Ancient Tenures

By England Howlett

Practically all the landed property in England is, by the policy of our laws, supposed to be granted by, dependent upon, and holden of some superior lord, in consideration of certain services to be rendered to such lord by the possessor of this property, and the terms or manner of their possession is therefore called a tenure. Thus all the land in the kingdom is supposed to be held, mediately or immediately, of the sovereign who is consequently styled the lord or lady paramount.

All tenures being thus derived, or supposed to be derived, from the sovereign, those who held directly under such sovereign, and in right of the crown and dignity, were called tenants in capite, or in chief, which was the most honourable species of tenure, although at the same time it subjected the tenants to far greater and more burthensome services than the inferior tenures did, and this distinction ran through all the different sorts of tenure. William I., and other feudal sovereigns, although they made large and numerous grants of land, always reserved a rent or certain annual payments, which were collected by the sheriffs of the counties in which the lands lay, to show that they still retained the dominium directum in themselves.

With our ancestors the most honourable and highly esteemed species of tenure was that by knight service, and this was purely and entirely a military tenure, being, in fact, the result of the feudal establishment in England. Now to make a tenure by knight service, a determinate quantity of land was necessary, which was called a knight’s fee, feodum militare; the measure of which in 3 Edward I., was estimated at twelve ploughlands, and its value (although it varied with the times) in the reigns of Edward I. and Edward II. was stated at £20 per annum. The knight who held this proportion of land was bound to attend his lord to the wars for forty days in every year, if called upon so to do, which attendance was his rent or service for the land he claimed to hold. If, however, he held only half a knight’s fee, he was only bound to attend his lord twenty days, and so on in proportion. This tenure of knight service drew with it several consequences as inseparably incident to the tenure in chivalry, and one of the most profitable, and, at the same time, arbitrary of these was marriage. This incident called marriage was the right which the lord possessed of disposing of his infant wards in matrimony, at their peril of forfeiting to him, in case of their refusing a suitable match, a sum of money equal to the value of the marriage; that is, what the suitor was willing to pay down to the lord as the price of marrying his ward; and double the market value was to be forfeited, if the ward presumed to marry without the consent of the lord.

The personal attendance rendered necessary by knight service growing troublesome and inconvenient in many respects, the tenants found means of compounding for it; first, by sending others in their stead, and then in process of time making a pecuniary satisfaction to the lord in lieu of it. This pecuniary satisfaction at last came to be levied by assessments at so much for every knight’s fee; the first time this appears to have been done was in 5 Henry II., on account of his expedition to Toulouse; but it soon became so universal that personal attendance fell quite into disuse. From this period we find, from our ancient histories, that when the kings went to war, they levied scutages on their tenants, that is, on all the landowners of the Kingdom, to defray their expenses, and to pay for the hire of troops.

These assessments, in the time of Henry II., seem to have been made in a most arbitrary manner, and entirely at the king’s will and pleasure. The prerogative became, indeed, abused to such an extent, that at last it became a matter of national clamour, and King John was obliged to consent by his Magna Carta, that no scutage should be imposed without the consent of Parliament. But this clause was omitted in the Charter of Henry III., where we only find that scutages, or escuage, should be taken as they were used to be taken in the time of Henry II.; that is, in a reasonable and moderate manner. Yet afterwards, by statute 25 Edward I., and many subsequent statutes, it was again provided, that the king should take no aids or tasks but by the common assent of the realm; hence it was held that scutage, or escuage, could not be levied except with the consent of Parliament; such scutages being indeed the groundwork of all succeeding subsidies, and the land tax of later times.

It will easily be seen that with the degenerating of knight service, or personal military duty into a pecuniary assessment, all the advantages were destroyed, and nothing in fact remained but the hardships. Instead of having a national militia, composed of barons, knights, and gentlemen, bound by their interests and their honour to defend the king and country, the whole system of military tenures tended to nothing else but a wretched means of raising money to pay an army of occasional mercenaries. At length the military tenures, with all their heavy appendages were destroyed at one blow by statute, 12 Charles II., C. 24, which enacts “that the courts of wards and liveries, and all wardships, liveries, primer seisins, and ousterlemains, values and forfeitures of marriage, by reason of any tenure of the king or others, be totally taken away. And that all fines for alienation, tenures by homage, knight service, and escuage, and also aids for marrying the daughter, or knighting the son, and all tenures of the king in capite, be likewise taken away. And that all sorts of tenures, held of the king or others, be turned into free and common socage; save only tenures in frank almoign, copyholds, and the honorary services of grand serjeanty.”

