IPMs and historical research

IPMs have long been recognized as a key source for all kinds of historians. They contain information on an enormous range of subjects, from naming patterns to the customs of baptism. Five particularly important areas of research can be identified, however. They are outlined below, using the Oxfordshire IPM of John de la Poyle as illustration (CIPM xxii.280) John died in 1423, also holding lands in Middlesex, Berkshire and Surrey. The IPM describes his holdings in Hampton Poyle, on the bank of the river Cherwell north of Oxford.


Landholding, family, and inheritance

Most obviously, the inquisition tells us about the estates John held – in this case, the manor of Hampton Poyle in Oxfordshire. (The other inquisitions describe his holdings in Poyle, Middlesex; Chilton, Berkshire; and in and around Guildford and Farnham in Surrey.) It must not be assumed that the information in these inquisitions is comprehensive. There were several reasons why estates might not appear, most notably if they had been enfeoffed, granted in trust to others. Nevertheless, an individual's inquisitions post mortem always provide vital information – and often the only information – on the estates he held.

The inquisition names John's heir as his grandson Robert; John's son Henry had died in his father's lifetime. Again, the accuracy of this information cannot be taken for granted: mistakes were sometimes made regarding heirs, and on occasion the identity of the 'true' heir was a matter of dispute. But in the majority of cases the IPMs provide reliable information regarding heirs that is fundamental in establishing the history of a family.

This information about landholding and inheritance is particularly valuable when a series of inquisitions survives for a family, allowing its descent to be traced over several generations. It has been of fundamental importance to all historians of local society, from the very beginnings of local history to more recent studies of the landed aristocracy. Its importance is perhaps best illustrated in the ongoing Victoria County History of England (VCH). As volume 6 of the Oxfordshire VCH illustrates, IPMs are the key source for tracing the descent of Hampton Poyle, and the family history of the Poyles, for the period 1267 to 1439 and continue to be important well into the sixteenth century.


Land values and use

This inquisition is relatively unusual in including a detailed extent or survey of Hampton Poyle, as opposed to a simple valuation. (Very roughly about a third of all IPMs include extents, but the proportion varies enormously in different periods.) Simple valuations are themselves important, because they provide some idea of the relative worth of different estates.  Detailed extents, which itemize the different parts of a manor (buildings; arable, pasture, meadow; courts and so on) and give their value, are still more useful for historians of agriculture, landscape, and lordship.

The extent of Hampton Poyle is not as detailed as one might wish. It itemizes the manor's arable and meadow (the latter, as usual, much more valuable); gives a brief mention of the manorial buildings and dovecote; and describes the rent of free tenants and the manorial court. (There is no mention of pasture here, although a later extent of 1439 [CIPM xxv.163] includes 7 a. pasture and 6 a. heath.) However the extent is sadly uninformative about how much if any land was held in demesne (that is, directly cultivated) by the lord of the manor or had been leased out, and it is equally uninformative about the lands held by the manor's free and customary tenants (if there were any of the latter, since they are not mentioned explicitly). In the thirteenth century, about 120 a. had been held in demesne, about 160 a. by free tenants, and about 250 a. by customary tenants. Perhaps, therefore, the 401 a. arable and 22 a. meadow described in our extent encompass both the manorial demesne (much of it likely to be leased at this date) and the lands of customary tenants. Since the manor was on the bank of the Cherwell, the absence of any reference to mills or fisheries is striking. It may just be an omission, as the 1439 extent describes a fishery worth 2s. yearly. But the explanation may also be that mills and fishery had been granted to Osney Abbey, one of the manor's free tenants, in the thirteenth century, and this extent gives no details of free tenants' holdings. [1. See the account of the manor in the Victoria County History: Parishes: Hampton Poyle', A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 6 (1959), pp. 160-168. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=63735.]

This imprecision and lack of detail, leading to many difficulties of interpretation, is typical of many extents, especially in the fifteenth century. The reliability of extents has also been much debated, and this is a question to which we shall return in subsequent featured inquisitions. However the most detailed study of extents, carried out by Bruce Campbell and colleagues using documents from the first half of the fourteenth century, concluded that what IPMs lack in detail and precision, they make up in the quantity of their social and geographical coverage. Other manorial records relate in large part to church estates and the bulk are from southern England; IPM extents cover a wider geographical area and describe a greater range of estates. They have therefore been described as 'the single best source for reconstructing both the institutional and economic geography of the country'.


Enfeoffments and  settlements

John de la Poyle did not in fact hold the manor of Hampton Poyle at his death.  The inquisition describes how he had granted it in January 1422 to Robert Warner, John Gaynesford, and others. The grant had initially been for the term of twenty years for a yearly rent of fourteen marks (just under £10), but subsequently in June 1422 John quitclaimed the manor, creating a grant in perpetuity. Robert, John, and the others therefore held the manor at the time of John de la Poyle's death. The family's estates in Middlesex, Surrey and Berkshire had been granted to Warner and others and similar if not always identical fashion.

