An Introduction to Collecting Vellum Indentures

A collector information web page provided by
Phil Barber, Cambridge, Mass. 02139 Telephone (617) 492-4653
General Types | Oldest Deeds | Skins and Inks | Seals and Signatures | Collecting Vellums | Preservation | Pictures | My Indenture Sale Catalog

"Indentures" are legal contracts, and are entirely written by hand (in English) on large sheepskins, in keeping with legal practice dating back to Medieval times. Today, these ancient British legal manuscripts are prized collector's items, and make impressive decorator accents when matted and framed. The top edge of the document shows the wavy, or "indented" margin that gives these documents their name; as a safeguard against counterfeiting, the copies given to all parties were placed together and cut in this margin in a wavy, irregular pattern, thus uniquely identifying the authenticity of each copy.

By convention in common use after about 1675, the documents open with the title "This Indenture" in large capital letters. This heading, written in the earlier examples and printed on the later specimens, is often further embellished with decorative flourishes or occasionally a copper engraved representation of the Arms of the Royal Order of the Garter (called an Armorial heading), reproducing a motif seen on contemporary silver coinage. The text conventionally continues by stating the name and year of reign of the current Sovereign, his or her titles (this format is not used on all documents, and of course is lacking on items from the years of the Commonwealth and on a few pieces immediately following "the Glorious Revolution" in 1688-89. The pratice was largely abandoned after the 1790's as the prestige of the monarchy declined and was all but abandoned in Queen Victoria's long reign). The A.D. year is almost invariably stated next, verifying the age of the document. The documents then state the specifics concerning the parties involved in the transaction, its nature, and all pertinent information. Originally rather dry and legalistic, such content today forms a remarkably vivid testimony to the interests and customs of these long-gone times. Such familiar subjects as deeds (conveyances), mortgages, assignments, and leases are their subjects, along with archaic legalisms such as "feoffment", a term from the Middle Ages.

Documents after the Licencing Act of 1694 feature embossed paper-and-foil tax stamps, much like the sort that caused so much discontent on this side of the Atlantic. As demands on the Exchequer grew, so did the price of the stamped vellum, from a few pence a sheet to as high as four pounds in the early 1800's, a veritable fortune in the period of these documents. On verso (the back side of the sheet) the documents are docketed by the King's tax collectors, with the now-conventional phrase, that the document was 'signed, sealed, and delivered' by those individuals, whose signatures attest to this fulfillment of the law. All documents are completed by the additions of the signatures of the parties - or an indication of "X, His Mark" in the case of those unable to write. These are accompanied by wax seals bearing impressions of the lawyers', or parties' signet rings. In the earliest documents these fragile seals are appended to the body of the document by means of a "gutter tab" which hangs below the vellum sheet. Unfortunately thus not protected from the rigors of handling, most of these early seals are lacking or encountered only in fragments. In the later manuscripts the seals are applied directly to the document by means of a small tab of cloth slipped through a slot in a double folded bottom margin. Thus seals from the middle of the18th century and later are generally found in a more well-preserved state.

Probate documents also to be found in our listings are very similar in general format. They are court copies of last wills and testaments engrossed by the Probate Court when their terms were discharged. They too are written by hand, in English, on sheepskin. They begin conventionally with the phrase "In the Name of God Amen" or "The Last Will and Testament of..." in very large lettering, and continue with the now stock phrase "being of sound mind and understanding." Their content is often quite fascinating. Not only are family stories told by the amounts and stipulations of the bequests of money and property, but the deceased often specify the disposal of their most prized possessions. Such inventories are virtual catalogs of now rare antiques such as plate, paintings, and furniture. Attached to the will is the form of the Probate Court, written or printed with handwritten entries. Finally the seal of the issuing authority is attached. Unlike the small signet rings used in legal contracts these are large wax-and-paper seals embossed with the Arms of the Bishop of the diocese in which the will was probated, or later of the Sovereign's Probate Court.

General Types of Law Deeds

Much of what follows is from Emma Thoyts' fine little book How to Decipher and Study Old Documents, published at London in 1893.

As noted above, the two chief divisions into which all law deeds may be roughly classified are the deed-pole and the indenture. The former is a square piece of parchment, made by one person, such as a will or a bond, while the indenture is a larger format document, the work of several parties. Of this latter kind are deeds of trusteeship, marriage settlements, mortgages, and sales or transfers of land. The indenture was so called from the fact that its upper edge was vandyked, or indented - a very secure but primitive method of testing authenticity; each party had a copy. These duplicates were written on a single strip of parchment merely cut asunder afterwards, through a word written between the two copies, such as “chirographum”, so that when required to be produced as evidence the two divided portions and words would fit each other exactly, indisputable evidence of their originality.

