Somerset Manorial Documents Register Project

Exploring every manor in Somerset

An exciting project to produce an online index of all of Somerset’s existing manorial documents started at Somerset Archives & Local Studies in June 2013.

Manors and their documents
According to P. D. A. Harvey, a manor is “a piece of landed property with tenants over whom the landlord exercised rights of jurisdiction in a private court.” The manorial system was established before Domesday. Although manors tended to lessen in importance between the 17th and 19th centuries, the system continued until 1922.

Manorial records are extremely important historical sources. Manorial jurisdiction affected many different parts of life, including the exploitation of the land and minerals, housing, social life and food standards, and the records reflect this.  For example, in the 17th century the lord of one coastal Somerset manor claimed to be entitled to the royalty of felons', outlaws', and pirates' goods, and wrecks.  They are also key sources for family and house history. Manorial maps are usually the earliest maps that were made for an area, making them invaluable for archaeological and landscape research.

The survival of records varies greatly, but typical types of manorial document include court rolls, maps, rentals, surveys and terriers.

Part of a map of the Manors of Pensford, Publow and Woollard, 1776

The Manorial Documents Register (MDR)
The Manorial Documents Register (MDR) is the national statutory register of the surviving manorial records for England and Wales. Established in the 1920s, it is now maintained by The National Archives. Originally, the index was kept on paper slips, but since the 1990s various counties’ information has been updated and transferred to an electronic database. This is available online on the Manorial Documents Register website, providing worldwide public access. In the South West, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Hampshire have been updated, but Somerset, Cornwall, Devon and Wiltshire have not.

The Somerset MDR project
Scott Pettitt started work as the Project Archivist in June 2013, for 18 months.  The main parts of the project are:

  • Researching the manors of the historic county of Somerset and creating a definitive list of these manors.
  • Checking and updating the existing MDR information for Somerset, covering records held at the Somerset Heritage Centre, The National Archives and other repositories.
  • Finding manorial documents not on the current register – for example, by cataloguing previously unlisted records.

How you can get in touch
If you would like to know more about this project, please contact Scott Pettitt or Jane de Gruchy at Somerset Archives & Local Studies - 01823 278805 or email

Project launch, Saturday 18 April 2015

The Somerset Manorial Documents Register will be officially launched on the afternoon of Saturday 18 April, at the Somerset Heritage Centre.  It is hoped that the  database will be available on The National Archives’ MDR website a few days beforehand. 

If you would like to come to find our more about Somerset and its manors, free places are available.  The launch event will start at 2.00pm and finish at 5.00pm, and will include talks and a display of manorial records.  The speakers include:

  • Tom Mayberry, Chief Executive, South West Heritage Trust
  • Liz Hart, Senior Advisor (Manorial), The National Archives
  • Scott Pettitt, Somerset Manorial Documents Register Project Archivist
  • Mary Siraut, Editor of the Victoria County History of Somerset

Spaces are limited so please book beforehand, by phoning us on 01823 278805 or emailing

Project update: December 2014, by Scott Pettitt

The project to revise Somerset’s Manorial Documents Register is in its final days – it finishes on 30 December, after 19 months of hard work and interesting discoveries.

There are now 12,587 entries in the database for over 850 manors (7,000 of these entries are for records from over fifty collections at Somerset Heritage Centre). The records have a wide thematic and chronological sweep; the earliest document in the database is a Glastonbury Abbey account of 1257-1258 for various manors, including East and South Brent, Godney, High Ham, Mells, Shapwick and Wrington (reference: Longleat House, Glastonbury Abbey Documents, 10762); the most recent is a 1972 court book for the manor of Curland (reference: Somerset Heritage Centre, D\D/M/2882).

The most significant finds in the last stages of the project have been a non-consecutive series of more thirty court rolls, surveys and valuations (spanning the years 1343-1843) for the manor of Swainswick, which are held at Oriel College, Oxford, the institution which has owned the manor since 1529. A smaller number of documents (sixteenth-century court rolls), for the manor of Yenston (in the parish of Henstridge), have been located among the archives of Eton College. And as I write, I am corresponding by email with a researcher at the Huntingdon Library in California, who found some previously unknown Somerset manorial documents yesterday afternoon!

There will be a launch event on the afternoon of Saturday, 18th April, here at Somerset Heritage Centre (further details will follow). The Somerset Manorial Documents Database should be available shortly before that date on The National Archives’ MDR website.

The next six months are an exciting time for the MDR as the registers for Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire will also become available online. Work on revising the Devon register, which I will be undertaking, starts in early January for two years.

Project update: September 2014, by Scott Pettitt
There are now 11,318 records listed for 859 manors on the database.

