Ancient Land Tenures
Bill Long 12/23/04
A Humorous Look at a Serious Subject
Littleton's classic Tenures (1480), celebrated by Coke's Commentary in vol. 1 of his Institutes, was a heavy and weighty tome. In sections 95-171 of his work, Littleton adopted a classificatory scheme of land-holding in common law England according to the following six categories: (1) Knight's Service; (2) Scutage (payment of money in lieu of serving the lord as knight); (3) Grand Serjeanty (holding of land in return for a personal service); (4) Frankalmoin (grant of land with an obligation to perform spiritual services; (5) Frankmarriage; and (6) Socage Tenure (the residual category). A more modern categorization appears in Daniel Coquillette's The Anglo-American Legal Heritage, where he divides tenure into free and unfree tenures, with the former divided into Knight service or Scutage (military), and socage, frankalmoign and burgage (non-military) and the latter consisting of villeinage (p. 96).
Most scholars argue that tenure originally had to do with rendering some kind of military service for the lord in exchange for the right to till ground and keep the fruit of one's labor. However, when this more military concept of tenure began to fade (when mercenaries were perceived to be more reliable), then the emphasis shifted to various payments to be made to the lord or services that might be rendered to the King in exchange for taking care of land. The services could be quite varied, as this essay and the next will show.
With all the serious attention to groupings and descriptions in scholars from Littleton to Coquillette (1999), it was not unexpected that someone would have come up with a book describing some of the more ludicrous services that one might have to provide in exchange for the privilege of cultivating and living off land. Thomas Blount, a wealthy but seemingly underemployed lawyer of the mid-17th century, put together a collection of stories and tenure duties from a variety of sources in his Ancient Tenures, published first in 1679 and then reissued, corrected and improved in 1784, 1815 and 1874. This and the next mini-essays give some samples of the tenures and other customs provided by Blount in his book.
Blount's Ancient Tenures
Actually the official name of his work was Fragmenta Antiquitatis or Jocular Tenures. In the preface to the 1679 edition he states it this way:
"Whilst I was perusing many of our both public and private records for other ends, I thought a small collection of some remarkable Tenures of land, and unusual Customs of some Manors, might not be unacceptable to the studious, who, when weary with poring upon Littleton's Tenures, and his learned Commentator (i.e., Coke), might relaxere fibulam by recurring to these, and smile at the inoffensive mirth, both of our kings, in former times, and lords of manors....."
Thus, Blount wants to tell the story of both customs and tenures. In this regard his work, though "jocular," is a sort of armchair anthropology of the English people.
For example, he gives the "ancient custom" of Ardley or Yardley, County of Hertford, that if "any tenant died seised of any copyhold land, held hereof without heir male, and leave two, three, or more daughters or sisters, the eldest daughter or sister shall be the sole heir...and the other daughters or sisters shall have no part thereof." This is in contrast to what we were taught in property law that if daughters only were the fruit of a marriage, they would inherit jointly as coparceners. What can you say? Interesting.
Another custom, from Congresbury in the County of Somerset, describes what the people do "on the Saturday before Old Midsummer." The several proprietors of estates in a few parishes of the town assemble on the commons. There are two large parcels of common land, which are divided into single acres, and each bears a different mark in the turf, such as a horn, four oxen and a mare, two oxen, etc. When they have gathered a number of apples are prepared, marked in the same manner as the commons, that are distributed by a young lad to each of the people on the commons. Then the following happens:
"At the close of the distribution, each person repairs to his allotment, as his apple directs him, and take possession for the ensuing year."
The people conclude the ritual with a party which is "so congenial to the soul of a Somersetshire yeoman."
Examples of Tenure
Many of the examples Blount provides are of what one might call "typical" or "normal" service. One such is from Bainton, County of York, where in the second year of Edward II (1308), a certain Peter de Mauley was "found to be seized by the manor of Bainton, with the advowson [right in law of presenting a nominee to a vacant ecclesiastical benefice] of the church, by the service of finding two knights and four esquires in the King's army for forty days in the time of war..." This is the standard "knight's service" where some kind of privilege (in this case the advowson) is "paid for" by providing military service for the lord.
One example, to complete this mini-essay, illustrating a more "service" approach to the lord or King is an amusing story from Ashby-Marsh in the County of Northampton. Henry de Greene acknowledged himself to "hold one messuage, one pigeon-house, thirty-six acres of land, six acres of wood and fifty-six shillings rent [I suppose he received the rent] of the King in capite (the King as chief or head lord). What service did Mr. de Greene have to perform for the privilege of this fairly considerable holding? He performed "the service of lifting up his right hand yearly on Christmas Day towards the King, wheresoever he (the King) shall be in England." I guess very few could object to service like that!
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R.Long