It is probably not uppermost in the thoughts of East End crime lords (real or fictional) that their use of the word ‘manor’ can evoke a real sense of a part of our history that goes back almost a thousand years. They actually started using the word to ape their adversaries, the police (as opposed to each other), who used it to indicate the areas of territory for local police districts, but claiming territorial rights over their ‘manor’ does echo, in a perverse way, the origins of the historical manor.
The original ‘lords of the manor’ were the followers of William the Conqueror. These were the men who climbed in the boats in 1066, landed on English soil, beat the ‘home’ army at Hastings and established an iron grip on the country in the immediate aftermath. In other words, these were ruthless, fighting men who exerted their authority by their physical prowess, low cunning, leadership skills and sheer ability to intimidate. These men earned and demanded more than mere respect, and William made sure he saw they got their proper reward. It wasn’t, however, a question of just loot and plunder. He wanted to establish his rule over the country in the long term, and that meant keeping his army on the land, not garrisoned like a Roman legion. What he did was to give his followers manors, estates from which they could earn revenues and profits and over which they could exercise control of the population as lords. He was, in modern parlance, playing the long game, making the members of his army stakeholders in the new regime.
The newly-fashioned ‘lords of the manor’ owed the ownership of their estates directly to the King, and total loyalty was expected of them. They were automatically required to perform certain services for him, principally to do with providing him with military manpower whenever he needed it. In return, the King left his lords to do whatever they liked in their own domain. They literally owned many of the people in their manors, those who were unfree peasants, also known as villeins or serfs, and their families. They were able to establish their own courts, known as ‘court barons’, exercising strict control in them. They even had jurisdiction to execute, although this was something that the King’s successors eventually brought back under their own control.
Well, that is a somewhat brief and highly generalised version of what the situation was like at the very start with the lords and their manors. I’m hoping to let you know more over the next year or so about what happened later with manors and their records. I have recently been appointed Project Archivist at the Derbyshire Record Office to check, revise, and update information on records of Derbyshire manors for the Manorial Documents Register run by The National Archives, information which will eventually make its way online. Over the next few months I shall be telling you how things are going with the project, showing you examples of different types of manorial documents and explaining what they are and how useful they can be to family and local historians. Hopefully, I will also be able to show something of the way people actually lived in the past, whether it be ordinary, unusual or downright quirky. And it won’t be all just about lords!
I am hoping to encourage volunteers to take part in the project, giving them the opportunity to research the history of manors themselves and possibly to use original documents, if they feel brave enough! If you would like to take part, or wish to ask questions, please let me know. My email address is Neil.Bettridge@derbyshire.gov.uk.