The Manor of Godmanchester

Historical notes about the Manor of Godmanchester, Huntingdonshire, England, UK


The manor of GODMANCHESTER was held by Edward the Confessor as 14 hides. It was valued at £40 a year, which was a sum which it paid in 1086 to William the Conqueror, who succeeded to it as crown land.

Domesday Godmanchester - Land of the King

In GODMANCHESTER King Edward had 14 hides to the geld. [There is] land for 57 ploughs. There are 2 ploughs now in the king's demesne, on 2 hides of this land; and 80 villans and 16 bordars have 24 ploughs. There is a priest and a church, and 3 mills [rendering] 100s, and 160 acres of meadow and 50 acres of woodland pasture. From the pasture 20s. From the meadows 70s. TRE worth £40; now the same by tale.

(Note: Demesne - Land retained by the Lord of the Manor for his own use and TRE - Tempora Regis Eduardis - In the time of King Edward the Confessor.)

Thus, as ancient demesne of the crown, it acquired certain privileges and obligations.  Before Michaelmas, 1190, Richard I granted Godmanchester to David Earl of Huntingdon, at the increased farm of £50 to hold at the king's pleasure. In 1194 a new grant in fee was made to the earl and his heirs. The manor appears to have been in King John's hands in 1199, but in the same year a new charter was obtained by the earl, who held it in 1210-12 by the service of one knight's fee. It again came into the king's hands in 1212, perhaps the most important date in the history of Godmanchester, for in that year King John granted the manor to 'the men of Godmanchester' to hold at the fee-farm rent of £120 a year. Subsequent grants of the manor by Henry III in 1217 to Faulkes de Breaute, in 1224 to the Master of the Templars for a debt, and in 1236 to Eleanor of Provence as part of her dower, were presumably grants of the rent only.

In 1267 the fee-farm rent was granted to Edmund Earl of Lancaster, the king's second son, to hold by military service. Queen Eleanor, as a widow, unsuccessfully sued her son in 1278 for the manor. The possession of the rent was also complicated by the claims of Margaret Countess of Derby, one of the eventual co-heiresses of David of Huntingdon. She seems to have obtained a grant of the manor from Edward I, and a similar grant was made by Edmund for her life at the annual rent of 12d. Many of her receipts to the town for the fee-farm rent are still in existence. On her death it reverted to the earls of Lancaster and the manor formed part of the Duchy of Lancaster, finally merging in the crown on the accession of Henry IV. In 1662, Charles II granted the annual fee-farm rent to Edward Earl of Sandwich, and it is still paid by the borough to the present Earl of Sandwich.

Lancaster Arms

The Arms of the Duchy of Lancaster

The Arms of the Duchy of Lancaster.
England with a label of France.


The charter of 1212 had transferred all the manorial rights at Godmanchester to the men of the manor to hold from the king and his heirs. The privileges attached to the manor are not specified, but David Earl of Huntingdon had sac and soc, toll and theam and infangenthief, and these, with possibly further rights, were exercised by the men of Godmanchester. The grant made the town, what is somewhat rare, a self-governing manor or liberty. It did not become a borough, and except the right of self-government, and the custom of borough-English, had none of the usually accepted marks of a borough. The charter was confirmed by Edward I, Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth. Richard II, however, added a definite list of the privileges enjoyed by the men of Godmanchester.

In 1381 he recognised that they and their predecessors in virtue of the charter of 1212 had the chattels of felons and fugitives and waifs and strays, but in his charter of 1392 they were to have chattels of felons, fugitives, suicides, outlaws and those who renounce the realm of England, infangenthief, outfangenthief, and all forfeitures within the manor, both from residents and foreigners. He also expressly confirmed their privilege as tenants of ancient demesne, of freedom from toll and similar dues throughout the kingdom.

The earlier development of the manor from pre-Conquest days, which enabled the men of Godmanchester to obtain a grant of self-government, is unfortunately obscure. We learn little from the Domesday Survey (1086) as to the status of the inhabitants, but it seems probable that the 80 villiens and 16 bordars of Godmanchester, there recorded, had been a community of free sokemen, holding their lands for a rent payable to the king; indeed in 1279 the tenants of Godmanchester all claimed to be and were accepted as free sokemen, with no bondmen among them. The pre-Conquest organisation seems to have persisted to some extent during the 12th century, when payments to the sheriff are entered on the Pipe Rolls as due from the commonalty (communis) of Godmanchester. As already pointed out, the payment of £40 from the manor in 1066 represented the amount received by the king, and it is possible that each holding was already assessed to pay its share of this sum annually. Such a practice was certainly established after 1212, and in 1279 over 500 tenements were assessed for payment of the fee-farm rent, generally at the rate of 8d. an acre. The system i still in existence, each acre now paying 1d. towards the rent.

