Case Studies - Commons - England

Case study: Brancaster Commons, Norfolk, England – Manor Court


Type of institution for collective action

Manor court

Name/description institution


Brancaster Manor Court







Name of city or specified area


Brancaster Civil Parish

Further specification location (e.g. borough, street etc.)

Brancaster commons (CL 65, CL 124, CL 161, CL 159).

Patron Saint of this institution



Amount of area and boundaries (for institutions related to landed property)

Today. the major registered common land units in Brancaster consist of:


  • CL 65: 1,334.35 ha, Brancaster & Burnham harbour marshlands, including Scolt Head Island.


  • CL 124: 360.16 ha, Brancaster marshes north of Brancaster and Brancaster Staithe.


  • CL161: 51.96 ha, Intertidal area north of Brancaster.


  • CL 159: 35.60 ha, Barrow Common – an inland common near Brancaster Staithe.


Defining the area of common lands in Brancaster at any given time is complicated by an unstable coastline – which has both deposited and eroded areas – and by changes in land use and ownership.  Certain areas of foreshore originally deemed to be the lord’s freehold had evolved into common land by the late twentieth century, and a process of enclosure in the late eighteenth century redistributed common land and rights.

Foundation/start of institution, date or year

Medieval period; no specific date.

Foundation year: is this year the confirmed year of founding or is this the year this institution is first mentioned?

See above.

Foundation act present?


See above.

Description of Act of foundation


See above.

Year of termination of institution


Late eighteenth – early nineteenth century.  This period saw a gradual process of withdrawal from common land management, although the court itself continued to operate in a reduced form into the early twentieth century.

Year of termination: estimated or confirmed?

Estimated, see above.

Act regarding termination present?

There was not a specific act of termination; see above.

Description Act of termination

See above.

Reason for termination?

Historic trend towards the collapse of manor courts in the modern period in England and Wales; compounded by the Law of Property Act 1922 (UK Act of Parliament) which extinguished customary tenures. 

Recognized by local government?

Yes.  The role of the manor court was recognised in wider legal and governmental structures; but its significance as an institution was fading by the nineteenth century.

Concise history of institution


Brancaster lies on the north Norfolk coast: a distinctive landscape of sandy beaches, salt and fresh marshes, with high cultural and conservation value.  The surviving commons of the Norfolk coast represent a remnant of those which existed before the eighteenth century, when the bulk of the commonable arable lands were enclosed, leaving only marshes and small vestigial pockets of inland pasture.  Here, common rights were seen as existing primarily to support landless cottagers and the poor, in contrast to upland common pastures where it was typically land holders who held rights.  A wide range of common rights have been associated with the commons over time, from grazing of livestock and taking of wild fowl and gorse (Ulex europeanus), to the collection of coastal resources such as seaweed, samphire (Salicornia europaea), sea holly (Eryngium maritimum), fish, shellfish and bait.  Today, pasture rights are rarely exercised, and it is the non-grazing resources which continue to carry value.  The commons have also become important public spaces.


Institution: Manor Court

A charter of 1053, granting Brancaster to Ramsey Abbey (Huntingdonshire), provides insight into manorial lands and rights; but it is the later surviving records of the manor court which reveal aspects of collective institutional management.  An incomplete run of surviving court rolls for Brancaster from 1540 to 1687 shows the court leet making and enforcing agrarian byelaws, whilst the separate ‘port court’ controlled the use of foreshore resources.  


The business of these courts varied.  For example, the courts controlled access to resources such as gorse, bracken and reeds, whether by limiting the quantities taken by individuals or occasionally issuing periodic bans for terms of years; the court also presented and fined graziers who overstocked the commons, and those who attempted to fish or take wild fowl without right.  Officers such as ‘pinders’ or ‘common reeves’ were appointed to impound stray animals and sea reeves were appointed to oversee the foreshore.  In the modern period, however, the manor courts’ involvement in the commons gradually waned: the two last court books covering the period 1860-1935 are largely empty of common land management, save for the occasional appointment of a pinder or reeve.  Thus Brancaster conforms to a national pattern of decline in manorial activity and authority.