In North Petherton, on the Friday before Palm Sunday in 1350, Henry Borde and Alice Bache murdered John, the son of William Ive (the killers were sheltered by a couple named Henry and Joan Gustard). The culprits were taken to Somerton Gaol by North Petherton’s bailiff. No further details of the case are known, but it provides a wonderful example of the sort of fascinating information that would be lost to us entirely were it not for the survival of Somerset’s manorial records (this particular bit of information is included in a manor court roll (ref: DD\SAS/C795/NP/9)).

The end of my project to make these records more accessible comes in just three months, and yet there is still much to be done. However, I’m pleased to report that the project has remained on schedule and will be completed on 2nd December, as planned. The final stages of the project will focus on the substantial accumulations of manorial records at The National Archives in Kew. The completed database should ‘go live’ on the website of The National Archives in February 2015. Preparations are underway for a formal launch event, which will be held in April – further details to follow.

The last three months have been spent locating manorial documents at repositories beyond Somerset Heritage Centre, and material still in private hands (this is more common than you might think). Somerset manorial records have been found at over 30 locations, ranging from Alnwick Castle and record offices in Yorkshire and Sussex, to cathedral libraries in Winchester and Worcester, via such institutions as St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and Balliol and Corpus Christi Colleges, Oxford. Important collections recently added include the medieval records of the manors owned by Glastonbury Abbey; these documents are now held at Longleat House. Documents from the Glastonbury Abbey collection, none of which are listed in the original Manorial Documents Register, amount to over 500 entries on the Somerset database.

There will be a final posting from me in December.

Project update: May 2014, by Scott Pettitt
are now 7,347 entries for 831 manors listed on the Somerset Manorial Register database. The project is nine months from completion so this number is still likely to grow substantially.
Medieval deeds from the Stevens Cox collection, A\CTP.

Aside from such typical material as court rolls, surveys and rentals, a project of this nature also inevitably brings to light an almost bewildering variety of weird and wonderful records spanning many centuries. For example, in 1857 Lord Poulett received a petition from the Grand Jury of the court baron of his manor of Chard, asking him to ‘revive the old custom of hunting the hare to be served us in the evening at the Jurors’ dinner’. Stranger yet, in 1971 the appointment by a local clergyman of a steward and deputy steward for one of the many Somerset Rectory manors (owned by successive incumbents of the parish in which the manor lay) elicited an affectionate and amusing letter from a local clergyman to the editor of the Bath and Wells Diocesan news: 'I am glad that you were able to find room in the January News to announce the appointments by the lord of the manor of Curland. I would suggest that the best way in which Messrs. Peters and Parkes could serve their new master would be to bring a lunch hamper to the next meeting of the Diocesan Synod. His Lordship has a propensity to leave at home the packets of sandwiches that his wife so thoughtfully provides on these occasions and he claims that the eating-out places in the City of Wells cannot support him in the manner of life to which he is accustomed.'

Often the documents located raise as many questions as they answer. Amongst the court records of Staple Fitzpaine are two lists of a dozen or so individuals described as ‘chiveners’, from 1722 and 1726, respectively. It is not a term I’ve encountered in any other manorial records. Dictionaries and reference works on manors have been consulted, but to no avail. A variant of the term is applied to silk stocking embroiders, but this is hardly likely given the context! Any thoughts would be much appreciated.

Primarily though, manorial records continue provide a unique window into vanished societies, and even the calamities visited upon them. Take Curry Rivel’s court rolls. They provide evidence of the effect of the Black Death between 1348 and 1350, recording the deaths of 63 tenants out of a total of about 150. An entry from May 1349 is typical: ‘John Pypping who held of the lord a cottage . . . is dead, by whose death there falls to the lord nothing of heriot [a customary payment made to the lord on the death of a tenant] because there is no live beast. And the said cottage remains empty in the lord’s hands’. It thus seems that the plague had claimed Pypping, his entire family, and all his animals as well.

Project update: February 2014, by Scott Pettitt
There are now 3,250 records listed for 798 manors on the Manorial Documents Register Database. Collections held here at Somerset Heritage Centre are still being explored, but over the next few months the search for the county’s manorial records will widen to investigate the collections of other archives, both here and in the US (the original Manorial Documents Register suggests that relevant items are held as far afield as the Huntington Library in California).

East Coker Extent, 1321

Many manorial records shed precious light on village life at critical periods in our history. Take the 1321 extent of the manor of East Coker shown here (ref.: DD\WHh/656). East Coker is a sleepy village, four miles to the south of Yeovil. In the twentieth century it was immortalised by the Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot, providing the title for the second of his Four Quartets; Eliot’s ancestors had left East Coker for Massachusetts in the seventeenth century and it was here that his ashes were buried after his death in 1965. In 1321 East Coker had recently come into the possession of Hugh de Courtenay, 1st earl of Devon. Nationally, the year marked the beginning of a brief, but bloody, civil war as Edward II fought to suppress a revolt of his barons, led by Roger Mortimer and Humphrey de Bohun.

