All villages in the 14th Century had a list of local by-laws. These laws were listed in a document called the Custumal. If villagers saw someone breaking the law, it was their responsibility to raise the alarm, chase after the culprit, and, if possible, detain the person until help arrived. When the other villagers heard what was known as the 'hue and cry', they had to stop whatever they were doing, and join in the chase. If anyone failed to do this, they could find themselves standing trial with the person who originally broke the by-law.
The Manor Court was held at regular intervals to deal with those accused of breaking the village by-laws. This took place in one of three places; the parish church, a building owned by the lord of the manor, or by the oldest tree in the village. Yalding's Manor Court was held every six months at Court Lodge. John Giffard was in charge of the court. Geoffrey Fletcher, the manorial clerk, wrote down on rolls of parchment everything that was decided at the court. That is why we call the court records, the 'court rolls'.
The first thing that usually happened at the Manor Court was the selection of the jury. In some villages they used the same people for several years, whereas in others it was the custom for a new jury to be selected every time the manor court met. There were usually twelve people in a jury, but in some manor courts they had as many as thirty members.
After the election of the jury, recent changes in the holding of land in the village were recorded. New land holders had to swear on the Bible that "So help me God and all his Saints that from this day forth I will be true and truthful to the Lord of the Manor". If they were also serfs they had to promise to do the required labour services and not to run away from the village.
Once a year the village officials such as the reeve, constable, hayward and woodward were elected at the Manor Court. People could also bring complaints to the Manor Court about the way the officials had been carrying out their duties. If the jury decided that these complaints were justified, the official would be fined.
Witnesses to the crime would give evidence. Before doing so, the witnesses would swear to God that they were telling the truth. This was very important as people in the Middle Ages believed that if a person lied in the Manor Court, they would go to hell when they died. In some villages, members of the jury could cross-examine witnesses.
When all the evidence had been heard, the jurors would make their final judgement. This judgement would be based on both the evidence and on their personal knowledge of the accused. The jury's decision had to be unanimous. Therefore, the minority were expected to change their minds in order to agree with the majority. If they failed to do this, they would be fined by the court.
Most of those found guilty of offences at the Manor Court would be fined. The level of the fine was determined by the officer in charge of the court. The lord of the manor had devised this system to raise money as well as to maintain order in the village. When individuals committed offences against the village as a whole, such as selling underweight bread, they were usually punished by spending time in the stocks. At Yalding, the stocks were on the green facing Court Lodge.
If people committed serious crimes they should have been sent to the king's courts. However, many lords of the manor preferred to deal with these crimes in the Manor Court and there are several examples in the court rolls of villagers being executed or mutilated. This usually involved the removal of an ear or thumb.
Stealing goods worth more than a shilling was a felony. A person found guilty of a felony could be executed. Methods varied from area to area. The most common method was to hang them from an oak tree or on a wooden gallows where two roads crossed. In some parts of Kent, criminals were buried alive. In coastal areas, the convicted person was thrown off the nearest cliff. In Pevensey the offender was taken to the town bridge at high tide and thrown into the harbour. At Portsmouth murderers were burnt to death and in Halifax they had their heads cut off with an axe.
1. Look at the Manor Court: April, 1334, Manor Court: October, 1334, Manor Court: April, 1335 and Manor Court: October, 1335. Find examples of where you or members of your family were named in the court rolls. Write these details down in Section 13 of your Family Information Chart.
2. Read Yalding's Custumal. Write down in your book the laws that the Manor Court claimed you had broken. When you broke the law did you create problems for: (a) Hugh de Audley; (b) the villagers of Yalding?
3. Write a speech on Yalding's Custumal. Explain your feelings about the way you have been treated at the Manor Court. Select three laws from the Custumal that you believe should be changed. Explain why.