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Gentry does it

Translating legal rolls from Latin has helped show how our manor went from rural to urban. Dan Carrier delves into the archives

22 July, 2021 — By Dan Carrier

BAPTIST Hicks was a knight of the realm and a Baronet, and on the May 14, 1621, a court held under the jurisdiction of his Hampstead manor noted the ownership of parcels of land. The records state that a Sir Thomas Sandes gave Sir Baptist “five acres lying in the township and fields of Hampsted (sic)… and one toft of land with garden adjoining and two crofts of land lying in Pondstreete.”

This minutiae of land ownership is just one of thousands of transactions recently revealed through a 16-year project run by the Camden History Society, translating Latin legal rolls that covered the Manor of Hampstead.

Historian Dr Virginia Bainbridge is a Latin translator and an expert in deciphering the handwriting of the medieval period.

She has worked on the project, originally started in 2005, reading a series of parchments and later law books found at Westminster Abbey and the Metropolitan Archives that trace the growth of a swathe of north London.

“The Manor belonged to Westminster Abbey in the Middle Ages,” Dr Bainbridge says, and stretched further than what we know as Hampstead today. The 2,000 acres reached to St John’s Wood in the west, Camden in the south and up over the brow of Hampstead’s hills towards what is now Golders Green.

After the Dissolution in 1539, it was given for a brief time to the Diocese of Westminster until 1550. The Crown then passed the land to a court favourite, Sir Thomas Wroth, and then on to Sir Baptist. The records show who owned what and when – right up until manorial rights ended in 1944.

Reading through the translated rolls, which were written on parchment made of recycled linen before the use of bound paper books, land ownership, rents paid, assets owned and more comes from the reams of legal notes.

An example of ‘the writing of a fine professional legal hand’ – from the legal rolls that covered the Manor of Hampstead

We learn, for example, that nine acres called the Aldenhams and another 10 acres called Duddingtons was to be enclosed “with all the fences and ditches thereto previously and then belonging, against a certain hill adjoining the waste of the Lord called Hampsted Heath, enclosed and separated by the aforesaid waste of the Lord”.

Such insights allow us to picture 17th century Hampstead where there were still fields commonly owned, that no one had a legal right to, and were free for everyone to use.

Dr Bainbridge described how the documents create a broader picture, providing evidence of the growth of London, of the effect enclosures had and the changing ways to generate wealth.

“You see a long, gradual process, a transition from a rural hinterland into suburban world. The rolls reveal how land was bought and sold and developed,” adds Dr Bainbridge.

The rolls also illustrate how the 18th century economy was characterised by cycles of boom and bust.

“It was related to phases of trade and international warfare with other European powers,” says Dr Bainbridge.

“In London and its hinterland, building booms reflected prosperity among the upper ranks of society based on investments in trade. Slumps were reflected in slumps in building work. The suburbanisation of Hampstead Manor’s villages therefore proceeded by fits and starts.”

From 1620-1700, the rolls show mainly farmland.

Dr Virginia Bainbridge

“Many smallholding families made a living, with the benefit of grazing rights for sheep, goats and cattle on the common pastures of Hampstead Heath,” says Dr Peter Woodford, the chairman of the Camden History Society, who began the project to catalogue, translate and research the rolls in 2005.

“In the 17th century new industries of brick- and tile-making were influenced by neighbouring London.

“London tradesmen were moving to cottages in the rural villages and hamlets which now make up Camden. Grand houses were built for the wealthy, and speculative ventures included leisure activities to attract them, including a bowling green and Hampstead Spa, both shortlived.”

He cites how leases in the 18th century showed smallholdings created from what was described as “waste” from Hampstead Heath, while grander buildings were on the rise: “Several were newly enclosed by brick walls and within the walls were built gentry residences with stables and outhouses,” he says.

“Some also had parcels of meadow, presumably for grazing coach or riding horses. The social status of the owners and occupiers of these customary holdings had also risen. The new tenants were generally of a higher social status than the tenants from whom they were taking over, and included professional people and aristocracy.”

The Hampstead Court Rolls have the occasional recognisable English place name, but the switch from Latin did not happen until the 1700s.

“All documents of legal records after the Middle Ages were written in Latin except during the Commonwealth, and then from 1733,” says Dr Bainbridge.

Oliver Cromwell’s government made English the language of the law – but it wasn’t for leveller-like reasons, to push the revolution to a logical conclusion of genuine democracy and equality.

“This wasn’t about improving access for the yeomanry and peasantry,” says Dr Bainbridge. “It was about a burgeoning middle and upper class who wanted their property secured.

“By 1733, the times were changing – even the gentry might have found it hard to read and conduct proceedings in Latin. It was a slow evolution, with it gradually recognised it was sensible for documents to be written in a language that was spoken.”

The rolls include business accounts, made by a “reeve” or bailiff.

“They were a tenant who assessed the crops and livestock,” says Dr Bainbridge. “They describe fields, pastures, meadows, woods, the manor house and other buildings. They also offer a list of tenants and annual rents, and court proceedings held against people who have caused public disturbance – the Manor Courts acted in a similar way to today’s magistrates. They had jurisdiction to try minor offences, and could send more serious cases to the Quarter or Assize courts.

“It truly is a wealth of information,” adds Dr Bainbridge. “This project allows you to look up your ancestors, look up the history of the house you live in.”


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