Records to do with land can frighten people because of their esoteric names and
legal jargon, but in essence, they tell you who lived where and what they did
with their land. These are worth seeking and studying and, once you have
mastered them, they can be absolutely fascinating. They are also one of the best
sources to use if you want to trace your family back in the middle ages.
The Main Records
English Public Record no.1 is Domesday Book (no 'the' before it), compiled for
William the Conqueror in 1086. William wanted to find out exactly how much tax
he could raise from each village and threatened to annihilate any settlement
which provided inaccurate information. The people listed in Domesday Book are
the tenants in chief, who held land directly from the Crown, and the
sub-tenants, both after the Norman settlement and at the time of the Conquest,
providing a ghostly record of the dispossessed Saxon nobility and their
Below these levels, the numbers of freemen, slaves, villains, cottars and
sokemen are then stated-but not named-along with the mills and churches, and
size and use of the landholdings. The whole country was included except for the
areas that the Normans had devastated-Durham, London, Northumberland, northern
Westmoreland and Winchester. A copy of this tome is in most good libraries.
Inquisitions Post Mortem
These were taken from 1235 to 1649 and recorded the deaths of those who held
land directly from the Crown, stating what land they held and under what terms,
and who their heir was. In some cases, jurors and tenants may be listed.
Originally, the land was transferred by the possessor by 'livery of seisin', the
handing over of a lump of turf (or similar) to the incomer, who became literally
the 'holder' of the land. In the Middle Ages, written records of these
transactions began to be kept, called deeds, and these can provide key evidence
of early generations of your family.
To be able to sell a property, the owner needed to prove his right to it by
producing evidence of his inheritance or purchase of it, and all previous
inheritances or purchases. This collection would often include an abstract of
the title summarising the transactions. In 1925, the law changed so that the
title only had to be proved for the preceding 30 (it is now 15 years).
Consequently, many old deeds and wills were thrown away but a great number found
their way eventually to record offices and other local and national archives and
libraries. Those not thrown out remain with the present owners, be they private
individuals corporations such as the Ministry of Defence.
After 1840, title deeds include maps of the property. They may also mention
ancestors who were tenants of a freeholder, mortgagees or owners of the abutting
property. Bundles of documents relating to a property are also one of the main
sources for tracing house histories.
Most deeds were indented, which means that the wording was written out twice on
the same sheet, and the two copies were then cut apart by a wavy line, to deter
subsequent forgery. They usually record, in this order:
- Names of the vendor/leasor and purchaser/lease
- Type of transaction and earlier relevant ones
- Name of vendor/leasor again
- Value of purchase/lease (prefixed 'in consideration of the sum of ...).
- Type of transaction again (in terms of the vendor/leasor 'demising' to
the purchaser or leasee).
- Details of the property
- If a lease, the length or type, how the rent would be paid and any
obligations incumbent on either party.
- Signatures of parties and witnessesN.W.Alcock's Old Title Deeds: A Guide
for Local and Family Historians (Phillimore,1986) provides valuable help on
reading and understanding these documents.
Feet Of Fines
In the 12th century, problems were arising with the purchase and sale of
freehold because most landholders did so by custom but had no written records to
prove their ownership. To try to guarantee future legal recognition of sales,
therefore, lawyers devised a legal pantomime acted out in the Court of Common
Pleas, whereby the purchaser (‘plaintiff' or 'queriant') would claim he had
always owned the land and that the vendor ('deforciant') was squatting in it.
The two parties then agreed to settle the affair by the purchaser paying the
vendor to go away and renounce any future claim to the land. Their final
agreement of the case, also termed final Concordia or 'fine', was written out
three times on the same sheet and then cut with a jagged line. The top two were
given to the two parties and the bottom part kept by the court.
Fines also came to be used extensively to break old encumbrances on the property
such as entails, to enable women to sell land and to create family settlements,
besides the names of the purchaser and vendor they will mention, where relevant,
wives, heirs or people to whom they were heirs. The part kept by the court is
the 'feet of fines'.
