Tucked away close to St Mary’s parish church in the pretty village of Long Crendon in south west Buckinghamshire near the Oxfordshire border, is a beautiful medieval Court House which dates from the 15th century. Now owned by the National Trust it is open to the public and is well worth a visit.
The Court House is a long 5 bay, 2 storey timber framed jettied building. It was previously thought that the court house was built in the early 1500s but recent dendrochronology tests using tree ring dating on some of the original beams show that they were felled between 1483 and 1487 so it was almost certainly built between these dates. It is believed that the building originally served as a church house – the medieval equivalent of the church hall, and would have been used to celebrate religious festivals and ‘church ales’ which were social gatherings to raise funds for the church where strong ale was brewed and drunk on the premises. Such festivals would originally have been held in the church itself but as pews were introduced into churches in the later medieval period, lack of room led to separate church houses being built.
The Puritans disapproved of such merriment (alcohol was permitted but not to excess!) and under Oliver Cromwell’s rule in the 1650s church ales and festivals were banned. Redundant church houses were often converted into pubs or schools but in the case of the Court House at Long Crendon it seems it was used for a period to store and sell wool (it was once referenced as 'Old Staple Hall') and the upstairs room was used to hold regular manor courts (although the building may well have also been used for this purpose since it was first built).
In the 1200s the manor of Long Crendon which had been held by the Earl of Pembroke was divided between three female co-heirs. By the 1500s, the three respective Lords of the Manors were the Dromer family who were Wycombe wool merchants, St George’s Chapel in Windsor and All Souls College in Oxford. The latter two institutions held a number of manors in the area. Manor courts were originally held to administer the customs of the manor and deal with any civil disputes and minor crimes and offences such as selling rancid fish and unlicensed beer. All tenants in the village would originally have been expected to attend the courts but by the Tudor period manorial courts mainly just dealt with property issues and the transfer of copyhold land. Under the feudal manorial system all copyhold land whilst in practice owned by the tenant was formally owned by the lord of the manor and each time copyhold land was sold or passed to an heir the new tenants had to go before the court to be formally admitted. Whilst a lot of copyhold land was enfranchised during the 19th century the system essentially remained unchanged until the 1920s when the 1922 Law of Property Act abolished copyhold tenure.
In practice the Long Crendon courts for each of the three manors were probably held at the same time (at least annually if not more frequently) and would have been administered by a locally appointed steward who represented the three Lords of the Manor. Records of the three Haddenham manors have survived well (the earliest records date from the 13th century) and are held respectively at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, the Bodleian Library in Oxford (All Souls College records) and St George’s Chapel in Windsor. As copyhold land was often inherited they can be a really useful source in providing genealogical information for family historians.
The manor courts would have been held on the first floor of the building which as is now, was one large long open room with a small adjoining room, used at one point as a kitchen. The exposed roof beams are a key feature of the room and comprise five bays of alternating tie beams and arch braced collar trusses. The upper story is jettied on the south and west sides. The east end is in the Wealden style (a type of medieval house common in Sussex and Kent where a recessed open hall was flanked by floored jettied end bays) although in this case the east end itself is recessed and it appears that it originally was open from the ground floor. There was a large fireplace at this end with a 16th century moulded wood lintel which ran the full width of the building.
On the ground floor each bay was separated to form individual rooms which by the 18th century were used to accommodate the homeless poor in the parish. In this period each parish was responsible for providing parish relief for those of its residents who had fallen on hard times. In many villages a building was used to house those parishioners, often the elderly, who had no other means of support and the Court House in Long Crendon would have served a useful purpose. In 1834 with the introduction of a new Poor Law Act the system changed and all local able bodied persons who couldn’t support themselves were sent instead to the new Union Workhouse which was built at Thame. As a consequence the lower rooms were rented out to tenants although the upper floor continued to be used for the Manor Court meetings and was also used by the local Sunday school. However the building by this time had fallen into disrepair and was threatened with demolition. The vicar mounted a campaign to save it and following a survey by the recently formed National Trust the organisation decided to buy it – the second property they acquired. It was restored in 1900 at a total cost of £560. The upper floor continued to be used to hold the manor courts until they were finally abolished in the 1920s whilst the ground floor was let to tenants.
The Court House (upper floor only, accessed by very steep steps) is now open to the public on Wednesdays, and weekends. More details can be found on the National Trust’s website: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/long-crendon-courthouse/