Denmark: Copyhold / Copyholder

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A copyholder was a farmer, who had a contract for a copyhold- farm. The condition of the contract became binding, when the copyhold-contract was paid. If the copyholder honored the conditions in the contract, the landowner could not cancel the copyhold during the lifespan of the farmer and his widow. The common description of a copyholder was hovbonde.

Condition of ownership

Copyhold farms could be owned by a landed proprietor, by the king (state) or the church. Conditions of the copyhold were regulated by extensive laws. The landowner therefore did not have free range make decisions regarding the taxable farm land. The government wanted to avoid unproductive farms. Therefore the landowner was required to find a new copyholder, when the farmer (or his widow) died. Only in case of unusual circumstances could the landowner receive permission to abolish a copyhold.

Titles of copyholders

Depending on the size of the copyhold farm the copyholder had various titles:

  • Gårdfæster (Farmer) if the farm production consisted of 3-11 units of hartkorn (A Danish unit of land valuation)
  • Fæsteboelsmand (Copyholder) if the farm production was less than 3 units of hartkorn.
  • Fæstehusmand (Cottage-copyholder) for the very small farms,

Copyholders contributions

The copyholder should pay taxes to the landowner. In addition he was required to perform drudgery (required work for the landed proprietor). It was from this that the popular expression hovbonde originated.

Like independent farmers the copyholders also paid tithing and offerings to the church as well as various taxes to the state. It was the landed proprietor that had the responsibility, to make sure taxes to the state were paid. If a copyholder could not pay the required taxes, then the landed proprietor had to pay on his behalf, and be repaid when the copyholder was able to pay. This meant that copyholders easily became indebted to the landed proprietor.

Copyholders personal rights

In countries with serfdom the landowner had a certain ownership of the farmers. (This applied in Russia until 1861.) Serfdom did not exist as such in Denmark. Here the farmers in principle had personal freedom. The freedom was however limited.

From 1702 vornedskabet was abolished on the sjællandske islands. Later in the 1700 adscription (Stavnsbåndet) was established throughout the country. Adscription meant that certain age groups of men and boys could not move away from their estate. Adscription was officially established so that the landed proprietors would have available copyholders to occupy vacant copy farms, and also for the purpose of providing a sufficient number of soldiers for the military.

Adscription (Stavnsbåndet) did not mean much to the copyholder. He seldom had any interest in leaving his farm. In contrast, the adscription gave the landed proprietor and the bailiff great power over the unmarried copyholder sons. Landed proprietors could enroll the copyholder sons to be soldiers or force them to take over a neglected copy farm.

Initially, the landed proprietor had large influence on the administration of justice. Either because he was the judge, or because the judicial district judge or the district-bailiff were dependent upon the landed proprietor. The larger law cases could be appealed to independent judgment seats.

The landed proprietors power in everyday life was limited because the villages were self governing, and because the copyholder was the head of his household.


When a copyhold farm was vacant, it was often taken over by a son or son-in-law of the original copyholder. The landed proprietor could however decide to give the farm to a stranger.

To avoid the uncertainty this situation created, copyhold was introduced on state property. This resulted in the fact that the royal copyholder could be assured that the improvements he made on his farm, would benefit his own posterity.

The origin of the copyhold system

During the Viking period, the farmers were independent. The copyhold system is believed to have its origin in connection with the abolition of slavery in the 1100 and 1200's. Many of the freed slaves could have become copyholders under their former rulers.

During the turbulent years at the end of the middle ages many former independent farmers became copyholders. The copyhold system became the common form of ownership in Danish farming.

Elimination of copyhold system

The dissolution of adscription in 1788 was the first step to establish independent ownership as the common ownership format in farming. The development happened at different pace throughout the country. Elimination of the copyhold system was hindered by the Napoleonic Wars and the farm crisis in the 1820’s.

In the 1840’s, 5 out of 6 of farmers in Holbæk County were still copyholders. The demand for elimination of the copyhold system was raised politically by Friends of Farmers.

The party was unsuccessful in getting their demands into the Constitution of 1849. In contrast, a law was established in the 1850’s which enabled the landed proprietors to voluntarily sell their copyhold farms. For every 9 copyhold farms that a landed proprietor sold, he could claim the 10th farm directly as part of his estate.

Even though the development was slow, the copyholders succeeded on the smaller estates to become independent. On the larger estates (counts and lords), nothing happened until after the First World War.

In 1919 Parliament established a law regarding elimination of counts and lords. In 1922 the Supreme Court ruled the counts and lords as it were in the case of the smaller landed proprietors, without charge, could keep every 10th of the prior copyhold farms. This became law in 1925, and the old copyhold system disappeared.

Tenant and state smallholders

All farmers however did not become owners of their property. The rectories and a few other farms became tenant farms. In addition there was established several state smallholdings on the state properties.


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