Conisbrough Court Rolls
Originally deposited with Doncaster Archives in 1982 by Lady Diana Miller, countess of Mértola and lady of the manor of Conisbrough, the manor court rolls of the lordship of Conisbrough were made available for purchase in 2016. The following year the National Lottery Heritage Fund awarded Heritage Doncaster £240,500 for an exciting project involving the purchase and preservation of the Conisbrough Manorial Court Rolls. A generous grant of £20,000 from the Friends of the National Libraries assisted with the purchase.
The Conisbrough Court Rolls have been described as ‘nationally significant’ by The National Archives.
Though neither the largest nor the most complete series of manor court rolls in the country, Conisbrough’s is nevertheless exceptional. There is the sheer size of the lordship, which means that we have documentation for thirty townships scattered across the present-day boroughs of Doncaster and Rotherham for around 80 years up to the 1340s. Half the lordship was sold off around the time of the Black Death, but sixteen townships remained until modern times.
Then there is the survival rate of the records, which must have spent most of their existence in less-than-ideal accommodation at Conisbrough Castle: 148 parchment rolls survive for individual years from 1265 to 1634; three more rolls cover most of the period 1634-1716; and from 1717 a series of 15 registers takes the record up to the last days of the court in 1935
Above all, there is the content of the rolls. They are an exceptionally important survival from our area’s medieval and early-modern past, recording the decisions and actions of the lowest form of local administration: a court of what you might call ‘good neighbourliness’, dealing with residents brought before the court for debt, brewing poor quality ale, baking substandard bread, gambling, failing to maintain highways and drains, and letting their livestock trample crops. More serious offences such as theft, ambush, and abduction make brief appearances before transferring to higher courts. It isn’t just the type of offence that makes these documents such a wonderful resource, though: it is the fact that we see here people at the lower end of society going about their daily business – and, for once, we get to know them by name.
Families can be traced through the Rolls and other supporting documents (such as the 1379 Poll Tax) with some fascinating local surnames brought to light – such as the Costnoght family – or some evidence of Scandinavian naming practices with Elizabeth Bendoghter.
166 court rolls and registers, eight suit rolls, a rental and four bundles of other documents survive and currently only a small number are transcribed and available online. This project aims to build upon the good work of the Lives and Livelihoods in Conisbrough Manor Project to make more Rolls available online, some transcribed and some available for ‘crowd transcription’.
The project will also feature events, talks and living history events – and even training for those who want to try their hand at transcribing one of the Rolls. The project is also supported by the University of Sheffield, the Conisbrough and Denaby Main Heritage Group and English Heritage, with additional funding secured from the Friends of the National Libraries and the Friends of Doncaster Museums.
Until now, this remarkable resource has been given only a fraction of the attention it deserves. Ownership gives Heritage Doncaster the opportunity to remedy this. The funding secured was not merely to permit purchase of the rolls, it was to give us the means to put them to use for the benefit of the whole borough. A programme of conservation, digitization, and interpretation is underway, allowing the rolls to be used in various ways in support of the work of Doncaster Council’s Heritage Services, and with particular emphasis on education and community engagement
The Conisbrough Court Roll project was launched at the Explore Your Archives event at Conisbrough Library in November 2017 and over the last two years has seen
- In-house transcription/translation of 15 specifically-selected rolls – revealing a wealth of anti-social behaviour in the later middle ages and one spectacular instance of abduction and extortion in 1453
- Professional conservation of 60 selected parchment rolls by Shirley Jones and her team at Wakefield Archives
- The creation of a video by Shirley and her colleagues, showing how the rolls were cleaned, repaired and flattened to make them fit for digitizing
- Professional digitization of these conserved rolls by Townsweb Imaging
- In-house digitization of the post-1700 registers by a team of volunteers. You can see more about their experience in the below video:
- A short talk about the project delivered by the borough archivist at a conference on manorial records at The National Archives in September 2018
- A Conisbrough Court Roll day at the Doncaster Heritage Festival 2019, featuring talks by the borough archivist, Shirley Jones of Wakefield, and crime & punishment expert John Brown, accompanied by period music from the Doncaster Waites
- A display of original rolls from 1452 and 1513 at the Heritage Doncaster roadshow at the Mansion House in September 2019
- Dexter Productions performed a series of short plays based on the findings of the Conisbrough Court Rolls. The free plays were performed across the borough.
- Families took part in designing their own quills and practising writing their own court rolls transcripts
- Families took part in identifying medieval objects and their uses
- A palaeography workshop helped adults gain new skills in reading handwriting. You can see a preview here:
- Loan boxes have been created in consultation with local schools and groups
- A website is being developed to allow everyone to see the images of the rolls that have been conserved and of the later registers that have been photographed by volunteers
- ‘Crowd Transcription’:
Volunteers are being recruited to transcribe the rolls and, for the earlier ones, to translate them from the Latin. Their work to make the rolls more accessible to readers can then be put online alongside the digital images
- Potential crowd-transcribers who need training in order to read old handwriting will be given sessions in palaeography (the study of old handwriting) by the borough archivist
- Potential crowd-transcribers will also be able to see some transcription training videos which are being prepared in-house and will feature the borough archivist attempting to take some of the mystery out of documents in early modern English and Latin
- Heritage Doncaster’s education team is assembling handling boxes for use in schools and developing a range of online learning resources including an explanation of how the courts worked – so far as we can tell!
Project Activities still to come
Digitsation of the Court Rolls