Lord of the manor are among the oldest titles in England and pre-date the Norman Conquest, begun by King William I at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Historians are not agreed on how the word manor originated. It has been suggested that it was an import, manoir, or perhaps even older, from the Latin, manerium. Nor are historians sure whether it was a purely Saxon concept, its origins lying in the need for self-defence down the east coast against succeeding incursions by Germanic tribes and later Vikings.
They are agreed, however, that the manor was the pivot of the Feudal System, defined in the 11th century ‘by certain ecclesiastics who propounded the theory that human society was divided into three orders, the oratores, the bellatores, and the laboratores: those who protected (the Kingdom) with their prayers and their swords, and those who tilled the earth to support the other two classes’ (Dr A P M Wright, Senior Assistant Editor, VCH writing in the Bulletin of the Manorial Society of Great Britain, 1981).
By the time of Edward the Confessor (r 1042-66), the lord of the manor, be he the local leader, or some great suzerain, such as Earl Godwinson of Wessex, was the most important person in village affairs, whether it be collecting taxes for the King or dispensing ‘high justice’, the power to inflict death in his courts.
Historians are also agreed that the Normans institutionalized the manorial system in Domesday Book, compiled for William the Conqueror in 1086 and listing 13,418 manors and their owners. It was an inventory of the wealth of the new kingdom and a ‘list’ of the principal landowners. It is still a Government document, housed at the National Archives, Kew (formerly the Public Record Office), where it is known as Public Record No 1. The conquerors also introduced the word feudum, from feuum (the Latin form of the Old English feoh, cattle, money, possessions in general); either a landlord’s holding, or lands held under the terms of a specific grant.
It took the 18th century, however, to come up with the expression ‘Feudal System’ which is made to have uniform operation in the High Middle Ages. Few things could be further from the truth. The Feudal System was versatile and diverse, which is why this form of landholding survived in many parts of England and Wales.
Some manors were abolished in the reign of William II Rufus (1087-1100) in royal forests, which this and later Norman and early Plantagenet kings continued in their efforts to preserve one of their favourite past-times, hunting with dogs and bow and arrow, spear, traps. Indeed, there were no rabbits in England before the Normans, who brought them in from France for hunting. It has long been (wrongly) thought that the kingdom was covered by forests, but this is incorrect. The Romans, and then the Anglo-Saxons, had cleared most of the forests in their need for an expanding agricultural economy, for timber construction, and for heat and warmth. Consequently, the forest in south-west Hampshire, planted by Rufus, is called the New Forest because it was ‘new’.
Nevertheless, there were many descernible ‘traditional’ manors. In return for his protection and the land he gave them, the people on the manor, from slaves to freemen, owed their lord certain services, ranging from money rents to working so many days a week on the lord’s ‘home farm’, or demesne, without wages (week-work). As it happened, many men on the manor did receive wages, especially skilled men, such as the blacksmith or the miller, or such skilled men rented a smithy or mill from the lord and kept the profit for themselves.
In theory, most men held their land ‘at pleasure’, though in practice the customary tenants, or villeins, were fairly secure, provided they undertook their services: week-work, the harvest boon (precaria) when they helped the lord get his corn in, used the lord’s mill to grind their corn and his fold for their animals so that he might benefit from the manure on his land.
If the tenants of the manor disagreed, they went before the manorial court, presided over by one of the lord’s officers, usually the Bailiff, who decided and imposed fines often called ‘arbitrary’ though, in fact, usually determined by custom. If there were some crime committed, some lords could arrest, try, and punish upto ‘pit and gallows’, gibbet, and mutilation.
In the High Middle Ages of the 12th century, many an overlord could simply say: ‘it is my will’ and there is surely no better basis for prestige than this. Indeed, the great ‘nobles’ of the period expressed their wealth and, therefore, their power through the number of manors they held, many becoming barons by tenure and, by the reign of Edward I, barons by writ of summons to Parliament.
Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, the English nobility was a caste whose power was based on the ownership of land through the manor. Their peerages, unlike those on the continent, were purely honorific and they lost them if they lost their landed status.
Nothing is immutable and in time the powers of the lord were diminished. For example, no self-respecting King of England could permit any other than his own appointed officials to have power of life and death over his subjects. Private criminal courts slowly atrophied from the reign of Henry II (1154-89), during which criminal judicial circuits were established (known as assizes which continued until 1974 when the Crown Court was instituted for no perceptible reason). The medieval royal itinerant justices fought a long battle with the lord of the manor over his powers of criminal jurisdiction. The death knell of private criminal justice was sounded by King Edward I (r 1272-1307) who instituted the Writ of Quo Warranto (by what warrant did some private lord exercise ‘high justice’). If one were unable to produce the Warrant from a king – in most cases many years earlier – one lost criminal jurisdiction. Those lords, like the Church, who kept chanceries (records) that proved the right were then subjected to intervention, often as a matter of course, by itinerant royal justices who reviewed the proceedings in what would become the later Appeal. By the end of the Middle Ages, all private criminal jurisdiction was gone, residual elements being mopped up by the Court of Star Chamber. This famous Court, introduced by King Henry VII, the first Tudor, was enormously popular among ordinary people and highly unpopular among the rich and powerful because it tended to side with the underling against his master.
Interestingly. King Edward III (r 1327-77) instituted justices of the peace, many of whom were the local lord of the manor because they knew their area and often some of the people who came before them, but their judgments of first instance could be appealed, while justices of the peace were obliged to hold on remand those accused of any remotely serious crime to the king’s court at the next assize, supervised by the sheriff, the principal royal official in a county, who held ‘at pleasure’, later ‘on good behaviour’ (1692). Manorial lords are by no means missing from the lists of justices of the peace, deputy lieutenants, high sheriffs, or lords lieutenant today.
At the economic level, the medieval period saw enormous changes. A substantial increase in the population in the 13th century meant that the irksome duty of week-work from a reluctant peasantry became increasingly unproductive. Agricultural science did not improve until the 18th century so that land that had been waste at Domesday was always being taken under the plough.
The result was the evolution of paid labourers (men no longer tied to the land through the lordship and, importantly, ‘free’ to find work where they could) and the reclamation (assarting) of waste which was granted out by lords on very favourable terms to people who became copyholders, effectively landholders certain who held title to their land by copy of the manorial court roll in return for a half-yearly rent payable at the lord’s court. The customary tenants quickly benefitted from this process too and became copyholders. lords, like kings, needed more and more cash in the vastly more complex society of the 14th century, and were willing to grant out lands by copyhold in return for a fixed two-yearly rent, fixed ‘by custom’ in the manorial Court. Unfortunately for the upper classes, the conception of inflation was not understood, and biannual copyhold fines of £2 may have been very good, but by the 20th century were worth far less, and in many cases were more expensive to collect than the income received. Not so other manorial rights, which is why these were preserved in the 1922-25 legislation.
Although frequently strict in the application of their manorial rights, the Church, the largest landowner in the Middle Ages, tended to be a revolutionizing institution, its priesthood, right up to the highest prelates, originating in not a few cases from the lowly classes.
Lords would often apply to the king for special rights within the manor. The most valuable of these was the monopoly to hold a market and fair in the manor and these are the most common among Royal Charters to manorial lords: there were virtually no shops as we know them, apart from London, Norwich, and York, and retailing was carried out at markets, the lord usually being granted in his Charter a Pie Powder Court by which he regulated the activities of buyers and sellers. He derived a financial benefit, first, from letting booths and stalls, and, second, from the profits of the justice his officers meted out in fines – for example, for using short weights, or selling watered ale.
There are also charters for foreshore rights, rights of wreck, treasure trove, free warren (sporting rights), riparian and and piscaries rights (river banks and fishing). These are special rights, like market rights, and do not automatically travel with the transfer of a manor to new ownership unless specifically set out. General rights that did and do pass with the transfer of a manor include rights to mines and minerals, waste, and common.