The exact intention behind the various grants is not fully clear. But it is likely that their immediate purpose was to prevent the family's lands, and John de la Poyle's heir if he were under age, from coming into the crown's custody.  The family's manors in Oxfordshire and Surrey were held of the king in chief by knight service; as we have seen elsewhere, this gave the king the right to prerogative wardship if a tenant was in possession at the time of his death. By conveying the manors to feoffees, men who held title to the manors while in fact allowing the previous tenant to occupy and receive the profits, wardship could be avoided. (In this instance the king's prerogative was not entirely cheated, since the grants of the manors had been made without royal licence, and the feoffees had to pay quite substantial fines to recover possession.)

A subsequent purpose of the grants was almost certainly to arrange for a settlement of the manors on later generations of the family, although John's intentions are not fully clear. Possibly he intended to provide for his son Henry and Henry's wife Elizabeth, who was the daughter of the feoffee Robert Warner, and who subsequently came to hold the manor. [2. The descent of the Poyle lands is outlined in the relevant VCH volumes: see 'Parishes: Hampton Poyle', A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 6 (1959), pp. 160-168. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=63735; 'Parishes: Chilton', A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 4 (1924), pp. 11-15. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=62672; 'The borough of Guildford: Borough, manors, churches and charities', A History of the County of Surrey: Volume 3 (1911), pp. 560-570. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=43020; also G. Wrottesley, Pedigrees from the Plea Rolls  (London, 1905), pp. 378-9.]

Similar grants, to avoid royal wardship and to settle lands on family members, are found throughout the IPMs, which are a major source of information on the ways in which medieval landholders disposed of their estates. They are key evidence for analysing landholders' relations to the king as feudal lord, and the exercise of the royal prerogative. They are no less important for understanding landholders' attitudes to family and inheritance: a question that is particularly interesting in the fifteenth century, a period when demographic decline led to an increase in female heirs.


Demography and life expectancy

The inquisition provides John de la Poyle's date of death, 31 October 1423. The inquest on his brother Thomas Poyle had stated that John was aged '40 and more' at Thomas's death in December 1401. Combining these pieces of information we can calculate that John was aged over 61 at his death. Thomas in turn, had been aged at least 19 in June and July 1360 when the IPMs of his father Henry had been held. He, therefore, was also aged 61 or more at his death. [3. The IPM for Surrey says that Thomas was aged 19 and more on 14 September 1359; the other inquisitions say he was 20 and more at the time the IPMs were held (CIPM x.622). The biography in HPT gives Thomas's year of birth as 1342, stating that he was aged 17 at his father's death: the cited sources do not confirm this and the figure appears to be an error.]

Similar information on dates of birth and death can be compiled for a very large number of tenants-in-chief, and can often be supplemented by the more precise evidence given in proofs of age. Clearly the dates that can be calculated will not always be exact, and rounded ages such as '20 and more','40 and more' must be treated with a certain scepticism. As with land-use, however, it may well be that what IPMs lack in exact accuracy they make up for in the depth and range of their coverage.  Considerably more reliable figures about life expectancy can be obtained from the detailed records of their members kept, in particular, by some monastic institutions, but these provide very small samples whose circumstances cannot be regarded as typical. The IPMs offer less accurate information about a much wider sample of people. Potentially they are a significant source for historians of late medieval life-expectancy, although their full potential has only recently been investigated in detail using modern techniques of historical demography.


Local administration and the jurors

The inquisitions and their associated writs are also a rich source for the study of local and central administration.  IPMs, as we shall see in other features, were shaped by several parties: tenants and their heirs, and sometimes competing claimants to the lands; the escheator; the organs of central government; and the local jurors. They provide a series of case studies in the interactions -- between private individuals, local officials, and central bureaucracy – that constituted so much of medieval government.

The jurors listed in the inquisitions are also a rich source for study in themselves. Collectively the IPMs detail thousands of these relatively humble men, usually (as here) simply listing their names, but sometimes providing residences and occupations as well. In the latter case in particular jury lists may be very useful to family and local historians. They are also important for the study of how the growth of central government in later medieval England impinged on local communities. How onerous were the demands of jury service, and how did participation in royal government, even at this minor level, reflect or even contribute to social standing?


Unlocking the research potential of the IPMs

IPMs, therefore, are a rich mine of material for local and family historians, historians of the landscape, and for all academic historians of medieval England. The process of making this material more widely available began well over a century ago with the commencement of the printed Calendars of Inquisitions Post Mortem. The published volumes all go some way toward making these richly informative documents more widely accessible although, as is explored more fully in another feature, the volumes differ significantly in what they include and in their usefulness to the modern historians. Only the volumes for 1422 to 1447 can fairly be said to include the full contents of the documents; and even these weighty volumes do not, in certain respects, make the IPMs fully accessible. As the work of Bruce Campbell in particular has demonstrated, IPMs are full of information that invites quantitative and geo-spatial analysis. To put John Poyle's IPM into context, for example, we might like to know what was the average acreage of arable in nearly manors, and whether the values for arable and meadow at Hampton Poyle were typical or not; we might like to see manors of similar value plotted on a map. Of course such question can be answered from the printed calendars, but only in the most laborious fashion.  The primary aim of the Mapping the Medieval Countryside project is to make the IPMs fully and freely available online, using markup to unlock the information they contain.