Lords, Leets and Barons

Reeve and Serfs, from Queen Mary Psalter, c.1310
British Library
Ware Priory, established as a small Cistercian monastery in 1338 (and shown here in 1795). Its carter and shepherd were amerced by the Topcliffe Manorial Court
British Library
Peasant dress in the 14th century
Early manorial court rolls were made of membranes of parchment stitched together at the top.
Essex Record Office

The Manorial Court at Topcliffe

During the feudal period the manor was the principal administrative unit of landed estates and the manorial court was where it carried out its business. These manorial courts were at the base of the legal system – effectively the lowest courts of law in the land. The way in which they operated was complex, changed over time and had many local variations. Essentially, there were two types of manorial court: the court baron and the court leet with view of frankpledge.

The Court Baron

This was the principal type of manorial court and typically held every three to four weeks. It administered the customs of the manor relating to tenure and land use; it enforced the payment of dues owed to the lord of the manor and it ensured that all services owed by the tenants to the lord were carried out. It dealt with a range of other matters, too: disputes between individuals, recovery of small debts and complaints of trespass. It appointed some local officials such as the reeve (or bailiff) who collected the lord’s dues. All those free tenants whose attendance was a condition of their tenure were required to be present. Customary tenants who held land by an agreement made at the  manorial court would also be in attendance.

The Court Leet

The court leet was more concerned with the enforcement of law and order, exercising authority delegated from the royal courts to the local manorial lord. It inspected the working of frankpledge – a system of mutual responsibility within a group of about ten households for the maintenance of law and order (hence the phrase ‘view of frankpledge’). It would also try offences such as common assaults, causing bloodshed, false weights and measures, obstruction of highways or the breaking of the assize of bread and ale (see Robert Skeen’s page, elsewhere on this website: Bread and Ale and the curious job of ale-taster).

In practice, the functions of the court baron and court leet were not necessarily kept distinct. There was no set pattern for recording the business of the courts and during the medieval period proceedings were generally written on parchment rolls; they were not in book form until the sixteenth century. The term ‘court rolls’ finds an echo in today’s legal system where the Master of the Rolls, initially a clerk responsible for keeping the rolls (court records) of the Court of Chancery, is now the second most senior judge in England and Wales, after the Lord Chief Justice.

Information in the Court Rolls

Manorial court rolls contain a wealth of information, often about the lowest members of the social hierarchy and suggest much about how their lives were lived (see also Land, Lords and Peasants in Medieval Meldreth, 1316 – 1370). This is certainly so in the case of the court rolls for the ‘Manor of Melreth (Topcliffes)’ for this period, which have been transcribed by Arnold Stanford for Meldreth Local History Group. The heading of each court roll entry usually gives the type of court, day of the week and date expressed with reference to a saint’s day and the regnal year (year in the reign of). So, for the Topcliffe Manor Rolls, a typical opening reads ‘Court held at Melreth on Friday after the feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, 11 Edward II (so in the eleventh year [1318] of the reign of Edward II ). 

Some entries in the Topcliffe Manorial Court rolls refer simply to the proceedings of the ‘Court’ held on a specific date, some to the ‘Court Leet’ and others still to sittings of the ‘Court and view of Frankpledge’. This suggests that it sometimes sat as court baron, sometimes as court leet and on other occasions combined the two functions and conducted both sets of business on the same day. We do not know exactly where the court sittings took place – typically this would be in the hall of the lord of the manor’s house or at some open air site, if this was the local custom, though once records began to be written down an indoor location became necessary. If the lord of the manor was an ecclesiastic then the court might be held at a bishop’s palace, lodging or convent. Interestingly, the Topcliffe lord of the manor at this time was the Bishop of Carlisle, who had been given this and other land holdings by the king, so it is possible that sittings took place in some building connected to the church. No precise venue is mentioned.

The lord of the manor usually delegated the chairing of the court to a steward. Business typically opened with ‘essoins’ – the giving of reasons for anyone’s non-attendance. Those who did not attend on three consecutive occasions without providing an essoin (an excuse with someone nominated to represent them) were fined. So, for example, at the ‘Court and View held Thursday after St. Denis in the 16th regnal year of Edward II’ [1322] five essoins were listed with those nominated as their representatives:

  • John Payn by Thomas le Bacheler
  • William Maryoun by William, his son
  • Hugh Hulcok by John Dukyn
  • Robert Prest by Reginald Fane
  • William le Fevere de Eversesdon by John Ordinar.

The last of these is interesting because it is one of a number of references to tenants from the parish of Eversesdon (Eversden) being expected to attend or the subject of proceedings, indicating that the Topcliffe Manorial Court’s jurisdiction extended well beyond the Meldreth parish boundary. No other local villages with the exception of ‘Meldeburne’ (Melbourn) seem to be mentioned.

Once these matters of expected attendance had been dealt with the names of those serving on the jury were given, then the ‘articles of inquest’ (things about which the court had to enquire) followed by the ‘presentments’ or charges to be brought against particular individuals. Presentments were made by the head tithingmen for each vill (the smallest administrative unit under the feudal system, consisting of a number of houses and their adjacent lands). Once the court had heard the case against an alleged offender and any plea on their behalf, it decided whether and how they should be punished. Courts leet could confine people to the pillory or stocks but the typical penalty for many offences was an ‘amercement’ (literally that the person concerned was ‘in mercy’ of the court) or fine.

