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The Court Leet: Process and Cases


Court Leet Rolls

Image courtesy of the University of Nottingham


Presided over by the manor house steward, the court leet was attended by a clerk, defendants, witnesses and a jury of 12 citizens (free men). The steward called the court to order, instructed the jury and questioned witnesses and defendants. The clerk was responsible for issuing the oaths and calling court participants. The jury heard all the offenses in turn before retiring to consider verdicts.

Between 1615 and 1660 in the manor of Prescott, Lancashire, 23 manor inhabitants were indicted for assault at the quarter sessions, whereas 1252 were thus indicted at the local leet. We have records of an actual Court Leet held near Agecroft Hall in 1653 at the court leet in Preston in Lancashire in which Elizabeth Smethhurst was seen walking one night at about two a.m. It was against the law to be out walking during late hours. She was charged with night walking.

In another record, John Key was accused of attacking George Man at the Packhorse Inn. George Mann and Alice Irlam, the daughter of the innkeeper, testified against Key.

Most of the following cases were punished (amerced) by a fine: s = shillings; d = pence). There are 45 presentments listed on the roll for this session of the Leet in Preston, Lancashire (October 1653):

  • “Wee find and p’sent [present] seth Morte of this Towne made an assault and affray and drew blood on the bodie of william Brewer; therefore amerce him vs.”

  • “Wee find and p’sent William Chernock for delving and gettinge cl[ay], on the side of Eaves brook, contrary to the orders of this Towne, and therefore amerce him in vijs.

  • “Wee find and p’nt Anne Ingham, widdow, hath made middinge or dunghill in the street at Church gate barres, to the annoyance of the highway, and that she shall remove the same before xxvth of March next, in paine of iijs. Iiijd.”

  • “Wee doe find and p’net Evan Rogerson being drunk did abuse and dr[aw] blood upon the bodie of Robert Ingham, and wee doe therefore amerce him in vs. And wee leave ye punishment of his drunkennes to Mr. Maior.”

Punishment for the drunkenness of Evan Rogerson may have been time in the pillory or stocks or time in the "drunkard's cloak". Any of these punishments would have been publicly shaming for Rogerson.

The scold’s bridle and the drunkard’s cloak.

The Manor Court:


The manor court was the lowest court of law in England. It governed any areas over which the lord of the manor had jurisdiction and was to meet every three weeks throughout the year.

These courts upheld the customs of the manor and heard offences against it, regulated agricultural affairs, enforced labor services, administered justice for minor crimes and elected local officials. Other cases involved clean water, sanitation and maintenance of roads.


Manorial courts were designed to apply to local circumstances, use of dialect, and assumption of local knowledge and were, therefore, hard to standardize.


Court rolls were initially kept on parchment and court business was divided into distinct sessions including names of tenants not present, names of jury presentments and amercements, pains (according to the regulations of the manor), and the record of election of officials.


In Tudor England, arbitration and personal handling of disputes was perhaps the best course of action for the common citizen. Fines could be hefty, and the time away from daily chores was probably grudgingly given.

Sources:

Bibliographic Details for England Finding and Using Manor Court Records. National Institute,

26 December 2015.

Pritchard, R.E. Shakespeare’s England: Life in elizabethan and Jacobean Times. U.K., Sutton

Pub Ltd, 1999.

“Types of Manorial Record.” Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Nottingham.

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