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The property holding of someone who was a manorial tenant was said to be ‘copyhold’ because their tenancy rights were set out in a copy of an entry of the court rolls of that manor, given out after a little ceremony of admission which took place either at a full sitting of the court or privately in a solicitor’s office. That copy and the entry on the roll were the only evidence the tenant had of his entitlement. As a result many a bundle of house deeds contains a series of admissions to the copyhold if the property at one time belonged to the local lord of the manor.
By the eighteenth century (and this article is concerned with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) and in the days before village school halls, the majority of manor courts were probably held in the largest available room in a local public house. One of the court’s members, dressed, as the solicitor-antiquary Reginald Hine (1883-1949) said, ‘in a little brief authority’, would stand in the doorway and bawl out, ‘Oyez, Oyez, Oyez, all manner of person who have suit or service to perform to the Lord of this Manor draw near and give your attendance’.
Hine later recalled how, when these words died away on the wind, he would see the cottage doors opening and the customary freeholders and the copyholders come flocking up the street. Then, when the court was opened, there would be the swearing in of the ‘homage’ or jury, composed of all the more substantial tenants, who had to be marshalled at the table according to the dignity and measure of their holdings. For the new tenant it was a great day out, not over-burdened with business, for eating and drinking were the main business of the day. By the middle of the afternoon the steward and his clerk (with a few pencilled notes jotted down from which to compile the formal minutes) would be hoisted up and strapped into the front seat of their conveyance, with the court rolls at the back, for the jog home [Reginald L. Hine, Confessions of an un-common attorney (Letchworth, England: J.M. Dent, 1945) pages 22-23, 86].
With the great decline of the manorial courts, even by the end of the eighteenth century much of the business of admitting tenants was done at ‘special courts’ which consisted of the steward, usually a local solicitor, merely going through the formalities with the prospective tenant in his office. By this time most manorial courts were doing little more, many had ceased to meet, and in others only the ‘olde worlde’ styles and procedures remained. When Reginald Hine held a court for a manor with the wonderful name of Potton Much Manured in Bedfordshire with little else to do, he would delight in reciting its original grant:
I John of Gaunt
Do give and do grant
To Sir John Burgoyne
And the heirs of his loin
Both Sutton and Potton
Till the world goes rotten.
The example of an admission to copyhold property given below is dated in 1750 and taken from a bundle of deeds for a house in a street known as Great Whyte at Ramsey in Huntingdonshire. The house belonged, as the document starts by saying, to the ‘Manor of Ramsey with its Members in the County of Huntingdon’, and was the property of the Fellowes family of Ramsey Abbey, ancestors of the present Lord de Ramsey. It begins with a rather grand indication of the nature of this ancient court:
The View of Frank Pledge with the Court Leet Court Baron and Customary Court of Coulson Fellowes Esquire Lord of the said Manor holden at the Place House in Ramsey aforesaid in and for the said Manor the nineteenth day of April in the Year of our Lord 1750 before Thos Thong Gentleman Deputy Steward of Thomas Luck Esq his Steward there
IT IS FOUND by the Homage that since the last General Court and before this Court to wit the first day of January last Thomas Charter the Younger and Elizabeth his wife and Ann Poulter customary tenants of the said Manor (She the said Elizabeth having been first solely and secretly examined by the said Deputy Steward and thereunto freely consenting) did surrender by the rod into the hands of the Lord of the said Manor by all hands and acceptance of the said Deputy Steward ALL THAT messuage or tenement standing in the Great White in Ramsey aforesaid between the house of Thomas Burgess and the house of John Marriot and late the estate of Richard Poulter father of the said Elizabeth and Ann with all and singular the rights members and appurtenances thereunto belonging and the reversion & reversions remainder & remainders thereof TO THE USE AND BEHOOF of the said Thomas Charter and Elizabeth his wife for and during the term of their natural lives and the life of the longer liver of them and from and after the decease of such longer liver then to the use and behoof of the heirs of their bodys awfully begotten or to be begotten and for want of such heirs to the sole proper use of the said Thomas Charter his heirs and assigns for ever according to the custom of the said Manor NOW at this Court came the said Thomas Charter and Elizabeth his wife and desire of the said Lord to be admitted tenants thereunto TO WHOM the said Lord by his said Deputy Steward granted thereof seizin by the rod TO HOLD to them the said Thomas Charter and Elizabeth his wife for and during the term of their natural lives and the life of the longer liver of them at the will of the said Lord according to the Custom of the said Manor by the rents suit of court and other services of old due & of right accustomed and they paid their fine (and the said Thomas did fealty) and they are admitted thereof tenants accordingly
T Thong Dep Steward
In the margin is written:
Quitt Rent 0: 5: 0
Fine Certain 0: 15: 0
Frankpledge was the ancient right of the village community to be responsible for each other’s good behavious and when a manorial court brought together all the males on the manor over the age of 12 it was called a ‘View of Frankpledge’. Divided into groups of ten or twelve, called tithings, the men stood surety, as it were, for the conduct of their colleagues and might be fined for their misdemeanours if they did not appear. The ‘view’ was a visible check to see to which group each man belonged. It was an idea that had passed from the Saxons to the Normans and went out with the Middle Ages but is apparently still used in Canada (and was again proposed in England a few years ago) to supervise certain types of offenders who are released into the community.
Sometime in the fifteenth or sixteenth century ‘View of Frankpledge’ had become an alternative name for the court leet, of which the ‘view’ had previously only been one function and which dealt with small law and order offences and the administration of the common lands. The other court mentioned, the Court Baron, dealt with the transfer of copyhold land. And so this was a general or all-purpose sitting of the court and, indeed, in later years it was normally called a ‘General Court Leet, Court Baron and Customary Court’.
