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The Manorial Court: did the tenants behave badly?

Updated: May 10, 2023

Newton Abbot still holds an annual manorial court - here attended recently by members of the Doccombe Research Group.

The transcripts of the manorial courts are the most complete set of Doccombe's manorial records. They cover from 1275 to 1814, albeit with considerable gaps within that period; until 1733, as with all official documents, they are written in an abbreviated medieval form of Latin. The courts were held three or four times each year with the most important being at Michaelmas (late September); there was no manor or court house so the court seems to have been held in each tenant’s house in turn. The tenants were obliged to attend ('suit of court') and make up a jury of twelve.

Does the frequency of the courts mean that the tenants behaved badly and needed constant punishment? To answer that we must first grasp that the term 'court' in the medieval context had a much wider meaning and functions than our modern law courts.

The courts dealt with litigation and prosecution in cases with a specific local context:

  • Offences prosecuted by the lord prior or his farmer/steward on behalf of the community most resemble litigation in a modern criminal court. They include assault, bloodshedding, breaking and entering, petty larceny, swearing and scolding. They were nowhere near as frequent as the other types of case listed below. Any major offence i.e. likely to incur a fine of over 40s or imprisonment was heard in the Assize court at Exeter.

  • The tenants were often 'at law' against each other in cases resembling those in modern civil actions. The most common pleas were probably those of trespass by people and or their animals at a time that predated hedges and walls around each tenancy. The other main complaints were for debt, wrongful detention of goods ('detinue') and breach of agreement ('convention'). If found guilty by the jury the defendant put themself/ves at the mercy of the court ('amerced') and two of the tenants were appointed assessors to determine the fine ('penalty'). Often the defendant paid for a licence to carry on crossing a neighbour's land or to extend the time period of a debt. If the case failed the plaintiff was amerced for a false plea - unless it was the lord!

  • The Lord Prior or his representatives brought cases to uphold the King's law, the lord's position or the customs of the manor. These included: failure to perform an office or attend the court; failure to obtain licence to take timber from the woods and/or make charcoal pits there; digging turves on Mardon Common; breaking into the pound for strays; failure to maintain the highway, waterways, buildings or hedges; failure to use Doccombe mill for grinding grain; excessive charge by the miller for grinding grain; brewing beer and serving ('tapping') it in false measures; ploughing up meadow; and absence from the manor without licence.

The court was also the forum for manorial administration e.g. :

  • Tenants were chosen to perform the offices for the following year:

  1. Portreeve – chosen to represent and be responsible for the body of manorial tenants and their agricultural accounts. He was meant to ensure that the court’s decisions were carried out or he could be punished himself. To do this he might need to use distraint – the threat or actual seizure of a tenant’s ‘chattels’ [goods & possessions].

  2. Tythingman – responsible for the behaviour of his neighbours and for ‘presenting’ incidents of interest to the Lord to the attention of the Court.

  3. Two Woodwardens – to safeguard the valuable woods from the tenants but also to ensure delivery of timber to tenants when needed for repairs. They supervised the tenants' pigs alllowed into the woods in an autumn of beech mast.

  • The death of a tenant was announced and his widow or the next life on the tenancy takes over after a death duty ('heriot') of the tenant's best beast or its monetary value was paid (that saved the steward taking it back to Exeter for sale and kept up the manor's stock level).

  • Strays were frequently reported at a time when most grazing took place on the unfenced moorland surrounding the manor. The animal(s) were put in the lord's pound and their owner paid to release it or if unclaimed after a year and a day it was sold to the person who reported it on their land. This included occasionally a swarm of bees. The income from strays on Mardon Common and the woods were split with their joint owner, Moreton manor.

  • Notification of the collection of special Royal taxes - such as the tenths (of the value of each tenant's goods and chattels) raised to pay for campaigns in the Hundred Years War.

  • Sons of tenants attaining the age of 12 years were presented to swear their oath to attend the court and serve on the jury.

