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12th Century Land Relationships Essay

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How would you describe the relationship between lord, (free) tenant, and land during the 12th century?
In Anglo-Norman England land was not merely property, it was jurisdiction and power. In the early 12th century land underpinned the feudal system which was the pedestal of the social hierarchy. Thus the rights of landholders (lords) were effectively rights over the people on the land (tenants), or over lessor lords, and not just the land itself. It is submitted that, at this time, the relationship between the lord and his tenant was generally bilateral, although subject to ad hoc royal interventions. However, by the latter half of the 12 th century a shift in power had occurred. The cause of this change has been fiercely debated, but it is submitted that the change was facilitated by the introduction of the so-called 'real actions' by King Henry II. The introduction of these actions, almost certainly unintentionally, transformed the bilateral relationship lord-tenant relationship into a tri-partite arrangement. The powers of the lord reverted to the Crown and tenants were granted greater protection which resulted in the demise of the traditional feudal system. In the first half of the 12th century the lord-tenant relationship was tenurial because the tenant held the land of the lord. It can be characterised as contractual because mutual obligations were generated whereby 'the lord owes as much to the man on account of lordship as the man owes to the lord on account of homage' 1. The tenant bound himself to perform the services that had been settled as the consideration for his holding, and was liable to forfeit his interest if he failed to perform his service (which was a fundamental breach), committed an unpardonable crime, or acted unfaithfully. In return the lord guaranteed his tenant's security of tenure for life. After the Conquest subinfeudation produced webs of dependent tenures. The character of this holding is unfamiliar to contemporary land law doctrine, although it fairly analogous to that of the leasehold. 'Seisin' and 'the right' were the two concepts which characterised the relationship between lord, tenants and land throughout the 12th century. The definition of 'seisin' more or less equates to possession - a factual relationship with a corporeal thing. As Williams has stated, 'to be seised of a thing is to be possessed thereof' 2. The term 'the right' more or a less equates to a claim to ownership; the ultimate legal title over which there is no other. At this time any landholding dispute was litigated in the lord's own court. As Baker has highlighted that, 'Control of land could not be readily divorced from power and jurisdiction, from 'lordship''3. Academic commentators have proffered differing characterisations of the lord-tenant relationship in cases of disputes concerning third party claims to the land, primarily dependent upon their respective definitions of 'seisin' and 'the right'. Maitland4 proposed that the definitions of these terms did not change throughout the 12 th century and therefore the lord-tenant relationship was in fact a possessory relationship between a person and their land. He emphasised that 'seisin' is simply possession which is a 'cardinal' concept in our law. An alternative view has been formulated by Milsom 5. He argues that seisin began not as a possessory relationship between a person and their land, but as a relationship between two persons, i.e. the lord and the tenant, concerning the same object, i.e. the land. Seisin cannot exist in the abstract; it requires a lord who can seise the tenant of the land and confirm seisin by accepting that person as his tenant. Hence, a claim 'to the right' would not be a claim to ownership. It would be a claim against the lord that the lord is obliged to seise the tenant (a claim for the benefit of the obligation binding the lord). 1

Glanvill (1187-9), IX.4) J. Williams, 'Principles of the Law of Real Property' (1910): page 36. 3 J. Baker, 'An Introduction to English Legal History' (2007): Oxford University Press, 4th ed. 4 Pollock and Maitland, 'The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I' 5 S.F.C Milsom, 'A Natural History of the Common Law' (2003) 2

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