The British manor house & the manorial system

Classic example: Madresfield, Malvern, Worcs. / flickr.com

Classic example: Madresfield, Malvern, Worcs. / flickr.com

An eager traveller can find a multitude of manor houses still standing in England. Most are occupied by families, many by the same family that has owned the house for centuries, and which has passed by the law of promogeniture down the male line.

The manor house was the home of the lord of an estate in medieval times. It housed the lord and his family, possibly cousins and uncles too, as well as being the home of the lord’s bailiff, or manager of the estate. Bailiffs were often gentlemen too, though this was not always the case. Far too many bailiffs spent most of their lives robbing their master via a series of intricate tricks, unknown to the lord because he was usually away, fighting battles for his monarch at home or abroad. Some great lords were sensible enough to leave management of the estate to their wife, aided but rarely defrauded by the bailiff.

The manor house was the administrative centre of the feudal estate. Throughout Europe, manor houses varied considerably in both size and design. For their construction, much depended on what materials were locally available, and whether or not some fortification was necessary. When a manor house was built with self-defence in mind, it was termed a fortified manor house. By the end of the sixteenth century, architects were designing more fanciful, frequently more beautiful houses without bothering with battlements or drawbridge. The building of castles was considered redundant, because with the coming of gunpowder, even the strongest bastion could be reduced to rubble by cannon balls within a day.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, rectangular, fortified tower-houses within walled and moated enclosures were a common sight on the landscape. Still, inside these fortified houses the English were installing, even by the fourteenth century, more comfortable quarters, with luxurious aparments, larger, warmer bedrooms, and better hygienic arrangements. The dominance of the Great Hall, where everything used to happen, including feasting, partying, cookery, games, entertainments and the occasional murder, began to dwindle by the seventeenth century. Gradually, the manor house evolved into the country house.

The Manorial System

   This was the social, economic and administrative system that appeared in the fifth century in Europe. It emerged from the chaos and instability after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Farmers needed to be protected against marauders and thieves, and sought such protection from their local lord of the manor. In return for protection, the locals surrendered certain rights, and control over their land. Sadly, in many cases throughout Europe, the peasants lost everything to their local lord if he was avaricious – land, home, daughters, produce and rights. All social revolutions have their base in the peasants’ accelerating hatred of the landlords and their manorial system.

Gradually, a system of obligations and service appeared, especially relating towards manorial agricultural management. These were set down in official documents called customals.

The manor consisted of the private land of the lord, and his tenants’ holdings. These tenants were free or ‘unfree’, rank and position being determined by the status of their land. In addition, meadowland was available to all for grazing of herds. Gradually, over the centuries, this became known as Common Land. An added facility might be woodland for timber, and the grazing of pigs.

The lord of the manor presided over the manor courtroom, and received money or provisions or labour services from his tenants, either regularly or seasonally. In the twelfth century labour services were changed for cash rents, but huge inflation by the end of the twelfth century encouraged landlords to give up rentals and accept forced service again. During the Black Death (1348), Europe’s population fell from 80 million to less than 55 million, and the agricultural classes were already heading for what they believed to be the prosperity and safety of the towns and cities.

Enclosures, tenant unrest and rebellions such as The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 effectively ended the manorial system in England at least, by 1500. For a while between the Wars in the 20th century, and especially after the 2nd War, it seemed Britain would lose all her great houses with their parks and gardens. The National Trust, a private organization not funded by the Government, came into being however, and through it country house owners were able to maintain their family lands and property, often being permitted to continue living in private suites within the country house or palace. By 1979 more than a thousand superb houses often with famous gardens were open to the public, and that number has probably doubled by now. Britain is the only country with a National Trust Heritage scheme, and that is why so many castles etc. remain in perfect condition, ready to be seen and appreciated by visitors from around the world.

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