Records of pre-Nineteenth Century Village Governance

The most useful sources concerning pre mid-nineteenth century village governance fall into three main categories - manor, parish and quarter session records. From the post-Conquest period until the Black Death of the fourteenth century it was the manor that was adopted by central government for the delegation of local administration and justice. The decline in importance of the manor by the Tudor period, coupled with the growth and competence of parochial officers, saw these duties transferred to the parish. The manor and its court still continued to function, although on a much reduced scale. A community with both good manorial and parish records should reveal an overlap, likely to occur between 1550 and 1650. Before 1733 Latin was the official language of most legal documents, except for the brief period of the Commonwealth when English was used. The Latin was fairly standard, often with many abbreviations and repetitive terminology. From 1733 it became law for all legal records (manorial, church and quarter sessions) to be written in English. The use of these records should not be off-putting to the local historian. Many have been calendared and can easily be consulted in published form.


Manorial Records


The business of the manor courts was essentially civil or criminal, dispensing justice or regulating social order and economic welfare. Their jurisdiction included a wide range of non-felonious crimes including theft, trespass, assault, and a variety of moral offences such as scolding and swearing, unjustly raising the hue and cry, sexual behaviour outside marriage, gambling and drink. They also issued the licenses for alehouses, and oversaw disputes against the assize of bread and ale. They regulated the transference of land (especially copyhold) within the manor, and controlled the maintenance of fences and ditches, impassable roads, pollution of waterways and other land disputes. They levied customary payments such as heriots (death of tenant), chevage (permission to live away from the manor), merchet (permission for a daughter to marry), and permission to send a son to school or enter holy orders.


The agricultural organisation of the manor was also administered through its court, deciding grazing rights, crop rotation, use of the communal plough, and when harvesting should begin.  These became known as the customs of the manor and later evolved into the community’s by-laws. The by-laws for Whitchurch (Shropshire) were reviewed and recorded at the manor court in 1636[1] and provide an insight into how the community governed itself.


The wide range of topics enforced by the manor courts resulted in large numbers of people appearing, fined for such petty acts as emptying a chamber pot into the street. Appearance in a manor court had little of the stigma of today, and it is important to distinguish between standard amercements, which were licences to brew, bake or sell, and non-standard amercements, being fines for real offences. It is not uncommon to find the same name in consecutive sentences. A person fined for not keeping hedges in good order may have been elected to surveyor of the hedgerows as part of his penance.


The headings of court rolls can be used to establish the frequency with which the court met. If the same person was essoined on a regular basis it may be indicative of an absentee tenant. The jurors were probably listed by wealth or power, therefore revealing the social hierarchy of the village. Tithings and ale-tasters could also reveal whether a pattern of service existed. Transactions may be used to reveal how active the land market was, and grants of land could confirm the division of estates. Manor court rolls could also be used to compile individual fortunes for some of the peasant families.


Along with court records inquisitions post-mortems were produced on the death of a landowner whose position might be of interest to royal government. These contain essential evidence of rents, services, and manorial customs. Sometimes they included an ‘extent’ or full description of the manor in the form of a medieval survey, including the tenants of the manor. Where coroner’s examinations survive these can also add supplementary evidence to murder cases.


Some printed editions of manorial records exist, such as those for the manor of Gnosall. These show that by the 1570s the parochial officers included a constable, headborough, ale-tatsters, surveyors of hedges and surveyors of watercourses. Incidences were recorded of unlawful games, untethered pigs, encroachment, and neglect of the stream and the common bounds.[2]


Occasionally books concerning aspects of manorial rights and customs exist, such as the one detailing labour services owed by unfree tenants on the Burton Abbey estates in 1307.[3] The contents reveal the various customs of the manor including agrarian services such as ploughing, weeding, lifting and carrying hay, and harvest work. The latter stipulated the number of days that the work should take, together with the provisions due to the workers. It could be considered that these conditions were not unreasonable towards the peasants, possibly as a result of the villeins bargaining with their lord, reflecting their achievements as a unified community, rather than demonstrating the lord’s power.