A common form of early deed, met with among Latin language era title deeds dating before about 1525, is the ‘Fine,’ technically so-called from its opening sentence: 'Hic est finalis concordia facta in curia Domini Regis' (Latin for "This is the final agreement made in the court of the Lord King"; the Sovereign's name follows with the year of accession, after which are the names of the buyer and seller of the property, a full description of the amount of acreage, tenements, etc. After warranting the whole for life to its purchaser, the deed concludes with the sum of money paid for the property; this is written in words, not figures. These deeds are more puzzling to amateurs than any other. The ‘Fines’ are narrow strips of parchment, one or two in number; they are closely covered with black lettering, making them at first difficult to decipher. This transfer of land by ‘fine’ originated at first from an actual suit at law commenced to recover possession of the lands, and by this means to establish a clear indisputable title to it; in course of time the suit was discontinued, but the form of wording was retained by custom. “A ‘fine’ says Blackstone, “is so called because it puts an end to the suit (from the Latin word fixis, an end), which, when once decided, puts an end not only to that suit, but also to all other controversies concerning the same matter, for by this means an absolute sale was effected, and all previous claims upon the property were made void.” Sale by fine is of very ancient date. Instances of it are said to be known prior to the Norman invasion. We may, therefore, conclude that it was probably an old Saxon custom, or was devised in later times as a certain means to avoid dispute and disagreement arising from an imperfect title of possession. There are several legal varieties of fines, but these are of little consequence to the antiquary, whose interest lies only in the names, dates, and localities mentioned, and, so long as the land changed its ownership, cares little about the technical process by which the transfer was made.

Another way of making a good title so as to legalize and effect a complete sale of property was that known as 'Sale by Recovery.’ This also consisted of a law-suit, at first real, then imaginary. The prescribed form was very complicated. Explanations of it are to be found in most books on law subjects, but the matter lies in a nutshell. One man desired to sell certain land which another man was anxious to purchase, where. upon the would-be purchaser issued a writ, in which he pretended to claim the land. At this stage of the affair a third party, not really concerned in any way in it, was brought forward to warrant the title of the real owner, who then came forward bringing a witness proving ownership to his property; thus an indisputable title to the land was established. A deed of recovery was then issued rehearsing the whole transaction, agreeing that a certain sum of money, equivalent to the value of the land, should be paid by the purchaser; and here the bargain was concluded, and the curtain fell on the legal farce.

Some of these recovery deeds are quite works of art. They are written in courthand on large squares of parchment, smooth and white. The heading and capital letter are ornamented with scroll-work in pen and ink. Generally an engraved portrait of the reigning Sovereign was added. Part of this ornamentation was done by hand, and the rest completed with steel engraving. The most elaborate deeds are those of the Stuart monarchs, especially towards the end of the seventeenth century, but after the time of the second George these well-executed deeds disappear. The oldest statute relating to Recoveries of which I find any mention is of the commencement of the reign of Henry VIL, but I have not met with any as early in date as this.

A beginner finds much difficulty in deciding between deeds of sale or appointment of trustees for the safe custody of land to secure marriage portions and deeds of mortgage. All these three deeds are, in point of size and general outline, nearly identical; the experienced lawyer can detect them at once; he needs only to study what is called the operative part of the document, avoiding any waste of time which wading through the technical phrases involves.

Shown at Left is a table of some variant forms of letters of the alphabet as they are sometimes seen in earlier manuscripts.

One of the commonest forms of deeds met with relative to the sale of land is that known as 'Lease and Release,’ a method invented by Serjeant Moore in the reign of Henry VIII, which, from its simplicity, speedily became very popular, and superseded the other forms of sale. The principal deeds referring to a Lease and Release are two in number. The smaller of these is generally found wrapped up within the larger parchment, as the two had to be kept together, being in reality part and parcel of each other. The smaller parchment was the lease drawn up between the parties; by it a formal lease for a year of the premises or land was granted by the owner to the purchaser, but no mention of any rent or sum of money is made in it, and herein is the difference between the sale-lease and an ordinary lease, for in this latter both the term of years and the yearly rental are expressly named. The Release, or larger parchment, is dated a day following the lease which it cancels, hereby gaining its name of 'release.’ It is in reality the actual deed of sale, for the price paid for the land will be found in it, and a full and complete warranty securing it for ever to the purchaser.

An ordinary lease of premises is worded similarly to the above, but differs from it in several ways; usually it is a larger sheet of parchment. The term of years varies from three, five, seven, to twenty-one, at a fixed rent paid either half yearly or quarterly at the four principal feasts, Lady Day, or the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25), the Feast of St. John, or Midsummer (June 24), St. Michael and All Angels, better known as Michaelmas (September 29), and the Feast of the Nativity, popularly called Christmas Day (December 25). These deeds commence with the date of the day, month and year, followed by the names of the persons contracting the agreement, with those of their co-trustees, or witnesses, usually selected from among relatives or connections by marriage, or else immediate neighbors. An exact terrier of the land is given, its locality, field-names, and acreage. Three parts of the way down the sheet of parchment will be found the rent and term of years for which the land is granted, together with stipulations as to repairs, rights of ingress and egress; any services, customs or heriots, whether due in kind or by payment; last of all comes the warrant against intruders. Of course, with deeds of sale there are other legal documentary forms, with variations of wording, but the two last above described are those generally met with.

The oldest form of sale is called a 'Feoffment,’ or grant. Externally it differs little in appearance from a 'fine,’ at least as regards its earliest form, both being very small, closely-written deeds; the first was in the set lawyer type of handwriting, while a 'fine’ was indited in courthand. A 'Feoffment,’ or grant, was the oldest and simplest form of document; but in later times it was followed by a deed 'of Uses,’ which required many other deeds to follow in its wake before a permanent and satisfactory sale was effected. It is all these legal formalities which make the reading of old deeds so unnecessarily confusing; their intricacies can only be mastered by careful study of books on legal matters, and a comparison of the several kinds of deeds above enumerated. A mortgage deed differs from the sales or leases in several particulars: firstly, the term of years granted is usually absurdly long nine hundred or a, thousand years, perhaps; while in lieu of money the nominal rent of one peppercorn yearly, or some equally insignificant equivalent, was demanded. In place of the rent in an ordinary lease the real reason of the mortgage is given in full, with the date and appointed place where and when the borrowed money is to be repaid. Often the vicarage, or the parson's house, was chosen-perhaps considered as an additional guard against fraud, and that the clergyman as a witness, being a disinterested party, would see justice done on both sides.