The entry describes this particular property as a ‘messuage’, that is a house with its surrounding land, or tenement, and gives the names of the neighbouring occupiers. It had previously been held by Richard Poulter but had passed to his two daughters, Elizabeth the wife of Thomas Charter the Younger, and Ann Poulter, as customary tenants. On 1 January 1750 these three, presumably on Richard Poulter’s death, had given up or surrendered the house ‘by the rod’ to the deputy steward. A rod or stick was carried by the steward (in some manors it was a straw), the end of which was momentarily held by the person giving up the tenancy or being admitted, as a symbol of the handover of the property.
Elizabeth had been ‘solely and secretly examined’ by the deputy steward, as was usual in these cases, to see if she was acting under duress, and was ‘freely consenting’. The steward in turn now re-granted ‘seizin by the rod’ of the property for ‘the use and behoof (benefit)’ of Thomas and Elizabeth Charter for life ‘according to the custom of the manor’.
Thomas then ‘did fealty’, meaning that he took an oath that he would carry out all the duties and services due and of right accustomed to the lord and in all things act as a faithful tenant.
The document, which is signed by the deputy steward, is endorsed to show that the couple paid a ‘fine certain’ of fifteen shillings and an annual ‘quit rent’ of five shillings. A ‘fine certain’ means that the amount to be paid had been fixed by custom from time immemorial. That does not mean that it will not vary by a shilling or so. A ‘quit rent’ meant that by its payment the tenant was quit (or discharged) from any other service to the lord of the manor. A fine certain was often half a year’s quit rent.
The admission here is for life, but in some places it might only be for forty years. If the tenant outlived that term he was entitled to be re-admitted for a similar term of payment of a fine. All these conditions varied greatly from manor to manor.
Whether, in the above case, Ann Poulter remained as a lodger with her sister or found another home is not mentioned. Later documents tell us that Thomas Charter, the eldest son and heir of the couple, died in the lifetime of his mother Elizabeth, and that at a court held in May 1789 one Sarah Charter, daughter and heir of the body of Thomas Charter deceased, was admitted to the same premises. She moved to Great Raveley and in March 1810 sold the tenancy of the house to John Nicklass (or Nickless), of Ramsey, cordwainer, and Elizabeth his wife, for £160.
The sale was reported to a general court held at ‘the hose of Elizabeth Belshaw commonly called the Crown Inn in Ramsey’ in May 1810 and the Nicklesses were then admitted to the property. The amount of the fine and rent which they paid are not endorsed on their admission, though they will appear in the court rolls.
The admission in 1810 mentions ‘Houses Outhouses Edifices Barns Stables Buildings Yards Gardens Orchards Ways Paths Passages Easements Common Rights Members Privileges and Appurtenances’ but that is probably a phrase designed to cover whatever may have been on the site.
John Nickless, by his will proved in 1829, left his wife Elizabeth then tenement in Great Whyte which was then in the occupation of himself, James Baldwin, Widow Woods and Isaac Barritt. He stipulated that this was to pass on her death to his daughter Hannah, the wife of James Bellamy, and on Hannah’s death to her son William Bellamy. William was then under the age of twenty-one and he presumably reached that age or his mother died in 1850, when he was admitted tenant by the court.
All this shows the absolute freedom with which people could act with regard to much copyhold property by this time. It could be sub-let, mortgaged, bequeathed or sol, just like freehold land. Many properties held from manors were sub-let, but short sub-leases unfortunately do not normally appear on the court rolls. Yearly leases were very common and in many places a tenant could sub-let their copyholds for a maximum of three years without a licence from the lord, and up to twenty-one years with a licence. In each case there would be a fine, perhaps of a year’s quit-rent. Those who held small amounts of land, either freehold or copyhold, frequently used them to raise money to tide them over difficult times, and the mortgaging and re-mortgaging of land is frequently met with.
Many a street contained an extraordinary mix of freehold and copyhold premises, and although one hopes that their exact status may be mentioned, in a will for instance, this is often far from being the case. If no deeds exist it is always worthwhile, therefore, to consult the records of the local manorial court.
And so it was that tenancies which were in the Middle Ages held at little more than the will of the lord had, by long custom, by the sixteenth century generally acquired the character of a permanent inheritance, descending to the heir-at-law just as if they were freehold. In some places, however, especially in the ancient boroughs and in Kent, the custom of the manor decreed a somewhat different descent. Copyhold could be entailed and that entail could be broken by surrendering the property to the ‘will of the lord’. The main differences from freehold, apart perhaps from some restriction on leasing and mining, were the fines paid on the death of the holder, on the admission of his heir, and on the sale or the mortgage of the land.
The lord could, of course, at any time sell or grant away part of his manorial land (unless it were subject to some family settlement or entail) and thus free or ‘enfranchise’ it from further rent, fines or restrictions. The amount of copyhold land thus grew small over the years.
Copyhold was finally abolished by the Law of Property Act of 1922 which came into force on 1 January 1926, when all copyhold land became freehold, compensation for loss of fines and rents being paid where claimed. If the tenant still had rights to pasture cattle on the common or the lord had rights to mine under the land these were, however, not affected and may yet continue.
Adapted with permission from an article by Anthony Camp, ‘It is found by the Homage … An admission to copyhold property’, in Family Tree Magazine (UK; http://www.family-tree.co.uk) vol. 19, no. 4 (February 2003) pages 4-6.
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