This project was carried out as a MA Heritage Placement at Lancaster University, Department of History with a bursary funded by the NCHT.
IntroductionDuring the reign of Queen Mary (1553–1558), manorial court rolls from Settle provide historians with insights into the small Tudor communities that occupied the Yorkshire Dales. The court rolls show how people navigated day-to-day life as farmers and members of an interconnected community and reveal a lot about a small rural manor. Through the rolls we catch glimpses of the social, familial and legal make-up of the village and how this evolved over the period of just five years during one of the most tumultuous periods in English history.
The records reveal the world of ‘commoners’ in this period, how their legal system was organised and how local lords interacted with their communities through these legal mechanisms. Evidence includes separate lists and offences, depending on the legal status of tenants and how people in the area took up certain roles in the courts. Through these court rolls the local story of the residents of Settle can be understood but also it can be seen how this story weaves itself into the national background of Tudor England during the mid-sixteenth century where religious strife and threats of war dominate the traditional historiography of the period.
The leet court of Settle was part of a system of courts operated by local lords under licence from the monarch. For Settle this was under the jurisdiction of Lord Henry Clifford, the second Earl of Cumberland, during the reign of Queen Mary. The court records enable historians to look at how justice was administered, the penalties for minor infractions and the amount that the lord of the manor could exact for what may often appear to be relatively common or trivial issues.
These particular court rolls can be seen on the Dales Community Archives website, having been translated from Latin and transcribed from the original rolls. The rolls from this court are split into three major sections. The first section comprises the introductory lines, with the date and location of the court. The second section includes lists of tenants and minor breaches of the law that they have committed, as well as the jurors of the court. The final section provides more detailed information on debts, accusations and cases currently going through the court, as well as court orders that had been passed down.
Court rolls: their functionality and context
We can gather from the opening lines of the rolls that these courts took place twice a year (June and in October or November) under the jurisdiction of Henry, Earl of Cumberland). Each hearing was dated according to the year of the reign of Queen Mary.
Each court roll contains a list of the tenants and their presence at the court followed by a section featuring the court’s wider jurisdiction. The rolls also detail the social hierarchy for the area with a breakdown of the wealth and status of those under administration in Settle. There is a list of ‘free tenants’, a number of whom appear with their title of ‘esquire’ or as members of the gentry. Not surprisingly these were generally the larger landholders in the area. A number of the free tenants were able to excuse themselves from attending the court and were not fined for their absence.
Following the list of free tenants there is the group of tenants-at-the-will of the lord, or ‘unfree tenants’, who were still required to fulfil certain obligations to the lord and had less autonomy over their property. It is this group that is the most extensive and for which most of the information from the rolls relates to. The unfree tenants make up about sixty to seventy tenants in each court roll, around four times larger than the number of free tenants.
In the final section the rolls detail how the courts functioned as a forum for members of the community to air grievances for perceived breaches of the peace, collect unpaid debts and any other injustices. It can also be seen in this section how the court acted as a mechanism of local governance through its execution of new ordinances. For example, in a court session from 1558 it was decreed in the court that no houses or tenements in Settle were allowed to have two fires, with those found guilty to be fined three shillings and four pence. Whilst no explanation is given alongside the order it is possible that this was connected to the high demand for firewood documented elsewhere in the rolls.
What the court rolls reveal
From the court rolls we see the predominance of two offences at the leet court. The first are fines relating to the taking of greenwood, or firewood, from the forests and woodlands of the lord of the manor. The second most common are for unspecified offences incurring penalties to be paid to the lord. The ‘theft’ of greenwood was the most common of the two and for the years 1553 to 1558 this makes up around 55% of all the misdemeanours listed. This statistic peaks in 1553 for the first court session under the reign of Mary where the fines for the theft of greenwood make up a substantial 85% of offences. Fines for the theft of wood averaged around 35 to 40 cases at each court. The substantial numbers of these recorded offences reveal how the lord effectively licenced the right to collect greenwood to his unfree tenants.
