going to take place. He also had to watch over the shearing of the sheep. The sale of wood and skins from the manor was his responsibility. The money from these would have been an important part of the lord’s income. He decided which of the lord’s livestock should be bought or sold.

The bailiff also had non-agricultural duties. He was chief law officer and business manager for the manor.

Lords were advised not to appoint friends or relatives as their bailiffs, but the mere fact that this advice is recorded indicates that it was a fairly common practice that must have led to many problems.


A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams

Life in a Medieval Village by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies

The English Manor by Mark Bailey

Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life

Medieval Officers of the Law


Over the last few weeks we’ve looked at the various courts of fourteenth-century England. Today it’s the turn of the officials who ran the courts.

I’ve already written about the person who managed the manorial court. This was the manor’s reeve.

At the county, or shire, level the sheriff was responsible for the court, which was held once a month or so. He was the chief officer in a shire, or the shire reeve. The sheriff represented the crown and investigated crimes in his jurisdiction. He could also try minor offences. When someone was accused of a serious crime, he had to detain them until a judge visited the county. Sheriffs collected revenue, fines, and rents. They also executed writs, put together juries, guarded prisoners and presided over the county court. It was also the sheriff’s job to investigate things other than crimes and report back to the king.  They had military as well as legal responsibilities. They gathered men to fight in the king’s wars and kept them fed.

It won’t surprise you to learn that sheriffs could be bribed. They had great power and any threat they made to extort money could probably be carried out with impunity. Despite it being illegal, it wasn’t unknown for them to torture prisoners, and they could make money by threatening well-off prisoners with torture. Should someone escape from one of his prisons or if he caught someone committing a crime, the sheriff could behead them then and there, provided the coroner was present. He was a man greatly to be feared.

The bailiff was the chief officer of a hundred. He was subsidiary to the sheriff and he also represented the crown. Of the 628 hundreds in England, 358 were in the hands of lords of the manor. Usually they allowed sheriffs access to their courts, but they didn’t have to, and some of them did not. Many of these lords had the right to appoint coroners and hang criminals without reference to the sheriff.

Judges travelled out to local courts. This was supposed to be a way of decreasing corruption. As we saw in the post about outlaws, local courts could be swayed by fear and bribery. Since the judges, their wealth and their families were not located in the areas where they were administering justice, they were supposed to be ‘untouchable’. As we saw in the case of Sir Richard Willoughby, this was not necessarily the case.

The coroner was another court official. One of his duties was to make sure that goods and chattels belonging to an executed man or any fines taken in the hundred and county courts went to the king, and not to anyone else. Coroners held inquests on dead bodies. Much as today, it was their job to find out whether the person had been murdered, committed suicide, died naturally or by accident. They heard appeals and the confessions of outlaws. They recorded and reported burglaries, arson and homicides to the royal justices.

A town was a division of a hundred. It was usually part of a manor. The town constable was responsible for making the bailiff aware of crimes and bringing cases to the hundred court. The constable watched suspicious people and organised the pursuit of wrong-doers when the hue and cry was raised. This was a loud noise telling the people of a town or village that a burglary or murder had been committed. Everyone who heard it was supposed to leave what they were doing to view the scene of the crime and to pursue the criminal.

The chief tithing-man had to report to the manorial court or the constable, depending on where the tithing was.

In 1361 the position of justice of the peace was created. This was a local lord of the manor who held quarter sessions. The trials were before juries and the justices had the ability to give the death penalty. They gradually replaced sheriffs and hundred courts. Justices of the peace could punish rioters and people who broke the peace. They could arrest and imprison them or hold their goods and money against their continued good behaviour in the future. They could try people for certain crimes. The powers of the justices of the peace increased over the rest of the century. One of their later powers included supervising laws preventing workers from overcharging for their labour, which was a common occurrence after the Black Death.



A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases – Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams

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

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



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law