How to look for records of... Manorial documents and lordships and how to use the Manorial Documents Register

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • None

1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide in tandem with the Manorial Documents Register (MDR) to learn what the register is and and how to make the best use of it. The MDR is an invaluable tool for locating records created by manors (landed estates whose origins lie in the medieval period).

Manorial records are a vital source for local, social, family and economic history. These records can reveal historical information about local areas in England and Wales before the 1920s and going back centuries, including details of:

  • the community living on the manor and its social structure, including the division of households
  • local agriculture
  • the tenure and transfer of property among tenants
  • disagreements between tenants
  • markets and trade more generally
  • industrial developments

The MDR it is not a register of title to manorial lordships and we do not collect or record this type of information.

2. What is the MDR?

The Manorial Documents Register (MDR) is maintained by The National Archives, on behalf of the Master of the Rolls, as a record of the whereabouts of manorial documents. It provides brief descriptions of documents and details of their locations.

The MDR was set up as a consequence of the 1922 Law of Property Act which, by abolishing the form of land tenure known as ‘copyhold’, brought to an end the last meaningful function of manorial courts. However, since proof of title to former copyhold land was in many cases contained within the books and rolls of manorial courts, it was essential that these records be preserved. To ensure that manorial documents were properly preserved, the Law of Property Amendment Act 1924 placed manorial documents under the charge and superintendence of the Master of the Rolls. The records to be protected were later defined in the Manorial Documents Rules (see section 4) as: ‘court rolls, surveys, maps, terriers, documents and books of every description relating to the boundaries, wastes, customs or courts of a manor’. Deeds and other evidences of title therefore lie outside the scope of the MDR.

The 1924 Act established a right of access to manorial documents for persons with an interest in former copyhold land who may require manorial documents to prove title. However, there is no statutory right of access for the purposes of personal research.

For the purposes of the MDR the definitive proof of the existence of a manor is the survival of records produced by the manorial court. For more information on the types of documents included in the MDR see our definitions page.

You can search the MDR online for all the counties in Wales and the following English counties:

  • Bedfordshire
  • Berkshire
  • Buckinghamshire
  • Cambridgeshire
  • Cumberland
  • Derbyshire
  • Devon
  • Dorset
  • Essex
  • Gloucestershire
  • Hampshire
  • Herefordshire
  • Hertfordshire
  • Huntingdonshire
  • Isle of Wight
  • Lancashire
  • Leicestershire
  • Middlesex
  • Norfolk
  • Northamptonshire
  • Northumberland
  • Nottinghamshire
  • Rutland
  • Shropshire
  • Somerset
  • Staffordshire
  • Suffolk
  • Surrey
  • Sussex
  • Warwickshire
  • Westmorland
  • Wiltshire
  • Worcestershire
  • the three Ridings of Yorkshire

View a map (PDF, 1.06MB) showing the status of each county.

The remaining English counties are available on microfilm in the Map and Large Document Reading Room at The National Archives.

The MDR online is far more detailed and accurate than the original paper indexes and can be searched by manor, parish, type of record, or by date, to identify the relevant records.

Work is currently in progress to add Herefordshire, Kent and Northumberland.

3. How to search the MDR

You can search by:

  • manor name
  • parish (for England only)
  • historic county
  • document type
  • date

There are two search types on the homepage for the Manorial Documents Register. You can:

  • search by manor
  • searching for manorial documents

There is more advice on searching the MDR elsewhere on our website.

The indexes

The indexes of the MDR are divided into two parts:

1. The Parish Index: identifies the names of manors associated with parishes, as the two are not always identical. It is arranged by county and alphabetically by parish name within each county.

2. The Manor Index: is arranged by county and then alphabetically by manor name within each county. The Manor Index does not contain a reference to all manors known to have existed. If no records are extant, the manor may not be mentioned in the index.

4. Manorial documents rules

The Master of the Rolls issued the first Manorial Documents Rules in 1926, at the same time that the Manorial Documents Register was itself commissioned.