Parish Records


With the decline of the importance of the manor, central government began transferring the secular duties of the village onto the parish. Therefore the Church and its court became the institution for dealing with both administration and law and order. The duties that were placed upon the parish instigated a number of parochial officers, including the constable, churchwardens, waywards and overseers of the poor.


Churchwardens’ accounts primarily refer to expenses concerning the maintenance of the church, although their civil or secular duties were also recorded. Before the Civil War these accounts were often carefully arranged in one book, but towards the end of seventeenth century separate account books were kept. Over a period these accounts can reveal how finances were distributed between different responsibilities. The churchwardens accounts for Hanbury for 1697 and 1698[4] reveal that they were responsible for the control of vermin, and would pay parishioners on receipt of hedgehog and fox-heads.


Petty constables were responsible for law and order within the parish. It was the constable that oversaw the use of the whipping-post, stocks, pillory, and ducking stool. They were also responsible for the suppression of beggars, the lodging of the poor, the apprenticeship of children, supervision of alehouses, as well as the collection of fines, and as such their accounts usually record these events. Overseers’ records show who the poor relief was paid to and on what dates, but do not record the decision-making process or why that particular person needed relief.


The appointment of parish officers was usually chosen by the vestry. Their minutes can contain orders upon almost any subject, from rules concerning burials, the ringing of the curfew bell, rates, poor relief, medical treatment, as well as fines for settling civil offences.[5] Besides vestry minutes and assessments, other useful sources include bastardy bonds, settlement papers, apprenticeship registers and indentures. From 1723 workhouse accounts and papers also exist.


Quarter Sessions Records


A felonious offence such as murder would not appear before the manor or church courts, but would instead be referred to the court of quarter sessions. A semi-serious offence may also have been referred to the quarter sessions, if the defendant was disliked, in the hope of being dealt with more sternly. Unfortunately the records are catalogued by administration and court business, followed by topic, and generally have no system for referencing names or place. Therefore they are not the first sources to be consulted by historians. However, a large number for Staffordshire have been calendared and placenames are given in the index.


A case concerning the inhabitants of Caverswall in 1604 provides an interesting insight into conflict within the village. Richard Eaves, and his wife Margery, were accused of keeping an alehouse that was the scene of habitual brawling and drunkenness, as well as other abuses, which also occurred upon the Sabbath. Eaves stated that should he be ejected from his cottage he and his wife would leave their children behind as to become a burden on the parish. The instigator was Rauffe Browne, who claimed that Eaves had been stealing wood from himself and his neighbours and had been selling it.[6] Speake, in his study on Audley,[7] examined quarter session records from the 1590s and first decade of the 1600s, finding that most of the offences committed were concerned with trespass and grazing rights.




The governance of the village was not always conducted under the manor court or by parish officers. A community may have adopted a non-institutional action, such as subjecting an accused party to rough music. However, manorial and parish records offer details of the working lives and activities of the people of the community, illuminating who was living there, how they were governing themselves, and changes in agricultural practices. They provide an element of colour to those people who simply appear as names in parish registers and taxation lists. 

[1] Shropshire Record Office. Bridgewater Papers, Box 59a.

[2] Hone, Nathaniel J. The Manor and Manorial Records, 181 – 202.

[3] Staffordshire County Record Office. D(W)1734/2/3/112a.

[4] Staffordshire County Record Office. D1528/4/1.

[5] Tate, W. E.,The Parish Chest, 163 - 171.

[6] SHC vol.1940,102.

[7] Speake, Robert Audley - An Out Of The Way, Quiet Place, 19.




Addy, Samuel Oldall, Church and Manor – A Study in English Economic History. George Allen & Co. Ltd. (1913).

Burne, S. A. H. The Staffordshire Quarter Session Rolls – Vol V. 1603 – 1606 (Staffordshire Historical Collections, vol.1940).

Hone, Nathaniel J., The Manor and Manorial Records. Methuen & Co. (1906).

Speake, Robert Audley – An Out Of The Way, Quiet Place. Dept of Adult Education, University of Keele and Audley Rotary Club (1972).

Tate, W. E., The Parish Chest. Phillimore (1946. 3rd ed. 1969).

Tarver, Anne, Church Court Records. Philimore (1995).

West, John, Village Records. Phillimore (2nd ed. 1982).