Case Studies - Commons - England

Case study: Eskdale Common, Cumbria, England – (1) Manor Court


Type of institution for collective action

Manor court

Name/description institution


Manor Court of Eskdale, Miterdale and Wasdalehead







Name of city or specified area


Eskdale Civil Parish

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

Eskdale Common (CL 58)

Patron Saint of this institution



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

Common land area: approx 3,071.5 ha.


Note that this is the current area: the original area of commons in the manor was reduced over time through small enclosures made by individual farms, and by a substantial enclosure made at Wasdalehead in 1808.

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


c.1859.  Manor court activity faded over the course of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: the last surviving court verdict is dated 1859, though a small number of jury lists and court precepts survive up to 1900.

Year of termination: estimated or confirmed?


Act regarding termination present?

There was not a specifc 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


This extensive upland common lies in the English Lake District, supporting a traditional pastoral farming system and a landscape of high conservation value.  Manorial lordship was vested in the earls of Northumberland and their successors, the Wyndham family, from 1398 until 1979, when ownership of the common was transferred to The National Trust.  Historically, the common provided local commoners with a wide range of resources, including pasture for livestock, peat for fuel, and bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) for thatching, animal bedding and potash; today, the focus is primarily on pasture for sheep.  From the medieval period management of the common was carried out by the local manor court (Eskdale Case Study 1, i.e. this study); this was followed in 1945 by a short-lived commoners’ committee (Eskdale Case Study 2); and in 1967 by a more successful commoners’ association, which continues to manage the common today (Eskdale Case Study 3).


Institution: Manor Court

From the medieval period to the late nineteenth century, the exercise of common rights was regulated by the manor court of Eskdale, Miterdale and Wasdalehead – the traditional institution for common land management in England and Wales.  It was the lord’s court, reinforced by the presence of a steward, but it was the jury of local customary tenants which made and enforced agrarian rules.  The management regime for the exercise of pasture and turbary rights was laid out by twenty-four jurymen in a written award of 1587, known as the ‘Eskdale Twenty-Four Book’.  This award set out the uses of the different categories of land, depending on topography and grazing capacity, and recorded a designated ‘drift’ (route onto the common) and ‘heaf’ (grazing area for a specific flock) for each farm with rights to the common.  This award continued to provide a framework for the collective management of the common until well into the twentieth century.  A similar award was made for Wasdalehead in 1664, though in this case the common was later enclosed.


In addition, a long sequence of manor court verdicts running from 1678 and 1859 reveals the business of the court.  The court generally met once a year, usually in April or May, in order to regulate grazing, taking of peat and bracken, encroachments, and repairs to fences and water courses.  Commoners who broke the court’s rules were presented and fined.  Manorial officers were also appointed regularly at court sittings, including pounders (responsible for impounding stray livestock), hedge-lookers (responsible for ensuring that field boundaries were maintained), and peat-lookers (responsible for protecting peat resources).  However, from the late eighteenth century the court gradually withdrew from common land management – a pattern found in many manors in England and Wales at this time.  By the 1790s, the court was struggling to deal with disputes over heafs and encroachments, and jury members were failing to attend.  The last significant order relating to management of stock was made in 1841 to exclude diseased sheep from the common.  The last surviving court verdict dates from 1859.

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

Special events: creation of ‘Eskdale Twenty-four Book’ in 1587; creation of Wasdalehead award, 1664; enclosure of Wasdalehead commons by private agreement, 1808; transfer of ownership to National Trust, 1979.  

Highs: active manor court, from medieval period to mid eighteenth century.

Lows: declining manor court, from late eighteenth century to nineteenth century.

Problematic periods: legal dispute over encroachment, 1795; intensive sheep farming leading to pressures on resources, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Numbers of members (specified)

The manor court jury was variable, but generally comprised 12-14 persons.

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

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

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

Must be freeholders or tenants of the manor.

Specific reasons regarding banning members from the institution?

The manor court could not extinguish legitimate rights or exclude legitimate commoners from the common; but it could exclude trespassers and fine those commoners who broke customary byelaws (e.g. by putting too many animals on the common).

Advantages of membership?

Participation in decision-making.

Obligations of members?

Residents were obliged to serve as jury members if called and may be required to undertake offices (constables, pounders etc.).  

Literature on case study

  • 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).
  • Straughton, E.A., Common Grazing in the Northern English Uplands (Lampeter, 2008).
  • Winchester, A. J. L., The Harvest of the Hills (Edinburgh, 2000).

Sources on case study

For manor court records, see for example: Manor of Eskdale, Miterdale and Wasdalehead jury verdicts, 1678-1859; estreats of fines, 1668-93; precepts and jury lists, 1678-1896 (Cumbria Record Office, D/Lec Box 94).  For Eskdale Twenty-Four Book, see for example: Copy written in 1840 into the Eskdale chapel-warden’s account book (Cumbria Record Office, YPR 4/18); Copy in solicitor’s papers, 1795 (Cumbria Record Office, D/Ben/3/761).

See also common land register for CL58, held by Cumbria County Council.

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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