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The Manor

The Origin of the Manor.

Manors, or Barons as they were earlier known, seem to have arrived in a fashion similar to a ship emerging through the fog. They just appeared, no more than a general era being assigned to their development. Most people think that a form of manor was introduced by the Anglo-Saxon’s and C.S Orwin [1] thought that these tribes, faced with the difficulties of establishing their method of agriculture, had perforce no choice but to introduce a system which allowed them to work cooperatively whilst not descending into anarchy.

At this point it may be helpful to be clear on terminology. It would appear that the basic unit of Anglo-Saxon habitation was the Manor. This was an area of land under the control of a secular lord, who retaining sufficient land for himself and his family, known as ‘demesne’ land then distributed the remaining land of the manor to his tenants. The terms of their tenancies, the tenures, would later come to divide into what we today call freehold or leasehold tenure.

In time a new division of the land was made – the parish. According to Blackstone the parish “is that circuit of ground which is committed to the charge of one parson, or vicar, or other minister having care of souls therein.” [2] According to him when Christianity first came to this country parishes were unknown the best guess is they were formed sometime between 630 and 1179 AD.

Parishes and Manors often have boundaries that are the same but this is not always the case. Parishes could encompass more than one manor but it was unusual for a manor to straddle more than one parish. In time the parish as the unit of administration replaced the Manor but here I use the term inter-changeably. Since neither of these terms describes the people who lived in the Manor /Parish I usually refer to them as villagers even though there may not be a definable ‘vill’ in the Manor as such. [3]

The primary purpose of the manor, indeed its sole purpose, was to produce food. “Before the Norman Conquest, and for long years after,.., the bulk of the food production was for self-supply. This is in direct contrast with the occupational distribution of the population today, for very few of the people then were non-agricultural. Even the village tradesmen and craftsmen were many of them occupiers of land, and there seems no doubt that such trade in foodstuffs as there was, was restricted mainly to what amounted almost to barter between whole-time farmers all the one hand, and the village craftsmen who served them, on the other hand. This fundamental difference between the purpose of agriculture, then and now, must never be forgotten, because it explains the difference, equally fundamental, in the organization of land tenure and the control of farming, then and now.”[4]

It is easiest to see the manor when it was at its apogee, during the 13th and 14th centuries and before the black death. A convincing account of the early manor was given by Rowland Prothero, Lord Ernle.[5] “On a manorial estate, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, only the church, the manor-house, and perhaps the mill, rose out conspicuously. There were no detached, isolated farm-houses; but the remaining buildings of the village, grouped together in a sort of street, were the homes of the peasantry, who occupied and cultivated the greater part of the land. At some little distance from the village stood the manor hall or grange, with its out-buildings, garden, and fish pond, surrounded by clay-built walls with thatched tops. The style and extent of the buildings depended on whether the house was the permanent or occasional residence of the Lord; they also varied with the importance of the manor, and the wealth of its owner. The house itself was built either of timber and clay, or of stone, for brick making was still a forgotten art. It often consisted of a single hall, plastered inside, open to the roof, and earth-floored, which served as court of justice, dining-room, and bedchamber.”

The Manor House at Fiddleford. The portion to the left of the blocked up window was built in the 14th century. Smaller than many of today’s ‘starter’ homes it was the height of sophistication in the 1300’s The part on the right dates from the 16th century and various other extensions at the back is in private ownership.

This was the archetypical manor, but it was not uniform. Many manors did not have manor houses and were often owned by an absentee Lord. Many villages have ‘Manor’ farms. The farmers here worked the demesne land but there may be no other trace of the manor and it may be that the farm served as the manor house when the Lord or his Steward attended the parish. Under the Normans a great Lord may have held dozens of manors and if they visited at all it would have been more in the nature of a Royal ‘progress’. Even when a ‘manor’ house does exist it does not imply one was always there. There was never a manor house at Child Okeford for example until one was built in the early 20th century.

An essential feature of the Manor was the Court Baron. This will be examined later but in essence “each lord or baron was empowered to hold a domestic court, called the court-baron, and for settling disputes of property among the tenants. This court is an inseparable ingredient of every manor; and if the number of suitors should so fail, as not to leave sufficient to make a jury or homage, that is, two tenants at the least, the manor itself is lost.” [6]

The open field system that developed in thousands of manors in England will be examined in a later section, it is sufficient to say that it relied on a communal approach to the course of agriculture and that this was regulated by the Court Baron. As Steward of the Manor of Rampisham from 1818 John Martin held many of these on the lord’s behalf. Fortunately his records of these have survived and are examined in a later section.

Even though I have given a simplified description of the manor it can be seen that it was a complex place. In theory the manor was an absolute dictatorship controlled by the Lord but in reality he was as dependent on the villagers as they were on him. But nor was the manor a commune, some form of social idyll as some early historians of the manor thought. The manor was perhaps more of a cooperative; each man holding the land for himself and his family, the produce of their labour was theirs alone and ultimately the cultivation of the land was their responsibility. But if it was not a commune the inhabitants of the manor still had to work in common, as one household was unlikely to be able to plough, sew and harvest without the help of others.

The interior of the Manor at Fiddleford.

Next          The Manor of Rampisham

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1 Orwin C. S. A History of English Farming 1949

2 Blackstone Commentaries on the Laws of England 1765

3 Parishioners could have been used but this implies too much of a religious influence which is not always appropriate.

4 Orwin C S A History of English Farming 1949

5 Prothero R E [First Baron Ernle] English Farming Past and Present 1912

6 Blackstone ibid.