Genealogical Ponderings

the Professional Family History Blog

Professional Family History Blog
  1. Manorial Documents Register

    Leave a Comment

    With the recent release of the online index to the Manorial Document Register for Suffolk it seems timely to write a piece on manorial documents.

    Manorial documents are often overlooked when conducting genealogical research. However, they can contain a wealth of information about your ancestors, whether they were involved in land transactions, had committed offences or were listed as members of the jury. They are also invaluable when researching the history of a property, recording the transfer of property often over multiple generations.

    When William I arrived in 1066 and took possession of England, all land belonged to the monarch. The term real estate comes literally from royal estate. William distributed or enfeoffed much of his land to his major barons, or tenants-in-chief, in return for them providing him with loyalty and an army when required. The barons subsequently enfeoffed some of their lands to lesser barons or mesne lords, who in turn may have distributed some of their lands and so on, a process known as subinfeudation.

    The lords of the manor so-formed granted land to tenants within the manor in return for services and payments according to the customs of the manor. Most tenants were unfree and held land on a customary or copyhold basis, other were free tenants and held a freehold tenure. In addition there were leasehold tenures in some manors.

    There were three types of manorial court originally: the Court Baron and Court Customary were responsible for the general administration of the manor, the upholding of the customs of the manor, the payments of fines and rents, the business of land and property transfer and disputes between tenants. In theory the Court Baron discussed freehold land and the Court Customary discussed customary or copyhold land but both courts were frequently held together as one, called the Court Baron, usually every three weeks. All tenants were obliged to attend. The responsibilities of the Court Baron decreased over time as the importance and responsibilities of the parochial system increased and by the late eighteenth century most of the Court Baron’s business was concerned with copyhold land.

    Example of a Rental document

    Example of a Rental document

    Many manors were also granted the right to hold a Court Leet by royal charter or warrant, which tried and sentenced minor crimes and misdemeanours and was held approximately every six months, but often in combination with the Court Baron. The Court Leet originally heard the View of Frankpledge, a system whereby the community was divided into groups or tithings of ten to twelve households, including all male tenants over the age of twelve. All men were responsible for the good behaviour of the others and any offences were brought to the court and the offender named. The Court Leet gradually declined in importance and is not often found in the records after the seventeenth century.

    The court rolls were so named because the minutes from each hearing of the court were originally recorded on parchment, sewn together and stored in a roll. In later years minute books were used. The court rolls are perhaps the most common manorial records to survive. However, other very valuable sources of information are manorial surveys and maps. Manorial surveys included a description of the manor and its boundaries, its tenants, their tenure and rents and occasionally may include a map of the manor boundaries, particularly in the Interregnum period. There were three types of survey: extents were valuations of the lands, buildings, rents and duties of the tenants, often including a list of tenants, sometimes only including part of the manor such as the lord’s demesne (the lands of the manor occupied by the lord). A custumal listed the tenants with the customs by which they held their property. A terrier was a plot by plot description of the manorial lands and tended not to include tenants names.

    Relief rolls were separate documents detailing one tenant surrendering a property and another being admitted. There may also be admissions books and / or Heriot books, the heriot being the payment due to the lord of a manor when a tenant died. These tended to be replaced by rent rolls as labourer services were replaced by payment of rent for property. Accounts were ledgers of tenant’s names and rents. Estreat rolls were separate lists of the amercements imposed for non-attendance at court and other offences. An essoin book was essentially an attendance book for the court.

    Not all manorial documents are held at the relevant county archives. The Manorial Documents Register (MDR) is an index of all known manorial documents that is now maintained by The National Archives on behalf of the Master of the Rolls.

    For some counties a visit to the The National Archives or submission of an enquiry is required. However the following counties may now be searched online: all of Wales and the following English counties – Bedfordshire Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cumberland, Dorset, Essex, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Isle of Wight, Lancashire, Middlesex, Norfolk, Nottinghamshire, Shropshire, Suffolk, Surrey, Warwickshire, Westmorland, and the three Ridings of Yorkshire. The Manorial Documents Register for these counties may currently still be searched here:

    though the database is soon to be only available through the Discovery catalogue, with guidance for searching available here:

    Searching on a parish name will reveal the names of the manors for which documents survive within that parish. Drilling down further provides a list of documents and where they are currently held.


  2. First Visit to The National Archives, London


    This month I had the opportunity to make my first visit to +The National Archives UK. I have visited many local archives over the course of my own research and professional work but had not yet made a visit to Kew.

    I had actually become quite nervous about visiting. It is so much larger than any other archive I had visited. There are three different floors – how would I be able to find anything? I had heard tales of it being likely to take my half my day to obtained the treasured Reader’s Ticket. As it turned out, I had a fabulous day, everything was very straightforward and the staff were exceedingly friendly.

