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The Manorial Court Rolls of Lucan Year 1443

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In this article it is hoped that you will be able to take a brief but informative glimpse of what daily life was like for ordinary people in Lucan 570 years ago. We take our view of these times long passed through the prism of the record of the manorial court, that is, the court operated in this district by the lord of the manor. Court proceedings were recorded in Latin, the legal/official language of the educated classes. They were eventually translated into English and are held in the National Archives in London. For the purpose of this article we will look at the rolls of the manorial court Lucan for Tuesday 2nd May 1443. (Randomly selected as an average day).

What is so special about these court rolls?
Well simply enough, they exist, and that is what makes them so special. In Ireland we have had a long series of disasters which have destroyed our medieval records. Some of these disasters were quite spectacular and probably familiar to us, such as the burning of the Custom House in 1921 and the shelling of the archives in the Four Courts in 1922, while some were rather more mundane, like the “rot and poor condition of manuscripts” described in 1430 when “the books and records were greatly damaged by rain and storms because of the poor condition of the rooms in Dublin Castle where they were stored” or the “dust and moisture” that John Lodge, Deputy Keeper of Records complained of in 1758 in the Rolls Office when he stated that “the whole building is so shook by tempests that the clerks have quitted their desks through fear, and locked up the office”. The upshot of all this is that we have very little legal documentation for later Medieval Ireland and only two manorial court rolls from the whole colony (Ireland) exist, one set from Maynooth and the rolls from Lucan.

These legal records are really vital for understanding the later Middle Ages because they were deeply litigious time, scholars have recently compared high and late Medieval Ireland /England to the modern United States in terms of its level of litigiousness and the frequency with which people used courts of many different kinds to resolve disputes. Manorial courts are particularly valuable because they are amongst the lowest, most inexpensive courts and non-elites could afford them. So it is the rarity of these Lucan records that makes them so valuable for understanding this key aspect of life in Ireland and which ensures that they are a milestone of a sort in the history of Dublin. Manorial courts and other small claims courts were present all across the county with many such in Dublin and the kinds of dispute we are going to look at in Lucan were replicated at manors throughout the country.

Manorial courts were presided over by the lord of the manor or his representative. This particular court session in Lucan on 2nd May 1443 the report of which we are going to look at, was presided over by John Martyne, who was the seneschal of James Butler, Earl of Ormond, who claimed Lucan, a Fitzgerald / Kildare Manor, by virtue of his marriage to the Earl of Kildare’s daughter. The manorial court was predicated on the idea that justice was due to the tenants from their lord, that he had a responsibility to protect them and arbitrate in their disputes, as well as the right to protect his own interests in the manor of Lucan. Although the court was overseen by Ormond’s representative in this case, manorial courts typically had a jury of men (always men, of course) from the manor, so we can assume they were locals and probably knew most of the litigants, and may even have had an interest in the outcome of the case.

Manorial courts were a great money maker, there were fines for offences, and plaintiffs were also fined if they lost their case, and this money also went to the court - so plaintiffs and defendants often ended up paying something to the court.

This income was used to pay court officials and the remainder went to the lord. The total amount made from fines on any given day was recorded at the end of the day and it ranged from 22d to 8s and 7d, which was not too bad for a days work 570 years ago! To put it in context, at the same time rent of the upper floors of the Thosel – Prime Dublin real estate, in a civic building in the centre of town, was only 3 shillings a year. So legal jurisdictions were valued and jealously guarded and the lords tried to stop their tenants from going elsewhere, to colonial or ecclesiastical courts.

As mentioned, the courts were not just valuable in terms of fees and income, they were also a vehicle for enforcing the lord’s rights, and one right that the lord of Lucan protected in these surviving court session records was his ownership of the woods. Timber was a very valuable resource for building and fuel and on Tuesday 2nd May 1443, 9 men and women were fined for cutting wood in the Lords property without permission.

Precise Record
Johanna Godeknave fined 1d as she cut down the lord’s wood without licence
Agnes wife of Simon Ryce fined 1d for same offence
Nicholas Devenyshe fined likewise 2d
John Robyn fined likewise 3d
Murytahg Harper fined likewise 1d
Thomas Mulghran fined likewise 2d
John Munteyne fined likewise 1d
Jordan Kynedy fined likewise 1d
Richard Brown fined likewise 2d

So interestingly, 2 of the people fined were women, showing the kind of heavy physical work they were engaged in. One other thing to note is that fines varied between 1 penny and 3 pennies for different offenders – did some of these people cut down 3 trees and some just one, or did their fines vary because of their personal circumstances?

Records of the court show that judges could be sympathetic to old or infirm people and especially to widows, and might reduce or forgive crimes against them – we’re not sure if that was what was happening here. Given that it was a local court and the jury were local men the offenders personal circumstances would have been known to them, so a scaled punishment based on personal wealth was at least possible.

The lord also fined people for ‘trespassing in the forest’, which may refer to poaching or foraging in the forest. The lords were protective of their hunting rights over deer and boar etc.

So there is a really significant amount of business in the Lucan Court about woods and forest, suggesting the presence of a relatively extensive forest / woods in the Lucan area.

This article was written following attendance at a talk given by Sparky Booker in the Woodquay Venue in November 2015. Dr Booker a postdoctoral scholar in the History Department of Trinity College Dublin graciously permitted me to quote from her research.