Court Baron
The Court Baron

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The court baron springs from the early middle Ages. Each manor (an estate granted from a superior lord or even the King himself) belonged to a 'lord of the manor' and it was his responsibility to organise the life of the estate for his own profit and the rights of the workers living there. This was done through the court baron, which in the early years of the mediaeval period met every two or three weeks. The court dealt with such matters as the transfer of land, the organisation of the common fields and meadows, the abatement of nuisances' (defective hedges, blocking of paths, straying beasts, etc) and anything concerning the occupations of the inhabitants.

The manor court was the lowest court of law in England and governed those areas over which the lord of the manor had jurisdiction; it applied only to those who resided in or held lands within the manor. All freeholders whose terms of tenure included suit of court and copyholders were obliged to attend. These courts dealt with copyhold land transfers, managing the open fields, settling disputes between individuals and manorial offences. Business included a view of frankpledge, at which all men over the age of twelve were bound to appear and make their "pledge" to keep the king's peace. A suit roll was kept for the homage sworn by tenants; if they were absent, a fine would be imposed. In a large manor, the steward would summon the court by instructing manorial officers to fix a notice to the church door or have it read out in church. Whilst in theory all men over 12 attended each court, it is likely that in practice only the manorial officers, offenders, jurymen, witnesses, litigants and pledges and those involved in land transfers came to the court.

Although the manor court was the lord's court, and everything was done in his name, it was usually presided over by his steward, who was appointed by the lord, or the steward's deputy. In addition to the steward, there were other officers of the court (e.g. Constable, Hayward, Tythingman, Aletaster).

The Business of the Court

While the steward or his deputy presided over the court, he did not judge. Decisions were made by a jury of twelve elected copyholders, sworn. In any contested case, unless an agreement was made outside the court, an inquisition would be held in which the jury would make a decision and then apply a penalty in accordance with the custom of the manor. Juries were made up of local men, who had usually lived their lives in the manor, and so were considered to have the necessary knowledge to judge the matter concerned and to be familiar with manorial custom. It was possible for the steward to intervene if he felt the lord's interest was at stake, but custom was a powerful force.

As the court was the lord's court, an important aspect of it involved the profitable and peaceable operation of his estate. The recording of transfers of copyhold land holdings and sub-lettings allowed the steward to keep rentals (lists of rents due from each tenant) up to date. Before anyone could claim a tenancy by inheritance, he or she had to appear before the court and prove their succession, by descent or by a will and then pay a heriot, a sum due to the lord upon taking up the tenancy. If tenants wished to sell, mortgage or sublet their holdings, the existing tenant had to "surrender" the land to the lord in court, acknowledging the lord's ownership of the land; the land was then granted by the lord to the new tenant, who swore fealty to the lord and paid the entry fine. The terms of the tenancy were recorded as being "according to the custom of the manor". This form of tenure became more secure by the sixteenth century. As villein status had altered greatly by this stage, the tenure of copyhold land came to be regarded by the royal courts as similar to freehold. The recording of land transfers in the manor court roll, with a copy held by the tenant, became increasingly important for tenants as a record of their right to the land.

Other business of the court, while producing useful profits for the lord, could also have benefits for the community of the manor. The enforcement of village or manor bylaws and regulations through the presentment and amercing of offenders enabled the open-field system to operate effectively and discouraged breaches of the peace. The court also offered arbitration in disputes between individuals (debt, trespass, detention or breach of agreement). Each case was brought by a plaintiff, and both the plaintiff and defendant would often produce named pledges, especially in the medieval period, to stand surety. Most defendants were allowed three summonses, three distraints (for failing to appear) and three essoins (excused absences) before being required to defend the case, so that cases could be pending for months. The jury would finally decide the outcome, but many times the case was agreed out of court before the final stage was reached; if so, there was still a fee to be paid.