manor houses

views updated Jun 08 2018

manor houses were the habitat of the gentry, the headquarters of the squire. In medieval England they were both governmental and economic units. The lord of the manor dispensed justice through his court and could call upon the villagers for labour and financial assistance. It is not clear to what extent Roman villas fulfilled these functions or how widespread the development was in Saxon times. There was always considerable diversity. Some wealthy men owned many manors, others but one: some villages had no resident lord of the manor, others had two. Manors and villages did not necessarily coincide. Though the growth of royal justice and the development of a freer economy undermined the position of the lords of the manor in the later medieval period, their social prestige remained high and their increasing functions as justices of the peace went some way to compensating, since most could expect to be on the bench, unless excluded by party animosity or personal idiosyncrasy.

The essential feature of medieval manor houses was the great hall, the living and sleeping quarters of the lord's followers and servants, as well as his family. The fireplace was normally in the middle, the gentry often had a dais or table at one end (as in a college hall), and there was little privacy. Some defence was afforded by moats, which also supplied fish, or stockades, though the manor house must be distinguished from the castle, which was the preserve of the mighty. At Boothby Pagnell, Lincolnshire (c.1200), and Donington, Leicestershire (c.1280), the hall was on the first floor, for comfort and security. Lower Brockhampton (Herefordshire) had a moat, though more ornamental than formidable, and Stokesay in Shropshire had a great hall, to which towers were subsequently added: each of them acquired a free-standing half-timbered gatehouse in the Tudor period. Gradually, with greater attention to privacy, manor houses became less public and more comfortable, with windows, carpets, and more furniture. The old great hall was sometimes partitioned to make smaller rooms. A remarkably ornate late Tudor house is Little Morton Manor in Cheshire, which retained the great hall, but added a long gallery at the top for recreation or receptions. Other houses were rebuilt, or sometimes moved, to take them out of village mud or poultry. By the Stuart period the withdrawal from communal living had gathered pace. Though the stately homes had vast reception rooms and bedrooms for many guests, the average manor house catered for the immediate family and its servants. After the Restoration, the retreat from the public gaze accelerated, with walls erected, lodges built, drives constructed, roads diverted, and the parks planted and embellished. Milton Manor (Oxon.), built soon after the Restoration, is severely classical: the moat has given way to an elegant pond, the great hall has gone, and in the following century a library was added. At Ramsbury Manor in Wiltshire, built in the 1680s, the great hall has dwindled into an imposing entrance hall. We must not exaggerate the grandeur of manor houses. Many remained little more than farm-houses and others stayed in their villages. The manor house at Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire, where Newton was born in 1642, was only 20 years old, and a very modest dwelling in the middle of the hamlet, hardly distinguishable from other good residences. Capability Brown, having made his fortune improving aristocratic parks, bought himself a small manor house at Fenstanton in 1768, near the church and in the town. The prestige of the gentry remained high, since they often owned the advowson and had a cousin or an uncle in the rectory as well. Their influence declined markedly in the 19th cent. as they lost their local powers to elected councils, but the position of the squire remained important in Victorian times and is still significant in some villages today.

J. A. Cannon


views updated May 29 2018

manor-house. House in a district in medieval England over which the Court of the Lord of the Manor had authority, or on the land belonging to that nobleman: it was usually unfortified, of medium size, and architecturally unpretentious.


O. Cook & and E. Smith (1983);
Wood (1965)