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HAROLD SACRAMENTUM FECIT WILLELMO DUCI ("Harold made an oath to Duke William"). (Bayeux Tapestry) This scene is stated in the previous scene on the Tapestry to have taken place at Bagia (Bayeux, probably in Bayeux Cathedral). It shows Earl Harold touching two altars with the enthroned Duke looking on. It is believed to represent Harold acknowledging William as his overlord for the territory of the Kingdom of England, which relationship he broke by having himself crowned King. It is thus central to the Norman conquest of England Bayeux Tapestry scene23 Harold sacramentum fecit Willelmo duci.jpg
HAROLD SACRAMENTUM FECIT WILLELMO DUCI ("Harold made an oath to Duke William"). (Bayeux Tapestry) This scene is stated in the previous scene on the Tapestry to have taken place at Bagia (Bayeux, probably in Bayeux Cathedral). It shows Earl Harold touching two altars with the enthroned Duke looking on. It is believed to represent Harold acknowledging William as his overlord for the territory of the Kingdom of England, which relationship he broke by having himself crowned King. It is thus central to the Norman conquest of England

An overlord in the English feudal system was a lord of a manor who had subinfeudated a particular manor, estate or fee, to a tenant. The tenant thenceforth owed to the overlord one of a variety of services, usually military service or serjeanty, depending on which form of tenure (i.e. feudal tenancy contract) the estate was held under. The highest overlord of all, or paramount lord, was the monarch, who due to his ancestor William the Conqueror's personal conquest of the Kingdom of England, owned [1] by inheritance from him all the land in England under allodial title and had no superior overlord, "holding from God and his sword", [2] although certain monarchs, notably King John (1199–1216) purported to grant the Kingdom of England to Pope Innocent III, who would thus have become overlord to English monarchs.


A paramount lord may then be seen to occupy the apex of the feudal pyramid, or the root of the feudal tree, and such allodial title is also termed "radical title" (from Latin radix, root), "ultimate title" and "final title". William the Conqueror immediately set about granting tenancies on his newly won lands, in accordance with feudal principles. The monarch's immediate tenants were the tenants-in-chief, usually military magnates, who held the highest status in feudal society below the monarch. The tenants-in-chief usually held multiple manors or other estates from the monarch, often as feudal barons (or "barons by tenure") who owed their royal overlord an enhanced and onerous form of military service, and subinfeudated most to tenants, generally their own knights or military followers, keeping only a few in demesne. This created a mesne lord – tenant relationship. The knights in turn subinfeudated to their own tenants, creating a further subsidiary mesne lord – tenant relationship. Over the centuries for any single estate the process was in practice repeated numerous times.

In early times, following the Norman Conquest of England of 1066 and the establishment of feudalism, land was usually transferred by subinfeudation, rarely by alienation (i.e. sale), which latter in the case of tenants-in-chief required royal licence, and the holder of an estate at any particular time, in order to gain secure tenure, and if challenged by another claimant, needed to prove "devolution of title" evidenced by legal deeds or muniments back up the chain of subinfeudations to a holder whose title was beyond doubt, for example one who had received the estate as a grant by royal charter witnessed and sealed by substantial persons. Although feudal land tenure in England was abolished by the Tenures Abolition Act 1660, in modern English conveyancing law the need to prove devolution of title persisted until recent times, due to a "legal fiction" (grounded in reality) that all land titles were held by the monarch's subjects as a result of a royal grant. Proving devolution of title is no longer necessary since the creation of the land registry. There is a requirement to compulsorily register all land transactions on this governmental record, which registration provides a virtually unchallengeable and perfectly secure title of ownership.


Overlords are also sometimes known as lords, feudal lords, or chief lords. [3]

Process of creation

An overlordship came into existence by the process of the lord of the manor granting seizin of the fee concerned to his prospective tenant and receiving from him homage and fealty, the main elements of the infeudation and subinfeudation process.


An overlord had various rights under the feudal system, including receipt of either feudal relief or heriot on the succession of the tenant's heir. Also the right of escheat, namely to receive back seizin of the estate on the death of the tenant without a legal heir (transfers of estates to third parties by testaments or wills were not part of the early feudal system). The right to the loyalty of his tenant was central to the feudal contract and was enshrined in the infeudation process in which the tenant swore loyalty to the overlord. In the event of disloyalty the feudal contract would be broken and the estate would become forfeit and return to the overlord. This is most commonly encountered in the case of treason where lands became forfeit to the monarch as paramount lord.


