The manor court was the lowest court of law in England and governed those areas over which the lord of the manor had jurisdiction; it applied only to those who resided in or held lands within the manor. The court was to meet every three weeks throughout the year, although meetings could be more irregular than this. This was the court baron or manorial court, which all freeholders whose terms of tenure included suit of court and copyholders were obliged to attend. These courts dealt with copyhold land transfers, managing the open fields, settling disputes between individuals and manorial offences. There was, in addition, a twice-yearly court leet, or tourn, held after Michaelmas and after Easter, which all residents of the manor were obliged to attend. Business included a view of frankpledge, at which all men over the age of twelve were bound to appear and make their "pledge" to keep the king's peace. A suit roll was kept for the homage sworn by tenants; if they were absent, a fine would be imposed. In addition, the court leet dealt with the election of graves, the election and swearing of the jury, election of constables and the presentment of offences, including those relating to matters of Crown jurisdiction franchised to the manorial lord (e.g., brewing and baking for sale). However, there was often an overlap in the type of business conducted in the court baron and court leet. In a large manor, the steward would summon the court by instructing manorial officers to fix a notice to the church door or have it read out in church. While in theory all men over 12 attended each court, it is likely that in practice only the manorial officers, offenders, jurymen, witnesses, litigants and pledges and those involved in land transfers came to the court.
Although the manor court was the lord's court, and everything was done in his name, it was usually presided over by his steward, who was appointed by the lord, or the steward's deputy. In addition to the steward, there were other officers of the court. The bailiff was responsible for matters relating to the manor as a whole, especially freeholders. From the manor court rolls of Conisbrough, it is clear that the bailiff was responsible for inquisitions, for the amounts owed at the two courts leet, for suits of court, fealty and respite of service, failing to appear at court and manorial offences relating to freeholders.
Other officers of the court, graves, were elected annually from amongst the copyholders, one grave for each of the graveships in the manor. In the manor of Conisbrough, there were three graveships: Conisbrough, Braithwell and Clifton. The graves were responsible for making presentments, for entry fines of land within their graveships and for amercements and distraints. Bailiff
closes and graves were also responsible for collecting the lord's rents. During the medieval period, graves also supervised labour services on the lord's desmesne. After each court session, the roll records the sum to be paid to the lord from that session, with subtotals "upon" the bailiff and the graves, and therefore the sum that each is to ensure reaches the lord's steward. Given the small amount of coin about, and the fact that many transactions were conducted on the basis of credit, it is doubtful that all of these fines and dues were paid in coin at the time of the court. The formulaic "he gives to the lord for entry" need not necessarily mean a handing over of coin, but rather an undertaking to pay. There was an annual reckoning around Michaelmas by the bailiff and graves, in which rents, court profits and sales of produce were accounted, along with expenses of the manor for the year, and presented to the steward for audit. Additional officers were pinders for rounding up stray animals, foresters for protecting the lord's forest against encroachment and poaching, aletasters to check the quality and price of ale, and heywards to watch over crops. Constable
closes were elected, one for each vill, or township, to keep the peace. They were assisted by "sworn men" to help them compile their six-monthly report to the court leet. This consisted of an account of various offences committed within the village, or "nothing to present", brought before the jury.
While the steward or his deputy presided over the court, he did not judge. Decisions were made by a jury of twelve elected copyholders, sworn. In any contested case, unless an agreement was made outside the court, an inquisition would be held in which the jury would make a decision and then apply a penalty in accordance with the custom of the manor. Juries were made up of local men, who had usually lived their lives in the manor, and so were considered to have the necessary knowledge to judge the matter concerned and to be familiar with manorial custom. It was possible for the steward to intervene if he felt the lord's interest was at stake, but custom was a powerful force.
As the court was the lord's court, an important aspect of it involved the profitable and peaceable operation of his estate. The recording of transfers of copyhold land holdings and sub-lettings allowed the steward to keep rentals (lists of rents due from each tenant) up to date. Before anyone could claim a tenancy by inheritance, he or she had to appear before the court and prove their succession, by descent or by a will and then pay a heriot, a sum due to the lord upon taking up the tenancy. If tenants wished to sell, mortgage or sublet their holdings, the existing tenant had to "surrender" the land to the lord in court, acknowledging the lord's ownership of the land; the land was then granted by the lord to the new tenant, who swore fealty to the lord and paid the entry fine. The terms of the tenancy were recorded as being "according to the custom of the manor". This form of tenure became more secure by the sixteenth century. As villein status had altered greatly by this stage, the tenure of copyhold land came to be regarded by the royal courts as similar to freehold. The recording of land transfers in the manor court roll, with a copy held by the tenant, became increasingly important for tenants as a record of their right to the land. When the 1483 and 1536 Conisbrough manor court rolls are compared with that of 1349/50, it can be seen that copyhold land transferred permanently tends to be described somewhat more precisely. In the 1605 roll it is described in much greater detail, similar to the title deeds of freehold lands.
Other business of the court, while producing useful profits for the lord, could also have benefits for the community of the manor. The enforcement of village or manor bylaws and regulations through the presentment and amercing of offenders enabled the open-field system to operate effectively and discouraged breaches of the peace. The court also offered arbitration in disputes between individuals (debt, trespass, detention or breach of agreement). Each case was brought by a plaintiff, and both the plaintiff and defendant would often produce named pledges, especially in the medieval period, to stand surety. Most defendants were allowed three summonses, three distraints (for failing to appear) and three essoins (excused absences) before being required to defend the case, so that cases could be pending for months. The jury would finally decide the outcome, but many times the case was agreed out of court before the final stage was reached; if so, there was still a fee to be paid for licence to agree.