An A to Z of Derbyshire manors – now on our website

There is now a guide to Derbyshire manors which can be downloaded from the bottom of the Our Records page of our website.  Not my work, I hasten to add, but the fruit of the labours of Neil, erstwhile Manorial Documents Register Project Officer, and volunteers.  All I have done is to assemble the various authority files in a single pdf document which runs through them all from A to Z – we may re-use the same information in a more sophisticated way in the future, but for now this makes it available to everyone.  To search the actual register and find out more about it, go to the Manorial Documents Register online.

Manorial Documents Register Launch

Last Thursday (16 April) we held an event to launch the Derbyshire section of the Manorial Documents Register (MDR). This was the culmination of the process which the Derbyshire Record Office, with the help of its partner organisation, The National Archives, started over two years ago to revise and update the Derbyshire entries on the MDR.

The event included talks from three speakers: Neil Bettridge,the MDR Project officer for Derbyshire, who spoke in general terms about manors and manorial records; Liz Hart of the Development Section of The National Archives, based at Kew, who spoke about the Manor Documents Register, providing valuable background information on its history, its development and its current aims and objectives covering the overall project for England and Wales as a whole; and Kate Henderson, a professional record agent, who spoke positively and enthusiastically about how the records could be used to help people trying to trace their family history in manorial records. After the talks and light refreshments, people were able to look at a display of manorial documents in the Searchroom and to take the opportunity to try out the Manorial Documents Register online for Derbyshire.

One aspect of the project, and possibly, the most important, was that it would make the information available online. Previously the MDR could only have been inspected by going to The National Archives in person, and although researchers could enquire through the post or by email, it inevitably meant it took people a lot of time and effort to find out what they wanted. Now it is much easier for people to see what manorial records there are and where they are just by going straight to the appropriate webpage for the MDR, which can be found at The MDR online also has information which is more detailed and up to date, reflecting any changes which might have been made to the location and listing of manorial records.

The event seems to have been well received, with several people taking the opportunity to inspect the Register many positive comments on it. We would like to thank everyone who attended and helped things go so well.

DSCF0450DSCF0453MDR cropDSCF0458

Manorial Records talk update

A number of people have indicated that they were be able to attend the talk on Wednesday 9th July but have expressed an interest in obtaining notes about it. I am hoping that I will be able to put an edited version of the talk on our website, possibly with images of some of the manorial records I have chosen. This is likely to be a much less rambling and more coherent account than the actual talk given, so people who weren’t able to make it will probably have the better of the bargain.

I will be writing it up properly over the next few weeks, and once it gets past the censors, it will hopefully appear some time next month. Watch this space, as they say.

Neil Bettridge

Manorial Documents Register Project Officer for Derbyshire

Talk on Manorial Records 9 July

I am currently working on preparations for a talk I shall be giving at the Derbyshire Record Office on Manorial Records on the morning of Wednesday 9th July at 11 o’clock. The talk (which should last about an hour) will start with an outline of the history and development of manors, explaining what they actually were, how they operated and what people were to be found in them. I will then move on to show what types of manorial records there are, with illustrated examples of individual documents taken from the various collections held at the Derbyshire Record Office. Finally, I will explain the nature of the project I am working on (as a part of a nationwide project run by The National Archives), why the Manorial Documents Register exists, how to use it and what information will be found on it when it is all finished and available online. Well, that’s the plan, anyway.

The talk is priced at £3 (£2 for concessions). There are only a limited number of places available, so booking is essential. To book a place call us on 01629 538347 or email us at

Neil Bettridge

Manorial Documents Register Project Officer for Derbyshire

Manorial Documents Exhibition

As Neil mentioned in his post from earlier today, our exhibition on Manorial Documents is now up and running in our reception area.  As with all our exhibitions it’s free, so do pop in and have a look – it will be on until Saturday 12 July 2014.


One half of the exhibition...

One half of the exhibition…

...and the other half.

…and the other half.


Lost and found

One of the most satisfying things about being an archivist is the opportunity it gives you to bring to light new documents which people will have the opportunity to look at in the future. It is doubly satisfying, therefore, to find documents which were once thought to be lost and can now be seen again.

Just recently, I received a specific request to locate a particular series of late 17th century documents for Elvaston manor on behalf of a researcher, Mr Jean-Baptiste Piggin, who had tried unsuccessfully in the past to locate them. He had found the reference to the documents in “Three Centuries of Derbyshire Annals”, Volume 2 (published 1890) by Reverend J.C.Cox. Cox states (page 275) that they were stored in the “record room” maintained by the Clerk of the Peace in St Mary’s Gate, Derby. This meant that they were held along with the records of the Derbyshire County Quarter Sessions, which were later moved to the County Offices in Matlock in the late 1950 and then eventually transferred to the Derbyshire Record Office in Matlock in the late 1980s.