Droit de seigneur, or jus primae noctis, the right to have the bride on her wedding night, is fiction. It was an alleged right of feudal lords in medieval Europe to sleep the first night with the bride of any of his vassals. There is some evidence of such a right in some primitive societies. The only evidence of its existence in Europe is of payments by a vassal known as ‘merchet’ in lieu of the lord’s right to select a bride for his vassal (The Oxford Companion to Law, ed David M Walker). Almost everyone in the Middle Ages believed in God and Jesus Christ, as expressed by the Church of Rome, which did not make everyone angels, but the idea that the Church would acquiesce in a lord taking his vassal’s bride would have been the equivalent of approving fornication, an absurd idea. This myth has perhaps been perpetuated in the ‘Penny Dreadful’ novellas of the 19th century.
As noted, general rights were the copyhold income from the tenantry, manorial waste, common land, the profits of justice in the manorial court, heriots (payment of ‘the best beast or chattel’) on death and inheritance, murage and scutage (a ‘tax wall and shield exactions for self-defence), pontage (a fee for bridge repair), mineral excavation rights, and many others.
It is easy to judge, from this plethora rights, how important the lord of the manor was, not only socially, but economically. In effect, however, these rights were worn away throughout the later Middle Ages, and there was little left by 1500, other than copyhold and the manorial rights that might still be assigned today.
In the 20th century the Act went on to confirm many of the historic rights, general and special, long enjoyed by the lord of the manor: the right to market and fair, mineral excavation (subject to the enfranchisement of the copyhold, the subsoil still belongs to the lord of the manor), fishing rights, sporting rights, manorial waste (principally the verges of the road and those areas in rural manors which do not appear to belong to anyone), common land rights (subject to the Common Land Registration Act 1965), the village green.
Some lords today can receive substantial sums (known as wayleaves) for the footings of windmills on wind farms, since these 300 or 400ft machines require footings considerably deeper than the topsoil (3ft) owned by the landowner.
Many of England’s most ancient titles of what we are now pleased to call nobility are based on baronies by tenure: eg Earl Ranulph de Meschines grants the Barony of Greystock, Cumbria, to Lyulph, and Henry I confirms this landholding. Lyulph, whose ancestors are completely unknown, is ancestor to eight generations of feudal Barons of Greystock. In the ninth generation is Ralph, who is summoned to Parliament as a baron by writ in 1295. The difference between the baron by writ, or patent, and the honorial baron, or baron by tenure was that the latter would not expect to sit in the councils of the realm unless summoned beyond the reign of Henry III.
The present Duke of Norfolk is feudal Earl of Arundel (besides being parliamentary earl), a feudal title which, like lord of the manor, is protected in the 1922 Property Act. The Duke’s ancestor, William de Albini (Albany), married Adeliza, widow of Henry I and daughter of Godfrey Duke of Lorraine. Adeliza had in dower Arundel Castle, Sussex, and William became Earl of Arundel in 1139 by this marriage. The feudal Earldom of Arundel came into the Howard family in 1580, on the death of Henry FitzAlan, 18th feudal Earl of Arundel, whose daughter and heiress, Mary, was mother to Philip FitzAlan-Howard, 19th feudal Earl. It was not until the passing of an Act of Parliament in 1628 that Thomas FitzAlan-Howard, 20th feudal Earl of Arundel, also became parliamentary Earl of Arundel. The Duke’s feudal Earldom, like a manor title, is vested in property. The parliamentary earldom would descend to the Duke’s successors as specified in the Act and subsequent Acts and patents; but, presumably, were the family to part with Arundel Castle, there would be a feudal Earl of Arundel in addition to a parliamentary earl of the same name.
