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by Liz Whitehouse and Stan Bristow


Page 2 of  3


Page 1 Page 3


This article first appeared in the July 2005 edition of

Family Tree magazine


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The Photograph shows a Manor of Brierley Court Leet meeting on 1st November 1961. On the left seated George Michael Foljambe, stood up on the left is Thomas Moxon (b.1877) who is next to Arthur Hargreaves.

Photograph reproduced from an old newspaper cutting.

     At the court baron, appointments made were those of hay wards (inspectors of hedges and fences), swineherds, hedge cutters and so on. It was an accepted principle of feudal life that service in such offices was compulsory, and unpaid.

By the late 13th century, there were two main types of manorial jurisdiction in evidence. One arose directly from the lord's ownership of the manor, which gave him the right to administer the estate and control the tenants. The other was the jurisdiction conferred upon the lord by the right to hold a "view of frank pledge" (originally a mutual surety in which members of the same tithing were made responsible for one another) and a court leet.

     'Many of the manors were held by the great lords or by high ecclesiastical dignitaries who were unable to attend the courts in person, so they were presided over by a steward. When the notice of the court was given, all bondsmen had to attend, and the freemen had to do so if it was laid down in their charter when they were granted the land that they held.

     'The matter was settled by the Statute of Marlborough in 1267, when it was laid down that "no freeholder" is bound to suit at his Lord's demands unless this was imposed upon him by the rules of his charter, or was done before King Henry went to Brittany in the year 1230".

     'Custom decided the exact site of the court. Some were held out of doors, others in huge barns on the estate, others in the manorial halls or, as in Brierley for the last 600 years, in the village inn.

     'There can be little doubt that the manorial courts played a very big part in the development of the jury system which which we know today. The swearing-in of a jury was usually the first business on the court sheet, and it is so today at Brierley.

     'At these old courts, there were two juries. One, the jury of presentment, was charged with enquiring into offences against the franchise. The other, the jury of inquisition, looked into manorial offences and matters concerning the working of the manor. This jury decided on matters of fact, and decided the customs of the manor and both the lord and tenant were bound by the customs they laid down.

     'This jury of inquisition is, I think, the type which operates at the Brierley Court to this day. In the old days, the jury made surveys, and were empowered to draw up byelaws for the due regulation of the common fields and meadows. That is largely the only duty of the Court of Brierley today.

     'It will be seen, therefore, that at one time, the courts tried a wide variety of offences, including civil disputes between tenants. Each side was allowed to state its case and then the verdict was given. Breaches of contract and failure to keep promises were considered, and damages assessed.

     'Personal matters such as libel and slander came under their jurisdiction and, interestingly, wounded pride could be claimed and monetary solace granted. In those days, not only the man and his family cheapened by unfair criticism, but also his beast and crops. Men were fined for vilifying a man's pig or for defaming his corn so that he lost the sale of it. Another offence which came under the purview of the courts, and one which is no longer with us, was the clipping of coins.

     'What were these courts worth to the Lord of the Manor? In prestige they were worth a great deal, apart from being instruments for dealing with law breakers. The courts also gave him considerable financial benefit because he assessed the fines, which were called in Latin misericordia, because were supposed to be assessed "mercifully". Fortunately in this respect, the culprit was not left solely to the mercy of the lord, because there was the "custom of the manor" and the clemency of his fellows on the jury to cling to. The revenues from the court were enough to warrant a separate paragraph in the annual account sheet.

     'I was amused to read that another court which leet which still meets has managed to vary this ruling, and a share of the fines is given to the members of the court with which to buy refreshments. That's a refinement which, as a modern justice of the Peace, I should not object to in, modern courts.

     'These courts had many weaknesses, not the least that they were often comparatively powerless to enforce their own rulings. But they also served many useful purposes, one of which as that they were a barrier against any violent changes of policy. They also provided a speedy and comparatively inexpensive way of obtaining redress for injury or wrong.

     'The decline of the courts began with the passing of an Act in 1361 which introduced the office of Justice of the Peace and set up the petty sessional courts that we know today, to deal with the offences against the peace. Three hundred years later, the manorial courts were gradually superseded by other forms of social organisation. Individualism in farming took over from the communal system. Copyholders and customary tenants were replaced by leaseholders and the enclosure movement did away with much of the remaining business of the courts.

     'And now, it is believed, only about half a dozen courts remain in operation in the country, and that in Brierley is one.

     'That brings us along through 600 years or so, and back to the bar parlour at the Three Horse Shoes, where the jury, having been sworn in, elect their foreman. For some time their unanimous choice has been old Tom Moxon, of South Hiendley, who, now 85, is the third generation of his family to hold the office. Jacob Moxon, back in 1770s, was one of the first Moxons to serve as foreman.

     'He answers "I do" in a firm voice and kisses the book he holds as the clerk of the court bids him "as foreman of this homage  you shall well and truly present all such matters and things as are here presentable at this court as the same are already known to you or during this sitting shall come to your knowledge. You shall present nothing out of hatred or malice, nor shall you conceal anything out of fear, favour or affection, but in all things present the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, according to the best of your information and belief. So help you God".

     'One cannot help but notice that oaths administered in present day courts bear a strong resemblance in their make-up to that old oath.


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