No mortgage deeds exist today that are extremely old; the older ones, if they existed, were probably destroyed as soon as the transaction was finished. Most of those found among family papers are of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and refer to small pieces of land or cottages, showing that even then the small owners became involved in debts and difficulties, being obliged to raise money upon their holdings, until finally the land itself had to be sold to satisfy the demands of the creditors, the purchaser usually being the nearest large landed proprietor, who paid a better price for what would join on to and complete the area of his estate. These small holdings had probably been accumulated bit by bit out of the waste. First, perhaps, the settler rigged up a primitive dwelling, or hut, the old tradition being that if a roofed dwelling with a chimney could be erected in one night a claim to the land was thereby established. If undisturbed, the squatter would gradually extend his boundaries; but a small rent was generally demanded by the lord of the manor as an acknowledgment of the encroachment; these little holdings are called “key holdings” and are to be found in all parts of England.

The Oldest Deeds

It is rare to meet with deeds dating further back than the Reformation. This may be accounted for by the enormous amount of land possessed by the monks, who, instead of having to search through deeds, entered these grants and gifts of property into their charter-book. The monastic estates, after the Dissolution ordered in the mid-16th century by Henry VIII, were managed through the Augmentation Office; many of the original deeds were destroyed or lost in the general confusion, and a new distribution of the lands took place by the King irrespective of the former owners, whose claims were totally ignored, although in such grants or deeds of gift the name of the monastery formerly owning the property is usually named. The King must have realized large sums of money by these transactions, which were carried out through, and in the names of, his commissioners or agents, and not usually granted direct from the Crown; very little of the land confiscated from the abbeys was retained as royal property, but appears to have been almost immediately sold or granted away.

But to begin from the oldest reliable period at which deeds may refer to, is to go back to the Norman Conquest, or, rather, to the time when the lands had been distributed among the Norman noblemen, as described in the famous Domesday Book, compiled, it is said, between 1080 and 1085. Reference is therein made to previous Saxon possessors; but only in very few instances can any certain information be obtained of private property prior to the eleventh century.

Private deeds do exist between the time of William I (1066) and Richard I (1199); from this latter King's reign, about A.D. 1179, come the so-called “legal memory dates,” but usually the earliest family deeds are of Edward I (1272 - 1307), because then it was that the legal era was fixed to commence. This King passed innumerable Acts of Parliament on the subject of legal matters; he revised the whole of the national laws, retaining but improving existing arrangements. It is very rare indeed to discover private deeds earlier than this period.

Shown at Right are some variant forms of the numbers 1 through 9 as seen in early manuscripts of the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, left to right.

To prove a title to property it is now only requisite to show a twenty years' possession of it. Papers forming the title deeds to farms or small holdings are seldom of any great age. The custom of depositing estate records in the care of the family lawyer has tended to preserve a few deeds; but, on the other hand, has resulted in much wholesale destruction of documentary evidence and collectible manuscripts. Numbers of deeds have been sold when a lawyer's office has been broken up. These vellums, having lain for years unclaimed until the ownership was lost or forgotten, finally were sold to some antiquary, or else, perhaps startling to the modern collector, the skin was cleansed and used again, parchment being quite a valuable commodity. It is even today employed in some trades. From it common size was formerly prepared. Goldbeaters still employ (and destroy) vellum indentures, it being not at all uncommon for parchments hundreds of years old to be pounded to pieces in the hand-production of precious gold leaf. It remains a staple of bookbinder's and restorer’s trade, besides having many other and varied uses.

Contemporary lawyers find great difficulty in preserving and storing the deeds entrusted to their charge. The dangers of fire and damp are conflicting, and to avoid the one may bring about greater risk from the other cause. Parchment being an animal substance (usually made from the skin of sheep), if carelessly stored in a damp place, soon begins to decay and become offensive. Under improper storage conditions, mites readily attack it, dirt and dust accumulate rapidly on its external woolly surface. The usual storehouse for such collections was in times gone by some unused garret or stable-loft, where rats and mice ran riot and birds flew in and out as they liked. The sad evidence of such poor storage conditions is seen all too often in searches among hoards of old deeds. Forgotten, perhaps, for several generations, the old documents lay untouched till death or removal brought changes, and the deeds were either placed in safer keeping, or else- and this was the most usual course -were consigned to the flames as useless rubbish. It has always been my policy to stock and offer my customers only those old documents in the best available collectible, i.e., problem-free condition.

The size and shape of a deed at first glance goes far with the experienced reader to determine its age, even before a single word of it has been read; likewise the general aspect will give a slight hint as to the possible contents without deciphering any of it. The deeds relative to the earliest grants of land are very small in size, a marked contrast to the voluminous sheets of parchment considered necessary to a modern conveyance or deed. The writing often was minuscule, but each letter was carefully formed.

