If you are interested in the history of a particular place and the people who lived there long ago, manorial records are an invaluable resource. The manorial system had its roots in the mists of time and certainly predated the Norman Conquest. It put a Lord (or very occasionally a Lady) in control of a specific piece of land – the manor – and gave him or her a degree of power over those who lived there. The nature of the system and the degree and type of power varied from place to place and changed across the many centuries it was in operation.
This lord (or lady) had tenants – both free and unfree – who owed services and rents and had to observe the manorial bye-laws or “customs”. The manorial court was the centre of the manorial system, presided over by the lord or his steward, at which those offending against these bye-laws were tackled (with the help of a jury), other wrong-doing – sometimes including criminal matters – was also sometimes dealt with, and the manorial system of land holding administered, particularly in terms of copyhold tenure. This was when a tenant held his property at the will of the lord, the proof of title being a copy of the court roll entry showing the tenant being “admitted” to the property. This regulation of copyhold property increasingly became the focus of manorial courts until, by the time copyhold tenure was abolished in 1922, they did nothing else.
This abolition put manorial records, some dating back to the early medieval period, at risk. Now the courts had no role, who would care about their records? To safeguard them, legislation was brought in to give manorial records statutory protection. At the heart of this lies the Manorial Document Register (MDR), which aims to contain information about all surviving manorial records, whether in private hands or in public archives. It is also a wonderful resource for family and local historians.
The MDR for Lancashire is available online.
This enables you to search by manor and see what records survive.
There is also a really useful guide put together by Lancaster University and published by Lancashire Archives which has some great background, contains a glossary of terms and describes all the different types of records produced by the manorial system.
The University of Nottingham also provides some useful online information here.