Another ancient tenure was that by Grand Serjeanty, whereby the tenant was bound, instead of serving the king generally in the wars, to do some special honorary service for the king in person; as to carry his banner, his sword, or the like; or to be his butler, champion, or other officer at his coronation. Tenure by cornage was a species of grand serjeanty, being a grant of land upon condition that the tenant was to wind a horn when the Scots or other enemies entered the land, in order to warn the king’s subjects.

The tenure of petit serjeanty bears a great resemblance to the tenure of grand serjeanty; for as the one is a personal service, so the other is a rent or render, both tending to some purpose relative to the king’s person. Petit serjeanty as defined by Littleton, consists in holding lands of the king, by service of rendering to him annually some small implement of war, as a bow, a sword, a lance, an arrow, or the like. This, of course, is but socage in effect, for it is no personal service, but a certain rent. The tenure by which the grants to the Duke of Marlborough and the Duke of Wellington, for their great military services to the country, are held, are of this kind, each rendering a small flag or ensign annually, which is deposited in Windsor Castle. Bury House (New Forest), the property of Sir Charles Mill, Bart., is held by the tenure of presenting the king whenever he enters the New Forest with a brace of milk-white greyhounds. A breed of these dogs is preserved by the family in readiness. King George III. received dogs in recognition of this tenure in 1789, and the incident is the subject of one of Lawrence’s pictures.

In Beckwith’s edition of Blount’s “Fragmenta Antiquitatis,” the following tenure is inserted from the “Black Book of Hereford.”—“The tenants at Hampton Bishop, in the county of Hereford, were to get yearly six horse loads of rods or wattels, in the Hay Wood, near Hereford, and bring them to Hereford to make booths (or hurdles to pen sheep in) at the fair when they should be required; and for every load of the said rods they were to be allowed a halfpenny at the fairs.”

This tenure would appear to relate to one particular fair only, and not to all the fairs formerly held at Hereford. The particular fair is supposed to have been the one beginning on May 19th, and commonly called the nine-days’ fair, from the circumstance of its continuing for that length of time. From time immemorial this fair was proclaimed, with certain formalities, by the Bishop of Hereford’s bailiff, or his deputy, the tolls of the fair belonging to one or both of these officers. During the continuance of the fair, the Bishop’s bailiff superseded the Mayor of Hereford as acting magistrate, the fair being held in a street opposite the Bishop’s palace.

Brienston, in Dorsetshire, was held in grand serjeanty by a curious jocular tenure, viz.:—by finding a man to go before the king’s army for forty days when he should make war in Scotland (some records say in Wales) bareheaded and bare-footed, in his shirt, and linen drawers, holding in one hand a bow, and in the other an arrow without feathers.[6]

The Dukes of Athol hold the Blair Athol estate by the tenure of presenting a white rose to the sovereign whenever he visits them there.

Land was frequently held by the tenure of protecting the church property in times of war. Scott tells us how the Bishop of Durham gave lands to the Danish Count, Witikind, to be held by this tenure. The story is not true, but the tenure is;

Broad lands he gave him on Tyne and Wear,
To be held of the Church by bridle and spear;
Part of Monkwearmouth, of Tynedale part,
To better his will and soften his heart.
Harold the Dauntless.
Canto i., IV.

The tenure of ancient demesne exists in those manors, and in those only, which belonged to the crown in the reigns of Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror, and in Domesday Book are called Terrœ Regis Edwardi. The tenants are freeholders and possessed certain privileges, the chief of which was a right to sue and be sued only in their lord’s court.