On Vellum and Ink

The quality of parchment (vellum) varies much. That upon which early deeds - generally, before 1300 - are written, is in small pieces, woolly in texture and of a dark brown shade. By the sixteenth century the sheets are larger, smoother and yellow, becoming whiter in color and more even as its preparation was better understood and practiced.

Vellum was a fine sort of parchment prepared from the skins of very young or still-born animals. Of it the oldest manuscript books were made, adorned with illuminations and miniature paintings, which required a fine, smooth surface, and vellum was free from the flaws which frequently occur in the skins of mature animals, which were routinely used in the largest size indentures.

Another important part of an ancient deed is the ink with which it was written. Each scribe had his own particular receipt for making it, the principal ingredients being oak-galls and sulfate of iron. Many chemicals are recommended as restoratives for faded ink, but these should be avoided as far as possible, as they are liable to stain and disfigure the parchment, and in the end make matters worse. Familiarity with particular handwritings after some practice will enable the reader to make out otherwise unintelligible words without any other assistant than a powerful magnifying glass. If the ink is very faint the simplest and most harmless restorative is sulfate of ammonia; but its loathsome smell once endured is not easily forgotten; the experiment in consequence is very seldom repeated, for the result is scarcely good enough to risk a repetition of so horrible a smell, and it is liable to affect the MSS.

Colored inks or pigments were seldom, if ever, employed for legal documents. The use of these was restricted to the cloister, requiring manipulation by an illuminator instead of a mere scribe. Red, blue, and green were in use; these were mineral colors. The red was composed either of red-lead or oxide of iron, the green from copper, and the blue from lapis lazuli finely powdered, or else it, too, like the green, was prepared from an oxide of copper. Illuminating was a separate profession apart from that of writing. The charter or missal was finished by the scribe, and then handed over to the artist to be adorned with fanciful capital letters and elaborate scroll-works. Such ornamentation was unnecessary for legal documents, yet sometimes these had fancy headings, which, like the illuminations, were put in after the writing was finished, as is proved by the occasional omission of them, although space is left where they ought to have been filled in.

On Seals and Signatures

Seals and seating-wax came into use gradually. The earliest deeds are very small, and have very small insignificant seals. It is said that neither the Saxon nor Norman noblemen could sign their own names, but instead employed the Christian sign of the cross (still in use among the illiterate) as their pledge of good faith, and to witness their consent and approval. The use of seals as appendices to deeds was a further proof that the deed itself was approved and executed. A man's seal or signet was always regarded as his most sacred possession. It was destroyed after death to avoid its being used for fraudulent purposes.

The use of signet-rings is very ancient. Many old Roman and Saxon signet-rings have been dug up from time to time in various parts of England. Small private seals bearing devices appear to have been attached to deeds of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Many of the large wax seals are very beautiful, but few in private collections of deeds exist in any state of perfection. The wax used for them was either its natural color or else a sealing wax of a very dark green, also black, or red. White, also, was used, now discolored by age into a dingy yellow.

Besides the royal seals, each abbey had its own particular seal, bearing either a view of the abbey, a portrait of its patron saint, or its badge or shield. Many of these are described by Dugdale in the 'Monasticon,' but he was unable to discover the devices pertaining to the lesser houses or cells. The fashion for large seals died out, till at last only royal grants or similar documents of the sixteenth century have them attached. In the Georgian period (1717 and later) we find small private seals placed on the margins of deeds. These were not always the arms and crest of the person against whose signature they appear - perhaps belonged to the lawyer or one of the contracting parties. Here it is that a knowledge of heraldry is extremely useful.

How Indentures are Collected

Indentures are collected in a variety of ways, chiefly as the collector finds most rewarding. A very popular use for the old documents is framed display. With their large format, with beautiful penmanship, fancy engraved heads, blue tax stamps, and red wax seals, they can make unique and quite distinctive additions to one's home or office. Others may form more specialized collections, obtaining different kinds of indentures, or documents from certain towns or counties, or documents of parties having the collector's family name, for just a few examples.

We have all heard of the American "indentured servants" who came to this country in the earliest days as contract laborers. Such fascinating documents are, alas, virtually non-existent today, as it was the practice to burn them on discharge of their terms.

Collections are also formed containing a specimen from the reigns of the Kings and Queens whose names appear on them. Generally speaking indentures become obtainable on the collector market today starting with the reign of James I (1603 - 1625). Examples from earlier reigns are encountered quite infrequently. The earliest I have thus far located dates to the reign of Edward II (1216 - 1272). Documents dated during our War of Independence (1775 - 1783) are especially collectible today. American manuscript material of the period is extremely uncommon and generally quite high priced, making these items from the mother country a fine, affordable alternative. With the name of the much-maligned last king of America George III on them, they are perfect association items from those turbulent times. They also bear higher denomination tax stamps, similar to those which caused so much trouble on this side of the Atlantic, as the cost of waging the American war increased along with its unpopularity.

The supply of these lovely manuscripts from ancient legal archives once seemed inexhaustible but like so many early collectibles they have grown scarce in recent years. Since 1986 the English barristers' associations have requested their members donate these historic documents to the National Trust, rather than to place them for sale on the open market as had been the case until this time. General compliance with this directive has reduced the supply of these beautiful items to a trickle, and new hoards are avidly snapped up on those infrequent occasions when they become available.

Please click here to go to my online catalog of vellum indentures available for sale today.

