What is a Danish Manor?

Manor Houses and Estates


By Carsten Porskrog Rasmussen, DPhil, The Museum of Southern Jutland


Large farms and large landed properties date far back in history, but manor house farms as a special category emerged in the late Middle Ages. For centuries a manor  was the normal focal point of an estate: a large-scale complex of properties. From the 19th century both terms became increasingly blurred, and actually today it is difficult to distinguish manor houses and estates from other properties other than on the basis of their history.



Manor House – Manor – Sædegård [English: home farm]


During the 14th and 15th centuries, farmhouses were supreme in Danish agriculture, run by one family and possibly some servants. Around them were some farms: defined more by their function and status than by their size. The nobility resided on these farms and managed their other properties from them.  Another term that was prevalent in Denmark from the 16th century was sædegård [English: home farm]: the residence and/or administrative centre of a squire. Finally we have the manor house. In Danish this is called a herregård [herre = squire, gård = farm i.e the squire’s farm]. There has been much debate about the differences between them, but, in simple terms, there are none.

In the 16th century the law established a formal definition of what was a manor or a home farm. It was a farm, which the nobleman ran himself, and on which he personally lived, or where an administrator or bailiff was based. If it met these requirements, the farm was exempt from tax and, after 1524, exempt from paying tithes to the Church. A farm could change status, depending on how the landowner handled it. A manor house turned into a farmhouse, when a squire moved out and leased it to a farmer. Conversely, a farmhouse became a manor house, when a nobleman moved in and took over the running of it.

The definition of a manor house/home farm/manor relates to the farms of the nobility. Prior to the Reformation, the Church also had farms, which worked in the same way. Following the Reformation, apart from the nobility, it was virtually only the king who owned manor houses. But the king had far fewer manors than the nobility, even though overall he owned just as much land as the nobility.



Copyhold Farm and Estate


The farms, which the nobility, the king and the Church owned, but which were run by farmers, were referred to by various terms in the Middle Ages, but gradually the term fæstegård [English: copyhold farm] gained acceptance. The farmer leased the farm from its owner. In other words, he entered into a life-long lease. The farmer was permitted to live on the farm, run it and enjoy its fruits. On the other hand, he had to pay a fixed rent, the so-called landgilde, to the landowner. The farmer was also a servant of the landowner and had to provide services in the form of unpaid labour. Unlike the landgilde, the amount of this unpaid labour was not usually regulated. Finally, the landowner was the farmer’s squire. That meant, for example, that the landowner had police authority over the farmer, and the farmer was obliged to respect and obey the landowner.

In the 16th century, the farms that belonged to a manor house were often referred to collectively as manorial estates.  But gradually estate was used as a collective term to describe the complex of properties, of which the manor house was the centre: in other words, both the actual manor house and the associated farms, houses, mills, land, woodland etc. Copyhold farms and houses can be referred to collectively as the estate’s copyhold.



Small Manor Houses and Strøgods


In the 15th century and early 16th century there were a number of manor houses, which in terms of buildings and land far exceeded farms, but many others were far more modest, and the smallest manorial farms were smaller than the largest regular farms. There was also considerable turnover in the numbers of manor houses. This was linked to Scandinavian inheritance laws, which dictated that a fortune be shared between all children. The divisions of fortunes created a need for new manor houses, since often there were not enough manor houses for all the children. Conversely, manor houses disappeared, when they were inherited or bought by a squire who already had sufficient manor houses, in which to reside, and from which to manage his estate. A number of the richest noblemen had more than one manor house, but they kept the number down, because the actual manor house often gave a deficit. The estate owner made his living from the taxes he collected from the farmers.

The estates were even less stable than the manor houses, because the division of inheritance meant that the owner’s copyholds were constantly divided between several hands. Conversely, both spouses came with land when they married, which meant new farms. On top of that, there was a fairly healthy property market, and estate owners bought, sold and exchanged farms. The result was that there was a huge turnover in terms of which copyholds belonged to the individual manor house. The estate owners tried to keep their properties together, but this effort was thwarted by the divisions of inheritance. The result was that the individual manor house’s copyhold not only underwent change, but it was also typically distributed over large areas.



