Dr Bainbridge introduced her talk by setting the scene: the Manorial Documents Register (MDR) is maintained by the National Archives and provides brief descriptions of the documents and details of their locations. She pointed out that Manor Courts are presumed to have withered away under the Tudors once the parishes took over as centres for local administration. The MDR was set up in the 1920s but most records are still in the hands of the lords of manors or their solicitors.

For the last two years Dr Bainbridge has been working as the MDR Project Manager for Wiltshire and Swindon. The aim of her work has been to provide a revised record on an elective database. On 12th July the new Wiltshire and Swindon Manorial Documents Register went live on the National Archives Discovery site ~ http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/manor-search .

Wiltshire and Swindon Manorial Documents Register went live on The National Archives Discovery website. Claire Skinner, principal archivist,  managed the project and the work was been done by project officer Dr Virginia Bainbridge [back row, fifth on left] and a team of 20 volunteers, assisted by Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre staff. ~ photograph courtesy of  Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre

Wiltshire and Swindon Manorial Documents Register went live on The National Archives Discovery website. Claire Skinner, principal archivist, managed the project and the work was been done by project officer Dr Virginia Bainbridge [back row, fifth on left] and a team of 20 volunteers, assisted by Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre staff. ~ photograph courtesy of Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre

Effectively, the system of manors helped to govern England until 1922. Like parish records, manorial records are an underused resource. In 1086, Domesday Book recorded information on all the landed estates of England. Many of these estates developed into the manors which controlled their tenants’ lives for over eight more centuries. Manorial officials began writing records in the decades around 1200 when record-keeping became more common. The bailiff was the overseer of a manor or estate and directed the farming and other work. He would have manor reeves under him and be responsible either directly to his lord or to the steward or seneschal. The system of demesne farming continued into the 12th century and was important to the lords of the manor who ran their estates for themselves and not for the benefit of their tenants.

The manor was the basic unit of local government long before the parish took over this role around 1600. Manor courts registered tenancies and tried minor offences. Like councils today, they controlled licensed premises, weights and measures and markets. The lord’s officials – reeves, bailiffs and agents – kept accounts of crop and stock yields, made extents, surveys and valuations, and drew maps. After the enclosure of common fields and pastures, a process which reached its peak around 1780, manor courts no longer controlled common agriculture, but they still registered tenancies of farms and cottages, recorded last wills and testaments for their tenants, and dealt with public nuisances like blocked ditches. Inevitably, changes in society in the 17th-18th centuries greatly changed the roll of manorial courts, for instance, they used to organise collective farming.

To turn to Corsham, the majority of the records are post-1600 and some are post-1700. Perhaps most notably Corsham features in 1085 in that wonderful survey called Domesday Book, where it is recorded:

“The king holds Cosseham. Earl Tosti held it in the time of King Edward. There are 34 hides, but it renders geld for 18 hides. The land is 50 carucates. In demesne are 11 hides and there are 7 carucates and 10 serfs. There are 65 villans and 48 coscets and 9 cottars with 38 carucates. There are 2 mills worth 8/6, and 32 acres of meadow and 1 hide of pasture and 2 miles of wood in length and breadth. This manor with its appendages pays 30 pounds by weight. The English, however, value it at 31 pounds by tale. The abbey of St. Stephen of Caen holds the church of this manor with 2 hides of land [In the Exon Domesday this is returned at 2½ hides]. The land is 5 carucates. This is held by 3 villans with 6 coscets. It is worth £7 .”

Corsham was clearly an important estate area and adjacent to the very important Anglo-Saxon manor of Chippenham. The manor of Corsham was under the Chippenham hundred in the reign of King John. Corsham was long associated with royalty, for instance, in 1242 King Henry III gave this manor to his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall and Edward III and his queen spent time there in 1346. Queen Elizabeth retained the lordship of the manor in her own hands for some years, but in 1572 granted the two parks, fish ponds, warrens, and advowson of the church, to her favourite, Sir Christopher Hatton. Shortly after Hatton became so impoverished that he was forced to sell Corsham and other estates. This sale resulted in the Corsham estate coming into the hands of Thomas Smyth, who was a Corsham man, and had made a huge fortune out of the farm of the customs of the port of London. He gave his Corsham estate to his third son Henry during his lifetime, and spent his remaining years in Kent. During the next 150 year the manor lands changed hands many times until 1770, when the whole of the three parcels were reunited in the hands of Paul Methuen, of Bradford.

Manorial records survive today in surprisingly large quantities, mostly dating from 1700 to 1922. Their location is recorded by the Manorial Document Register, set up by the Law of Property Act which abolished the legal powers of manor courts in 1922. They are one of the most underused sources of family and local history, providing enough information to create short biographies of leading tenants from the 1200s on, and augmenting information from parish records and the Census. The revised MDR will provide greater public access to this important body of records, and this will be enhanced yet further by a legacy project of name-indexing the records which is being carried out by a group of volunteers on behalf of the Wiltshire Family History Society. Dr. Bainbridge expressed the hope that the Methuen papers may now be catalogued.

Dr Negley Harte is chair of the Wiltshire Manorial Records and Dr Bainbridge is a member.

John Maloney

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