Condition and Preservation Considerations

The manuscripts we stock are in fine condition and are complete as issued, among the best condition of the limited population of surviving indentures. All are free of damage or objectionable defects unless otherwise described, having been carefully preserved in old archives and probably very rarely consulted after the generation of their makers had passed. Purchased document(s) will arrive folded, just as they were stored in the archives for centuries. They can easily be opened without fear of damaging the vellum, which, fortunately for collectors, is a very durable and long-lasting substance. Fold lines can be eliminated by carefully refolding the document in the opposite direction of the original fold, thus readying the piece for framing or other display. The fold lines will virtually disappear after the old vellum has been allowed sufficient time to "relax". The process should not be artificially enhanced, but carefully placing the opened manuscript between two sheets of weighted inflexible plastic or plywood will hasten the result. Never apply heat of any kind to flatten or repair vellum! This will effectively cook the skin and destroy it.

Briefly, the enemies of old documents are heat, humidity, and sunlight. To maintain their fine condition, they should be kept in a stable storage environment free of excess fluctuation in temperature and humidity. There should limited contact with air and strong light. To accomplish these goals, select a dry, cool place in your home to store your collection. Any room suitable for habitation will generally be satisfactory for the preservation of this material.. Never leave it in the basement or attic, where change of temperature and humidity occur regularly and can cause deterioration.
If you frame your collection, include an ultraviolet filtering screen between them and bright light. Secondly, select only archival quality acid free containers for permanent storage. These can be fairly costly if purchased already made up, but with a little ingenuity, some Mylar, and double-sided adhesive tape, you can make your own custom holders at a considerable savings. Documents maybe treated with acid-neutralizing chemical agents, though it is suggested that amateurs do not attempt this process as the solvents can be harmful and the results erratic.

Preservation Information on the Internet

The World Wide Web is a gold mine of helpful information of all kinds for the collector, archivist, and historical hobbyist. Here are a few suggested links for further information on the care and preservation of collectibles of all kinds.

Conservation Information
The Northeast Document Conservation Center ( This excellent site includes an online version of the Center's very helpful book Preservation of Library and Archival Materials: A Manual.
Conservation OnLine ( A project of the Preservation Department of Stanford University Libraries, this site abounds in useful information and has a wide variety of links for further online resources.
UNESCO's "Memory of the World" project ( This very ambition project aims to "promote the preservation of the documentary heritage of mankind" and to this end discusses many way of preserving paper, photos, and modern archival materials. This site contains Tim Padgfield's An Introduction to the Physics of the Museum Environment, a useful discussion on relative humidity and its effect on collections, with techniques for environmental monitoring.
Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections ( Featured here are a number of pamphlets, including several on insect pests and identification of archival quality plastics.

Commercial Websites
University Products. This site sells the finest archival quality supplies to house your collection, and books on how to care for your valued collectibles.
Action Plastic Sales. Here you will find a wide selection of economically priced polyethylene slips (useful for shipping and short term storage) and other useful supplies.
L-W Book Sales & Publishing. Excellent retail source for reference books and price guides in many areas of antiques and collectibles.

You can also visit my information pages on collecting, collector terminology, how to read my general catalog descriptions, and more by selecting this link.


We present a small library of scans of important component parts of vellum indentures, accessible below, which will give you an accurate impression of the appearance of some important elements of the manuscripts. Select the highlighted links below to view the graphics, and when you are done you may select GO BACK in your browser to return to this page. Approximate loading speed with a 56K modem is 3-4K/sec; thus a 60K image would take 7 - 10 seconds to load. Loading time is proportionally longer with slower modems.

  • Select here to view a typical early vellum pre-indenture, being a land grant from 1507.
  • Select here to view a full color scan of a detail of a 1693 Indenture displaying a typical Armorial heading, text, wax seal, and signature. 95K JPEG
  • Select here to view a full color scan of a typical 1600's handwritten heading. Our specimen also include an especially collectible Arabic date in the heading motif. 70K JPEG
  • Select here to view a full color scan of a typical ornate Armorial heading, with decorative flourishes and the Order of the Garter. 63K JPEG
  • Select here to view a full color scan of a detail of a typical Indenture with multiple red wax seals and signatures. 40K JPEG
  • Select here to view a full color scan of strip of three embossed blue Sixpenny Royal tax stamps, in general Revenue use first singly in the early 1700's, then later in multiples such as this example, into the 1770's. 9.6K JPEG
  • Select here to view a full color scan of a Shilling Sixpence tax stamp, used from the 1770's on most legal documents. 9.6K JPEG
  • Select here to view a full color scan of a Pound Ten Shillings stamp of the early 1800's, representing quite a substantial tax increase. 21K JPEG
  • Select here to view sketches of some of the very rare 1765 -1766 British Revenue stamps intended for use only in the American Colonies. No specimens actually used in what would become the United States are known to exist. Only a handful of proofs and die trials survive today. 53K JPEG


Here is a comprehensive listing of terminology found in indentures and Probates, as well as terms used to describe them.

