Through the generosity of the Friends of Devon’s Archives, Mr Cliff Webb and the Trustees of Bampton Heritage and Visitor Centre we have recently been able to purchase a beautifully preserved court roll for the manor of Bampton in Devon. This precious record, which formed part of a collection of 20,000 documents accumulated by the late Lt-Col. Bob Wyatt, of Wokingham, Berkshire, will now be permanently preserved in its home county.  It will be available for researchers to consult at Devon Heritage Centre alongside more than 6,000 surviving manorial records, generated by Devon’s 11,000 manors spanning the 13th to the 20th centuries.

The Bampton court roll is a rich source of social history

Information Recorded

Manorial records are a particularly rich source for social and economic historians, as well as local researchers and genealogists. The Bampton court roll is no exception, vividly evoking life in this small Devon town, close to the Somerset border, in the turbulent years following the death of Henry VIII. It comprises two parchment membranes (stitched together at the top) and records the proceedings of three separate courts (held on 18 August 1547 and 19 March and 23 May 1548). The final court recorded nominally dealt with the affairs of the borough rather than the manor, but in practice there was no distinction between the jurisdictions of these courts and any differences must have been purely symbolic.

This court roll complements a small number of other surviving documents from Bampton Manor, including a court book of 1850-1913 and a rent book of 1915-26, both of which are cared for at Devon Heritage Centre.

The document tells stories from across five centuries

Troublesome Residents

The manor court had its fair share of disreputable locals to deal with. Several people were brought before the court (a process then referred to by the term ‘presented’) by the manor’s official ale tasters for selling alcohol illegally, or at least in incorrect measures. Twenty-seven people were amerced (fined) a total of 7s 6d for this particular offence in March 1548 alone. At that same court 20 people received amercements of 4d each for allowing their pigs to wander in the streets. There were also fines for trespass, a common offence in an age when it was all too tempting to take a short cut across a neighbour’s property or graze livestock on their land. Several of these trespass offences appear to have related to the lord of the manor’s own farm. Other offenders included a servant of ‘bad conversation’.

Some misdemeanours were more serious. There was an assault with a cutting knyff; and one man attacked another with a thrasshell (presumably an agricultural implement relating to threshing). A billhook was the weapon of choice in another violent altercation.

One family in the manor seems to have been particularly exasperating. William Bowbeare the younger was fined 4d for allowing people to play at dice and cards in his house on feast-days and at night. Meanwhile Alice, the wife of William Bowbeare the elder, and probably the mother or aunt of the junior William, was charged with being a communis scandalozatrix (a common scold or slanderer) to the nuisance of her neighbours. It would have been wonderful to know who was on the receiving end of her barbed comments, and what she was actually saying, but this sadly goes unrecorded. Even so, there’s something rather magical about this obscure individual and her vitriolic tongue, otherwise completely lost, leaping out at us across five centuries.

We are delighted that this evocative document will now be publicly available to researchers.

Watercolour of Bampton, Devon (1946) by Karl Wood