No other records carry genealogical proof for the common man as property documents. They can yield missing maiden surnames, precise and provable genealogical relationships, and individual identity if you know how to use their evidence.
Let’s talk about property evidence from an actual genealogy problem: John Rampton was a land owner with both freehold land on the manor of Herriard, Odiham Hundred, Hampshire. He also held exchanged lands with other owners, some of which were part of the copyhold lands of the manor. Freehold lands were owned outright by deed. Copyhold lands were held through local custom, directly from the Lord of the manor and recorded on the manor roll of the Lord’s court.
Deeds were loose documents. They were often transferred directly to the new owner, hand-to-hand, when property was sold. These must be traced owner by owner unless they have been collected and preserved by the local government record office. Usually, they were not required to be recorded.
Copyhold indentures were surrendered, first to the lord of the manor to clear the title with him, then transferred by the lord to the next heir to hold the lands. These important land transactions were recorded on the manor roll and certified by the manor court jury or homage. Unlike our modern-day juries, the manor jury included a representative of each local government unit. This representative was called a tythingman and he signed the court roll.
Anciently, the tythingman had oversight for 10 families. The Hundred included about 100 families—thus about 10 tythingmen attended the manor court as jurymen for the Hundred. The term tythingman still continued even when more or fewer families were part of that local government structure. This government system is a very old one and applied throughout the British Isles until well into the 1800’s, with a few areas keeping these local officials and their records in place until after 1900.
These court rolls asked what lands were held by the owner and who was the next heir when the owner died. They also recorded sales, leases, exchanges, mortgages, and consolidations of land holdings. Watch for the terms “surrender and admittance,” or “conditional surrender” which identify the copyhold lands.
These court rolls provide the best proof of pedigree for non-armigerous families. In a country where ownership and possession of land were often transferred, among the well-to-do and famous, by “turf and twig,” conveyances at this level of society were written and copied into the court rolls (called copyhold) as proof of right to possession and right to pass possession on to legal heirs.
Copyhold was abolished in 1922 in England and Wales and replaced by a fee- simple warranty similar to what you find today. Copyhold records were called into the Public Record Office in London, now the National Archives UK, because these records still document chains of title for land ownership. They are being indexed and posted online at http://www.nationalarchives.uk
Stay tuned to the Rampton saga–to learn how John (d. 1734) fit into the system. Your favorite British genealogist, Arlene Eakle http://arleneeakle.com