Thursday, April 8, 2021

Definition Day - The Manor

 * This is part of an occasional series where I explain certain terms that you might come across when studying English history or genealogy.

A Generic Medieval Manor. 
William R. Shepherd, Historical Atlas,
1923 (Public domain)

A Manor (from the Latin manerium) was the basic social and economic unit of society in England from before the Norman Conquest. They do not have a specific date when they ceased to play an important role as it varied from manor to manor, but it was often well into the 17th and 18th centuries, though some manors continued to hold manorial courts into the 19th and 20th centuries.

A manor does not map onto a parish or village: it might cover several parishes, or only part of one parish, or part of one parish and part, or all, of other parishes. Neither does it map onto a village. A manor might consist of a village and its lands, or a single village might contain two or more manors, or a manor might cover land in more than one township

Basically, it is the series lands held by one lord, though a lord might hold more than one manor. That lord might be holding the land directly from the crown, or from another tenant-in-chief, or a combination of both. Prior to the dissolution, a manor might have also been held by a religious house, such as an Abbey or Monastery. Are you confused yet?

Manors could vary in size: some were small and some were very large.

The manor consisted of the land the lord retained for his own use, known as his demesne (pronounced “domain”), the land that was tenanted out, the land for common usage, and the waste (areas not cultivated).

There were two main types of tenants. Unfree tenants, or villeins, held their land on condition not only of paying rent, but also of rendering services to the lord, such as working his land for a certain number of days, helping to repair the manorial mill, or providing goods, such as butter, eggs, etc. The other type of tenants were the free tenants, who held their land by payments of rent and sometimes by some services. The types of services in each case depended on the customs of the manor.

Before the Black Death unfree tenants were not able to leave the lord’s land and go and work elsewhere unless the lord gave his permission. Villein tenants came to be known as customary tenants and villein tenure evolved to become copyhold tenure. The tenant’s title was written into the manor court rolls, and he was given a copy as proof of his title. On the death of a tenant the land transfer had to go through the manor courts, and required the payment of a heriot – a money payment or the tenant’s best beast – before the land could be transferred. Other transfers of copyhold land required the payment of an entry fine to the lord. Copyhold tenure was not abolished until 1925.

Free tenants held their land absolutely and were not subject to the customs of the manor. The tenant could devise or sell his land at will (freehold). As with copyhold land, a heriot had to be paid on the death of a tenant to allow the land to be transferred to his heir. The heir of the land, or purchaser if it had been sold, also had to pay a relief to the lord of the manor before taking up the land. The relief was usually a cash payment to the value of one year’s rent.

Little Moreton Hall, a Tudor Manor House
(© Jenny Joyce, 2014)

Over time a third type of tenure evolved, a lease. A lease might be for a single year, for 21 years, or for three lives. The terms by which land was leased out were set by the lord of the manor.

Over time some tenants came to hold different portions of land under each type tenure, though not all manors had all three types of tenure.

There were also other people living on the manor who were not tenants, as they held no land. They were employed as labourers by the lord or a well-off freeholder. They may have had a cottage with a small garden and were called cottars or bordars.

Tenants had certain rights, like pasturing a beast on the common, taking turves of peat from the common, of having access to certain amounts of wood, plants or thatching material. Tenants had to have their grain ground at the Lord’s mill, and had to pay a fee for this.

Each manor had its own customs, which included these rights, but included other matters as well. The rights were upheld by the manor courts, which will be the subject of the next “Definition Day” post.

WARNING: Some land in England was never included in a manor, and only some parts of Wales were subject to the manorial system.


  1. Thanks Jenny, shared with our FHG.

  2. Thanks for such a comprehensive explanation.

    1. Glad it was of help. Watch out for the next definition when I have time.