This type of property transfer developed in the 15th century. The purchaser ('demandant')
would, of course, pay the vendor for the land. But to gain legal recognition for
the sale, the purchaser then took the vendor to court. The vendor would not
appear but would deputise the task of proving his right to the property to a
vouchee, who would leave and not turn up again, thus allowing the court to rule
in favour of the purchaser.///
If the intention was to break an entail, the purchaser would claim he had owned
the property but had been thrown out by a non-existent person called Hugh Hunt.
The tenant who occupied the entailed property would not contradict the
purchaser's claim, enabling the court to subsequently grant possession of the
property to the purchaser. Sometimes the tenant ‘in the tail' would then
purchase the land back off the purchaser, which meant that the whole rigmarole
had been solely for the tenant in the tail to keep the land but under different
conditions, then they entail.
These were a device to enable people to settle land on whom they wished, whereby
they transferred the land to trustees who were to hold it but allow a third
party to ‘use', profit from and bequeath, it. The third-party was often the
original owner himself, who was now able to write a will leaving the use of the
land to whomever he wanted. It was sometimes also used to avoid having to
perform feudal service for the land because neither the original holder nor the
trustees were in full possession of the land.
The state tried to prevent this practice with the Statute of Uses of 1535/6.
However, this proved so unpopular that the state subsequently gave people the
right to bequeath land to whomsoever they wished by the Statute of Wills of
1540. Uses remained, however, like trusts, whereby a landowner could ensure
continuity of land ownership within the family (preventing profligate heirs from
mortgaging or selling the land) by creating a settlement by will or deed
specifying the descent of the land, usually to the landowner's wife, then their
eldest son and his heirs or, failing any, the second son and his heirs, and so
on. Such records of settlements can obviously provide a great deal of useful
family history details.
Bargain And Sale
Deeds of bargain and sale started to be made after the Statute of person to
another of 1535/6, as a secret transfer of land, or interest in land, from one
person to another, in consideration for a sum of money. The sale created a use,
which meant that the purchaser had the use of the land, but, because no ‘enfeoffment'
had taken place, the vendor still technically owned the land. The state
responded in 1536 with the Statute of Enrolment, forcing bargain and sales to be
enrolled at a court, so they were no longer secret.
Lease And Release
This was the method that lawyers devised to get around the Statute of Enrolment,
and it operated up to 1845. The vendor bargained and sold the six or 12-month
lease of a piece of land to the purchaser for a nominal rent. The purchaser thus
acquired the use of the land, but as it was only by a lease, not a conveyance of
freehold, it did not have to be enrolled. The following day, the vendor and
anyone else with an interest in the property released their right to the
reversion of the property once the lease had expired. As this was effectively
the transfer of a right, not actually of a piece of land, it did not have to be
- Family photograph of my great-great-great-grandfather, William Joseph
Havers (1813-77), who inherited his father's tenancy of Bacons, near
A landowner in need of money might mortgage his land, remaining in occupation of
it but granting a long lease of it to the lender of the money, who would gain
possession of the land if the owner failed to pay the money back in full.
Estate maps started to be made in the late 16th century, often showing and
naming fields, woods and buildings with precise acreage and including names of
They often accompanied rent rolls or rentals naming the tenants, and are
especially useful when a series exists covering a specific period, allowing you
to trace the succession of generations holding the same house or field. Irish
and Scottish estate records are particularly useful when they pre-date surviving
Most estate records remain in private muniment rooms or solicitors' offices, but
there are plenty in national and county record offices, usually catalogued under
the estate owners, be they private individuals, the church, corporations or the
Crown. You can use directories to find out who were the main landowners in your
ancestral parish. Many are catalogued on the National Register of Archives,
which can be viewed at www.hmc.gov.uk/nra.
Unlike such countries as America, Britain has never had a comprehensive system
of recording who owns what land. Registration of all sales and leases of seven
years or more became compulsory in the East Anglian Fens from 1663, and records
are held at the Cambridge Record Office.
From the 18th century, voluntary registration of title deeds became possible in
Middlesex and Yorkshire. The Middlesex records comprise memorials (summaries of
the original deeds), covering freehold and leases of 21 years or more and
indexed annually by vendor or landlord. A national system of land registry was
introduced in 1862, followed by the gradual introduction of compulsory
registration of title deeds when the property was bought and sold.
- Navin Kumar Jaggi
- Gurmeet Singh Jaggi