It was assumed that the Elvaston manor items had been lost. There was no indication in the assorted lists and finding aids drawn up over the years for the Quarter Sessions that they still existed, and there is, indeed, no reason for them to have necessarily been retained, as they had absolutely no connection with Quarter Sessions. There are, however, quite a number of boxes of Quarter Sessions still unlisted, so I decided it would be worth checking in each one. And so it proved, even though, as is the way of these things, they were in the last box I looked at! The documents (numbering 60 items) have now been removed from the Quarter Session records and allocated a new collection reference number, D7687.

Mr Piggin has produced an excellent blog on this episode, which can be seen at

The equally excellent page on his website about Elvaston court leet can also be seen at He has transcribed everything that Cox published on the subject on pages 275-280.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the documents themselves is the way it shows the Elvaston jurors being able to fine the lord of the manor, John Stanhope, and members of his family for their minor misdemeanours. Lords were not above the law, so to speak, even in their own manors and had to abide by the “custom” or the by-laws of the manor the same as everyone else .

D7687 1_0004The top presentment by the jury members serving for Ambaston on 13 April 1692 fines Mr. John Stanhope 10 shillings for not scouring his watercourse. Notice that his fine is much higher than those for the other listed people for the same sort of offence. You can’t help feeling it’s pay-back time for the lord and master!

The manor court jury was expected to investigate incidents of potential misdemeanours and then present their findings to the court. These investigations would have taken place before the court actually sat, making the manor jury a very different beast from any present-day jury. There was also an implicit assumption of guilt for those named by the jury in their presentments: the matter had already been investigated, and if the person hadn’t committed an offence, he wouldn’t have been presented! You do find cases where people have appealed, in effect, against the “false words” of the jury, but these are very much the exception.

Bond villein?

My previous blogs have talked very much about the lords and ladies of the manor, so it now seems like a good time to talk about some of the other people in the manor.  I have been trying to think of an appropriate metaphor, and the famous sketch from the Frost Report in the 1960s keeps coming to mind. You know the one, with John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett: I look down on him, I look up at and him and down on him, etc. It is obviously about class, and although it might seem simplistic to say so, I do think our attitudes towards class do ultimately stem from our manorial past.

 The lord of the manor was obviously the John Cleese character looking down on everybody else. The middle class, Ronnie Barker character in the manor would what was known as a free man or sokeman, who would later be known as a freeholder or a free tenants. He would have been able to dispose of his property as he wished without interference from the lord and was largely exempt from the restrictions imposed and services demanded by the lord from his other tenants. It does not mean that he was not entirely free, as he was still required to publicly declare his loyalty to their lord, attend the manorial courts and pay a very small amount of rent. He would usually be an important person within the local community, holding enough land to provide a relatively comfortable living for himself and his family. In later centuries he would become one of the class that became the ‘Yeomen of England’, the backbone of the country.

Now, the Ronnie Corbett character who looked up at both of them (and got a crick in his neck) was known as a villein. The word ‘villein’ ultimately derives from the Latin ‘villanus’, a man of the vill (or town), and originally a neutral term. It came, after the Norman Conquest, to indicate someone who was tied to the manor, occupying plots of land which he worked for himself and his family but subject to the demands and dictates of the lord. There were more limits on his personal rights, and he needed the permission of his lord to do certainly things, such as leave the manor or marry off his children, which he would usually have to pay for as well. Over time he would become known as a copyholder or customary tenant, with less restrictions on his personal freedoms.

The word ‘villain’ comes from the same source, and was used initially as a term of abuse to indicate uneducated people of low birth. The subtle change in its use, suggesting an element of criminality and bad character, happened many years before the time of Shakespeare and his cast of proper villains, such as Iago and Richard III.

There are actually lots of different words that correspond to ‘villein’. One such word, ‘bondsman’, which indicates someone who is bound to a superior in some way, or put another way, someone in bondage (not that kind!). James Bond the spy is, of course, a fictional character, but his creator borrowed the name from a real James Bond, an ornithologist who was an expert on the birds of the Caribbean. Although I don’t know the origins of this particular Bond, it is entirely possible that the surname indicates his ancestor’s English medieval agrarian roots. On the edges of the manorial system there were also people called bordars and cottars, who were essentially agricultural labourers, who generally had less land from which to eke out a living for themselves. Even among the villein class it was possible to look down at someone!

