Manorial Lordships are a piece of living history as well as a legal curiosity.
Manors and the lords who controlled them were the creation of William the Conqueror following his conquest on England in 1066 A.D. The system of landholding as portrayed throughout the Domesday Book (1086 A.D.) was based on the rigid social hierarchy of what was later named the feudal system. Rather than being owned by the people who worked it, land belonged a member of society higher up the social tree. At the apex was King William who granted land to tenants-in-chief - usually lords or members of the Church - in return for their loyal assistance in the Norman Conquest. Below the lords and senior clergy were the under-tenants who held land from the tenants-in-chief. Farther down were those who actually worked the land - the peasants - who earned their living by working on the land of the manorial lord and paying fees or tithes to their superiors.
Under William the Conqueror, the basic unit of land carefully recorded in the Domesday Book is the manor. There was no set size to a manor. Some were quite large and others were smaller than a single village. Manors were part of larger administrative subdivisions of land called "hundreds". All manors consisted of a parcel of land and the Lord of the Manor had jurisdiction over both the land and the tenants.
The Lord of the Manor had extensive rights that far exceeded the simple ownership of the land and the right to collect rents from tenants. Manorial rights also included the valuable right to hold or license markets and fairs, mineral, fishing and hunting rights, mill, treasure, wreck, timber, river and shore rights, and the all important right to dispense justice over his tenants.
Periodically all the tenants met at a 'manorial court', with the lord of the manor, or his steward, presiding. These courts, known as courts baron, dealt with the tenants' rights and duties, changes of occupancy, and disputes between tenants. Some manorial courts also had the power to appoint constables and other officials and operated as Magistrates Courts for minor criminal offences. With fines and fees, justice was a valuable business in the Middle Ages.
Domesday records that a portion of the yields of the jurisdiction of a "hundred" went to the holder of the manor. While the earl kept a third of the money, the king reserved two thirds of that made from justice in the manor. The value of a manor was an estimate of the money its lord would receive annually from his peasants, including the annual dues paid by a mill or mine, a proportion of the eels caught or pigs kept. Lindsell, where the Manor of Prior's Hall is located, lists in the Domesday Book the owner and administrator as “St. Valery; Eudo the Steward" with valuable assets of a "Mill, 5 beehives”.
There are three distinct legal elements to a Manor (collectively called an Honour):
the Lordship or Dignity - the title granted by the manor,
the Manorial - the manor and its land,
the Seignory - the rights granted to the holder of the Manor.
In the earliest days of feudalism, all three legal elements were usually combined in a single person - the Lord of the Manor held the title, owned the land and held the rights that went with the land. Sometimes the Lord and his family lived on the manor in the manor house, which also served as the centre of the manorial court and administration of the land. Economic necessity, marriage and children often led to the three elements of a manor being sub-divided. These three elements may exist separately or be combined, however only the title or Dignity cannot be further subdivided and must be handed down or conveyed intact to a single person.
The Lordship or Dignity (i.e: the right to be called "The Lord of the Manor of X") is what is called in law an incorporeal hereditament - a property right in something that has no physical substance. The physical substance - being the land to which it was once attached - having been sold separately, the Lordship or Dignity carries on a legal life of its own, sometimes by itself, but more rarely with obscure feudal rights still attached. Because they originally related to property ownership, Manorial Lordships can be transferred, conveyed or sold to other people, as they often were throughout their history. They can also form part of the Lord's estate, meaning they are inheritable on death by a Lord's or Lady's child. As it is not a divisible property, only one of the children of a Lord or Lady can become his or her successor as Lord of the Manor.
The feudal system is remarkably persistent, even in the 20th and 21st centuries. In the case of the Manor of Prior's Hall, the last manorial court was held in Lindsell in 1912. Manorial courts were finally abolished in the UK in 1924, but had been on the decline since the 17th century with the rise of civil courts. With the enactment of the UK Law of Property Acts, in 1925, copyhold tenure formally ended and replaced the 16th century landholding system with fee simple. Recent court cases in England have entertained the enforceability of the unextinguished traditional rights of some Manorial Lords to mineral, sporting and other property rights on their manor. A celebrated case in Wales in 2004 considered the right of a Lord of the Manor who held the Dignity (title) only and not the land to charge villagers fees to cross what had always been used as their own land. In the end, the House of Commons changed the law to give certainty to preventing this feudal right from being exercised. Changes to the UK Land Registration Act in 2002 preserves the continuation of the Lord of the Manor title or dignity, but regulates many of the ancient and traditional mineral, fishing, trespass and other manorial rights.
A manorial lordship or ladyship is not a title of nobility in the modern British honours system. It is rather a survival from the feudal system. Technically, Lords of Manors are barons, however, they do not use the term as a title as it only relates to the extinct feudal system and is no longer correct in the context of the usage of the modern British peerage. English Feudal Baronies, along with the feudal system, were abolished in England in 1660 by Act of Parliament (The Abolition of Feudal Tenure Act), after that year no English Feudal Baronies of any degree existed. The owner of a lordship of the manor can be described as "John Smith, Lord/Lady of the Manor of X", sometimes shortened to "John Smith, Lord of X". On no account are they descibed as "Lord Smith" or "Baron Smith". Ownership of a manorial lordship will be noted on request in British passports, however modern British courts still struggle with the abstract question of whether it is a title of honour or a dignity.
Sadly, there are also many scams and fraudulent misrepresentations that sell "manorial lordships" in the supposed form of "title" to a square foot of land in Scotland or England. As a result, there are many people who falsely purport to be a "Lord" or "Laird". Other unscrupulous sellers supposedly lay claim to extinct or vacant manors and "revive" them for sale, even though to be legitimate a manorial lordship must be traceable without a break through successive owners, much like title to a house. In reality, these scams convey no rights or "title", as the sellers have no right to sell them in the first place, and instead simply sell you a worthless trademark or meaningless name change kit. In the case of the infamous "souvenir plots", a manorial title cannot be subdivided nor shared by more than one person. In reality, these schemes and scams convey nothing and only enrich the fraudsters at the expense of the vain and gullible. If you are still interested in a genuine Scottish title (the only Scottish legal titles that can be purchased), there is apparently one legitimate vendor on the internet, and genuine Scottish baronies and earldoms offered currently range in price from £75,000 to £750,000.
Many of the original Lordships of the Manor granted by William the Conqueror almost a thousand years ago have disappeared, reverted to the Crown, or have become lost through the inability to trace an unbroken chain of title back through successive owners to the original grantees. The Lordship of the Manor of Prior's Hall, Lindsell, is exceptional as there have only been five owners since the Norman Conquest in 1066 - the original Priory of St Valery-sur-Somme, Picardy (1066) ; William of Wykeham, Lord Chancellor of England and Bishop of Winchester (1377); New College, Oxford (1391); Dame Yvonne Trueman MBE (1994); and the present Lord of Prior's Hall, Lindsell, Stephen Lautens.