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Helmdon Historical Articles

The Manorial History of Helmdon

an article by Kate Moody, with additional material from Danny Moody


1) A small holding, typically 1200-1800 acres, with its own court and probably its own hall, but not necessarily having a manor house. The manor as a unit of land is generally held by a knight (knight's fee) or managed by a bailiff for some other holder.

2) Estate held by a lord and farmed by tenants who owed him rents and services, and whose relations with him were governed by his manorial court.

3) An estate with land and jurisdiction over tenants. Not necessarily a whole village, which might have several manors, just as one manor might own land in more than one village.

4) Unit of rural lordship, varying greatly in size.

Created by Beau A.C. Harbin; December 1996, NetSERF's Hypertext Medieval Glossary
The manor was the building block of feudal society and as such it embodied the 'government' of the local community in medieval times. It not only had administrative control over matters such as the succession to land tenure within the manor, but also often functioned as a local court of law for routine offences. Manorial documents are among the few types of records where genealogical information about ordinary people - rather than the upper classes - is likely to survive from medieval times.

Within the manor, land could be held in several ways. The fullest information in the records is about those who held land by customary tenure, that is, traditionally, in return for labouring on the lord's own land, the demesne. The descent of these holdings was governed by the custom, or accepted rules, of the manor in question - the system was later known as copyhold tenure, because each tenant would be given a copy of the entry recording his succession in the manor court roll. Freehold land was held primarily in return for a fixed rent, and its descent was not governed (or recorded) by the manor. However, freeholders were still subject to manorial jurisdiction in other respects, so that they do also appear in the records. Others held leasehold land, usually for a year at a time in the medieval period, but later for longer terms. In general, there was a tendency over time for the rights of the lord to be eroded, and for freehold tenure to become the norm - although the last vestiges of the copyhold system survived until the 20th century.

Manorial records

Generally the most useful manorial records are those of the court baron, which dealt with the everyday business of the manor, meeting typically every 3 or 4 weeks. This business would include the reporting of tenants' deaths - in theory, freehold as well as customary tenants - and the payment to the lord of the corresponding feudal due, called a heriot. When the heir of a dead customary tenant succeeded, the surrender of the land and the admission of the new tenant would be recorded, and the relationship between the two would normally be noted. Occasionally, there are also payments for the marriages of the daughters of customary tenants (merchets) or records of the remarriage of widows. As well as these specific records of the events that are crucial to the genealogist, many tenants will be routinely named for a variety of reasons - they may appear as officials or jurors, they may be noted as absent (with or without leave), or they may be fined (amerced) for some minor offence.

Many manors also held a court leet, which acted as a court of law dealing with routine local matters (and even with capital offences in earlier times). There were at least two courts leet held in Helmdon, one of the view of the "Abbat of Bittlesden Abbey" and one of the view of the Duke of Lancaster. This jurisdiction declined rapidly during Tudor times.

The Manorial System

The Manorial System arose from the Norman Conquest of 1066, which brought with it what we know today as the feudal system. Under William the Conqueror, Saxon lands were confiscated, divided into parcels of land known as manors, and then allotted to Norman noblemen, in return for both ideological and financial loyalty to the King. Helmdon was no exception to this; the Domesday Book of 1086 lists its displaced Saxon freeholders as Alwin and Godwin, who were succeeded by Robert, Count of Mortain, William I's half brother.

Although this royal connection may sound grand, it is in fact misleading. The Count owned 99 manors in Northamptonshire alone, and quite possibly never set foot in any of them. Instead they were held "in fee" by lesser lords, who would take on the roles and responsibilities which we might today associate with the "Lord of the Manor".

The Three Manors of Helmdon

John Bridges (1666-1724), one of Northamptonshire's most celebrated antiquarians travelled widely throughout the county, recording the heritage of towns and villages for his book The History and Antiquities of Northamptonshire. Bridges visited Helmdon on 11th July 1721, and following this visit, he stated in his notebooks that Helmdon in fact contained three manors, those of Overbury, Netherbury and Middlebury. In the 1820s and 1830s George Baker, another antiquarian, conducted a similar study and reached the same conclusion (although it is not known whether Baker's research was independent of Bridges' work, or heavily based upon it). Where these manors were located, and what their relationship to each other was is not known; it has been suggested locally that one stood where the current Manor Farm is located, with another near Priory Farm and the third on Cross Lane. However, documents held by Magdalen and Worcester Colleges in Oxford relating to the Manor of Helmdon and dating back to 1280 mention nothing of these sub-manors or their location, and as such they cannot be authenticated.

The de Turville family

It is stated by Bridges that during the reign of Henry II (1154-1189), Helmdon was held by William de Torevill [sic] of the fee of the Earl of Leicester. This then passed through him to his son, Simon, and then to Simon's son, also William. This is borne out by a deed in Magdalen College Archives dating back to the 1270s which is a grant "from William de Turville knt of Helmedene to Robert Toy of Helmdon and Emma his wife, of one virgate and one toft with its courtyard in Helmdon". Such grants were common and there are a large number detailing land transactions in Helmdon.

