Copyhold Tenure what does it mean?

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Property Law
  • Copyhold Tenure what does it mean?

Copyhold Tenure what does it mean: An Englishman’s Home is His Castle?

Copyright, freehold and leasehold are quite common modern terms but when you start looking at the origins of modern British land ownership you are most likely to come across the term ‘copyholder’ or ‘copyhold tenure.’ What does it mean and why does it matter?

Land Rights are the Building Blocks of Legacy and Inheritance

Land is one of the basic building blocks of legacy and inheritance, if you can associate your family with a geographic area going beyond the start of the BMD (Births Marriages and Deaths) registers then it is well-worth exploring whether under the family name you can trace any old land rights. when you begin to look into the history of land rights you will see that what we know as the Land Registry  first offices opened , at 34 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, on 15 October 1862. So what happened prior to that date?

Originally assume that very few private individuals owned any land and that the bulk was held by the Monarch of the Day, the Church and a small group of aristocratic and gentrified families who were favoured and subsequently endowed with land by the Monarch of the day. Now obviously today freehold is held by many people, but historically from feudal and ecclesiastical domination to private ownership how did this evolve?

Even today in mainstream Europe, private freehold ownership is not as socially important and widespread as it is in Britain? So what is different about the British, more of that later.

Copyhold Evolved from the Serfdom based System of Manorial Land rights

Copyhold Tenure was a form of Manorial land rights which evolved from the system of Serfdom ( a system where a condition of servitude was legally required of more than approximately half of the rural English population during the 13th and 14th centuries) that existed in Medieval England. The service obligations of the serfs or ‘villeins’ were more or less set and limited by law or custom. Often taking the form of allowing the ‘serf’ the rights to work a small-holding a ‘Hide’ in return for the payment of rent and labour services, originally in kind and subsequently in payment of rent and Tithes. Serfs had not right of appeal or hearing in the monarchs royal courts and were only protected by the law of their Lord and customs of his Manor, known as the ‘Manorial Court.’ Serfs had different regional names including bondman, neyfs and betaghs. It was always possible to be granted the rights of a freeman or ‘free tenant’ but this would be by the grace and favour of their manorial lord. Unfree manorial tenants could not transfer their land interest without their express lords’ consent..


Emergence of Copyhold Tenure after the Black Death reflects the Increasing Power of the Common Man as Labour was in Short Supply

Changes in Supply and Demand of Labour as a Result of Plague and Black Death: in the late 14th century with the decimation of the population not only in the towns but across the working rural population the supply of labour also had reduced and enabled men to start to move freely and seek labour elsewhere for better terms with other lords or to negotiate better terms with their existing. It was in 1351 that the Statute of Labourers was enacted as the net result of the creation of a market-led economy was biting deep into the pockets of the ruling Lords. But in between and with the awakening of the sleeping working classes, the demand for better terms and a life began to change the system into which they had previously been virtually enslaved. In this period we also see the Peasants Revolt in 1381 which was aggressively put down.

But in this environment some men struck deals with their Lords and enjoyed a new status becoming ‘Copyhold tenants.’ They would negotiate and in some instances actually buy their freedom,being prosperous farmers, during the 15th and 16th centuries. Serfdom has technically never been abolished but it’s existence as is seen in the Somerset Case means that any other form of slavery is illegal on British soil.

Copyhold document

C17th Copyhold Document

Manorial or Barons Courts Governed Land Transactions: any transfer of land interest even if a hereditary one, from father to son must be transacted in the Court Baron, where it would also be accounted for and recorded on the Court Roll, as a proof of the right to the tenancy. A copy of the specific transaction would be provided to the tenant and it is from this the term ‘copy-hold is formed.

Copyhold tenants had different rights from serfs because the lord could not make arbitrary rules or exercise arbitrary jurisdiction but had to follow the local customs that had been followed and evolved over time. Copyhold tenants were the dominant form of landholding in many areas of the UK until quite late in the 19th century.

Surviving Copyholder documents in the archives: many archives and country records offices still hold collections of copyhold documents, if you have a name which you believe may be closely related to a particular location, region or county it will be well-worth a search through the catalogues. We have ourselves found many regional records using just such documents. They can also be found and related to land that subsequently appears on Tithe and Manor and Estate Land Maps, Probate records and other family and local history sources. The originals are often viewable and with approval you can take digital photographs etc at a modest cost. So do do the search if you have an area of search that is geographically focused.

The documents can also shed light on who and why the land passes all very insightful and intriguing. You can see a couple of examples on IFH and our projects over the next few weeks. They are great and very helpful documents.

Geographic clusters and one name studies: the use of these early forms of land transaction before the Land Registry really got going in 1862 , can be invaluable. You can map the land parcels against modern maps and see the clusters of particular family names you are interested in. Also not the patterns of the given names as even with more common family names we have found discrete and local group associations can be determined. This is due to the old and favoured route of continuing names of parents , grand-parents, aunts and uncles down through the generations of a family.

Copyhold tenure was only abolished in 1926, from the 15th century legal rights of copyholders were recognised by Chancery and equitable rights  provided increasingly free and level playing-field for all however large or small the landholding was.






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