Helen Cam, in her Introduction to Law-Finders and Law-Makers in Medieval England (Merlin Press, London), say: ‘Whilst the King’s vassals fulfilled their responsibilities and vindicated their rights in his courts, all over England, their own sub-vassals, the baron’s barons, were acting as judges in their lords’ courts, and helping to adjust the conflicting claims of the old and new tenants of the honour and the manor.’
In describing thegnship, that Saxon Lordship with which Domesday is scattered, Professor F W Maitland (Domesday Book and Beyond, Cambridge University Press, 1897), calls wealthy thegns barones maiores, and poorer thegns barones minores. ‘The household of a great man, but more especially the King’s household, is the cradle of thegnship… Then the King… begins to give land to his thegns, and thus the nature of thegnship is modified. The thegn no longer lives in his lord’s court; he is a warrior endowed with land. Then the thegnship becomes more than a relationship; it becomes a status.’
Right into the early Angevin period (from 1154), the king’s barons, Professor Stentonwrites, ‘remained a large and indeterminate body, defined by a rough equality of rank and a general similarity of territorial position, but by nothing that even approximated to any rule of law.’ The word baron is used by historians and writers today in a way that it is safe to assume that the author is thinking of a tenant-in-chief of the king. ‘In a general survey of constitutional history,’ Professor Maitland remarks, ‘it is convenient to use the term in this limited sense. But the usage receives no support from the private charters of the Norman period, in which earls, bishops, and many lords of lesser status continually speak of their own tenants as barones.’
‘Dark as is the early history of the manor,’ Professor Maitland writes in The Constitutional History of England (CUP, 1926), ‘we can see that before the Conquest England is covered by what in all substantive points are manors, though the term manor is brought hither by the Normans.’ Since this is so and since, as already observed, there can be no surer basis of prestige than to say, ‘it is my will,’ the status conveyed by manorial lordship, or Feudal Barony pre-dates the peerage of England, as it is understood today, by at least 200 years. The former is vested in jurisdiction over land, the second in the will of the sovereign and is purely honorific.
The military aristocracy of the 12th century would, I suspect, laugh at the later concept of nobility through pedigree. Most would probably not have known who their grand parentswere. Very little is known of the family of Hugh the Great, Duke of France, who ruled that cradle of the chivalric ideal. William the Conqueror’s principal followers were opportunistic thugs, many of whom are never heard of again after Domesday Book; while even of those who went on to become earls and bishops later, we know virtually nothing of their antecedents in most cases. Early pedigree charts are fragmentary. The Anglo-Norman period was one of great rises to, and falls from, fortune. There was no time to consider such niceties as nobility, or pedigree. A great family is suddenly there: take the celebrated house of Bellême, who rise to instant prominence at the Battle of Hastings; their ‘ancestor’ of one generation seems to have been a crossbowman. He becomes a lord of manors and, being practical, it was this wealth that was all that mattered. The first Anglo-Norman monarchs were only interested in a man’s landholding and territorial power, not his pedigree. That came later through such tendencies as chivalry, courtly love, the importance of thrones passing in the legitimate line, the growing influence of the Church (marriage only became a Sacrament in the 10th century). William the Conqueror was also known as William the Bastard, because he was born out of wedlock, but he inherited Normandy and conquered England. Unlike most of his contemporaries, there is not a word against his private life and he was undoubtedly faithful to his wife. Orderic Vitalis, writing in the early 11th century is very helpful on Norman and Anglo-Norman descents, and the fact that Orderic – and near contemporaries, like William of Poitiers or William of Jumièges – (all clergymen) focus on pedigree means that family is increasingly important. I cannot think of any English monarch after William I (and he by conquest), who succeeded to the Throne who was known to be illegitimate. It was much more convenient to pass property to legitimate heirs in states like England and France where warring between subjects was the exception, and generally suppressed by kings where it occurred.