  1. Admission - the acceptance of a new tenant into the manor, recorded in the manor court rolls.
  2. Alienation - the transfer of tenancy.
  3. Amercement - money paid in court as a penalty. Today, we call this a "fine", but that word had a different and very specific meaning.
  4. Appurtenance - a right associated with the tenancy (e.g., to graze a certain number of cattle).
  5. Arbitrary Fine - a fine that was negotiated between the incoming tenant and the lord.
  6. Bailiff - the lord's representative on the manor, frequently a tenant himself. The positions of bailiff and steward could be combined, particularly on smaller manors, although most often the bailiff, who was responsible for a single manor, worked for the steward, who frequently managed several different manors.
  7. Barleyman - an official of the court baron responsible for enforcement of its orders. Other terms include Bylawman, Burleyman, Paynelooker.
  8. Behoof - advantage or benefit; most frequently encountered in the phrase "use and behoof".
  9. Bordland - Copyhold tenure of Demesne land at the pleasure of the lord, but not governed by the customs of the manor. Also called Courtdeal, New Copyhold, Netehold, Roveless, Runningland.
  10. Borough English - Inheritance by the youngest son (or daughter) as opposed to the eldest. Seen in East Anglia but rarely elsewhere.
  11. Bote - the right of tenants to take wood from the common land, usually for a very specific purpose: Cartbote - to make or repair carts; Firebote - for firewood; Fencebote - to erect or repair fences; Housebote - to buid or repair houses; etc.
  12. Call Book - list of those required to attend the court (usually all males over age 12).
  13. Canons of Descent - the Common Law rules for determining an heir. In general, the search began successively through all living persons who were descended from the deceased. Lineal descendants were preferred over collaterals; that is, only if there were no living children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc., would brothers or cousins be considered. Collaterals on the father's side were preferred to those on the mother's, with the important provision that if the land originally devolved from the mother's side then only collaterals on her side were eligible, and vice versa. In a similar manner, males were preferred over females of the same degree. For example, a man's daughter would have preferrence over his brother. Note that a widow could not possibly be her husband's heir unless they happened to be cousins and he had no living descendants. She was, however, entitled to her dower.
  14. Certain Knowledge - the fine paid to a new lord.
  15. Chancery Court - the court of the Lord Chancellor of England which heard equity lawsuits, i.e., cases where fairness and justice required a settlement not covered by common or statute law. It heard land disputes and was the favorite court of record for land transactions.
  16. Chattel - property which is movable, such as furniture or even a bonded-servant.
  17. Common Land - land subject to rights of common, i.e. rights enjoyed by persons other than the owner to use the natural produce of the land. Such rights are always limited and vary from place to place. The most frequently encountered rights are of pasture (to graze specified livestock), of estovers (to cut reeds, heather, bracken, and wood, but not "timber"), of tubary (to dig turf or peat for fuel), of piscary (to fish), and in the soil (to take sand, gravel, stone, coal, etc.). Planting crops and commercial exploitation are prohibited. Note that common land is not public land and that only certain persons, the "commoners", enjoyed the rights of common. These rights could be bought and sold.
  18. Common Law - English customs & practices legitimized by judicial decisions. It, together with statutory law and the Customs of the Manor, regulated the lord's relationship with his tenants.
  19. Constable - the officer responsible for local law and order, usually appointed by the Court Leet, but sometimes by the Court Baron or the vestry. The proper full title is Petty Constable, not Parish Constable as is sometimes found. Other terms include Headborough and Tythingman.
  20. Copyhold Tenure - the most common form of tenancy where the tenant was protected by a written entry in the Manor Court Rolls, of which he was given a copy. Copyhold tenancy was abolished in 1926.
  21. Court Baron - manorial court where the lord enforced his rights to rents & services from his tenants and where the tenants rights were protected by the customs of the manor. The right to hold this court is what defined the "manor"... without it, there would be only an "estate". Strictly speaking, the court baron only had jurisdiction over freemen while the "court customary" had jursidiction over the servile tenants. In practice, however, the two courts were combined under the name "court baron" and it is rare to even find any mention of the court customary.
  22. Court Leet - a minor Crown court at the manor, responsible for trying petty offences. Not all manors were granted this jursidiction. Supposed to be held every six months, but frequently it was only once a year. Usually held in combined session with the court baron.
  23. Court of Recognition - the first court held after the arrival of a new lord where he became seised of the services of his tenants.
  24. Court Rolls - records of the courts, originally stitched together one after the other and rolled up for storage, but by the 1500's were usually bound in book form.
  25. Cousin - sometimes used to refer to any relative other than the immediate family. Genealogists Beware: a person labeled a "cousin" is frequently really a nephew.
  26. Curtesy of England - the right of a widower to use (but not inherit) his wife's estate for life, but only if they had a joint heir (i.e., living child, grandchild, etc.).
  27. Customary Tenure - tenure governed by the customs of the manor. The most common form of tenure.
  28. Customs of the Manor - the rules governing operation of the manor, including the rights & services required of the tenants and the obligations of the lord. Adjacent manors, and even manors with the same lord, could have significantly different customs.
  29. Custumnal - the written record of the Customs of the Manor, somewhat like a constitution.
  30. Vestry - an elected committee of church members (Church of England).
