England Land Tenure (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Land and Property Records including Manorial Documents and Maps  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Holding And Tenancy Of Land[edit | edit source]

In Britain all land is ultimately owned by the crown, by right of conquest by William I, but over the years most has been given, sold or granted with an effective right of freehold to private individuals or public bodies. It is a surprise to some that land registration schemes have been rare and are still incomplete. There was also a complex variety of ways in which land could be passed from parent to child—whether by manorial custom, marriage or other settlement, by will or by common law.

In feudal times the person holding the land from the king, usually in return for some kind of service, was known as the tenant-in-chief and others sub-leased from him for service or rent in kind. There have been many types of tenure (the way in which land is held by one person from another), the main ones are:

  • Freehold—property held freely and for ever, similar to today’s ownership.
  • Leasehold—Property held by a lease from a freeholder for a given time period.
  • Copyhold—Property held as part of a manor, the tenant’s legal title being based on his copy of the entry in the manor court record.

Several other minor types of tenure are noted below.

Types of Tenure[edit | edit source]

Ancient Demesne[edit | edit source]

Tenants on ancient demesne (land belonging to the crown before Domesday) were exempt from the jurisdiction of the shire reeve and not liable to serve on inquests and juries outside the manor. They were free from taxes for upkeep of roads and bridges, and from market tolls. This type of tenure was abolished in 1925.

Burgage/Burgess Tenure[edit | edit source]

A tenure in an ancient borough which was held of the crown or the lords of the borough, and subject to the customary rents and services of that borough. The nominal rent, called a land-gable, made him free (quit) of all other services.

Copyhold[edit | edit source]

(Tenancy by Copy, Tenancy by the Verge)
Tenure protected by title written into the manor court roll, of which he was provided with a copy (hence the name). The tenure was transferred by first surrendering it to the lord who held the fee simple, and then the new tenant paid a fine (often quite hefty) to be admitted to the copyhold, but the annual rent would be nominal. Copyholders of lands worth £10 or more were liable for jury service as were freeholders (qv).

Since the 17th century, at least, copyhold could not be newly created. Thus if the tenure changed from copyhold to either leasehold or freehold then the copyhold was extinguished and the land was now enfranchised and could not be copyhold again. As the actual value of the rents decreased over time landlords were keen to replace copyhold with the more lucrative leasehold system so there was a steady replacement from the 16th century. Enfranchisement of copyhold lands was made easier from 1841 and this type of land tenure was abolished in 1922 when all copyhold lands were made freehold.

Cottier[edit | edit source]

An annual tenure of land let directly to a labourer making the highest bid for it.

Customary Freehold[edit | edit source]

(Frank Tenure)
Tenure where land was held by custom and not by will of the lord—a position between copyhold and freehold.

Encroachment[edit | edit source]

From ancient times people have taken in parts of the wastelands into their own holdings, the lord of the manor adding to his income by taking a fine and annual rent for doing so of-course! Some of my relatives were fined for doing just this in Kent—see section on the Browns of Southborough. Where there were plentiful common lands such encroachment was not a problem for the parish, but manorial records show disputes when newcomers to the area encroached, or where lands were valuable for mining of lead and coal.

Enfranchisement of Land[edit | edit source]

From 1841 copyhold tenants were allowed to enfranchise their lands, that is to convert from copyhold to freehold, and such enfranchisement was made compulsory during the period 1922-6.

Freehold[edit | edit source]

(Frank Tenement, Freeland)
Tenure of land not subject to the customs of the manor or will of the lord, as were copyhold and leasehold. Freehold land was originally held either in:

  • Knight service, that is military service involving bringing arms, armour and a horse for 40 days active service per year. This was gradually commuted to monetary payments and abolished in 1662 after the Restoration.
  • Socage, a money rent.

Freehold land could be bought, sold or bequeathed without any restriction if it was held in fee simple, but if it was entailed, (held in fee tail or fee conditional), to a succession of heirs then sale was disallowed.