Another point of emphasis in the rolls is the number of fines that were given out to those who failed to obtain the appropriate licences, such as for enclosure of common land. The Somerscales, for example, in 1557 attempted to enclose common land on Lord Henry’s moors. The walls that members of the Somerscale family had built without licence were ordered by the court to be taken down. In a similar case William Iveson also enclosed common land without due rights.
Licences and permissions were also required for the use of resources. For example, in the session for the 15th of June 1558 Henry Tailor was expected to return timber he had taken ‘unjustly and without licence’ by the next court at Easter or face a penalty of 10 shillings. Fines were also levied against the Somerscales for their erection of two tenements where ‘historically only one tenement had stood.’ Doing so without a licence saw Richard and Thomas Somerscale fined 20 pence each for their actions.
At the end of the court records there are additional offences and civil issues that crop up. Among these are cases of trespass. In one case, Katherine Somerscall claimed that John Aprehouse trespassed on her land. This was also accompanied by accusations that John had then also deliberately damaged hedges on Katherine’s property. In another example, Thomas Brown brought a grievance against John Wildman for trespass. In both of these cases the accused illegally trespassed and ploughed the owners’ lands.
Another area of dispute concerned trade and debt. A number of small debts argued between the people in Settle reveal how the exchanging of credit and the accrual of debt was occurring in the village by the mid-sixteenth century. We also see how creditors were able to seek legal recourse in what could be viewed as a late medieval small claims court.
Cases include seeking the non-payment for goods such as wool, produce or even cattle. In 1554, cases involving disputes over the trade of agricultural produce made up a quarter of cases going through the court. In one instance, William Grave sought recourse over a number of unpaid debts from three customers.
There was also a number of other cases presented to the court. Richard Somerscale in 1557 was fined six shillings and eight pence for pasturing a ‘mangy horse’ on common land against prior instruction from the court. At the same court, he incurred another fine of three shillings for disrupting the peace in a fight with Robert Armystead. Fights were common, one instance in 1557 between Miles Lofthouse and Thomas Tailor drew blood and both were found to be ‘at mercy’ (i.e. due to be fined) for disturbing the peace. Another case including a quarrelsome William Iveson who was found guilty of obstructing a highway with the court citing that the highway had always been a common through-way.
Two families that were repeatedly fined were the Somerscales and Ivesons. The Somerscales, as a family, were fined numerous times for taking greenwood, accruing nine pence in court fines in 1556 alone. The Iveson family similarly found themselves in front of the court on many occasions. This included the threat of a fine for anyone found to be harbouring Thomas Iveson, the relative of William Iveson. Around three to five members of each of these families would also routinely appear in the long lists of tenants fined for greenwood theft or for unspecified transgressions against the lord. Information from the rolls such as this helps us gather a picture of roughly what the make-up families in Settle looked like and provides details about particularly troublesome families and the problems they caused to their local community.
Although the bulk of the people appearing before the court were men there were cases of widows being fined. In 1556 there were 14 appearances of widows for collecting greenwood or other offences, with fines totalling one shilling and six pence.
The long lists of names in the rolls provide historians with a wealth of genealogical information which may not be available from church records. In some cases the parish records of the time have not survived and so the court records are the only source for the family historian. Many of the families listed in the 1550s were already present in the area in the 1540s. The Lawson family is just one example where we see that there were four heads of households in 1547 and similarly a decade later there were still four branches of the same family. Other names only appeared later with the Howsons on1553 and the Balderstones a year later. So although the population, or number of tenants, remained relatively constant there was demographic change during the period. The rolls in some cases provide evidence of the geographical origins of some of the families and all are from neighbouring areas. For example, Robert Holden was recorded as coming originally from nearby Bowland, John Sawyer from Skipton and John Thompson from Claughton.
The court records provide a glimpse of life for the people of Settle in the times of Mary Tudor. Far from being a complete picture, the court rolls augment the scant historical records of the time. Whatever the political and religious turmoil they provide insights into the regulation of daily life in a small rural community. Two issues emerge: the shortage of wood for fuel and the pressure to expand the amount of land available for agriculture.