The Topcliffe Manorial Court rolls provide a fascinating insight into the degree to which the lives of tenants were shaped, controlled and directed by their required allegiance to the lord of the manor. The manorial court gave practical effect to this, intervening to ensure that the routine of the manor – particularly in relation to agriculture – was regulated and sustained, tenant responsibilities for work and service were reinforced and the lord’s authority was upheld.

Types of Cases Heard

So what kind of cases did the manorial courts hear? I have grouped these under the headings below, together with some of the sanctions which were used.

Land and Buildings

The rolls contain many instances of tenants being required to prove that land was rightfully theirs: ‘A date was set for Julien Merke to come to the next court and show his charter of feoffment (entitlement) for 9 acres of land which he claims to hold’. Nor could they sub-let or lease any land granted to them by the lord to another person without his express permission: ‘John de Gentling has demised (transferred by lease for a fixed period) one and a half acres of land for one sowing. Amerced 3d’.

Tenants were also required to keep buildings in good repair and not to demolish them without permission: ‘William Chastein has removed a certain derelict building. Amerced. He is to replace it.’

On the other hand, ‘John Est’s tenements are ruinous. He is to amend them on pain of 40d.’

On death, any land or buildings held by a tenant reverted to the lord of the manor: ‘Hugh Chastayn who held 1 messuage (building) and 5 acres of land in bond tenure, has died and his holding is in the lord’s hands’.

Rights and Obligations

There were frequent actions to ensure that tenants only received those things to which they were properly entitled, did not encroach on the lord of the manor’s land and that its produce was protected:

‘William Blak cleaned a ditch between the lord’s land and his and took 8 feet by 2 feet of soil from the lord. Amerced 3d.’

‘William Gambon was charged with ‘damage caused by his beasts in the lord’s herb garden. Amerced 12d.’

John Redlond and John Russel made satisfaction to the lord for the trespass made by William Paynot on the lord’s corn. Fine 6d.’ (an example of others, presumably within the same tithing or frankpledge, being held accountable for someone else’s transgression).

‘John le Bonde, miller, (has) fished in the lord’s pond at Le Flodgate and a separate fishpond. Amerced 3d.’

‘All the customary tenants present that Hugh Cagwyne retained 14d for scything the meadow. He is to pay and is amerced 6d for the retention.’

Nor did fellow clerics avoid being held to account: ‘The carter of the Prior of Ware and Henry Michel, the Prior’s shepherd, are amerced 12d for depriving the lord of four sheaves of drage’.

Tenants were often charged with over-burdening the common land: ‘Albert Rodland (6d) and John Rodland (6d) have placed too many beasts on the common pasture’; ‘John Jeconn has 40 sheep on the common of Meldeburne, for which he has paid no fine. Amerced 20d. Similarly, Emma Hulcok, 12d.’

All males over the age of 12 years were required to be in a tithing (and therefore subject to frank pledge). They could be brought before the manorial court if they failed to do so: ‘Hugh Bocher (a tenant of Eversden) is amerced 3d for not being in a tithing’ and ‘Nicholas Passon, head of the pledge. amerced 3d for not having his tithingmen. Similarly, John Est, John Getoun, Hugh Cagwyne, 3d each.’ In another entry we read that ‘John Turnepany was placed in the tithing of Hugh Cagwyne and gave the lord a capon.’

Performing Service

Robert Skeen, in his piece cited earlier on the role of the ale-taster, draws attention to the frequent contravention of the ‘assizes’ for bread and ale which set standards for their production by weight, measure, quality or quantity. Not only did the same individuals appear repeatedly for breaking one or other of these assizes but some of those appointed as aletasters to enforce compliance found themselves in frequent trouble for not discharging their duties as the lord of the manor required. In passing, it is worth noting that weights and measures offences are a continuing theme in the business of the courts; there are parallels with cases recorded more than five centuries later: see Pecks, Bushels and Prison, elsewhere on this website.

The Topcliffe court rolls contain a number of other examples of tenants not performing the functions of the office to which they had been appointed; it was not confined to matters of ale and bread. Sometimes these failings occurred almost immediately following an office-holder’s appointment:

At the Court and View of Frankpledge held on Tuesday after St. Faith, 18 Edward II [1324], ’Hugh Hulekot, serf, was appointed reeve at the last court and is amerced for not performing his office. 40d fine.’

At the same court, Gilbert Hulekot, serf, who was probably related, had been ‘elected farm bailiff. He is amerced for not performing his office. Fine 20d.’

Again at the same court, ‘Nicholas Passon was elected reeve’ but at the following hearing on Monday before Circumcision, 18 Edward II [1325], he ‘was removed from the office of reeve and Hugh Cagwyne was elected in his place.’

