"In many hundreds of villages throughout England, the oldest and most important surviving building after the church is the manor house. It may not be called that. The local people may refer to it as 'the old hall' or 'the big house'. Sometimes it has been relegated to use as a farmhouse, or a vicarage, or an hotel, or it may be in ruins, but it nearly always holds a special place in the affections of the older people who, even if they know very little of it's history and regard those who occupy it now as complete strangers, have a sense of its past influence on the growth of their village." (B. Bailey English Manor Houses, p. 13)
What is a Manor? No single definition of its constitution and functions can be valid for all periods of time and all parts of the country. Simply put, a manor is an estate or an agricultural unit of local government, held by a landlord (not necessarily a titled person). The landlord held the estate from the king either directly or through one or more mesne lords (a 'middle' lord). The mesne lord generally held one or more manors from the king, then in turn was a superior lord over a lord of one of his manors. The people who lived on the manor were 1) villeins, and 2) free tenant farmers. Villeins owed allegiance and were bound to the lord of the manor. A free tenant farmer (may also be known by the names franklin or yeoman) was not subject to the customs of the manor or the will of the lord.
Manors began after the Norman Conquest (1066) and weren't abolished until a property act of 1922. Records survive from 1246; most manors stopped holding court in the 1800's. It is estimated that there were between 25,000 and 65,000 manors in England, compared to the approximately 12,000 parishes.
The surviving court records are the most valuable to the genealogist. Court was held at periodic intervals between six weeks and six months. The two courts held were Court Baron and Court Leet (by the 1600's known as View of Frankpledge). The procedure was judicial, but the matters dealt with were both administrative and judicial.
The principal for the manor was "Justice shall be done by the lord's court, not by the lord." Court Baron, originally for free tenants, dealt with land transfers, lord's and tenant's rights and duties, changes in occupancy, and disputes between tenants. Court Leet, originally for villeins, dealt with petty crimes, and the election of officials for the manor. These officials were: bailiff (appointed by the steward), reeve, hayward, beadle, constable, ale-taster, and two affeerers.
The Manorial Documents Register, Quality House, in London lists extant manorial records and their location (see address in Research Outline: England). They also have a list, by parish, showing the manors lying within each. Actual records are held in the Public Record Office (London), county record offices, large reference libraries, and sometimes in the private papers of the solicitors for the estate.
Bailey, Brian. English Manor Houses. London: Robert Hale, 1983. FHL 942 H2bb
Harvey, P.D.A. Manorial Records. Gloucester: Alan Sutton Publishing for the British Records Association, 1984. FHL 942 B4bra no. 5
Hone, Nathaniel J. The Manor and Manorial Records. 2nd ed. rev. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1912. FHL 942 R2hn 1912
Molyneux-Child, J.W. The Evolution of the English Manorial System. Lewes, Sussex: The Book Guild Ltd., 1987. FHL 942 H2mjw
*Palgrave-Moore, Patrick. How to Locate and Use Manorial Records. Norfolk: Elvery Dowers Publications, 1985. FHL 942 A1 No. 831. Pages 1-25.
**Park, Peter B. My Ancestors Were Manorial Tenants: How Can I Find Out More About Them?. London: Society of Genealogists, 1990. FHL 942 D27pp
*Travers, Anita. "Manorial Documents." Genealogists' Magazine 21 (March 1983): 1-9. FHL 942 B2gm