Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 2

Origin of the English Land System

Origin of the English Land System.

In England, as in most parts of the Continent,

Origin of the English Land System.

there existed, prior to the feudal system, a very different state of things to that since brought about. In Saxon times England was undoubtedly a country of very numerous landowners: they consisted of "eorls," or larger owners, who held under the Crown, and "ceorls," a very numerous class, tilling the land they owned, and answering to the modern class of yeomen, "the root," as Hallam says, "of a noble plant, the free-soccage tenants, or English yeomanry, whose independence stamped with peculiar features both our constitution and our national character." These two classes owned the cultivated land; beyond were the common lands and forests, then called "folk land," the land of the people, the property of which was vested in the village community, and where the villagers had the right to turn out their cattle, dig their turf, or cut firewood. The property laws of these people were not different from those now prevailing among our colonists. There was equal division of land upon death among the children; the power of alienation and of willing was fully conceded; there was a public register of all deeds page 60

Origin of the English Land System.

affecting land; alienation was simple and public. These distinctive features of the Anglo-Saxon land laws were swept away after the Conquest; In their place was introduced the feudal system of land tenure, with its web of relations between the sovereign, the nobles, the knights, the villeins, and the serfs. The greater part of the land of England was confiscated after the battle of Hastings, and was granted out by the Conqueror to his military chiefs. These chiefs or lords again, on their part, granted portions of the lordships thus confided to them to their principal knights and retainers below them, to be held on the condition of military service.
Some of the Saxon landowners survived this process of confiscation, and were brought under the system as free tenants of feudal superiors subject only to military service. Much greater numbers were relegated to the position of villeins in the feudal system, a position under which they continued to cultivate their lands for their own use, but subject to dues and services, mostly of a personal or agricultural character, to their lords, and were considered to have no rights as against such superiors. Below these was the class of serfs, or slaves, without any rights of property, the mere menial servants of their lords and masters. The feudal system being of military origin, founded on conquest and maintained against internal difficulties and foreign foes by force, had necessitated the page 61 maintenance of military commands, or fiefs, in

Origin of the English Land System.

strong hands; the principle of primogeniture, therefore, by which the fief was inherited by the eldest male descendant was also a necessity; and equally opposed to the system was the power of alienation, without the consent at least of the superior lord.

The general state of England, then, shortly after the Conquest, was this. The country was divided into a great number of separate lordships or manors. The lord of each manor cultivated a portion of the land, entitled his demesne, by himself or by his bailiff, partly by the assistance of the villeins or small farmers of his manor, who were bound to render him service—some of so many days' labour, and others of so many days of team work—and partly by the labour of serfs or slaves. The common lands, or wastes, were appropriated in a sense by the lords, but subject to the rights of the freehold and other tenants of the manor to turn out their cattle or dig their turf there.

Other portions of the land within the manor were owned by free tenants, who owed only military service, or in many cases fixed rents, to their superior lord, and who in every other sense were independent owners of their holdings. The remaining lands of the manor were held and cultivated by the class of villeins. Many of them had originally been owners of their lands, but by commendation page 62

Origin of the English Land System.

or confiscation they had been completely subjected to the will of their feudal lords, and had lost all rights as against them. In theory and often in practice they were completely at the mercy of their lords, "taillable et corváable sans merci ni misáricorde" (subject to dues and burthens without mercy or pity), as the old lawyers describe them; they were, however, rarely or never disturbed in the occupation of their lands. They were allowed to alienate them with the consent of their lords, and to bequeath them to their children; and for a time at least the old Saxon principle of equal division among such children on death of the owner without a will was preserved. In those days the number of retainers a lord could muster was a source of power and strength to him. He had no object then in dispossessing the tenants of his manor, neither did he undertake for them any of the duties which pertain to the modern landlord, of building houses for his tenants or improving their land; when, therefore, the country became more settled and the lawyers began to study the Roman law, they drew principles from it which recognised the right of such tenants to what we should now call fixity of tenure, a right to continue in possession of their holdings upon payment of the customary dues, services, rents, or fines, and no longer to be merely tenants at the will of their lord.
Certain it is, that between the time of the page 63 Conqueror and of Edward the Third these villeins

Origin of the English Land System.

acquired a clear and absolute right to their holdings, and as tenants on the Roll of the Manor, or; copyholders, have ever since been recognised as having an interest scarcely inferior to that of freeholders. And it is this body of small owners who constituted a large proportion of the small proprietors, who at one time were the boast of this country.
Domesday Book, the most valuable record of the state of landownership and of the relation of various classes of a population which any country has ever possessed, informs us that about twenty years after the Conquest the number of lords of manors holding directly from the Crown or indirectly from some superior lord, was 9,271; that the number of freeholders holding under these lords of manors by military service was 13,700; and that the number of freemen holding from lords of manors by fixed or determined rent service, was 30,831, a total of 53,802 freeholders. The number of villeins, as distinguished from burgesses and serfs, and who were therefore occupiers of land in rural districts, is stated to have been 108,407. The four northern counties and Wales, comprising one-fifth of the country, were not included in Domesday. Adding one-fifth then to the number, there must at this time have been not short of 200,000 heads of families interested in the soil either as freeholders or villeins. The relation of landlord page 64

Origin of the English Land System.

and tenant, such as we now know it, did not exist. There is little trace of land having been let on lease to farmers before the reign of Edward I. The principle of primogeniture did not in these early times apply to any property but fiefs, or lands held under fiefs by military service; it did not apply to that freehold property known as free-soccage land, which had escaped confiscation at the Conquest, nor did it apply to the property of villeins. It is clear, then, that between the date of Domesday and the time of Edward III. there must have been a great increase in the number of persons who had an absolute right in the soil of their native country. Certain it is, that Sir John Fortescue, writing in the time of Henry VI., about a hundred years later, speaks of the number of its freeholders being one of the chief boasts of England of his day. He adds, that although there were some noblemen of great estates, yet that between these estates there were great numbers of small freeholders. The number of parish churches, the entries in old registries, and many other indications, point to the fact of England being, before the Black Death, very thickly populated in its rural districts. And Professor Rogers, who has investigated many old records and manorial lists of the fourteenth century, has found that the land was greatly subdivided, and that most of the regular farm-servants of that time were owners of land.

It would be interesting to trace, through

page 65
succeeding periods, the gradual reduction of this

Origin of the English Land System.

element of English life. Statistics are at no period to be obtained, so that anything like an accurate tracing of the decline is impossible.

It is worthy of notice, however, that, unlike most other countries in Europe, where the principle of primogeniture was confined to feudal fiefs and lord-ships of manors or to the property of the nobility, and was not applied to the property of inferior classes, in England this principle came to be applied to every species of landed property and to all classes of landowners, however small. It was probably extended to copyhold property about the time of Henry III.