Extents had become a common form of manorial survey in the second half of the thirteenth century. Their purpose was to value all the land and property on the demesne (i.e. those lands tilled by the lord himself), and all labour services, produce and cash owed to the lord by his tenants. This extent begins by setting out the annual value of East Coker’s manor house, its gardens and grounds (13s 4d), two dovecotes (17s), 70 acres of wood (3d an acre), and 70 acres of pasture (2d an acre). After addressing arable and meadow land, the extent proceeds to provide details of the holdings of the nineteen free tenants of the manor. We learn, for example, that William Nevile and his wife Alice held one mill for 30s a year, while Matilda de Senclere held a place called ‘le fyeshwere’, for which she was obliged to ‘find the lord one esquire with all his outfits and in all armies for forty days a year at her own expense’. The total receipts from the free tenants was estimated at £7 9s 6d, 3 lb of wax, 1 lb of cummin, and two pairs of gloves. The last major section lists villeins, those twenty unfree tenants who held land on condition of performing labour services for the lord. Extents declined as a form of manorial survey in the middle of the fourteenth century when they were superseded by rentals and terriers. The next update to this page (scheduled for May) will look at what the manorial records can tell us about the impact of the Black Death in Somerset.

Project update: December 2013, by Scott Pettitt
Map of mines in Kilmersdon, 1695, DD\HY/3/5/1

Since October, over twenty collections at the Heritage Centre have been investigated in the search for manorial records, and the Somerset Manorial Documents database now contains over 1900 entries for records spanning the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries. At the same time, a number of further manors with surviving records have also been discovered and there are now a total of 780 manors on the database.

The records unearthed are remarkably diverse. Most significantly, there are the court rolls and court books, the formal records of the manor court in session. These courts oversaw tenancy changes and the general upkeep of manorial properties, but also ensured the maintenance of law and order within the manor, and thus bring the bawdiness and violence of the pre-Georgian age vividly to life. Entries such as that from the Chard manor court in 1613, where one Thomas Hill, a servant, was fined for stabbing a certain John Frith, are by no means uncommon.

Closely related to manor court rolls and books are the presentments of the court juries. These are lists of the matters juries brought before the court for resolution. For example, presentments from the manor of Marksbury for October 1725 include the following: ‘We present the common pond whipping posts & stocks out of repair and we desire that the Lord of the Manor to repair the same it being always done by his ancestors.’

There is an abundance of other records generated by the proceedings of the manor court. These include lists of jurors and tenants (invaluable for family historians), notes of jury oaths, formularies to be used when opening and closing the courts, and even records of court expenses. It was clearly expected that the lord of the manor should amply reward his steward (the official who generally oversaw the manor court) and bailiff, and the court jury for their trouble. For example, a note of expenses for the manor court of Halse, held in October 1773, records that 8s was spent on beef and mutton, 1s 6d on bread, 1s 4d on nuts, and 3s on puddings. All these sums were dwarfed, however, by the princely 19s spent on beer!!

Beyond court records are such documents as accounts of income and expenditure, rent rolls and rentals (listing tenants and the amount they paid in rent), surveys of manors (listing manorial properties and lands, their value, and tenants’ obligations to the lord, including labour, produce and cash), and maps. All of these records can throw up gems and surprises. Maps, for instance, can detail much more than manor boundaries. A 1695 map of the manor of Kilmersdon (shown above) shows the shafts and underground routes of the coal mines belonging to the lord of the manor, and even indicates which of those had been opened by the lord’s predecessor before his death in 1679.

Project update: September 2013, by Scott Pettitt

The first three months of the project have been devoted to creating a comprehensive list of Somerset manors for which there are surviving records, or at least might be extant records (the list currently comprises 697 manors).  This work has been accompanied by the creation of ‘Manor Authority Entries’, brief histories of each of the manors on the list.  This work has thrown up a host of fascinating stories.  The tales of these manors are often microcosms of the history of England itself, the changing fortunes of many manors buried in the sleepy Somerset countryside inextricably bound up with the fates of their nationally important owners.  Take the fabulously named manor of Honibere Lilstock in the Parish of Lilstock.  Granted to John Dudley, 1st duke of Northumberland, by Edward VI in 1552, a little over a year later the manor was seized by Crown when Northumberland was executed by Mary I for placing his daughter-in-law Lady Jane Grey on the throne.

The next stage of project will be devoted to compiling the register of surviving records. This will present many exciting challenges.  I might have to decide whether a manor existed, whether particular records are indeed for the manor they are supposed to be, and even whether they are actually manorial or not.  Some of the problems result from the inadequacies of the old MDR, such as the misidentification of manors, incomplete, unclear or inaccurate descriptions, and incorrect dates.  Often, much of the information is simply out-of-date, particularly the reference numbers.  There will be many occasions when I have to consult the original documents themselves to resolve some of these problems.  These are often in heavily abbreviated Latin or difficult hand-writing styles, but that will be one of the interesting aspects of the project as it progresses.