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.

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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@derbyshire.gov.uk.

Neil Bettridge