From William, the Manor passed to his son Nicholas de Turville, who we find in 1317 granting "to Robert Lovett and Sarah his wife of 97a[cres] and 2 roods in Helmdon". Sarah was in fact the daughter of Nicholas, and it was through her that the Manor passed into the hands of the family who were to control it for most of the next 200 years. This was the Lovett family, of Liscombe in Buckinghamshire.

The Lovetts

The crest of the Lovetts with the 3 wolves argent in honour of William Lovett's position as the King's Master of Wolfhounds.
The crest of the Lovetts with the 3
wolves argent in honour of William
Lovett's position as the King's
Master of Wolfhounds.
Ricardus Louvet arrived in England in 1066, with the invasion force. As R.J. Arden Lovett states, "in the Church of Notre Dame, at Dives, in Normandy, the names of Ricardus de LOUVET and his sons William and Robert are inscribed over the western door, among those of the Norman nobles, who accompanied William the Conqueror to England." Like other nobles, all three were given lands in return for their support, with William receiving lands in Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Leicestershire and Berkshire. As a demonstration of their close relationship with the King, William was also made Master of the Wolfhounds.

In c.1304, Robert Lovett, the great grandson of William, married Sarah de Turville, and as there was no male heir to the de Turville lands, they passed into the Lovett family, where they remained. This was despite Sarah's remarriage following Robert's death. The Lovett family claim on the Manor of Helmdon was asserted in a grant dated 13th May 1327 which states:

"Grant from Nicholas de Turville knt, Lord of Helmdon to the Lady Sarra wife of Sir William Howard for the term of her life and after her death to Thomas son of Robert Lovett and his heirs, of his manor in Helmdon with all its appurtenances without any exceptions."

This grant enforced, the Manor passed to Thomas, and from Thomas to his son William. The history of William's tenure as Lord of the Manor appears somewhat murky. Burke describes him as "an improvident person" and says of William's inherited lands, "he soon dissipated those, with a great part of his paternal property". This did not, however, include the manor of Helmdon, which remained in the family through William's conveyance of the manor to his sister Maud d'Arches in 1366.

What happened to the manor between 1366 and 1417 is unclear, and there appears to be no documentary evidence of Maud's ownership of the land beyond what is quoted in Burke. However, Baker states that, "Sir Edward Pole senior, probably in execution of a Trust, in 5 Henry 5 (1417) placed Roger Lovett of Liscomb [sic] in full seisin of the manor of Helmdon called Overbury manor". This is supported by a deed dated 25th July 1417 which grants " Power of Attorney from Edmund de la Pole knt snr of Cambridgeshire to Roger Lovet esq. of Bucks and John Hamond, servant of Edmund, to collect and distrain for the areas due from his manor of Helmdon".

Due to the death of Roger's son, John, in Roger's lifetime, the manor passed straight to his grandson Simon. Little is known of Simon's tenure, but through him the manor passed to his son Thomas, of whom much more is known. Thomas Lovett was a Privy Councillor to Edward IV, and must have been well respected, as from 1482 he was also Sheriff of Northamptonshire. Evidence clearly places Thomas in the Helmdon area for at least part of his life; he married Joan Billing, the daughter of Sir Thomas Billing, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, who owned and lived at Billing (or Gifford's) Manor in Astwell. Further to this, in the church at Liscombe (now Soulbury Parish Church in Buckinghamshire) is a 15th century brass in memory of him, which clearly proclaims him as Thomas of Astwell.

Through this union between the Lovetts and the Billings, the Billing Manor of Astwell also passed into the hands of the Lovett family. At this time, there were two manors in Astwell, one belonging to the Lovett/Billing family, and the second to the Brooke family, but in 1471, an agreement was made between the two families which united the manors of Astwell under the Lovetts in exchange for other estates elsewhere. A deed held in Leicestershire Record Office records this transaction as follows:

A memorial from Soulbury Church, Buckinghamshire, depicting Sir Robert Lovett and his wife Susan Brookes - just one of the few marriages that cemented manorial ownership for  the Lovetts.
A memorial from Soulbury Church, Buckinghamshire, depicting Sir Robert Lovett
and his wife Susan Brookes - just one of the
few marriages that cemented manorial
ownership for the Lovetts.
"William and Dowce [the Brookes] agree to grant Astwell manor with all lands, tenements, in Astwell, Falcutt and Wappenham to Thomas Lovet [sic] his heirs and assigns….Thomas Lovet and Anne his wife agree to grant William Broke his heirs and assigns, the manor of Rushton and Great Oakley….John, son and heir of William and Dowce shall marry Margaret, dau., and heir of Thomas Lovet".