Docccombe manorial court roll (Canterbury Cathedral Archives)

The top line of each court tells us the date by reference to the day of the week; a religious festival for the number of the day & month; & the year by how long the current king has reigned.

This one reads: Doccombe: The Manorial Court held there on the Monday next after the Feast of the Translation of St Thomas the Martyr in the second year of the reign of King Henry V. From that we can deduce the date to be Monday July 11th 1414.

The record of the court was written on pieces of parchment stitched together and made into rolls. A copy was kept in the manor and one sent to Canterbury along with the money from fines and feudal dues. The records help us to track the names of the tenants and their tenancies. There is little reference to the outside world but at times there is friction with the neighbouring manor of Moreton over boundary disputes on Mardon Common or with the Chagford Stannary Court when their bailiff enters the manor without permission to retrieve a debt.

Here are some examples from the court rolls to show the range of matters dealt with in the courts:

Thomas of Hercote Fined 6d. In a plea of detinue by John of Doccombe for 10 ells (1 ell = 45 inches) of grey cloth ('grising') & is distrained until satisfaction & damages are given to the said John for the said cloth.

Portreeve Fined 6d. Not distrained 3 tenants to pay fine of 3d each for increasing 2 charcoal pits in Meane Wood without licence.

John Wandr Fined 4. Not repaired bake-house by Whitsun as ordered. Has until September29th to repair it & all his ‘houses’ i.e. buildings under penalty of 120d on pledge of 2 tenants.

Robert Blakehaye Fined 3d. As Tynbaylegh [tin bailiff] of Chagford Stannary Court he broke the sanctuary of this manor's lord by taking a round brazen pan worth 60d of the goods & chattels of a tenant, John Wandr.

Portreeve Fine 3d. Not distrained a tenant for payment of fine for taking away 2 ploughheads & 2 apple-trees at tenancy of Leghne [Leign}.

William Groos Distrained. To have his son aged over 12 years sworn as a juryman of thelord prior Roger.

Richard Robyn Stray 4d. Sold stray black lamb on his land for over a year.

John Kyngwill Distrained The bank between his land and the land of John Coomb of Knaphole by the Yoleway {the ancient trackway to Moretonhampstead} is ruined & decayed to the nuisance of travellers. Has until the feast of St Peter in Chains under a penalty of 10s to repair it.

John Groos 160d Tenant of Coombe has died. Heriot of his best bovate worth 160d. His widow Dionisia claims the tenancy while she remains ‘chaste & unmarried’. Swears her loyalty to the lord on the oath of 2 other tenants.

Avis Sawdye Fine 40d. Widow granted special licence to live outside her tenement of Harcote.

Margaret Bowdon Fine 12d. Widow commonly received vagabonds & suspect persons in her house against the law & a bad example to others.

Nicholas Arscult Fined 12d. Pleads guilty to putrefying the village fish-trap by washing dirty clothes there to the nuisance of his neighbours.

Sir John Shilston Fined 9d. Shilston of Leign assaulted Oliver Clotteworthy wool tucker of Teyngton Drewe (now Drewesteignton) with a tethering-pole & drew blood. Fined 9d & distrained from having the pole.

Oliver Clotteworthy Fined 3d. Assaulted Sir John Shilston with a measuring pole.

Oliver Clotteworthy Pledged oath. Broke by force into the house of Sir John at Leign & assaulted his servant Joan Smyth, verbally abusing & maltreating her & had carnal concubinage with her (i.e. sexual assault) etc. He made a pledge to pay a fine to the lord.

Diana Deyman The wife of Roger of Smallridge is a common evesdropper a garrulous gossip & disturber of the peace to the nuisance of her neighbours & their lord prior Thomas.

Roger Deyman Fined 6d. Portreeve Roger Deyman failed to punish his wife for the above offence.

For more cases see Document Documented -> Doccombe manorial court roll 1275-1814


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