Another kind of ancient tenure, still subsisting, is the tenure of frankalmoign, or free alms, and this is the tenure by which the lands of the church are for the most part held. This tenure is expressly excepted from the statute, 12 Charles II., by which the other ancient tenures were destroyed. It has no peculiar incidents, the tenants not being bound even to do fealty to the lords, because, as Littleton says, the prayers and other divine services of the tenants are better for the lords than any doing of fealty. As the church is a body having perpetual existence, there is, moreover, no chance of any escheat. By this tenure almost all the monasteries and religious houses held their lands. It was an old Saxon tenure; and continued under the Norman revolution, through the great respect that was shewn to religion and religious men in ancient times. This too, no doubt, is the reason that tenants in frankalmoign were discharged from all other services except the repairing of highways, building castles, and repelling invasions; just in fact as the Druids, among the Ancient Britons, had similar privileges. The tenure being purely spiritual, the lord had no remedy for neglect by distress or otherwise, but merely a complaint to the ordinary to correct it.

One of the most interesting tenures is that of Borough English. There are a great number of manors throughout the country in which this tenure prevails; they are not however confined to one county or one district. Borough English is the right of succession of the youngest son, instead of the eldest, to real estate in case of intestacy, but the custom is not always the same; it differs in different manors. In some it is confined to the sons only, and if there should be no son the estate is shared equally amongst all the daughters. In other manors, principally Sussex, the youngest daughter inherits. Again, there are cases to be found where if there be no children, the youngest brother inherits, and in others it goes according to the rules of the common law. There are, moreover, places in which the copyhold land only is Borough English, while the freehold is held by the ordinary tenure, and in others the freehold and copyhold alike follow the Borough English custom.

The area over which this Borough English tenure prevails is an exceedingly wide one. It is found in nearly every part of Europe, except perhaps Italy and Spain—in Germany, Hungary, the Ural mountains, and in Asia as far as the borders of China. Many attempts have been made to explain the custom. Littleton suggests that the youngest son, by reason of his tender age, is not so capable as the rest of his brethren to help himself. It is possible the origin may have come to us from the Tartars, amongst whom this custom of descent to the youngest son also prevails. That nation is composed almost entirely of shepherds and herdsmen, and the elder sons, as soon as they are capable of leading a pastoral life, migrate from their father with a certain allotment of cattle, and go to seek a new habitation. And thus we find that, among many other northern nations, it was the custom for all the sons, but one, to migrate from the father, which one became his heir.

The tenure of Gavelkind prevails principally in the County of Kent. It is universally known what struggles the Kentish men made to preserve their ancient liberties, and with how much success those struggles were attended. It seems fair therefore, to conclude that this custom was a part of those liberties, agreeably to the general opinion, that Gavelkind, before the Norman Conquest, was the general custom of the realm. The distinguishing properties of this tenure are various; some of the principal are these: 1. The tenant is of age sufficient to alienate his estate by feoffment at the age of fifteen. 2. There never was any escheat in case of an attainder and execution for felony; their maxim being “the father to the bough, the son to the plough.” 3. In most places, the tenant had the power of devising his lands by will, before the statute for that purpose was made. 4. The lands descend not to the eldest, youngest, or any one son only, but to all the sons together. This last incident is, of course, the most important affecting the tenure, and not only this, but also the most interesting, in that, like Borough English, it prevails to the present day. True it is that certain lands in Kent, once Gavelkind, have been made descendable according to the rules of the common law, by special statutes; however, these statutes only affect a very small portion of the county.

Gavelkind and Borough English, being customs already acknowledged by the law, need not be specially pleaded; it is sufficient to show that the lands are affected and regulated by the same; but all other private customs must be pleaded.

The ancient Barons of Buccleuch, both from feudal splendour and from their frontier situation, retained in their household at Branksome a number of gentlemen of their own name, who held lands from their chief for the military service of watching and guarding his castle.

Nine and twenty knights of fame
Hung their shields in Branksome Hall
Nine and twenty squires of name
Brought them their steeds from bower to stall.
Nine and twenty yeomen tall
Waited duteous on them all.
They were all knights of metal true,
Kinsmen to the bold Buccleuch.
“Lay of the Last Minstrel.”—Scott.
Canto i., III.