Full copies of these rules, which have been amended several times, can be obtained from us, but the most important provisions are as follows:

  • No manorial documents may be removed from England and Wales without the permission of the Master of the Rolls. In practice this is never granted
  • Owners or custodians of manorial documents are under an obligation to provide the Secretary of the Historical Manuscripts Commission (HMC) and Head of Archives Sector Development at The National Archives with brief details of any documents in their possession for inclusion in the MDR. Any change in ownership of manorial records must be notified to him
  • Owners or custodians are required to ensure that any manorial documents for which they are responsible are kept under safe and proper conditions
  • Should the Secretary of the HMC not be satisfied with the conditions in which documents are being stored he can direct the owner to place the documents on deposit in a repository which has been approved by The National Archives for this purpose. This will normally be the appropriate local record office

5. Manorial lordships and titles

5.1 Manorial lordships and documents

The law of property acts did not abolish manorial lordships and manorial lordships may be bought and sold, but a new lord is not automatically entitled to documents relating to the manor, unless these have been specifically conveyed to him. The case Beaumont v Jeffery (1925) established that the lord of a manor could sell the lordship while retaining ownership of any documents in his possession relating to the manor. Conversely, it was also established that manorial documents could be disposed of by the lord while the lordship itself could be retained. A new lord is not entitled, as of right, to obtain copies of documents relating to the manor to which he has acquired the title, although these may be purchased at the discretion of the owners or custodians, normally an archive repository. A manorial lord is entitled to those documents created in the period during which he is the lord.

5.2 Manorial lordships and registration

The MDR is not a register of title to lordships and we do not collect or record information relating to the owners of manorial titles or manorial rights and information concerning the conveyance of a title will not be recorded in the MDR. The MDR need only be informed of a transfer of a manorial title should the conveyance include a manorial document or documents, as defined by the Manorial Documents Rules. No register of manorial lordships is maintained and therefore there is no obligation for owners to register a manorial title.

5.3 The Land Registry and manorial lordships

A voluntary registration of a manorial title with the Land Registry was, until recently, possible. The Land Registry keeps an index of registered lordship titles and a guide to this index (Practice Guide 13), explaining the procedures for searching the index, can be downloaded from the Land Registry website.

Basic background information about manorial titles and rights can be found in another Land Registry guide (Practice Guide 22), also available to download from the Land Registry website.

5.4 Tracing of manorial titles

Since the MDR is not a register of title it is of no direct help to those who wish to trace the descent or ownership of a manorial lordship.

Although unlikely to provide current information, there are other sources which may help, such as the published volumes of the Victoria History of the Counties of England, the topographical volumes of which contain detailed manorial histories, and Kelly’s Directories, both of which should be available in any good reference library. In addition, as a result of the Law of Property (Amendment) Act 1924 the Manorial Documents Committee was supplied by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Board of Inland Revenue with a considerable amount of detail relating to the existence of manors and the ownership of manors. These lists of manors and owners of titles, which do not go much beyond the 1920s, are held here under the reference HMC 5/6-8. They are available for public inspection at The National Archives.

6. Manorial rights and common land

The Manorial Documents Register cannot provide help with tracing the owners of manorial rights apart from providing details of the whereabouts of potentially useful manorial documents. Neither is the MDR of any assistance in answering enquiries concerning common land. For more information see the Common lands research guide.

7. Further reading

Some or all of the recommended publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives’ shop. Alternatively, search The National Archives’ Library to see what is available to consult at Kew.

W H Aggs and H W Law, ‘Handbook on copyholds, manorial incidents and perpetually renewable leaseholds’ (Sweet & Maxwell, 1925)

M Bailey, ‘The English Manor c.1200-c.1500’ (Manchester University Press, 2002)

A W and C Barsby, ‘Manorial Law’ (Legal Research and Publishing in association with the Manorial Society of Great Britain, 1996)

M Ellis, ‘Using manorial records, PRO Readers’ Guide No 6′ (PRO, 1994)

P D A Harvey, ‘Manorial Records’ (British Records Association, 1999)

N J Hone, ‘The manor and manorial records’ (Methuen and Co, 1912)

Christopher Jessel, ‘The law of the manor’ (Barry Rose Law, 1998)

Denis Stuart, ‘Manorial records: An introduction to their transcription and translation’ (Phillimore, 1992)

Helen Watt, ‘Welsh manors and their records’ (National Library of Wales, 2000)

Mark Forrest, ‘Dorset Manorial Documents: a guide for local and family’ (Dorset Record Society, 2011)

Angus Winchester et al, ‘Manorial Records in Cumbria and Lancashire: a user’s guide’ (Lancaster University, 2013)