A manor in English law is an estate in land to which is incident the right to hold a court termed court baron, that is to say a manorial court. The proper unit of tenure under the feudal system is the fee (or fief), on which the manor became established through the process of time, akin to the modern establishment of a "business" upon a freehold site. The manor is nevertheless often described as the basic feudal unit of tenure and is historically connected with the territorial divisions of the march, county, hundred, parish and township.
The legal theory of the origin of manors refers them to a grant from the crown of a fee from the monarch's allodial lands, as stated in the following extract from Perkins's Treatise on the laws of England:
"The beginning of a manor was when the king gave a thousand acres of land, or greater or lesser parcel of land, unto one of his subjects and his heirs, which tenure is knight service at the least. And the donee did perhaps build a mansion house upon parcel of the same land, and of 20 acres, parcel of that which remained, or of a greater or lesser parcel, before the statute of Quia emptores did enfeoff a stranger to hold of him and his heirs to plough 10 acres of land, parcel of that which remained in his possession, and did enfeoff another of another parcel thereof to go to war with him against the Scots etc., and so by continuance of time made a manor".
It is still as the jurist Sir Joshua Williams terms it, a "fundamental rule" that all lands were originally derived from the crown and that the monarch is lord paramount mediate or immediate of all the land in the realm. A manor then arises when the holder of a parcel so granted or supposed to have been granted by the crown, and who is termed in relation thereto the Lord of the Manor, has in turn granted portions thereof to others who stand to him in the relation of tenants. Of the portion reserved by the lord for his own use, termed the demesne, part was occupied by villeins, with the duty of cultivating the rest for the lord's use. These were originally tenants at will and in a state of semi-serfdom but they became in course of time the copyhold tenants of the later law. It is of the essence of copyhold that it should be regulated by the custom of the manor, as evidenced in the manorial roll produced by the manorial court. Manors cannot be created at the present day because manorial courts cannot be established with any legal jurisdiction. Scriven stated:
"Length of time being of the very essence of a manor, such things as receive their perfection by the continuance of time come not within the compass of the king's prerogative"
The effect of the statute of Quia Emptores (1290) was to make the creation of manors henceforward impossible, inasmuch as it enacted "that upon all sales and feoffments of land the feoffee shall hold the same, not of his immediate feoffor, but of the chief lord of the fee of whom such feoffor himself held it". The statute did not apply to a tenant-in-chief of the king, who might have alienated his land under a license. Accordingly, it is assumed that all existing manors are "of a date prior to the statute of Quia Emptores except perhaps some which may have been created by the king's tenants-in-chief with license from the crown". When a great baron had granted out smaller manors to others, the seignory of the superior baron was frequently termed an honour.
All land was differentiated by its legal status and by physical characteristics.
The legal status of land in England and Wales has been simplified such that only Freehold and Leasehold land remains (although, since 2002, a new category, Commonhold, also exists).
Other land (in the latter four categories, by grant in a form acceptable to the Crown) could be:
A manor was akin to the modern firm or business or other going concern. It was a productive unit, which required physical capital, in the form of land, buildings, equipment and draught animals such as ploughing oxen and labour in the form of direction, day-to-day management and a workforce. It was further similar in that its ownership could be transferred, with the necessary "licence to alienate" having been obtained from the overlord, as can the ownership of a modern company. The administration was self-contained and the new lord needed only to collect its net revenues to form his return on investment. The direction was ultimately provided by the manorial court, presided over by the lord's personal steward, whose members included the freehold tenants of the manor. The court itself appointed most of the lower manorial officers, which included the following:
The efficiency, productivity and thus profitability of a manor therefore depended on a mixture of qualities and interaction of location, micro-climate, natural resources, soil type, direction and labour. It was in the interest of all dwellers within the manor, to a greater or lesser degree, that it should be successful.
The manorial court had wide legal jurisdiction over the inhabitants of the manor, sometimes with the right to administer capital punishment, if the lord had obtained from the king the right of holding a court leet. Much of the law was specific to a particular manor, as developed by "custom of the manor" and as interpreted by the manorial court. Rights of appeal existed to the hundred court and the county court beyond that over which presided the county's sheriff.
A free manor was an autonomous area, outside the jurisdiction, law and administrative control of the surrounding territory.
Every person who lived in medieval England carried on their actions as a member of a manor under the jurisdiction of a manorial court, unless a citizen of a borough (in certain generally urban towns) or a cleric, or a lord of the manor himself or (failing sons) an heiress lady of the manor herself, who were subject to the primary jurisdiction of the king's court if a tenant-in-chief or of the county court if a mesne (intermediate) lord. It was not permissible for a man to migrate from the manor of his birth except by arrangement with his authorities. The manor was typically via its vestry also the source of a needy family's charitable relief, judged by the standards of the time, but such was at the discretion of the manorial court, by custom of each manor. An alien within a manor would not therefore be automatically entitled to any relief or protection offered by the lord (such as parish constables) tackling crime and therefore merchants and travellers were only in general safe to travel with costly hired protection or with protection in place from a local sheriff, particularly across remotely inhabited areas.
Any parish which is among the bulk formed in the medieval period (whether town or village, but not in old cores of cities) tended to share its name with the manor (which may or may not exist today). Such non-borough parishes have clerical jurisdiction over the same geographic territory over which the lord had jurisdiction through his manorial court.
The parish generally came into existence after the establishment of the manor, following the building of a church by the Lord of the Manor for the use of himself and his tenants, perhaps in consultation with the bishop within whose clerical jurisdiction the manor was situated. He gave permanently the parish church some of his land, the revenues from which thus were to support the priest and the maintenance of the church building. The lord of the manor retained the advowson, that is the right to select and appoint the parish priest, yet the parish was governed by the diocese within which it was situated, which also granted it the tithes to which it was legally entitled, which was a tax of one tenth of the produce of the manor. Outlying parts of many manors over time were forcibly lost by judgment or attainder by the sovereign, exchanged between neighbouring lords or sold to pay debts, and thus would change owner, but would almost never change parish.
As, over time, a manor's lands could grow and shrink (they could extend over several different parishes), many manors became virtually worthless and lost any pretence of having a lord or became entirely subsumed by another. Others could arise by the principal lord's special grant, approved by the sovereign of subinfeudation. Where such additional manors were created, the parish would then cover these, unless a new parish was also created.