  31. Demesne - that portion of the manor reserved for the personal use of the lord. If rented out, as it frequently was, it was not governed by the Customs of the Manor but rather by whatever conditions were negotiated between the tenant and the lord, subject to Common Law.
  32. Demise - tenancy of Demesne land.
  33. Disseisin - Dispossession of an estate
  34. Distraint - seizure of the chattles of a person until they obey an order of the court. Also called an Attachment.
  35. Dole - the portion of common meadow allocated to a tenant. Also called a Dale or Lot Meadow.
  36. Doom - the judgment of a court
  37. Dower - the portion of her husband's estate that a widow was entitled to use for the remainder of her life before it passed to his heir(s). Under Common Law, this was one-third, and the custom of some manors extended this to the entire estate. Frequently, the custom of the manner required her to remain chaste or unmarried.
  38. Escheat - Reversion of land to the Crown or to the Mesne lord, usually when a tenant died without an heir or committed a serious crime warranting forfeiture of his estate, and occassionally when the heir was a minor.
  39. Essoin - the excuse for non-attendance at the manor court. It was common practice to allow up to 3 consecutive essoins before Amercement.
  40. Estate - property or interest which may be inherited
  41. Estover - basic necessities allowed by law, especially wood for repairs (bote) allowed to be taken from the lord's or a neighbor's estate as well as the right of a widow to remain in her house (freebench).
  42. Enfeoff - to grant a fief or fee.
  43. Extent - a survey listing the valuation of lands & buildings, the services required of the tenants, and other incomes.
  44. Fealty - oath of allegiance to the Crown sworn by an incoming tenant.
  45. Fee - an interest in the land which may be inherited, a fief
  46. Fee Simple - an estate of inheritance where the heir is determined by the Canons of Descent. When there was no heir, the land reverted to the lord or Crown by escheat.
  47. Fee Tail - similar to fee simple, only the heir must be a direct descendent of the original tenant.
  48. Fief - an interest in the land which may be inherited, a fee
  49. Final Concords or Fines - a method conveying of land by a ficticious lawsuit, used from 1195 to 1834. The purchaser would file a lawsuit claiming the property in a crown court (Chancery court) against the seller. The two parties would then immediately settle out of court and the settlement would be recorded. The purchaser's right to the property was thus greatly enhanced since he now had a judgment in his favor and on file from a court superior to his local manor court.
  50. Fine - money payment to the lord by an incoming tenant and also upon the death of the lord. Also called gressom.
  51. Fine Certain - fine the amount of which was fixed by the customs of the manor.
  52. Foot - court (typically Chancery court) record copy of a settlement. Settlements were written in triplicate on a single sheet of parchment, two side by side and one across the bottom. The after being cut apart with wavy lines, the side copies went one to each party while the bottom ("foot") was retained by the court. The term is most commonly encountered in the phrase "feet of fines", which is what you would ask to see at the British Public Record Office.
  53. Frankpledge - a Saxon system whereby a group of about 10 households (a tything) were all held responsible for the behavior of each individual member.
  54. Frank Tenure - Land tenure governed by Common Law; freehold
  55. Freebench - The custom of allowing a widow to become the tenant of all or part of her late husband's customary estate. While this was either for life or until she remarried, the custom usually required that she remain chaste. Also called widow's bench or widow's estate.
  56. Freehold - tenure not subject to the customs of the manor but rather governed by Common Law.
  57. Gage - a pledge or security.
  58. Gressom - money payment to the lord by an incoming tenant and also upon the death of the lord. More often called a "fine".
  59. Heriot - Payment in kind to the lord upon the death of a tenant, traditionally it was his "best beast". (Good pen name for a Yorkshire veterinarian).
  60. Homage - (1) oral statement by a tenant of his loyalty and feudal obligations to his lord; (2) an assembly of tenants acting as a jury at a Court Baron
  61. Impartible - an estate or tenement which cannot be divided
  62. Incidents - various sources income for the lord from the manor, such as fines, amercements, & heriots.
  63. In the Right of His Wife - although a woman could certainly inherit property/tenancy of her own from her family (see Canons of Descent), she could not be "the tenant" if she were married. In such cases, her husband held the tenancy "in the right of his wife". On her death, the tenancy would pass to her heir, although the widower was allowed the "Curtesy of England".
  64. Jury - an assemby of tenants in a court sworn to rearch a decision in some matter. Also called the homage.
  65. Knight Service - military service due the lord under a freehold tenure; formally abolished in 1660 by which time cash payments in lieu of service were generally accepted.
  66. Licence to Alienate - prior to 1660, the royal permission necessary to sell land held "in chief of the crown by knight service". The crown naturally demanded money (a "fine") for this permission. Royal pardons for failing to obtain prior permission were also sold.
  67. Livery of Seisin - a procedure for the transfer of tenancy or ownership.
  68. Live (or Living) Gage - a surrender of land as security for a debt, where the lender has the use and benefit of the land until the debt is paid off. Contrast with the more common Mortgage (i.e., "dead pledge), where the debtor has the use & benefit of the land until the debt is repaid.
  69. Looker - a minor official of the Court Baron, always with a specific function: Hedgelooker - inspected fences & hedges; Houselooker - inspected houses & other buildings; Paynelooker - Barleyman, a general court enforcer (from a practice of looking in windows?).
  70. Lord of the Manor - a landlord holding the a manor either directly from the Crown or via a Mesne or other lord.
  71. Manor - an estate held by a lord and having a Court Baron jurisdiction.
  72. Manor Court - general term for court baron (& court customary) and, if applicable, court leet. Originally the courts were held outdoors, but the advent of written records required a move inside. Sometimes the court was held in the manor house, but more frequently in an inn, church, or school. Occassionally a special courthouse was constructed. Although declining significantly in importance for well over a hundred years, manor courts continued to exist until 1977.