The most important result of the grant of the manor was that the king's officers ceased to hold the courts, though the phrases 'the King's manor' or in Elizabeth's reign 'the Queen's court' remained in use. In 1286 the two town bailiffs claimed on behalf of themselves and the commonalty of the town to have gallows and to hold the view of frankpledge freely, but it was proved that they paid an annual fine of 20s. to the sheriff for the privilege. In the 15th century the Duchy court decreed that this payment should no longer be made to the sheriff. The bailiffs also held the usual three-weeks court of the manor, which was peculiarly important on the ancient demesne of the crown. The court rolls are preserved at Godmanchester from 1271; at first no distinction is made in the headings of the rolls between the two courts, the view only being distinguished by the presence of the 12 jurors. By 1324, however, the roll of the view was kept separately, though the regular series of rolls does not begin until the reign of Edward III.

The privileges of the liberty of Godmanchester oelonged to the tenants of holdings assessed to the payment of the fee-farm rent, their sons, daughters and widows. Sons were admitted on reaching the age of twenty, daughters at sixteen. Foreigners, or those living outside the manor, were also admitted to the freedom of the town at the three-weeks court, by the consent of the commonalty, on payment of a fine and the taking of an oath. Sureties were required during the 15th century, but the custom disappeared in the reign of Henry VII. All tenants were bound to be present at the view of frankpledge, and they elected the twelve jurors for the year, but it is not clear whether the tenants or all admitted to the freedom made this election. Besides the ordinary business of the view, the bailiffs and jurors declared the customs or by-laws of the manor and acted as a town council. The earliest enrolled declaration is in 1278-9, but in 1324 the commonalty empowered the two bailiffs and the jurors to draw up a custumal which should be accepted by all. The result represents the codification of ancient usage rather than the introduction of new rules.

A second edition of the custumal was made in 1465, and later additions of the following century have been added on the same roll.  In 1324, for administrative purposes, the town was divided into four quarters or wards named after the chief streets of Godmanchester. The government consisted of two bailiffs, elected for one year by the twelve jurors. The bailiffs were chosen one year from Post Street and Erning (Arning) Street and in the alternate year from West Street and East Street. The elections of all officers took place in the court held next before the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. All rolls were given into the custody of four keepers of the common chest. The complete list of other officials is not given, but mention is made of the collectors of the fee-farm rents and the chief warden of the mills. All officials were to render account of their year of office to the two bailiffs and the jurors. The rolls of the coroners of Godmanchester exist for the reign of Edward II, so that they must have been functioning in 1324, although their election is not recorded till 1482. In the 15th century, the election of the officers is regularly recorded in the court books of the threeweeks court. The officials then consisted of the two bailiffs, two constables, eight collectors of the farm, two from each street, two churchwardens, four collectors of amerciaments of the view, the collectors of the aletoll, the warden of the water and the subbailiff.

In 1484, the record shows that three jurors of the leet were elected from each street; in 1485, the warden of the swans appears, and in 1486 the bellman. The clerk of the court is mentioned in 1376, but no election is shown till 1497, and it was probably a permanent and not an annual office. The business at the three weeks court consisted of the admission of freemen, landsuits and the surrenders of land, peculiar to manors of the ancient demesne, and civil cases where the damages claimed were under 40s. In 1592 it was ordained by the bailiffs and jurors that in future cases in this court should be heard by the two bailiffs, three of the twelve suitors at the court on the day of trial and three or four ex-bailiffs. Appeals from the manorial court were made to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and were heard in the court of the Duchy. All land in Godmanchester, except the original endowment of the church, was, and still is, held in socage of the ancient demesne of the crown. The tenure was never merged, as elsewhere, in copyhold, although in the 16th century land is occasionally described as held by copy of court roll. Every tenement when it changed hands was surrendered in court into the hands of the bailiffs, who gave seisin to the incoming tenant on payment of a fine or gersom. This procedure is still followed, but the surrenders are not made in court, but only to the mayor of the borough and, under the Law of Property (Amendment) Act of 1924, this very rare survival of socage of the ancient demesne is disappearing. Each tenement when it is surrendered to the mayor passes to the incoming tenant as ordinary freehold property. All land suits were heard in the three-weeks court; the cases were begun by the king's little writ of right close. The first writ appears on a 13th-century court roll and the actual writs are generally attached to the roll on which the case was recorded. A writ was brought into the Court of Pleas as late as 1805. The procedure closely followed that of the royal courts in freehold suits. In the early cases in the 13th and 14th centuries, an assize was held with twenty-four jurors, but later fines and recoveries 'according to the custom of the manor' were more common. The town was very jealous of its rights, and there were many complaints in the Duchy Courts that tenants had been impleaded in the common law or other royal courts instead of the manorial court. Except in the use of the little writ of right close, the Godmanchester tenure approximated to free socage and all the terms of a freehold tenure were used: a daughter was given her land in free marriage; a widow obtained her dower; no servile services were paid and the land was held for suit of court and a money rent, without even the boonwork often due from freehold land. From the customal of 1324, it appears that a tenant could assign, sell or bequeath his land by will, saving only the right of the widow to her dower. This right of the widow persists at the present day, so that a man still cannot sell his land without his wife's consent. The only other restriction in 1324 was the rule forbidding the sale of land to a foreigner or an ecclesiastic.

Land still descends by the rule of Borough English to the youngest son of the first wife, unless testamentary dispositions have been made bequeathing it differently.

Victoria County History: Huntingdonshire ~ Printed 1932

With later additions and amendments