After the rather tense discussion at the Jury Day there was a bit of a tense feeling in the village hall. Traditionally, the Court Leet meet in the Dovecote but during the Covid pandemic, social distancing led to the village hall being adopted and as such it has continued. It certainly led to it being easier to observe and photograph. As mentioned in the fine village journal The Open Field:
“Until last year the venue was The Dovecote, but the small rooms do not lend themselves to either the larger numbers attending in recent years or providing enough space for current health recommendations. Last year the move was made to the Village Hall, which looks like being the venue of choice from now on.”
The Jury sat among the audience ready to interject and facing them at the main table were the Court’s three officers, with some members of the estate and parish council sat on the sides. The three court officials were:
The Steward, who is a solicitor appointed by the Lord of the Manor. The current incumbent has filled this role of ensuring any legal requirements are undertaken, for 15 years.
The Bailiff, a local farmer who presented the Presentation paper from the previous week and would be the source of information of the cases
The Clerk to the Gaits & Commons, a local farmer, whose role combines the duties of Secretary and Treasurer. managing funds from various sources made available to the Open Fields and those who farm them.
Court in the act
Each of the three Open Fields has a Foreman who holds a permanent appointment. And the current incumbents are all are Laxton farmers descended from at least one previous generation who farmed here such is the tradition in the village.
The Court was opened by a welcome and the traditional proclamation. The Steward then called up the members of the Jury
Who then arm outstretched upon the bible, would be sworn in. At the end of each swearing each member would kiss the bible ceremonially. This is then the Jury sworn in the following year and the foreman who would oversee next years homage or jury day.
Then the Steward began to call the names on the Manor Suit Roll, these were list of people living within the manor boundaries all of which are eligible for the Jury and are obliged to attend. Understandably as this court was held on a Thursday in a working week many were not and so times have to change. However, if they were absent the bailiff called out ‘ absent’ and still a 2p essoign, a type of fine, was rather ceremoniously placed on the table. A one point the call was ‘very absent’ to which the Steward stopped and enquired what he meant by this and the bailiff said the person was dead. This called for a quick analysis of whether the Roll was up to date, after this it was decided that was anomaly and they continued.
See you in court
Once this happened the Court moved onto the details arising from last Court to see if they had been addressed; most had but there were still some overdue issues it seemed and then on the details of this year’s presentation paper. The discussion was the made up of the various transgressions which had been discussed in the pub the week before and the suggested fines; which in most cases the Steward agreed and in some cases, the bailiff would then delve into his book to see if there was any historical precedent for it – on one matter the Steward admitting that it was an unusual case and in this matter, the book and the knowledge of the Bailiff was invaluable. The issues were generally small matters, not keeping boundaries and sykes clear. Or in the words of the court ‘ploughed too far’, which would be ploughing beyond the end of a strip into the adjoining roadway and therefore reducing the width of the roadway and potentially making access to the strips difficult, and ‘not shovelling in’, which means, in effect, not clearing up behind them when they have been ploughing Certainly they were less varied then those which can be read in the archives. For example, the 4d ‘for not ringing her swine’, 3s 4d in 1661 ‘for scolding a disturbance to the neighbours’, and the 1s ‘for not suffering the water to have passage out of the Hall Lane through the Hall wood accordingly as hath been formerly’ also indicating how the powers have also changed no doubt in what was enforceable. Perhaps showing the power in the village that of 1681 Laxton tenants made allowed Augustine Hynde and his father before him to graze animals in ‘Rongsicke feilde’, not because he had a right to do, but ‘because he was an eminent man and we could not dispute it with him’. What again was interested in that there no real appeals from those fined until the contentious issue from the previous week was raised. This appeared to again get quite heated with members of the Jury interjecting their opinions and views. At one point it being argued that the issue was beyond the aspects of the Court. I shall not embarrass the individual involved but it was evident that this was still a court with power and where views were considered and discussed like in any court.
Settled out of court?
Indeed, Laxton’s Court Leet still has powers were other Court Leets have become simple pantomimes as such. When in 1977, the Administration of Justice Act these powers were at risk, the then Steward who was representative of Tallents Solicitors in Newark, prevented this and as such the village would be the only place to retain this. I was not sure to be honest that the issue was fully resolved, it certainly lead to some anger and heated discussion. Once all the matters from the Court had been addressed again the Bailiff rose to their feet to give the final proclamation and the court closed. As this was also a good opportunity to discuss wider issues the meeting more to local matters which lay outside the limits of the court. Afterall, why miss the opportunity for a quorate meeting!
To be able to see one of the only remaining medieval Court leets in power was a real privilege and one hopes that this microcosm of ancient farming life continues and weathers the threats that modern agriculture has.