An Illustrated Social History

Appendix III


Unlike today, the prevailing system of local administration - whether of justice, taxation or property - depended to a great extent upon one individual, the Lord of the Manor. The Manor Courts sat in judgement on minor misdemeanours and civil claims, and levied fines (that is, local taxes) on a whole variety of events. These are all recorded in the Manor Court Rolls, which in the case of Chelsworth cover the period from 1560 right up to 1928, with only one small gap from 1600 to 1628.

However, the main function of the Court was to oversee the transfer of property, according to the form of landholding, whether it was the Lord’s own land, or the rector’s freehold, or other freehold, or copyhold:

the Lord himself owned little land in the parish, but it included two woods (Park Wood and Wild Irish Wood) and two water mills

the Rectors Glebe amounted to some 10% of the land, spread in various parcels. The rector was of course also entitled to the benefit of tithes on most of the agricultural produce of the parish

freehold ownership gave a considerable degree of independence to the landowner, but still involved payments to the Lord of the Manor. Nominal rents were paid each year, together with fines upon the transfer of ownership, whether by sale or by inheritance

copyhold or customary ownership - a form of permanent leasehold - required annual rent payments to the Lord as well as fines upon transfer, but gave security of tenure for inheritance and the right to sell or mortgage the property.

Why the individual pieces of land came to be in one form of tenure rather than another is a matter of speculation. It is perhaps understandable that the more outlying areas could have been released into freehold by the Lord of the Manor to accommodate wealthy friends. But how did some parcels of the old Town Field pass into free ownership while others remained copyhold?

I have no ready answers, but my guess is that, as happened in later years with some tithes, land taxes and rent charges, a greedy (or a needy) Lord and his family chose to take a single lump sum, compounding all the future fines and rents, when it was offered by the tenant in order to buy off in perpetuity the court’s tiresome

annual demands for payment.

The Lord of f he Manor was in effect the substitute monarch in his parish. His powers, moreover, were established by custom rather than by statute, which could mean that he was able without much recourse to exceed his legitimate rights so long as he could assert that his predecessors had done so before him.

The management of the system was organised through the Manor Court, a formal and quite legalistic process usually run by the Lord’s Steward or Deputy Steward (the Lord himself having very little contact with, or interest in, the proceedings or the village apart from its revenues, at least until the coming of Robert Pocklington in 1737).

Landowners were required to attend meetings of the Court, and at least in earlier days formally to pledge their allegiance to the Lord, paying him a customary fine as a token of subservience. Absence for proper cause could be excused, or a nominated representative permitted to attend, but otherwise failure to attend would be penalised with a fine.

The court proceedings took various forms - the Court Baron, for weighty matters including the transfer of freehold property: the Court Leet, for the trial of wrongdoings: and the View of Frankpledge, where copyholders submitted themselves to the authority of the Lord. An incoming Lord would also summon everyone so that they could acknowledge his or her legitimate authority in the position.

The court also elected the parish constables and sometimes an