Large-scale Operation and the Re-parcelling of Holdings


From the latter half of the 16th century, the attitude of the estate owners to their properties started to change. They wanted larger manor houses, which could be a source of income rather than just an expense. Existing manor houses were expanded with new cultivation, not to mention the dismantling of individual farms or entire villages, and new manor houses emerged in the same way. Actually, as many manor houses were closed down as created, so the number of manor houses in what is now Denmark (with the exception of Southern Jutland) was kept at about 700. However, the size of individual manor houses was increased, and by 1682 manorial farms accounted for 9% of the country’s cultivated land – about double the amount as in the previous one-and-a-half centuries. Over the next hundred years the amount increased a little more, reaching about 10%.

The manor houses were run on the basis of compulsory labour. Because this meant saving on expenses for labour and horses, compulsory labour was a significant part of their business. Manor houses needed a large number of copyholders nearby, so the estate owners started to exchange farms with each other and with the king, also buying and selling, making the individual estates more successfully cohesive or parcelled. Gradually they were arriving at a pattern, in which an estate comprised a number of entire villages surrounding the manor house. Though there were no clear-cut borders, the estates became increasingly cohesive and more stable.

In 1660 the noblemen’s monopoly on owning manor houses and estates was abolished. At the same time, the Crown sold off large portions of land to its creditors, so the private estate owners’ portion of the country’s land increased from about one half to two thirds. This led to a wave of new manor house construction projects, which, however, were soon stopped by the state. From 1682 it was forbidden to close down farms, and only farms, which had previously been manorial farms, could be given the rights of a manor house. As a result, the number of manor houses finally stabilised, so the country had virtually the same manor houses in 1770 as in 1680. Certain exemptions were granted, so new manor houses still emerged over the next hundred years, especially when the state sold land, but only in certain areas such as Falster and Zealand, south of Faxe, was there a large impact.

The estates also became more important to those people who resided on them, because the estates became intermediaries between the farmers and the absolute state. The estates were responsible for the collection of taxes and the conscription of soldiers. From 1733, the male residents on the estates were further subjected to a system of adscription [Danish: stavnsbånd]. From 1671 a number of estates were also tied up as shires and baronies, and from 1683 as entailed estates as well. These large estates had even more powers and were even more stable than the others. Over the next hundred years more and more of them emerged.



Reforms and the Dissolution of Estates


In the final third of the 18th century, agrarian reforms transformed Denmark. The reforms covered several aspects of rural society, including the estates. In 1788, direct state intervention abolished the copyhold system and the state took over conscription of soldiers. A number of legal interventions improved the legal status of farmers. This included, for example, surveys when copyholds were changed. But most important was a regulation of compulsory labour. This took place in several stages, but ended in the 1790s, when estate owners and farmers had to form associations that dealt with that compulsory labour. Agreements determined precisely how much compulsory labour should be provided and for what purposes. There was not necessarily less compulsory labour than before, but the estate owners could no longer demand more. In principle, the compulsory labour associations were voluntary, but the authorities intervened in cases where the parties could not come up with a solution.

In some places the estates were simply dissolved. In 1761, the copyhold farmers on the estate of Grubbesholm in West Jutland bought the estate and dissolved it, so they became freeholders and the manor’s fields were subdivided. In the course of the next 50 years a large number of estates were disbanded or dissolved throughout the country. This was the case for a number of crown estates such as the area around Kolding or North Zealand, but particularly for private estates in Central, West and North Jutland. By 1810, most estates in West Jutland, and a substantial number in North and east Jutland, had been dissolved, but only a small number on the islands. Usually the disposal of a copyhold estate was combined with a total or partial subdivision of the main farm’s lands. Few people believed that it was possible to run a large farm profitably without the use of compulsory labour.



