Today, Saturday 1st June 2019 is the annual ‘Court Leet Day’ in Henley-in-Arden. With fun and festivities at the Guild Hall garden, the town celebrates a centuries’ old institution, formally known as ‘The Court Leet and Court Baron of the Manor of Henley-in-Arden’.This pride in Henley’s past has prompted a review of records relating to the town, held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
The Trust also holds a rich resource of manorial court records for Warwickshire, neighbouring counties and manors as far afield as Bedfordshire, Devon and Cornwall. These cover the period c.1300 to c.1920 and reflect the evolving nature of manorial courts from a key element of medieval local administration, justice and social control, through the reassignment of manorial rights and ownership in the early modern period, to the current situation where surviving courts concern themselves with the defence and promotion of local traditions.
Just three manorial courts now survive in Warwickshire, at Alcester, Henley and Warwick. In their medieval heyday, manors across England would have held Courts Leet about twice a year. Courts Leet traditionally dealt with offences such as affray, common nuisances and infringements against the Assize of Bread and Ale (the regulation of food and drink). They appointed constables and other officials and these courts could impose fines and imprison offenders to ensure that law and order was kept. The other type of manorial court that was held within the English manors was named Court Baron. Courts Baron met every three weeks and were concerned with manorial rights over tenants, disputes between individuals and over personal actions by tenants e.g. recovery of small debts and complaints of trespass. Whilst functions between Courts Leet and Courts Baron were often closely associated, the former operated only with royal approval and exercised the ‘View of Frankpledge’; a system of mutual responsibility amongst a group of around 10 households (also known as a tithing) to maintain law and order within their community. Each tithing was represented by their own ‘tithingman’ in court.
As with so much in English history, this manorial court system developed over time and adapted to changing economic, political and social conditions. Today, the manorial courts (legally constituted under the Administration of Justice Act of 1977) are largely ceremonial in nature. The wide date range of records held at the Trust charts this evolution and offers much for researchers studying legal and administrative developments and their corresponding antiquarian responses. Indeed, it is this antiquarian interest that has resulted in the Trust holding so many relevant records and ephemera, with such material complementing and augmenting records relating to the Shakespeare family, the Borough of Stratford-upon-Avon and the landed estates of south Warwickshire.
The Shakespeare family appears in many such records, which can help us to follow the administrative evolution of the early modern period which was altering the relationship between manorial and legal systems. In 1602, a traditional manorial court as reflected by a View of Frankpledge with Court Baron for the manor of Rowington records William Shakespeare gaining property in Stratford-upon-Avon [ER28/1]. Yet, in the town of Stratford itself, the functions of the manorial court had largely devolved to the Borough which was indicated by the View of Frankpledge recording John Shakespeare’s election as constable of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1558 [BRU15/7/57]. This devolution of manorial responsibility was permitted by the town’s Royal Charter of 1553, which transferred responsibilities previously exercised by the Guild of the Holy Cross over to the Borough. This included the transfer of some of the judicial responsibilities of the Lord of the Manor, which for many years had been devolved to the Guild from the Bishop of Worcester (the formal Lord of the Manor). However, it would require another Royal Charter of 1610 to resolve all remaining manorial issues between the Borough and private individuals who had acquired formal lordship of the manor of Stratford from the Bishop from 1549 onward.
The Trust’s manorial court records offer rich rewards for researchers. There are too many to list here, but one in particular is close to our hearts; a View of Frankpledge recording the purchase of property in Henley Street by John Shakespeare in 1556, which later became part of Shakespeare’s Birthplace [BRU15/7/57]
We wish everyone in Henley-in-Arden a very enjoyable ‘Court Leet Day’ and we hope you will visit us to see more of your town’s rich heritage.
Please check our online catalogue at http://collections.shakespeare.org.uk/ to explore relevant collections and to find out how to visit our reading room. For contextual information about local administration in early modern Stratford-upon-Avon, please read the recommended blogs below.