The History of Danby Court Leet

One of only 24 Courts Leet still active, it is assumed that the Danby Court Leet has been in existence since the medieval age, 1066 to 1489. Minute books exist from 1726 listing the jury members and their signatures, some signed with an ‘X’, detailing bylaws created and fines imposed.

The word “leet” dates from the late 13th century, a court leet being the lowest Civil court of law in England. These courts dealt with matters over which the lord of the manor had jurisdiction, their powers extending only over those who lived within the lands of the manor.

Aerial view of Danby Court Leet area

The court leet was a court of record, with a duty to view the freemen’s oaths of peacekeeping and good practice in trade. The jury of the court leet, formed from the freehold tenants, had the power to indicted wrongdoers, stand witness, and decide on punishments. It also developed as a means of proactively ensuring that standards in such matters as sales of food and drink, and agriculture, were adhered to.

“To enquire regularly and periodically into the proper condition of watercourses, roads, paths, and ditches; to guard against all manner of encroachments upon the public rights, whether by unlawful enclosure or otherwise; to preserve landmarks, to keep watch and ward in the town, and overlook the common lands, adjust the rights over them, and restraining in any case their excessive exercise, as in the pasturage of cattle; to guard against the adulteration of food, to inspect weights and measures, to look in general to the morals of the people, and to find a remedy for each social ill and inconvenience. To take cognisance of grosser crimes of assault, arson, burglary, larceny, manslaughter, murder, treason, and every felony at common law.”

The court generally sat only a few times each year. A matter was introduced into the court by means of a “presentment”, from a local man or from the jury itself. Penalties were in the form of fines or imprisonment.

Attendance at the court leet was often compulsory for those under its jurisdiction, with fines being meted out for non-attendance. The ability of the court to levy a fine was always subject to limitations, but the limits were never updated to account for inflation over the centuries; for those courts leet that still exist, the fine has effectively become merely nominal – 2p

With the collapse of the feudal system and the introduction of magistrates power was removed from manorial lords. The significance of the court leet gradually ceased and most disappeared.

Despite this, their legal jurisdiction over crime only ceased when the vast majority of Courts Leet were abolished in 1977. The then government recognised a very few Courts played a valuable role in their local communities and were permitted to continue functioning. It is a great compliment to Danby Court Leet that it was one of the twenty-four such courts. Since then, many of the other Court Leet have ceased to function and are now merely ceremonial. Danby is one of the very few exceptions. It continues to act much as it has always done, providing local people with quick, cheap and fair justice on matters over which it has competence.

Danby Court Leet team

Annual Manorial Court Meeting circa 2005

Further reading: Danby Castle – A Manor and its Lords available from the Estate Office, Wykeham, Scarborough, YO13 9QD