We do not know in what sense they failed to carry out the requirements of the office they held but, as in the case of aletasters, those appointed had sometimes been transgressors themselves and it may have been that by giving them additional responsibilities the lord of the manor was attempting to ‘keep his friends close but his enemies closer.’ Clearly, in a number of cases the faith he put in them was not re-paid. There are instances, too, of tenants paying to exempt themselves from carrying out the office of reeve – John Getoun was one and paid 40d for the privilege.

On another occasion, we read that ‘One plough team lay idle for one day through the reeve’s fault. Loss to the lord, 6d,’ though we are not told whether the reeve received any punishment as a result.

Curiously at a hearing on Tuesday after the feast of St, Fabian and St. Sebastian, 19, Edward II [1326], it is recorded that a ‘levy (is) to be made of John Est, reeve, for a cygnet dead by his default and he is to bring two’ (presumably, replace with two cygnets). He was to do so ‘on pain of 40 shillings’ if he defaulted – an extremely high penalty in comparison to most of the amercements. Swans were traditionally the property of the Crown and this and his failure to perform the service expected of him may go some way to explaining the severity of the punishment.

Common Law Offences

The Topcliffe Manorial court also dealt with largely minor offences such as assault, larceny and trespass under the common law.

A typical case came before the Leet of  the Bishop of Carlisle held at Melreth on Saturday after St Andrew’s Day, 13 Edward II [1319], when ’Hugh Hulkoc (Hulcok) attacked William Marion, breaking the king’s peace. Amerced 6d.’

Sometimes the recorded cases feature members of the same family who were clearly at odds with each other. Before the same court three years later we read that ‘William Hulcok struck Hugh Hulcok and drew blood. Amerced 6d. Surety, (to ensure his future good behaviour) Geoffrey Pompe.’ At the same hearing, William Hulcok was found guilty of ‘forcible entry into the house of his brother, Hugh Hulcok. Amerced 6d. Similarly, Gilbert Hulcok amerced 6d for the same.’

In another case against Roger Chapman for ‘bad gleaning’, it was noted that he had ‘also harboured malefactors’. No separate penalty for this is recorded.

By the Statute of Winchester of 1285, anyone witnessing a crime was required to make ‘hue and cry’ (raise a clamour) and to keep it up until the alleged offender had been arrested and delivered to the sheriff. By law, any able-bodied person hearing the commotion was expected to help pursue the criminal and assist in their arrest. Those who raised a hue and cry without justification were themselves guilty of a crime. So when ‘William Balle has unjustly levied hue and cry on Nicholas Gylle’ he was amerced and, similarly, John le Dene, bailiff of Lady Agnes de Argenthem, for bringing hue and cry unjustly against John, son of John Rodland. But when John, son of Hugh Hulcok, was before the court leet on Monday, Feast of St Simon and St Jude, 5 Edward II [1311], for ‘drawing the blood of a woman’ (and amerced 4 shillings), ’the said woman raised hue and cry justly’ and an additional amercement of 6d was ordered against the perpetrator.

Domestic and Family Matters

Lastly, the jurisdiction of the Topcliffe Manorial Court extended to a number of civil matters including actions for adultery, licence to marry and the payment of fees to lord of the manor for granting them.

At the View of Frankpledge held on Friday, Morrow of St Philip and St James, 19 Edward II [1325], Margery, daughter of Hugh Chasteyn was amerced 40d for adultery. This seems to have been the going rate: Nicholas Passon at the same hearing ‘gave the lord 40d for his daughter Alice who committed adultery.’

Marriages could not take place without a fee being settled. Before the same court ‘Nicholas Passon gave the lord 3 shillings for the marriage of Margaret his daughter.’ But Nicholas Passon’s troubles with his daughters were not over. In the third year of Edward III’s reign [1329/30], Gilbert Bateman was charged with having ‘carried off a woman serf, Matilda, daughter of Nicholas Passon, from the lord’s land without licence to marry. Amerced 3 shillings. At a later hearing, Matilda herself received the same penalty for marrying without the lord’s licence.

Even in death, tenants could not have their Wills dealt with unless the lord of the manor had granted permission: ‘Hugh Hulcok, son of Hugh Hulcok, senior (deceased), and William, brother of Hugh Hulcok, senior amerced 6d and 8d respectively for administering the Will of Hugh Hulcok, senior without licence.’

So, during this turbulent period of British history which spanned the Black Death of the 1340s and included the start of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), we see the Topcliffe Manorial Court at work in striving to maintain an increasingly fragile feudal order. Considering the relatively small size of the manor (there were three others in Meldreth, itself a small Cambridgeshire village), the number of transgressions by the serfs, repeated failures to carry out office-holder duties and the general level of non-compliance all suggest a system under considerable strain.

Just a few decades later, in 1381, the Peasants’ Revolt (also known as Wat Tyler’s Rebellion) broke out with widespread uprising across large parts of England, including East Anglia. In Cambridge, rebels ransacked Corpus Christi College, which had associations with John of Gaunt and the University Church, Great St. Mary’s, burning the university’s library and archives in the centre of the town. How fascinating it would be to know whether, among those rebels, were any from Meldreth, just ten miles to the south and what the effect of these dramatic events was on the life of Topcliffe Manor.

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