Feudalism in England

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Feudalism as practiced in the Kingdom of England was a state of human society which was formally structured and stratified on the basis of land tenure and the varieties thereof. Society was thus ordered around relationships derived from the holding of land, which landholdings are termed "fiefdoms, fiefs, or fees".

These political and military customs existed in medieval Europe, having developed around 700 A.D., flourished up to about the first quarter of the 14th century[1] and declined until their legal abolition in England with the Tenures Abolition Act 1660.


The word feudal derives from an ancient Gothic source faihu signifying simply "property" which in its most basic sense was "cattle".[2][3] This can be compared to the very ancient classical Latin word pecunia, which means both cattle and money. Many societies in existence today demonstrate the traditional use of cattle as financial currency, for example the Masai of Kenya, who pay dowries in this form.

Because feudalism was in its origin a Teutonic or Gothic system from northern Europe untouched by Roman civilization, it did not exist in ancient Rome, where the nearest equivalent was clientelism. No classical Latin word therefore exists to signify it, and a new Low-Latin word feodum was invented by mediaeval European scribes to use in their Latinised charters and other writings.[4][5]

Classic English feudalism

Under the English feudal system, the person of the king (asserting his allodial right) was the only absolute "owner" of land. All nobles, knights and other tenants, termed vassals, merely "held" land from the king, who was thus at the top of the "feudal pyramid". When feudal land grants were of indefinite or indeterminate duration, such grants were deemed freehold, while fixed term and non-hereditable grants were deemed non-freehold. However, even freehold fiefs were not unconditionally heritable--before inheriting, the heir had to pay a suitable feudal relief.

Below the king in the feudal pyramid was a tenant-in-chief (generally in the form of a baron or knight) who was a vassal of the king, and holding from him in turn was a mesne tenant (generally a knight, sometimes a baron, including tenants-in-chief in their capacity as holders of other fiefs) who held when sub-enfeoffed by the tenant-in-chief. Below the mesne tenant further mesne tenants could hold from each other in series. The obligations and corresponding rights between lord and vassal concerning the fief form the basis of the feudal relationship.


Before a lord could grant land (a fief) to a tenant, he had to make that person a vassal. This was done at a formal and symbolic ceremony called a commendation ceremony composed of the two-part act of homage and oath of fealty. During homage, the lord and vassal entered a contract in which the vassal promised to fight for the lord at his command, whilst the lord agreed to protect the vassal from external forces, a valuable right in a society without police and with only a rudimentary justice system.

The word fealty derives from the Latin fidelitas and denotes the fidelity owed by a vassal to his feudal lord. Fealty also refers to an oath which more explicitly reinforces the commitments of the vassal made during homage. Such an oath follows homage. Once the commendation was complete, the lord and vassal were now in a feudal relationship with agreed-upon mutual obligations to one another. The vassal's principal obligation to the lord was the performance of military service. Using whatever equipment the vassal could obtain by virtue of the revenues from the fief, the vassal was responsible to answer to calls to military service on behalf of the lord.

This security of military help was the primary reason the lord entered into the feudal relationship, but the vassal had another obligation to his lord, namely attendance at his court, whether manorial, baronial or at the king's court itself in the form of parliament.[6] This involved the vassal providing "counsel", so that if the lord faced a major decision he would summon all his vassals and hold a council. On the manorial level this might be a fairly mundane matter of agricultural policy, but also included the handing down by the lord of sentences for criminal offences, including capital punishment in some cases. Concerning the king's feudal court, the prototype of parliament, such deliberation could include the question of declaring war. Depending on the period of time and location, feudal customs and practices varied, see examples of feudalism.

Varieties of feudal tenure

Under the feudal system several different forms of land tenure existed, each effectively a contract with differing rights and duties attached thereto. The main varieties are as follows:

Military tenure

Freehold (indeterminate & hereditable):

  • by barony (per baroniam). Such tenure constituted the holder a feudal baron, and was the highest degree of tenure. It imposed duties of military service. In time barons were differentiated between greater and lesser barons, with only greater barons being guaranteed attendance at parliament.[7] All such holders were necessarily tenants-in-chief.
  • by knight-service. This was a tenure ranking below barony, and was likewise for military service, of a lesser extent. It could be held in capite from the king or as a mesne tenancy from a tenant-in-chief.
  • by castle-guard. This was a form of military service which involved guarding a nearby castle for a specified number of days per year.
  • by scutage where the military service obligations had been commuted, or replaced, by money payments. Common during the decline of the feudal era and symbolic of the change from tenure by personal service to tenure for money rent. As such tenure had at one time been military, the jurist Henry de Bracton(d.1268) deemed it to be still categorised as a military tenure.

Non-military tenure

Freehold (indeterminate & hereditable):

  • by serjeanty. Such tenure was in return for acting as a servant to the king, in a non-military capacity. Service in a ceremonial form is termed “grand serjeanty” whilst that of a more functional or menial nature is termed “petty sergeanty”.
  • by frankalmoinage, generally a tenure restricted to clerics.

Non-freehold (fixed-term & non-hereditable):

  • by copyhold, where the duties and rights were tailored to the requirements of the lord of the manor and a copy of the terms agreed was entered on the roll of the manorial court as a record of such non-standard terms.
  • by socage. This was the lowest form of tenure, involving payment in produce or in money.

Historiography & modern scholarship

See also

Further reading

  • Barlow, F. The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216, London, 4th. ed., 1988
  • Round, J. Horace, Feudal England, London, 1909


  • Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th. ed. vol. 9, pp. 119–123, "Feudalism"
  1. Writs of Summons for the last general feudal levy of the English kingdom were issued in 1385, per Sanders, I.J., English Baronies, A Study of their Origin & Descent, 1086-1327, Oxford, 1960, preface, p. vii
  2. Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th.ed. vol. 9, p.119.
  3. Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th.ed. vol. 9, p.119.
  4. The word feodum or anything similar cannot be found in a classical Latin dictionary.
  5. feodum - see The Cyclopedic Dictionary of Law, by Walter A. Shumaker, George Foster Longsdorf, pg. 365, 1901. meaning in the derivative modern legal sense simply an Estate in land
  6. Encyc. Brit. It was a standard part of the feudal contract that every tenant was under the obligation to attend his overlord's court to advise and support him; Sir Harris Nicholas, in Historic Peerage of England, ed. Courthope, p.18, quoted by Encyc. Brit, p. 388: "It was the principle of the feudal system that every tenant should attend the court of his immediate superior"
  7. From the Magna Carta: "And for obtaining the common counsel of the kingdom and the assessing of an aid (except in the three cases aforesaid) or of a scutage, we will cause to be summoned the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and greater barons, severally by our letters". See also the Dialogus de Scaccario.

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