In 1755, land and rights in Brancaster were redistributed through an enclosure act.  The enclosure act had a relatively limited impact on the marsh commons, but a newly defined area of inland common – Barrow Common – was created from two adjacent areas of waste, and was reserved for the use of the poorer members of the community. 


More recently, Brancaster has benefited from the appearance of new management institutions, filling the vacuum left by the demise of the manor court.  In 1984, the Scolt Head and District Common Rights Holders Association was founded, and since 2000, additional stakeholder associations and management committees have been formed to manage the marsh commons and Barrow Common.  The local parish council has also played an important role.

Special events? Highs and lows? Specific problems or problematic periods?

Special events: grant of Brancaster to Ramsey Abbey, 1053; pasture rights of the lord and tenants redefined in the light of marshland reclamation, 1616; enclosure act, 1755, and enclosure award, 1756.

Lows: decline of manor court, late eighteenth century-nineteenth century.

Specific problems: unlawful gathering of sea holly, 17th century; pressures on estovers and trespasses by those without rights, across span of records, but particularly in eighteenth century.


Numbers of members (specified)

The number of jury members varied greatly, with numbers of between around 4 and 14 possible.

Membership attainable for every one, regardless of social class or family background?

In principle, membership of manorial juries was open to all manorial tenants, but jury members were often drawn from the more substantial land holders in a manor.

Specific conditions for obtaining membership? (Entrance fee, special tests etc.)

Freeholders or tenants in the manor.

Specific reasons regarding banning members from the institution?

The manor court could not extinguish legitimate rights; but it could exclude trespassers, control access to resources and fine those commoners who broke customary byelaws (e.g. by overstocking, or collecting materials at the wrong time and from the wrong areas).

Advantages of membership?

Participation in decision-making.

Obligations of members?

Tenants were generally obliged to serve as jury members if called and may be required to undertake offices. 

Literature on case study

  • Birtles, S., ‘The impact of commons registration: a Norfolk study’, Landscape History, 20 (1998), pp. 83-97.
  • Birtles, S., ‘A green space beyond self-interest: the evolution of common land in Norfolk, c. 750-2003’, Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, University of East Anglia, 2003.
  • De Soissons, Maurice, Brancaster Staithe: the story of a Norfolk fishing village (Brancaster: Woodthorpe Press, 1993).
  • Hart, W. H. And P. A. Lyons (eds), Cartularium Monasterii de Ramseia (Rolls Series 79, 3 vols. 1884-93, Vol. I.
  • Rodgers, C. P., E. A. Straughton, A. J. L. Winchester and M. Pieraccini, Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance Past and Present (London, forthcoming in 2010).
  • Williamson, T., England’s Landscape: East Anglia (London, 2006).

Sources on case study

See for examples:

  • The National Archives
    • Brancaster court rolls, 1540-44 (LR3/48/2-3)
  • Norfolk Record Office
    • Brancaster court rolls, 1548-86 (Hare 6334-6344)
    • Brancaster court rolls, 1598-1614 (Hare)
    • Brancaster court rolls, 1622-3 (Hare 6349)
    • Brancaster court rolls, 1634-5 (Hare 6350)
    • Brancaster court rolls, 1668-70 (Hare 6354)
    • Brancaster court rolls, 1685-7 (Hare 6355)
    • Agreement between lord and tenants of Brancaster, 1615-16 (PD 379/86)
    • Brancaster court books, 1860-95 (MC 1813/29)
    • Brancaster court books, 1895-1935 (MC 1813/30)
    • Brancaster Inclosure Act 1755 (PC 86/1)
  • Gloucestershire Archives
    • Brancaster court rolls, 1625-8 (D 2700, MJ19/1)
    • Brancaster court rolls, 1603-8, 1621-4, 1626-30, 1630-3, 1637-9, 1641-59, 1660-82, 1683-90 (GA D 2700, MJ19/2)
  • Norfolk County Council
    • Common land register for CL 65
    • Common land register for CL 124
    • Common land register for CL 159
    • Common land register for CL 161

Links to further information on case study:

See Contested Common Land website:

Case study description provided by:

Dr. Angus Winchester, Lancaster University

Dr. Eleanor Straughton




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