Using Manorial Records for Local and Family History

on Friday, 20 February 2015. Posted in Archives

Have you ever wondered what role manors played in Medieval local government? For many centuries the lives of our ancestors were controlled by the Lord of the manor on which they lived. This was because the system of parishes covering England was not in place until c. 1300. The manor was the basic unit of local government until the parish took over this role in Tudor times. Even then, manors remained important.

The Lord’s manor courts collected income in fines and rents and recorded the names of his tenants. They appointed officers such as constables and haywards, and controlled the quality of local bread and ale. The chief tenants used the manor courts to organise collective farming on the open fields, before these were enclosed into farms in the 1700s and 1800s. After enclosure, manor courts still had the power to transfer copyhold, or leasehold, property.

In 1922 the Law of Property Act abolished copyhold tenure. The Manorial Document Register (MDR) was set up, so landlords and tenants could find the records of their leases. The MDR records the location of all manorial records and the catalogue for Wiltshire and Swindon is currently being revised with volunteer help. The project is scheduled to end this September. The revised catalogue will be uploaded onto The National Archives website.

We hope that the new catalogue will help local and family historians to make better use of manorial records. Court rolls and books include wills made by our ancestors, leases of their homes and workplaces, and details of every-day life in Wiltshire’s villages and towns, including Swindon. Launch events this coming autumn will include a study day to publicise the use of manorial records for local and family history.

Virginia Bainbridge

MDR project officer for Wiltshire and Swindon

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