The history behind our legal jargon

Legal jargon
April King Legal’s intern Grace Beesley looks at some of the legal jargon in relation to property that we have acquired over the years, and where it comes from.

The relationship between landlords and tenants is one of the most significant in history.  Landlords required tenants to occupy their houses so that the lands were farmed and a stable food supply was produced. The manorial system originated from Romans and became common as of the 5th century. However, legislation was not common until the late 10th century with the Code of Canute. This code portrays a shift from tribalism to a feudal system following the cultural change that was embraced following the Norman Conquest in 1066.


Feudalism was a practice of landlord and tenant law, which was exercised within medieval society up until the 15th century. Under feudal law in England, the crown was the outright owner of land and holdings were referred to as ‘flefts’. When land grants were of indefinite or indeterminate duration they were deemed freehold. However today we refer to these indefinite or indeterminate grants as leasehold. Furthermore, even these grants were not unconditionally inheritable and an heir was responsible for paying feudal relief to the inheritance.


Succeeding the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror gifted vast lands to noblemen who served him in battle. This created a new aristocracy named Tenants-In-Chief. The Tenants-In-Chief were responsible for their land, which was known as a ‘manor’. They also had to sustain their family and a number of knights. Subletting land to other nobles allowed the Tenants-In-Chief to carry out this duty. On the other hand, non-aristocratic men farmed the land and raised livestock. The Tenants-In-Chief kept their land by their services to the King and if they did not meet his demands their land could be confiscated. This gave the King a lot of power and control over his kingdom.

Landlord and Tenant Today

It still remains that the Crown ultimately owns all property in England and Wales. If a property owner dies with no heirs to inherit it, the Crown will inherit it. Furthermore, statistics depict that around 90% of English citizens rented before the First World War, which drastically decreased to around 7% in the 1990’s. However, analysts predict that renting will rise again so that around 20% of English citizens will be renting by 2020. This highlights the importance of the historic relationship between landlord and tenant in modern day society. Legislation ensures that both parties’ maintain rights in the courts of law and both parties may be challenged if a tenancy was to be breached.

The Crown’s Land

There is some land that The Crown has never granted away and if there is no other owner, the land will belong to the Crown, the Duchy of Lancaster or the Duchy of Cornwall. However, The Crown as freehold or leasehold holds most land and is the absolute owner. The legal principle behind having an absolute owner of land has vital constitutional and legal implications. For instance, there is a distinct difference in legal status of Duchy-owned property in Cornwall and those beyond Cornwall. For example, when a company on Duchy land in Wiltshire goes into liquidation, any unclaimed assets would go to the Queen in right of The Crown. However, if this were to happen in Cornwall, the Duke in right of his Duchy would inherit the assets. Likewise, if somebody were to die on a Duchy farm in Devon without a will or heirs, their property reverts back to The Crown’s ownership. Furthermore, ownership of land is one of the powerful commodities in the world. Since absolute ownership of land brings power over people, the ability to sell rights and the right to exclude. Thus, other owners of and for instance homeowners, simply occupy Crown land.

The Origins of Leasehold and Freehold Property

Once it was accepted that The Crown had absolute ownership of land, the King would allow his people to rent the land. This is where leasehold property originated. When the King required greater funds, he would sell his land as ‘freehold’. This allowed individuals to hold land without any charge to a superior. However, in both cases of leasehold and freehold, land is merely held by individuals and The Crown remains the absolute owner of it. Thus, land was not bought but rather freeholds where so that The Crown could remain the absolute owner. This is where the roots of sovereignty came from since only the sovereign could be said to have absolute ownership of the land whist others could merely hold it. This principle still operates today however ‘The Crown’ is used symbolically for the institution of the government, which the sovereign represents.

Can The Crown Reclaim Freehold Land?

Normanton Church
Normanton Church – Image by Lofty (Link).

The Crown has the right and authority to take back any leasehold or freehold property when it chooses to. For instance, a reservoir in a small county called Rutland was created on this basis. The village that lies beneath the reservoir, now known as Rutland Water, is claimed to be the lost village, which was known as Nether Hambleton before it was flooded in 1976. Nether Hambleton was a sizeable settlement in the medieval period however all that remains of it now is Normanton Church, The Old Hall, which was built in 1611, and a few houses. The village was flooded by the Local Water Authority to provide water for Rutland and Peterborough. They have the power to do this due to its relations with government whom derives power from The Crown and The Crown’s ultimate ownership of land.

Grace is studying for a BA in Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. On completion she plans to complete the one year Graduate Diploma in Law to convert her degree. She has joined the team at April King Legal as an intern for eight weeks.

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