An ancient tier of local government

The ancient Danby Court Leet has jurisdiction over 15,000 acres of land on the North York Moors.

A view of Danby Castle
A view of Danby Castle

It is probably the oldest form of local government to retain its original authority under law, acting within the Manor of Danby in the upper Esk Valley in North Yorkshire, with five villages, numerous farms, four hamlets and a Camphill Village Trust complex. 

It is an active part of the fabric of local government in the area, alongside the county, borough, district and parish councils, and the North York Moors National Park which is also the local planning authority for part of the court leet area.

The court leet was originally a manorial court, or 'court baron' which exercised the view of frankpledge in England and Wales.  The word 'leet' dates from the late thirteenth century from the Anglo-French lete and Anglo-Latin leta.  The meaning is obscure but has a possible association with the verb 'to let' as in 'allow'.  

The concept of frankpledge dates to the tenth-century legislation of Canute.  It was a system of dividing a community into tithings or groups of ten men, each member of which was responsible for the conduct of the others in his group.  Each man also pledged that if a member broke the law, he would be brought to the court.

The Danby Court Leet in the twenty-first century is made up of a jury of thirteen local men. The jury elects a foreman, and the Lord of the Manor of Danby, the 12th Viscount Downe, appoints a bailiff responsible for communications and maintaining the records, and a steward who deals with legal matters.  

The Court Leet is responsible for the administration of a large area of common land owned by the Lord of the Manor. This consists of moorland, village greens, green lanes and roadside verges. The boundaries, which are sometimes not apparent in the landscape, are marked on maps stored at Danby Castle. 

The Court Leet also manages over 150 common garths (ancient enclosures) from garden size to one acre or larger as well as thirty common enclosures of field size which provide grazing land in times of food scarcity during bad winters.  Water supplies, telephone and electricity cables on the common and other privileges such as improved access, cattle grids and garages are subject to annual rents or 'fines'.

A Register of Common Rights is kept which records the dwellings which have turbary rights and farms having sheep rights.  Turbary Rights permit the householder to cut turves and peat on the Common for his own use.  Sheep rights attached to a farm allow the farmer to graze a certain number of sheep on the Common.  

Danby COurt Leet notice in Lealholm
Danby COurt Leet notice in Lealholm
Danby Court Leet signage in Castleton
Danby Court Leet signage in Castleton

No-one is allowed to undertake any digging, fencing, planting, building, tipping or other disturbance on the common without permission of the Court Leet.  Anyone infringing can be fined and is required to reinstate the Common to the satisfaction of the Court Leet Jury.

Anyone wishing to do work on Common Land must first apply, giving particulars to the Bailiff, and enclosing a calling-out fee of one pound.  At the Annual Manorial Court Meeting, held at Danby Castle, new Common Right holders are summoned to be sworn in by the Steward of the Court.

The amount of business varies, but normally the Jury - or a Deputation of the Jury - is called to meet on site fifteen times in the year.  On each call-out there may be up to six sites to visit.  The Jury also meets four to six times annually at Danby Castle for business meetings. 

Danby Castle occupies a commanding position on the far slopes of Danby Rigg.  It was built in the fourteenth century for Lord Latimer, and at the time was of pioneering architectural design, combining both defence and comfortable living.  It is said that Catherine Parr lived at the castle before she became the sixth wife of Henry VIII.   In the seventeenth century the manor was purchased by John Dawnay, who was later created Viscount Downe.  

The Esk Valley near Castleton and land within the Danby Court Leet jurisdiction
The Esk Valley near Castleton and land within the Danby Court Leet jurisdiction

The  Legality of Court Leets

The introduction of magistrates over many centuries gradually reduced and limited the power of the manorial lords.  Magistrates were later given authority over the view of frankpledge, which effectively ended the remaining significance of the courts leet.  Consequently, they gradually ceased to exist.  

The courts leet technically survived into the late twentieth century though by then, most had become ceremonial or a means of promoting or celebrating their local area.   However, their legal jurisdiction over crime was only abolished in 1977 under Schedule 23 of the Administration of Justice Act.

The one exception named in the Act was the Court Leet for the manor of Laxton in Nottinghamshire which retained its judicial authority.  Laxton retains the open-field system of farming which ended elsewhere following the enclosures of the eighteenth century.

Although the Administration of Justice Act abolished the legal jurisdiction of the other courts leet, it emphasised that 'any such court may continue to sit and transact such other business, if any, as was customary for it'.   Schedule 4 of the Act specified the 'business' which was to be considered customary.  This included the taking of presentments relating to matters of local concern and, as at Danby, the management of common land.