In my post Landlord and Tenure, back in the Norman section, I introduced the feudal system. I suggested that it was essentially futile as the services that were provided as part of the agreement between a tenant and his lord, became less useful and appropriate as the years went by.
Yet the feudal system stayed around for a long, long time. Long after the services had been largely converted to a payment of a money rent and that had in turn diminished due to the change in the value of money.
Why did the feudal system last so long? It was largely due to feudal incidents.
So what were feudal incidents? Well they weren’t an embarrassing social occasion reported in the feudal equivalent of the gutter press! They were nice little earners for lords and formed a useful, if sporadic addition to their income.
Left to their own devices their lordships would no doubt have used these incidents to excess. However as they were subject to the Kings Courts, they were therefore subject to such standards of reasonableness he (or his Judges) were inclined to impose.
Later the Magna Carta imposed restrictions aimed in particular at the King’s feudal rights.
But lets have a look at what they were. Here they are as listed in Baker:
This was where the lord was entitled to demand a levy to assist him with some financial difficulty. In the Magna Carta (which we won’t get on to properly for a while) they became limited to three occasions:
- When the lord needed to ransom himself from captivity, or
- To knight his eldest son, or
- To provide a dowry for his eldest daughter
- Fines on alienation
Alienation was where one tenant was to be replaced by another. In medieval times though, this was very different from, say, selling a flat. The landlord / tenant relationship was a personal one and a change of tenant required the lord’s consent.
Which he could, if he wished, charge for.
There was however no ‘fine’ (or charge) for subinfeudation (essentially sub letting, which did not affect the direct relationship between lord and tenant), unless the lord was the King. In which case it carried on being charged for right up until the seventeenth century.
- Relief and premier seisin
This is about what happens when a tenant dies. What the lord would prefer here is for the land to revert to him, so he could choose a new tenant, or maybe hang on to it himself as part of his demesne. He could do this if the tenant had merely had a life interest.
However if the tenant’s heir was entitled to inherit, he would only be entitled to claim the land after paying ‘relief’.
The lord would often put this off as long as he could, as he could take the profits of the land in the meantime. This was known as ‘premier seisin’ and could be very lucrative. Sometimes lords would try to prevent the heir from taking over (so he could enjoy premier seisin as long as possible) by charging an excessive relief.
However here the common law started to intervene and by the 1160s a knights fee was fixed at five pounds and the reasonable relief for socage land was held to be a years profits.
Premier seisin was abolished in 1267 for everyone except the King, who continued to enjoy it until (as for fines on alienation) the seventeenth century.
This was where the land reverted to the lord and he was entitled to keep it. This happened in two situations :
- If the tenant died without an heir, or
- If the tenant was convicted of a felony
This last was known as forfeiture and was the first meaning of the word. Although originally it was where the tenant committed treason in which case his land went straight to the crown, by passing the ‘mesne lord’.
The incident of escheat is the reason why people committed suicide before trials – they were providing for their family, who would lose their inheritance if the accused were convicted. It also explains why the prosecution was so very anxious that they should NOT do this!
- Customary dues
These depended on local custom and involved other payments to, or rights of the lord on the death of the tenant. A sort of early inheritance tax.
A common and widespread due was that of ‘heriot’ which is where the lord was entitled to seize the best beast or chattel when a tenant died. It was more common where the tenant was unfree.
- Wardship and marriage
There was also a lot of money to be made by the lord if the tenant died while his heir was still under age (as we saw in some of the Cadfael books).
In this situation the land reverted to the lord during the heir’s minority (which at this time ended when he was 14), and in turn the lord was supposed to care for the heir and provide for his training.
Needless to say there was great scope here for the lord to enrich himself. However there was a rule which said that at the very least, the heir should inherit the capital, and under Magna Carta lords were forbidden to commit waste.
As well as having control over the ward’s land, the lord also had control over the ward him or herself and could arrange a marriage before they came of age.
A child could not be forced into marriage (as consent was necessary for matrimony) but if it was refused, the lord could claim compensation to the value of the marriage. He was also entitled to compensation of the heir married without his consent.
A win win situation for the lord.
The value of feudal incidents
Marriages of wards could be hugely profitable, and this, along with the other ‘incidents’, explains why the feudal system remained popular for so long – at least with the lords.
Needless to say they were very unpopular with tenants, and down the centuries various imaginative schemes were dreamed up by lawyers to avoid them, in particular the incidents which arose on the death of the tenant. We will be looking at these in due course.
The person who gained most from the feudal incidents was the King, who also had special rights which the lords did not.
The Kings special feudal rights
When one of his tenants died (for example one of the wealthy barons) the King (through an official called the Escheator) was entitled to seize the land until an inquisition was carried out to see what the Kings rights were.
He also had the right to a years profits and to priority over wardships.
So although the services provided by the feudal system soon dwindled, the system itself was kept alive by the lords, and particularly the King, because of these lucrative incidents.
Feudalism and the development of English property law
This is an important post and is one which I will be referring to a lot later. The story of English property law, in particular as regards land (or ‘real property’) is largely the story of the rise and fall of feudalism, along with the general story of how the law changed to adapt to a changing society.
The social situation which created the feudal system in early medieval times did not last, but feudalism did, largely because those in power were reluctant to lose their rights to these feudal incidents.
It took hundreds of years for the feudal system to finally leave our laws. Indeed it is arguable that even now, vestiges are still with us.
After all, is, the Queen not considered to be the ultimate owner of all land in England? And if someone dies without heirs, their property still reverts to the Crown under ‘bona vacanta‘.
Medieval marriage picture (Eleanor of Acquitaine) is Wikipedia commons