Those holding freehold property worth at least 40 shillings (£2) a year, and aged 21-70 were able to vote in both local and parliamentary elections. From 1696 they were also eligible for jury service at Assizes, Quarter Sessions etc. and thus parish lists of such forty shilling freeholders were drawn up, with the value of the estate and where it lay, and sometimes age and occupation, and with addresses included from 1832. Such records are kept with Quarter Session papers at county archives, and an example is shown below.

Chart: Essex Freeholders Book 1734

Extracts from transcript by Emmison 1982
Essex CRO Q/RJ 1/1
Alphabetical by hundred and parish, giving name, age, value of estate and where it is located.

Parish of Bassildon
Thomas WATTS about 50, £20 in Ramsden Bellhouse Abraham BENNINGTON, about 40, £20 in Great Burstead
Parish of North Benfleet
Francis CLERK Ll.D. age 47, £15 in Debden
Parish of South Benfleet Peter SMITH, 22, £60 in Benfleet
John BREWETT, 40, £10 in Benfleet
James HICKWEED, 50, £12 in Benfleet
John LOWRY, 32, £10 in Benfleet
Samuel JAMES, 22, £10 in Benfleet


Parish of Aldham Robert LAY, gent., 50, £100 in Great Tey
John HIGBEE, maltster, 26, £25 in Aldham
Argor NEGUS, 35, £25 in Aldham
Wm DICKENSON, 23, £12 in Aldham
Parish of Earls Colne
Thomas ANGIER, gent., 60, £60 in Essex
John HATCH, yeoman, 50, £30 in Essex
John BATT, blacksmith, 60, £12 in Essex George WALL, saymaker, 40, £10 in Essex
John COOK senior, yeoman, 55, £10 in Essex
Parish of Little Coggeshall
Thomas BRIDGE, gent., 40, £100 in Great Coggeshall
Francis BOBINSON, miller, 40, £20 in Chelmsford
George BRETT, yeoman, 40, £15 in Little Coggeshall
Jeremy SKINGLEY, yeoman, 30, £16 in Little Coggeshall

Knight Service or Fee[edit | edit source]

Prior to 1660 some land was held in chief of the crown by knight service. Originally this meant that the land was held in return for military service, including:

  • Active service in the field if called upon, for 40 days a year, supplying horse, arms, and armour.
  • Castle ward, that is guard duty at his immediate lord’s chief castle for a certain number of days a year.
  • A relief (fee) paid on succeeding to his land.
  • Wardship, whereby a minor who inherits became a ward of his lord, the lord receiving the profit from his land until he came of age.
  • Marriage, which is the control by the lord of who a minor, heiress or widow married (this right could be sold).

A man might hold land for one, a number, or a fraction of a knight’s fee, the latter being paid in money. Larger landowners sub-infeuded some of their manors to lesser men for lesser knights fees.

Leasehold[edit | edit source]

Tenure of land held by a lease either for a fixed number of years (usually a multiple of seven) or for a certain number of stated lives. When one of the lives died a fee could be paid to insert a new name into the lease.

Long-term leaseholders of lands worth £20 or more were entered on jury lists from 1730 (see freeholders).

Quit Rent[edit | edit source]

A fixed annual rent which released a manorial or burgage (town copyhold) tenant from manorial service. It is not the same as a peppercorn rent (a very low rent), and quit rent was only abolished in 1922. In the accounts for the manor of Tillingham, Essex about 1660 FHL film 1593870 the following item appears:

Chart: Quit Rents

For Quitt rents in arrears out of the lands and tenements houlden of the Mannour of Tillingham which were of late Estate of Gregory Baker Esq. deceased, recd the fives Court hee kept for which bond was given to bee paid Mr. Bigg or Jeames Noble, and paid to Noble.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Land and Property Records including Manorial Documents and Maps offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.