Book Review: Manorial Records for Family Historians by Geoffrey Barber

Manorial Records for Family Historians by Geoffrey Barber

Manorial Records for family historians. By Geoffrey Barber. Published by UnlockThePast Publications, PO Box 119, St Agnes SA 5097, Australia. AUS $15.31. Available as an e-book from, AUS$9.95. 2017. 80 pp. Index. Softcover.

The manorial system introduced into England and Wales by the Normans, following their conquest in 1066, lasted until 1926. For family historians the primary period of interest will be the 16th through the 18th centuries, with coverage before and after depending upon the what records have survived and how long the manor and its courts continued to function. These records when combined with all the church records, including those in the parish chest, can bring the lives of our ancestors to life.

The book begins with how to use the Manorial Documents Register to identify which manorial records have survived for a given location. These are, now online for most counties, with the remainder expected soon. The example used, Rotherfield in East Sussex, highlights that multiple manors, in this case six, can exist within one parish. The following three chapters provide: an overview of the manor; a description of the social structure (free and unfree tenants); and explanations of  how the manor is administered identifying the officials and their roles that are likely to be found running the manor.

The manorial system is the origin of the present land system in England and Wales. It is at the heart of manorial studies, and of great relevance to family historians. Mr. Barber thus explains the differences between: demesne land; copyhold or customary tenure; freehold land; and leasehold land, identifying how each can be recognized in the records and what it meant for the people themselves.

The most voluminous records of the manor are likely to be the those of the Court Baron and Court Leet, with the other courts being mentioned briefly. These court records give us “details on changes in property ownership, lists of people attending court, appointments to community positions, names of people fined for minor infringements and in some cases even deaths and details of oral wills witnessed by manorial officials (p.46).”

The addition of three case studies showing how to use manorial records to physically locate properties on the ground enhances the value of this book. All examples are from Rotherfield in East Sussex. The first is a straightforward copyhold example showing a widow taking possession in 1691, following the ownership succession until it leaves the family in 1801, and locating the property using the tithe maps of the 1840s. The second example is a named and described piece of freehold property, owned by the family from before 1580 until 1781, located through a manorial survey, though the property name was still being used in 1911 census. The third more complicated example involves a specific copyhold house in the village of Rotherfield, occupied by the family between 1530 and 1650, and being eventually sold in 1677, yet its description was used to identify its location on the tithe maps from the 1840s.

The book concludes with a helpful glossary and bibliography.

This can be a complicated subject, but Mr. Barber has succeeded in explaining the operations of the manor succinctly. Few of these records will have been digitized, some have been published, and some have been transcribed and translated from the original Latin, but the examples and case studies highlight their value for family historians.

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