One thing which needs to be said is that the people of the manor did not necessarily fit into the neat stereotypes of the TV sketch. People’s individual fortunes could, and did, fluctuate, just as now. A freeholder could lose his land through bad personal management of his lands and end up with nothing, whereas a villein could work hard, build up his lands and eventually make himself free of the lord’s control. Advantage could also be taken of the lord and his steward who might not always keep themselves up to the mark with what his tenants were really up to. Major events such as wars, famine and plague epidemics, affected the lives of those in the manor, and although they hit people hard, they did create opportunties for some to make better lives. An example of this would be the Black Death of 1349-1350 almost halved the population, obviously devastating communities but providing opportunities for the survivors, as lords found that they had to be much more flexible with their tenants in the face of massive labour shortages.

Let’s have some Downton time

Well, it’s that time of the year when the nights grow longer and darker, the leaves start to fall from the trees in their mellow fruitful way, and Downton Abbey returns to lighten up our television screens. Its parade of improbable lords, ladies and members of the lower orders has set out on its merry way again, boldly and fearlessly marching into the modern world, but this time, hopefully, not ruining Christmases for millions in the process by the wanton destruction of a much loved leading character. At the head of the parade, of course, is Lord Grantham, bulwark of the aristocracy and paternalistic preserver of the old chivalric values, who always tries to do the right thing but invariably ends up doing the wrong thing instead.

Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham is, naturally, the Lord of the Manor of Downton. (It is very remiss of the writer Julian Fellowes, or as he prefers to be known, Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, not to have made this explictly clear, as far as I’m aware, but take it from me, he probably is.) He is also likely to be the lord of lots of other manors as well. Cash poor he may be, but land rich, definitely! The size of the house indicates that, even if he himself feels poor, his ancestors mut have built up a sizable estate which was not the outcome of the possession of just one manor. A number of the leading landowners in Derbyshire, such as the Dukes of Devonshire and Dukes of Rutland, are lords of several manors, not only within the borders of this county but also well beyond them.

Lord Grantham does, however, have the classic dilemma of having no male heir. This has been a situation faced by a lord of the manor ever since the Norman Conquest. There have been, in fact, very few occasions when a manor has remained in the possession of just one family. The only two actual cases I know about, oddly enough, both have Derbyshire connections. One is for the manor of Castle Gresley in the south of the county, which  belonged to the Gresley family, and the other is for the manor of Lower Ettington in Warwickshire, which belonged to the Shirley family, who actually took their  name from one of their estates at Shirley in Derbyshire.

In the case of Lord Grantham, he had no male heirs but he did have three daughters. The main driving force of the plot from Episode One of Series One was the search for a suitable husband for his eldest daughter, Mary. He hoped she would marry a cousin called Crawley, who, you may remember, was on the Titanic just before the action started. The main premiss behind that hope was that the estate would remain with the Crawleys through a younger branch of the family. Crisis followed in the wake of the sinking of the Titanic, but, fortunately, there was another junior branch of the Crawleys to provide a suitable mate, in the form of Matthew Crawley, who, after much shilly-shallying and the odd miracle or two, ended up marrying Lady Mary. Disaster was averted (temporarily).

In the event of no male heirs, the manor passed to daughters, who took equal shares of it known as moieties, meaning that the manor had more than one owner. Where it could become very tricky was the situation where two or more of the daughters got married, as their husbands could potentially claim the right to physically divide the manor into totally separate entities. It does, of course, mean that ladies of the manor could, and did, exist. It could be the case that either daughters do not end up marrying but retain their life interest in the manor, or as is potentially the case in Downton, there is a male heir, but he is under age and his mother acts on his behalf until he comes of age. So, Lady Mary’s eventual return to the land of the living in the latest episode could open up the possibility of her being the lady of the manor, acting on behalf of her young son, George. It depends on the not unreasonable plot twist that sees Lord Grantham getting shot out while out hunting (ideally by Branson, of course), or falling off his horse which had been tripped by his labrador, or trying to catch a cricket ball with his head.

One last thing before I leave the topic of Downton Abbey is the name. Many abbeys and priories owned estates in the form of manors, often given to them by very secular men of power hoping to save their souls from ever-lasting torment in the next life. This meant that the Abbot or Prior of such an organisation acted as a lord of the manor, holding manorial courts and the like. A Derbyshire example is the manor of Temple Normaton, which was originally owned by the Knights Templar (hence the name) and then the Knights Hospitallers of Saint John. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the manors of such bodies were often granted by the Crown to reward their followers or to gain the favour of those who could benefit their interests. The Crawleys may have built a new house for themselves or acquired the estate later. Either way, it does make it seem like there is some whiff of parvenu about them.

Not on My Manor!

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