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Manorial Records 3 Copyhold Tenure

III. Copyhold tenure

`Tenure' is the mode of holding land (i.e. how land is held) and is the direct result and a basic doctrine of feudalism, the structure of social organisation which developed from the 11th century based on dependent land holding in return for services rendered. In the feudal system, all land was held of some superior and ultimately of the Sovereign (the only `owner' technically). The Sovereign had parcelled land out, in the form of manors, to tenants (`in chief') who in turn granted portions to lesser tenants and so on down, each tenant owing various specified services, according to his particular tenure, to his immediate superior; thus the feudal structure developed.

In the early medieval period, an important distinction existed between `free' and `unfree' tenures. Land held by unfree (also called base, servile or villein) tenure was strictly land forming part of a manor held simply `at the will of the lord'. Unlike a tenant holding land by a free tenure (a `freeholder'), an `unfree' tenant had no security of tenure. He could be ejected at the will of the lord, his title was not protected by the Royal Courts (on the grounds that he lay solely within the jurisdiction of his manorial lord), and he could not convey land without the lord's consent. Unfree tenure afforded a very unstable and insecure title to land. Furthermore, the villein's life was regulated by the manorial court. The terms and obligations of his tenure would be settled by the court which would also deal with any failure to render due services, consider applications to sublet or exchange lands, and impose customary payments on the villein for permission to live away from the manor (chevage), for his daughter's marriage (merchet) etc.

Yet, by the sixteenth century, the status of villeins had changed dramatically as a result of social and economic developments, the intervention of the courts to protect villein tenants and the growing acknowledgement of custom as having a secure place in law. Tenure in villeinage had become a newly recognised secure form of tenure: tenure by copy of court roll `at the will of the lord according to the custom of the manor' independent of the will of the lord in everything but name. Copy holders, as such tenants became known, were as well protected as freeholders. The copyholder's title derived from the details recorded on the Manorial Court Roll of which he held a certified extracted `copy'. The Court Rolls thus effectively registered the copyholder's title, an advantage unavailable to freeholders until much later. Copyhold estate had to be parcel of a manor and its existence required a manor and a manor court. Furthermore, because it was founded on custom immemorial (derived from villeinage), it could not be newly created.

After reform in 1660 only one freehold or `free' tenure survived. Copyhold or customary tenure, with its peculiar and varied administrative procedures or customs (general and particular) and `incidents' (liabilities and obligations of tenure), was retained as the only other recognised tenure. Still administered by the Manorial Court Baron and dependent on local custom it was, however, the subject of a growing body of case law and legal definition and, despite its often idiosyncratic nature, could be freely bought and sold, mortgaged, settled, sub-let, and otherwise conveyed. By the late 18th century copyhold tenure was the mainstay of the manorial court and seen as ripe for reform and much copyhold land had already been assimilated to freeholds. A series of Copyhold Acts in the 1840s encouraged voluntary enfranchisement (turning copyhold into freehold) and further 19th century Acts enabled compulsory enfranchisement. By this time a great deal of court business was transacted privately in the offices of solicitor-stewards, manorial courts meeting infrequently if at all. By the Law of Property Act 1922 all copyhold land was converted into land of freehold tenure.

The system of succession to copyhold land was, in simple terms, as follows. Upon a copyholder's death, his estate owed a heriot to the lord of the manor, usually the dead person's best beast or a fixed sum instead. At the next court after the death, the homage would present (i.e. report) the death and make a proclamation for the heir, defined by local custom, to come forward and be `admitted' to the land upon payment of the heriot and an entry fine (an `arbitrary' but `reasonable' sum fixed by custom). The heir would be admitted `by the rod' (a billet of wood or other ceremonial object placed in his hands, usually by the steward) and by this ritual would, take seisin (possession) of the land. After doing fealty (making oath of fidelity and allegiance to the Lord of the Manor, often `respited' indefinitely) and promising to pay the accustomed annual rent (usually a small fixed sum) and perform `services' (usually insignificant after the 16th century), the succession was complete and the heir became the copyholder.

Conveyances of copyhold land took the form of Surrender (grant) and Admission or Admittance (re-grant). A copyholder, however he acquired his land (e.g. by will, inheritance, purchase etc.), had to be admitted to it by the Lord of the Manor (and had to surrender it to the Lord of the Manor if he wished to sell it). In spite of varying customs a uniform standard of procedure developed at courts and copyhold transactions as recorded in Court Rolls are as stereotyped as conveyances involving freehold lands. Nevertheless, although the general pattern remained constant, considerable differences in customs and practices are to be found between manors. Often, Court Rolls are indexed (either in each book or in a separate index for a series of books) by the personal names of surrenderors and admittees especially after the 16th century when Rolls are often kept in book form. Succession of copyholders and the land which they held are often traceable for centuries using indexes.

The structure and format of clauses in conveyances involving copyhold land is as stereotyped as that of freehold `title deeds'. The main difference in form is that copyhold conveyances are always the record of the proceedings of a Court. Thus they almost invariably begin with a heading recording the name of the court, the Lord of the Manor, the date and regnal year, and the name of the steward. They are then as structured as title deeds of freehold lands except that the Court procedure (as explained above) is detailed and conditions much of the formal wording (e.g. the recitals, which refer to earlier relevant transactions involving the land, take the form of `presentments'). The `parcels', the section describing the land, give as much topographical detail as freehold instruments and also name occupiers (sub- tenants) past and present of houses and fields involved; occupiers, incidentally, are not indexed in the Rolls.


At the Bedfordshire & Luton Archives most transactions involving copyhold land are to be found by using deposited Manorial Court Rolls which are indexed alphabetically by the parish within which the manor lay. A sub-section of the Manors index does exist however for `copies' (copyhold conveyances extracted from Court Rolls for
Bedfordshire Manors) which have usually been deposited as `title deeds'.