In the French or German sense of the word, in this early Norman period and before, England had no nobility; that is to say that among the freemen there was no intrinsically superior class enjoying a privileged legal status of its own, transmitted by descent, although it was nascent in families like the Godwinsons towards the end of the reign of King Edward the Confessor (d 1066). In appearance, English society was an astonishingly egalitarian structure. That said, essentially, it was based on the existence of an extremely rigid hierarchic division, though the line was drawn at a lower level than elsewhere in Europe. It meant that on English soil, the freeman was in law scarcely less distinguishable from the nobleman. But the freemen themselves were an oligarchy. Yet England had an aristocracy as powerful as any in Europe – more powerful perhaps because the land of the peasants, through the manor, was still more at its mercy. It was a class of manorial lords, of warrior chieftains, of royal officials, and of knights of the shire – all of them men whose mode of life differed greatly and consciously from that of the common run of freemen. At the top was the narrow circle of earls and barons. During the 13th century, this highest group began to be endowed with fairly definite privileges, but these were almost exclusively political and honorific in nature; and, above all, being attached to the fief de dignité, to the Honor, they were transmissable only to the eldest son. In short, the class of noblemen in England remained as a whole more a social than a legal class.
Naturally, although power and revenues were as a rule inherited, and although, as on the continent, the prestige of birth was greatly prized, this group was too ill-defined not to remain largely open. In the 13th century, the possession of landed wealth was sufficient to authorize the assumption of knighthood, in fact made it obligatory. Something like a century and a half later, it officially confirmed the right (always restricted by the characteristic rule to free tenure) to elect in the shires the representatives of the Commons of the land. And, although in theory, these same representatives – they were known by the significant name of knights of the shire and had originally to be chosen from among the dubbed knights – were required to furnish proof of hereditary armorial bearings, it does not appear that in practice any family of solid wealth and social distinction ever encountered much difficulty in obtaining permission to use such emblems. There were no ‘letters of nobility’ among the English at this period – the creation of baronets by the needy House of Stuart was only a belated imitation of French practices. There was no need for them. The actual situation was enough.
We must wait until the 14th century, or possibly the very late 13th, before the idea of chivalry, or prudhommie, or pedigree begin to become important in England as concepts, setting some men apart from others, and reflecting, among other things, a more settled state in society. King Edward III inaugurates the ‘Round Table’ with the Most Noble Order of the Garter (c 1347) to which he invited his personal friends and military commanders. The Garter is not much different today. Parliament, in 1351, in the Statute of Labourers, attempts for the first time to restrict the acquisition of land and manors by wealthy merchants from impoverished ‘old money’. It tries again and again in the 14th and throughout the 15th centuries to stop commercial new money from wearing certain furs and velvets (sumptuary laws), or owning more than 40 acres in the country.
Such efforts were thwarted by economic realities and the kings of England themselves, the Tudors particularly, preferred new wealth and the cleverness that spawned it, to the old wealth and jealousies that sustained it. The ‘new man’ of the Tudors was also likely to be completely dependent on the king and not on any genealogical associations and alliances with old families. Which is not to say that ancient families were unwelcome, but two dukes of Norfolk were executed in the 16th century, and a third, as Earl of Arundel, spent most of his life and died in the Tower in the last years of Queen Elizabeth I.
Badges, banners, flags, seals were originally intended as means by which a man might be identified in time of battle, or on papers which the illiterate, many of whom included the nobility, could recognize. King Henry V established something approximating to a formalization of these devices. King Richard III in 1484 established the College of Arms which contains a number of Household officers: the three Kings of Arms, Garter, Clarenceux, and Norroy and Ulster; a number of Officers in Ordinary (Heralds); and Pursuivants and Officers Extraordinary. They have granted arms to men and women of virtue for more than 500 years, despite conceits, which have appeared in every generation since 1484 – even to this day – which will ossify the institution.
It has been mainly by keeping close to the practical things which give real power, and avoiding the paralysis that overtakes social classes, which are too sharply divided and too dependent on birth, that the English aristocracy acquired the dominant position it retained for centuries, and to some extent still does.
Lord of the manor are among the oldest titles in England and pre-date the Norman Conquest, begun by King William I at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.