Lords of the Manor: Rapacious or Reasonable?
The argument put by moralists was that income from their own estates was not sufficient for many lords, as a result of their indulgence in excessive consumption and profligacy. Their remedies of increasing land rents, entry fines, amercements and a range of feudal fees and charges led to economic hardship for many of their tenants, particularly the poor. Chapter 5 gave some examples of petitions complaining about extortion and oppression by some landowners or their officials or retainers. The historian Rodney Hilton’s explanation was that it was a matter of necessity for lords to get their rents by physical force or threat. For K.B. McFarlane, it was a matter of “lordly high-handedness or extortion in which neither tenants nor servants were spared”. Examples he gave are the illegal land acquisitions of Ralph, Lord Cromwell (d. 1455), Sir John Fastolf’s pursuit of debtors, and the practice of some landlords, such as Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham, in the 1440s, of threatening or even imprisoning their own receivers to ensure that they pursued tenants owing rents or services. Were lords (lay and ecclesiastical) and gentry landowners commonly rapacious? Is there evidence of their being reasonable and pragmatic? To answer questions about the levels of rents and fines, the burden of services placed upon unfree tenants or villeins, the extent of poverty and how tenants were treated, this chapter investigates not only manor court records, but also wider-ranging studies by historians. Wills also reveal that some lords of the manor made conscientious efforts to make restitution for economic wrongs.