    The entrance to The National Archives at Kew, London

    Plan ahead…

    The most important piece of advice I can give to anyone about to visit The National Archives (TNA) is to plan ahead.  There is plenty of advice on TNA’s website if you spare a few moments to look around. Find out about the information you are searching for. Is there a Research Guide available for the type of research you are conducting? Are the documents available online? Are the documents on microfilm at TNA or will you have to order original documents?  Pharos Tutors run a course on using TNA’s catalogue, that can be undertaken remotely: The National Archives Website and Catalogue – Finding People. I am sure there must be other courses available and there are also some Video Guides available on TNA’s website.

    Travel woes…

    The National Archives is based in Kew, London close to the Kew Retail Park. A detailed map of the area may be found on The National Archives (TNA) website in the Where to Find Us section. It is readily accessible by train but I tend to avoid travelling through central London unless absolutely necessary so I drove. According to +Google Maps the journey from Suffolk should have taken me an hour and three quarters but traffic was heavy around Heathrow Airport that morning and it took me nearly three and a half hours to get there. It is fairly easy to find even though the sign for the last turn off into Bessant Drive is somewhat understated. The extended journey time meant I did not arrive until just after 10am but there were still plenty of spaces available in the (free) car park.


    On arrival my route from the car park took me around the lovely lake area, complete with swans and fountains, up to the main entrance (shown above). The size of the building hit me as soon as I walked in through the main entrance but, even though there is a welcome desk, the way to the lockers where you need to leave most of your belongings is well-signposted.

    Archives vary on their exact policy of what is allowed into document rooms and what is not from a conservation point of view. Mobile phones, laptops and cameras are allowed in, so long as they are in silent mode. Bags, coats and any food items must be left in lockers and pens are most definitely not allowed. The point on which I was caught out is that you are not allowed to take in pencils with an eraser at the top at TNA.

    Remember your identification…

    If you want to look at original documents you need to obtain a Reader’s Ticket. When I arrived I was not sure whether I would be looking at microfilm or original documents. I decided my best strategy was to head straight for my Reader’s Ticket “just in case”. This was so much easier than I expected. The stairs and lift are both very close to the locker room and I went straight up to the second floor where a fairly small room was labelled “Reader Registration”. On entering, I simply sat at an available computer and filled in my details. At this point you need to enter the type of identification you have brought with you so make sure you have read the guidelines and have brought the correct documentation. When I had entered my details there was short video to watch, around five minutes, describing correct document handling. I then joined a queue to have my Reader’s Ticket issued where I presented my documentation and had my photograph taken. All in all I had my Reader’s Ticket in my hand about thirty minutes after getting out of my car. I did visit during the week and I imagine a longer wait would be expected on a Saturday.

    Start here…

    My Reader’s Ticket in hand I was advised to head to the first floor to the “Start Here” area. As I had printed out the details of the documents I wanted to consider I only needed to check that none were available on microfilm and find out how to order documents. Next to the “Start Here” desk are a number of computers each with an attached card reader. A simple swipe of my Reader’s Ticket logged me in. Before ordering any documents I was required to book my seat in the Document Reading Room. If you have not been before or have no preference a seat is selected for you based on whether you will want to use a camera (by the window) or are with a group of associates (not the quiet area). I then proceeded to order my first three documents by reference. It is also possible to search for documents if you have not come with references in hand before ordering. You are allowed to order up to three documents at a time but, once they have been issued, can order more.

    Waiting for documents…

    My document took around twenty minutes to arrive once I had placed my order. There are screens in the Research and Enquiries room that purportedly tell you when documents are ready. I may not have waited long enough for the detail to scroll through but I never saw any names listed. I found the easiest way to find out if documents were ready was to log in again and check order status.

    Finding your documents…

    Once my documents were ready I headed to security for the Document Reading Room and used my Reader’s Ticket to swipe entrance to the room. There I found rows of brightly coloured lockers, each labelled with the seat numbers allocated at the start of the ordering process. It was fairly simple to find documents and my seat and begin researching in earnest. The use of my camera to take photographs of documents was free. One document I ordered before my lunch was still not available on my return. A quick look at the order status showed it be an oversized item, available on the second floor in the Map and Large Document Reading room. Again, it was a straightforward process to access material upstairs.

    Overall, my day at The National Archives was a wholly pleasant experience. The staff were very friendly and happy to answer questions. There were some waits for documents but there was so much published material in the Research and Enquiries Room that I found the time flew by.

    There is also a lovely coffee shop in which to grab some lunch and of course the bookshop, which is always a personal weakness…

Search Blog

Blog Archive

December 2018
« Nov    


Keep up to date with my latest posts

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.