The overlord was bound to protect his tenant, a valuable right for the latter in the days before the existence of police forces and universal access to royal justice, and when armed bands of robbers roamed the countryside. This protection extended also to sheltering his tenant from the arbitrary and predatory acts of other powerful local magnates.

Modern vestiges

In the language of English law of landlord and tenant the concept of the feudal overlord persists. Furthermore, in England today in the case of a land-owner dying intestate and without legal heirs, just as in the feudal age, his estate effectively escheats and reverts to the overlord, but in the form of the paramount lord, The Crown, and is disposed of by the Crown Estate. [4] In Cornwall today land is still in theory held from the Duke of Cornwall as lord paramount. [5] In the case of English land escheating situated within the Duchy of Lancaster or the Duchy of Cornwall, it reverts to the overlords the Duke of Lancaster (the monarch) and the Duke of Cornwall (the monarch's eldest son), [6] possibly the only two surviving quasi-paramount feudal lords surviving in England other than the monarch.

Related Research Articles

Escheat is a common law doctrine that transfers the real property of a person who has died without heirs to the crown or state. It serves to ensure that property is not left in "limbo" without recognized ownership. It originally applied to a number of situations where a legal interest in land was destroyed by operation of law, so that the ownership of the land reverted to the immediately superior feudal lord.

In English law, a fee simple or fee simple absolute is an estate in land, a form of freehold ownership. A "fee" is a vested, inheritable, present possessory interest in land. A "fee simple" is real property held without limit of time under common law, whereas the highest possible form of ownership is a "fee simple absolute," which is without limitations on the land's use.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Statutes of Mortmain</span> 1279 and 1290 English statutes

The Statutes of Mortmain were two enactments, in 1279 and 1290, passed in the reign of Edward I of England, aimed at preserving the kingdom's revenues by preventing land from passing into the possession of the Church. Possession of property by a corporation, such as the Church, was known as mortmain, which literally meant "dead hand". In medieval England, feudal estates generated taxes for the King, principally on the grant or inheritance of the estate. If an estate became owned by a religious corporation which could never die, could never attain majority, and could never be attainted for treason, these taxes never became payable. It was akin to the estates being owned by the dead, hence the term.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lord of the manor</span> Landholder of a rural estate

Lord of the Manor is a title that, in Anglo-Saxon England, referred to the landholder of a rural estate. The lord enjoyed manorial rights as well as seignory, the right to grant or draw benefit from the estate. The title continues in modern England and Wales as a legally recognised form of property that can be held independently of its historical rights. It may belong entirely to one person or be a moiety shared with other people.

A tenement, in law, is anything that is held, rather than owned. This usage is a holdover from feudalism, which still forms the basis of property law in many common law jurisdictions, in which the monarch alone owned the allodial title to all the land within his kingdom.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tenant-in-chief</span> Medieval vassal in possession of land granted directly by the Crown

In medieval and early modern Europe, the term tenant-in-chief denoted a person who held his lands under various forms of feudal land tenure directly from the king or territorial prince to whom he did homage, as opposed to holding them from another nobleman or senior member of the clergy. The tenure was one which denoted great honour, but also carried heavy responsibilities. The tenants-in-chief were originally responsible for providing knights and soldiers for the king's feudal army.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Demesne</span> Land retained for own use by a lord of the manor

A demesne or domain was all the land retained and managed by a lord of the manor under the feudal system for his own use, occupation, or support. This distinguished it from land sub-enfeoffed by him to others as sub-tenants. The concept originated in the Kingdom of France and found its way to foreign lands influenced by it or its fiefdoms.

Seisin denotes the legal possession of a feudal fiefdom or fee, that is to say an estate in land. It was used in the form of "the son and heir of X has obtained seisin of his inheritance", and thus is effectively a term concerned with conveyancing in the feudal era. The person holding such estate is said to be "seized of it", a phrase which commonly appears in inquisitions post mortem. The monarch alone "held" all the land of England by his allodial right and all his subjects were merely his tenants under various contracts of feudal tenure.

In English law, seignory or seigniory, spelled signiory in Early Modern English, is the lordship (authority) remaining to a grantor after the grant of an estate in fee simple.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Subinfeudation</span> Feudal practice

In English law, subinfeudation is the practice by which tenants, holding land under the king or other superior lord, carved out new and distinct tenures in their turn by sub-letting or alienating a part of their lands.