The impact of this on Helmdon is not fully known; what is clear is that the Lovetts were expanding their land ownership in this area, but it is not known whether or not this shift of emphasis to Astwell reduced Helmdon's standing in the eyes of the Lovetts, or merely consolidated their holdings. Certainly there is no evidence to suggest that the Lovett family deserted Helmdon at this time. Prior to 1513, the great nephew of the first Thomas of Astwell was married in the parish church at Helmdon to Anne Cope, and in 1565, Thomas Lovett, Lord of Helmdon, presented one Richard Mathew to the Rectory of Helmdon."

The Oxford Colleges

A deed held in Magdalen College, Oxford, states that on 27th March 1562, George Lovett of Weston granted to Lancelot Wilton of Brackley, shoemaker, "all his messuage lands etc in Helmdon which formerly belonged to Thomas Lovett his father". However, Wilton did not hold them for long, as on 24th July 1563, he granted his messuage lands to Magdalen College, Oxford.

Interestingly, at this point, some evidence emerges which suggests that Bridges' claim of multiple manors may have been true. A deed similar to the one described above, dated 4th December 1562, states that a gentleman named Henry Mayhoo (alias Nicholls) also granted messuage lands to Magdalen College. Why the Mayhoo family should hold these lands is not known; a deed dated 24th June 1561 between Henry Mayhoo and Sir William Cecil deals with the passage of land to Henry, from his late father, Richard. However, whether these paternal lands were manorial in nature, and whether they came into the family through marriage, purchase, or gift, cannot be satisfactorily explained. What is clear is that by the mid 1560s, Magdalen College owned a significant amount of land in Helmdon and at enclosure in 1758 they were the largest landowners in Helmdon Parish, with 280 acres out of a total of 1,800 acres.

The other college that also owned a large amount of land in Helmdon was Worcester College, Oxford. The passage of land to this college is perhaps even more convoluted than the passage of land to Magdalen, and again, there appears to be evidence of at least one manorial holding in the village separate from that held by Magdalen. Deeds held at Worcester College show a great deal of trading activity relating to land in Helmdon, with mortgages, covenants and grants appearing to move back and forth on a regular basis.

What exactly the Manor of Helmdon amounted to at this time is unknown. Records in Worcester College archives include a document detailing "Chief Rents to the Manor of Helmdon", dated Michaelmas 1723. This names the Lady Dowager of the Manor of Helmdon as Lady Holte. However, given that Magdalen College already held land in the village, whether she was Lady of the entire 1,800 acres held within Helmdon parish, or simply a subsection of it is open to question. Bridges' states that at the time he was writing, the manor was held in trust of Barbara Holte by her father, Sir Charles Lister of Whitfield. Bridges also writes that it was from Sir Charles Lister that the manor passed to Worcester College, but unfortunately no deeds supporting this have been found, and so the truth of it cannot be proved or disproved. What is known, however, is that by enclosure in 1758, Worcester College was named as Lord of the Manor on parliamentary papers, and the Lister family were not mentioned in any capacity.

The manors in the 20th century

What has happened to the manorial parcels in this century, is, paradoxically, very difficult to trace. This may be because records relating to more recent events are not regarded as "historical" and as such are not deposited in archives. There may also be legal reasons why these records cannot yet be found in the public domain. Records which do exist and which are held at Magdalen College detail the conveyance of lands in 1921 to Brackley District Council, as well as local families, including the Gullivers, the Woods, and the Asplins. Whether at this time the Colleges disposed of their land in Helmdon lock, stock and barrel, or whether it was sold off on a more ad hoc basis is not clear. What is certain is that by the year 2000, the evidence of college land ownership in Helmdon had diminished, and the vast majority of land and buildings in the village were in the hands of private individuals.


It can be seen then, that land ownership in Helmdon has gone through very many changes within the past 1000 years. The village has seen the rise and fall of the feudal system, and, indeed, the rise and fall of individual families. The manorial history of the village is complex and vast, and this article merely touches on the more significant aspects of it. The ultimate aim would be to discover the geographical location of all the reputed manors of Helmdon and accompany each with an unbroken descent of ownership. However, this is unlikely ever to happen and so the individual may speculate freely. What is certain is that in one's travels around the village the echoes of times past resonate from every street and building and the ancient footsteps of the de Turvilles and Lovetts left the merest trace to whet the appetite of the local history enthusiast.

Written by Kate Mawson
Additional research by Danny Moody


"Ecclesiastical memorials of the Lovett family"

Magdalen College Archives

Worcester College Archives

John Burke, "Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Extinct and Dormant Baronetcies of England, Ireland, and Scotland" Genealogical Publishing Company, 1977.

Bridges, J., "History and Antiquities of Northamptonshire" c.1750

Baker, G., "History and Antiquities of the County of Northampton" 1822 and 1841

Leicestershire Record Office, "Northamptonshire - Astwell with Falcutt, doc. 646."


We should like to acknowledge the help of Dr Robin Darwall-Smith, archivist at Magdalen College, Oxford, who was very interested in our research, also the co-operation of the archivist at Worcester College, Oxford.

[Article first published in Aspects of Helmdon 4 (2001), pp 177 - 184]
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