In the medieval period the barony of Dunham Massey extended over a wide area of north Cheshire. In addition to Dunham Massey, Altrincham and other townships in Bowdon parish, it included Bramhall, Bredbury, Brinnington, Dukinfield, Etchells, Romiley and Werneth in Stockport parish, Godley and Newton in Mottram in Longdendale parish, Knutsford, and Kelsall in Tarvin parish. The outlying manors appear to have been lost by the sixteenth century, perhaps as early as the mid-fifteenth century when the Booth family inherited the barony. For information on the descent of the barony see the introduction to EGR3, Papers of the Booth Family. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the jurisdiction of the barony of Dunham Massey encompassed the townships of Altrincham, Ashton upon Mersey, Bollington, Bowdon, Carrington, Dunham Massey, Hale, Partington, Sale and Timperley. A court leet and view of frankpledge was held twice yearly for the barony, in April or early May and October, at which tenants of the Earls of Stamford in Agden, Ashley and Baguley also did suit and service.
In the earliest court roll, from 1403-4 (EGR2/1/3/1), the court is termed "Court of great leet for Dunham", there being separate hallmotes (or manor courts) for Dunham and Hale. Later the court was generally styled "View of frankpledge with court leet", or "Court leet and view of frankpledge", though there were variations in the terminology, as is discussed below.
There were in fact three separate sessions of the court leet, which generally met on the same day: the grand inquest of freeholders, the grand inquest for Dunham, and the grand inquest for Hale. The freeholders' inquest was held only annually, until 1701 at the autumn meeting of the court, thereafter at the spring meeting. The deaths of freeholders were recorded at this inquest and their heirs were admitted to the court. The twice-yearly Dunham and Hale inquests were attended by tenants at will, later leasehold tenants. Until 1668 the court rolls, court books and bundles of verdicts contained records of proceedings at all three inquests; thereafter the verdicts for each inquest were kept in separate bundles. Additional sessions were held to hear pleas between parties, at least until the early eighteenth century.
A separate court baron was held for the manor of Dunham Massey (see EGR2/2 below), but in practice during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the distinction between the two courts was not always rigidly maintained. Sometimes sessions of both courts may be recorded on the same roll, or the heading of a roll may be worded so ambiguously that it is unclear to which court it relates. For instance, in a court book of 1582 the heading runs: "View of frankpledge with court leet and court baron of the manor of Dunham Massey" (EGR2/1/4/11). Such cases have generally been listed with the barony records.
In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the court leet had a wide range of responsibilities concerned with the maintenance of law and order and the regulation of township affairs. The court administered the assize of bread and ale, which regulated the quality and quantity of produce sold by bakers and brewers. There were frequent presentments for affray, unlawful gaming, Sabbath-breaking, the harbouring of vagrants and women with illegitimate children (who might become chargeable on the townships) and common nuisances. In 1616 widow Massye was amerced for drying hemp above the fire in her house, "to the great danger of all neighboures houses and goodes", while in 1664 it was presented that "Mary Collen of Hale singlewoman is and hath bine a continuall setter of dissencion, and a raysor of striffe & debate amongst hir neighbours". Other presentments or orders relate to the making and repair of hedges, fences, gates and stiles, the scouring of ditches and watercourses, the cropping of trees, the making and maintenance of roads, cart lanes, footpaths and bridges, the repair of houses and farm buildings and the removal of encroachments onto highways and commons.
The court leet was also responsible for the appointment of constables and bylawmen for the townships of Dunham Massey, Agden, Ashley, Ashton upon Mersey, Bollington, Bowdon, Carrington, Hale, Partington and Timperley and of common-lookers for Seamon's Moss and Sinderland Moss. The court heard presentments by these officers, issued orders to them and fined any who failed to perform their duty satisfactorily. Among the verdicts for the Dunham grand inquest are numerous lists of constables and bylawmen sworn, particularly from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, while the verdicts for Hale grand inquest include several constables' accounts for that township.
By the 1660s the court leet had ceased to try more serious offences, such as affray, but otherwise the volume of business transacted at the court leet remained fairly constant throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During the nineteenth century, however, there was a rapid decline in the quantity and variety of business dealt with by the court. Latterly the court confined itself to minor presentments, for failure to scoure ditches for instance, and to the fining of suitors for non-attendance. 1837 appears to have been the last year in which the township officers were sworn in at the court.
During the sixteenth century the court leet was held both at Dunham Massey and at Altrincham. From the beginning of the seventeenth century the court met exclusively at Altrincham, from 1741 at the court house there. The names of the stewards of the court are recorded in the introduction to EGR2 above.