<i>Quia Emptores</i> English statute of 1290

Quia Emptores is a statute passed by the Parliament of England in 1290 during the reign of Edward I that prevented tenants from alienating their lands to others by subinfeudation, instead requiring all tenants who wished to alienate their land to do so by substitution. The statute, along with its companion statute Quo Warranto also passed in 1290, was intended to remedy land ownership disputes and consequent financial difficulties that had resulted from the decline of the traditional feudal system in England during the High Middle Ages. The name Quia Emptores derives from the first two words of the statute in its original mediaeval Latin, which can be translated as "because the buyers". Its long title is A Statute of our Lord The King, concerning the Selling and Buying of Land. It is also cited as the Statute of Westminster III, one of many English and British statutes with that title.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mesne lord</span> Type of lord in the feudal system

A mesne lord was a lord in the feudal system who had vassals who held land from him, but who was himself the vassal of a higher lord. Owing to Quia Emptores, the concept of a mesne lordship technically still exists today: the partitioning of the lord of the manor's estate among co-heirs creating the mesne lordships.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Feoffment</span> Transfer of land under feudalism

In the Middle Ages, especially under the European feudal system, feoffment or enfeoffment was the deed by which a person was given land in exchange for a pledge of service. This mechanism was later used to avoid restrictions on the passage of title in land by a system in which a landowner would give land to one person for the use of another. The common law of estates in land grew from this concept.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Knight-service</span> Land tenure under the feudal system

Knight-service was a form of feudal land tenure under which a knight held a fief or estate of land termed a knight's fee from an overlord conditional on him as tenant performing military service for his overlord.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Feudal baron</span>

A feudal baron is a vassal holding a heritable fief called a barony, comprising a specific portion of land, granted by an overlord in return for allegiance and service. Following the end of European feudalism, feudal baronies have largely been superseded by baronies held as a rank of nobility, without any attachment to a fief. However, in Scotland, the feudal dignity of baron remains in existence, and may be bought and sold independently of the land to which it was formerly attached.

A lordship is a territory held by a lord. It was a landed estate that served as the lowest administrative and judicial unit in rural areas. It originated as a unit under the feudal system during the Middle Ages. In a lordship, the functions of economic and legal management are assigned to a lord, who, at the same time, is not endowed with indispensable rights and duties of the sovereign. Lordship in its essence is clearly different from the fief and, along with the allod, is one of the ways to exercise the right.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lord paramount</span>

A lord paramount is a term of art in feudal law describing an overlord who holds his own fief from no superior lord. It thus describes a person who holds allodial title, owing no socage or feudal obligations such as military service. This was distinguished from a mesne lord who held his own fief from a superior.

The history of English land law can be traced back to Roman times. Throughout the Early Middle Ages, where England came under rule of post-Roman chieftains and Saxon monarchs, land was the dominant source of personal wealth. English land law transformed further from the Saxon days, particularly during the post-Norman Invasion feudal encastellation and the Industrial Revolution. As the political power of the landed aristocracy diminished and modern legislation increasingly made land a social form of wealth, subject to extensive social regulation such as for housing, national parks, and agriculture.

Even before the Norman Conquest, there was a strong tradition of landholding in Anglo-Saxon law. When William the Conqueror asserted sovereignty over England in 1066, he confiscated the property of the recalcitrant English landowners. Over the next dozen years, he granted land to his lords and to the dispossessed Englishmen, or affirmed their existing land holdings, in exchange for fealty and promises of military and other services. At the time of the Domesday Book, all land in England was held by someone, and from that time there has been no allodial land in England. In order to legitimise the notion of the Crown's paramount lordship, a legal fiction—that all land titles were held by the King's subjects as a result of a royal grant—was adopted.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Feudalism in England</span>

Feudalism as practiced in the Kingdoms of England during the medieval period was a state of human society that organized political and military leadership and force around a stratified formal structure based on land tenure. As a military defense and socio-economic paradigm designed to direct the wealth of the land to the king while it levied military troops to his causes, feudal society was ordered around relationships derived from the holding of land. Such landholdings are termed fiefdoms, traders, fiefs, or fees.


  1. For the monarch as the only true "owner" of land in England, see: Constitutional implications of the Cabinet Manual – Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Written evidence submitted to Parliament by Philip Hosking, 5 January 2011
  2. History of the political institutions, of the nations of Europe ..., Volume 1 By Pierre-Armand Dufau, Jean Baptiste Duvergier, J. Guadet, T. E. Evans, p.41
  3. "Chief Lord", Encyclopaedia Britannica , vol. II (1st ed.), Edinburgh: Colin Macfarquhar, 1771.
  4. Philip Hosking
  5. Philip Hosking
  6. Philip Hosking

Further reading