A manor house or fortified manor-house is a country house, which has historically formed the administrative centre of a manor (see Manorialism), the lowest unit of territorial organisation in the feudal system. The term is sometimes applied to relatively small country houses which belonged to gentry families, as well as to grand stately homes, particularly as a technical term for minor late medieval fortified country houses intended more for show than for defence.
Although not typically built with strong fortifications as castles were, many manor-houses were partly fortified: they were enclosed within walls or ditches that often included the farm buildings as well. Arranged for defence against robbers and thieves, it was often surrounded by a moat with drawbridge, and equipped with small gatehouses and watchtowers; but was not provided with a keep or with large towers or lofty curtain walls so as to withstand a siege. The primary feature of the manor-house was its great hall, to which subsidiary apartments were added as the lessening of feudal warfare permitted more peaceful domestic life.
By the beginning of the 16th century, manor-houses as well as small castles began to acquire the character and amenities of the residences of country gentlemen. This late 16th century transformation produced many of the smaller Renaissance châteaux of France and the numerous country mansions of the Elizabethan and Jacobean styles in England.
In France, the terms château or manoir are often used synonymously to describe a French manor-house. Maison forte is another French word to describe a strongly fortified manor-house, which might include two sets of enclosing walls and drawbridges. In the western France provinces of Brittany and Normandy, some large manors enjoyed real means of protection. The seigneurial residences of this type, just like the largest castles, often had a châtelet or logis-porche (gatehouse), a courtyard surrounded by walls sheltering the outbuildings – especially the stables, a principal house (logis principal), a chapel and a dovecote (colombier). In certain cases, the logis-porche is only a wall, in others, it is an actual house. Some of these manor-houses were surrounded by ditches (wet or dry) and some were not.
In later medieval French manor-houses, the great hall was called the salle haute or upper-hall (or "high room"). This was the hall reserved for the seigneur and where he received his high-ranking guests, and was often accessible by an external spiral staircase. It was often "open" up to the roof trusses. This larger and more finely decorated hall was usually located above the ground-floor hall or salle basse that was used to receive peasants and commoners. The salle basse was also the location of the manor court, with the steward or seigneur's seating location often marked by the presence of a crédence de justice or wall-cupboard (shelves built into the stone walls to hold documents and books associated with administration of the demesne or droit de justice). The seigneur and his family's private chambres were often located off of the upper first-floor hall, and invariably had their own fireplace (with finely decorated chimney-piece) and frequently a latrine.
In addition to having both lower and upper-halls, many French manor-houses also had partly fortified gateways, watchtowers, and enclosing walls that were fitted with arrow or gun loops for added protection. Some larger 16th century manors, such as the Château de Kerjean in Finistère, Brittany, were even outfitted with ditches and fore-works that included gun platforms for cannons. These defensive arrangements allowed maisons-fortes, and rural manors to be safe from a coup de main perpetrated by an armed band as there was so many during the troubled times of the Hundred Years War and the wars of the Holy League; but it was difficult for them to resist a siege undertaken by a regular army equipped with (siege) engines.