  73. Mesne Lord - a lord who holds his manor directly from the Crown, sometimes called Tenant-in-Chief.
  74. Messuage - a dwelling house.
  75. Moot - a meeting.
  76. Mortgage - ("dead pledge") a special kind of Surrender where the tenure is pledged as security for a loan while the debtor retains the use of the holding. Contrast with Live Gage, above.
  77. Mortmonie or Mortuarie - customary gift paid to the parish priest from the estate of a deceased parishioner; also, a fine payable by the parishioners to the church hierarchy upon the death of their parish priest.
  78. Pain - punishment or penalty.
  79. Pannage - a tenant's right to feed hogs in the common woods.
  80. Partible Inheritance - a tenement or estate that could be divided upon the death of the tenant or by sale.
  81. Piscary - the right to take fish from ponds, streams, etc.
  82. Pinder - a minor official responsible for rounding up stray animals; their owners were liable for amercement.
  83. Presentment - the report of the homage (jury) on the matter under consideration.
  84. Primogeniture - Inheritance by the eldest son.
  85. Quit Rent - annual payment to the lord in lieu of services due.
  86. Real Property or Real Estate - property which is not movable, such as land & buildings. ("Real Estate" implies a heritablity which may or may not be present in "Real Property".)
  87. Recovery - a fictitious legal action used from the 1400's to 1834 which was designed to break the tenancy constraints of fee tail land, thereby allowing transfer out of the original family. The basic procedure was that the desired new buyer would sue the current freehold tenant, claiming the property. They would both appear in court, but instead of defending himself, the seller called upon a third party (usually just the court crier) to defend him (called the "vouchee"). The buyer then asked leave of the court to momentarily confer with the vouchee, and they would both leave the room. But vouchee would not return, thereby losing the case by default and making everyone happy. More complicated recoveries, involving two or even three intermediate sham transfers were orchestrated with the same purpose: to allow a court to enter a judgement by default which it could not make on the merits.
  88. Relief - payment by an heir to the lord inorder to succeed to a freehold inheritance
  89. Rental - the (usually annual) survey of tenants with the details of the rents due and paid.
  90. Seisin - possession of property.
  91. Seised - having legal possession.
  92. Socage - the more common form of freehold tenure, entailing agricultural rather than military service obligations. Abolished with fuedalism in 1660 and replaced by cash payments.
  93. Steward - the lord's manager of the manor; also called the Seneschal or occassionally the General. The steward was usually trained in the law and actually conducted the Manor Courts as the judge, frequently "in the presence of" the lord. The steward's signature appears at the bottom of Manor Court records.
  94. Surrender - a step in the process of transferring property from one tenant to another; also the document recording that step. Since tenancy could only be granted by the lord, any change of tenants required that the holding be first returned ("surrendered") to the lord who then granted it to the new tenant upon payment of a fine.
  95. Survey - a written description of the manor, with three main types: Terrier (topological description), Extent (valuation of lands, buildings, etc.), and Rentals (list of tenants with rents due/paid).
  96. Tenancy-at-Will - tenure granted by the lord with terms & conditions at his discretion rather than by the custom of the manor. Common Law required that these be "reasonable".
  97. Tenancy for Lives - copyhold tenancy granted typically for three lives, i.e., through the grandson of the original tenant. The fines at each generational transfer were usually arbitrary and lives could be added at the lord's discretion.
  98. Tenant - the legal occupier of a parcel of land, paying rent &/or services to the lord.
  99. Tenant by the Verge - a customary tenant, otherwise the same as a copyholder, who did not have a copy of his manor court roll entry, but was seised of the land by the ceremonial acceptance of a verge (a ceremonial rod or staff), a straw, or a clod of earth. Acceptance of a clod of the parcel's earth by the new tenant from the lord in front of witnesses was originally the only recognized method of transferring tenure.
  100. Tenement - a parcel of land occupied by a tenant; literally, a "holding".
  101. Terrier - a type of survey describing the physical layout of the manor with descriptions of the demesne and tenements.
  102. Time Immemorial - beond legal memory. Strickly refers to dates prior to 1189 when permanent written legal records were supposed to be kept, but in practice it was somewhat later. Before written records, it was necessary to rely upon the memory of witnesses in any later dispute. Important legal events, such as the transfer of tenancy, were staged ceremonies so that they would be more memorable to the witnesses (see Tenant by the Verge). Witnesses as young as possible were present in order to preserve the "legal memory" as long as possible. It is said that these children were sometimes beaten and even scarred so that they would never forget the day.
  103. Turbary - common right to dig peat or turf for fuel on the waste or common.
  104. Tything - a group of originally ten men or households.
  105. Vassal - tenant who owed services and homage to a lord.
  106. Villein - a class of peasants who were half-free; that is, they were under the control of their lords, but were considered free in their relations with others.
  107. View of Frankpledge - assembly of the headmen of each tything twice each year to report on the state of law & order in his locality. This was the forerunner of the court leet.
  108. Verdicts - the draft minutes made during the court session by the clerk, frequently with crossouts & corrections and often bound with the formal, signed records, together with any powers of attorney or verbatim extracts of other documents offered as evidence. Verdicts means, literally, "true sayings".
  109. Will of the Lord - conditions of tenure at the lord's discretion and not subject to the customs of the manor.

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