The New Large-scale Estates


The years following the Napoleonic wars were marked by agricultural crisis, which for a time put a stop to the dissolution of estates. Farmers had neither the courage nor the money for buying. In 1835, traditional estates still accounted for about 50% of Denmark’s land, but in geographical terms the distribution was uneven. In West Jutland the estates’ manorial farms and copyhold farms accounted for less than one tenth of the land, and in West Jutland between one-quarter and one-third. Meanwhile, on Zealand, Funen and Lolland-Falster, the estates accounted for between one half and two thirds of the land.

Around 1835 the state of the market started to improve, and gradually the disposal of copyhold estates resumed. From 1851 to 1852, entailed estates were also granted permission to sell off their copyholds, and by 1885 only 7% of Denmark’s land was copyhold in the traditional sense of the word. Thereafter, things progressed slowly, but by 1919 there was virtually no more traditional copyhold land left. However, a number of estates had chosen not to sell full freeholds, but only limited freeholds, so tax still had to be paid to the estates.

But, unlike in the 18th century, this sale was not accompanied by a subdivision of the manor’s farms. Even before the copyhold estate was sold, most estates had abolished compulsory labour and replaced it with a tax. Instead, farmhands and agricultural workers, paid directly by the estates, ran the farms of a manor house. Many of them lived in houses belonging to the estates. Many estates also increased the number of large-scale farms. Even in the late 18th century in many places they had separated parts of the manor’s fields and built new, outlying farms [Danish:  afbyggergårde] or home farms. Others emerged when new land was cultivated, and in 1861 a law granted estate owners the right to have one copyhold farm at their disposal for every nine they sold. This was often used to merge 3-4 farms to form new large-scale home farms. In addition to the manor’s farm, the estates’ large farms were usually leased out for terms of years and often referred to as leased farms.

In the latter half of the 19th century, in many places woodland area also underwent new cultivation, and the forests the esates’ already owned were run more sustainably, so they made a much greater contribution to the estate’s finances.

The development actually removed the basis of the old meaning of “manor house” and “estate”, since the manor houses no longer had different rights and functions from those of other large farms, and copyholds were a thing of the past. But the words survived. Subsequently “manor house” referred mainly to farms, which had either been manor houses for centuries or were still distinguished by the size of their buildings and land, while “estate” meant a single property consisting of several large farms or simply a (very) large farm.



Abolition of Entailed Estates, Taxes and Tractors


The final heyday of manor houses and estates ended in 1919. By law the few remaining copyhold farms became freeholds. More important, though, was the abolition of entailed estates, which meant that 75 counts’ estates, baronies and entailed estates were abolished and had to relinquish significant areas of land for subdivision. In the course of the following twenty years the estates experienced tougher conditions. Economically, times were worse and taxes were increasing: particularly inheritance tax, which made the generational handover more difficult. In the following years, many estates were no longer owned by the original families. The estates’ total land also reduced in size. Not only was part of the land subdivided as a result of the abolition of entailed estates, but the state also purchased other land and subdivided it.

World War II slowed down the decline of the estates, because large-scale agriculture in particular earned good money during the occupation. Following World War II taxes rose again, but a new factor emerged, which initially seemed a blessing, but in practice was to reduce the importance of the estates. This was the technical development in the symbolic form of the tractor, which now replaced horses. This meant that large properties could be run by fewer people, and it made agricultural products cheaper in terms of people’s average incomes in society. Things have been the same ever since. In 1950, you could pay a farm worker’s annual salary with about 100 barrels of grain, which corresponded to the harvest of about two hectares. Although the crop yield has just about doubled, today a worker’s annual salary corresponds more to the gross yield of 30 hectares, given that the price of grain has never doubled, while salaries are at least 50-60 times higher. In socio-economic terms, an unchanged area is thus worth fifteen times less: in fact, even less, since the vast majority of estates no longer keep animals.

Until the end of the 20th century, the manor farms and estates, which had not been subdivided, still surpassed the typical farm. Since then the structural development has progressed so quickly that an ordinary manor farm, in terms of cultivated land, is no bigger than many other full-time farms. Apart from the very largest estates, the remaining estates and manor houses no longer have an elevated position on the basis of their size as farms, but only on the basis of their history and buildings.