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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.


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 sub-tenants.

Below these levels, the numbers of freemen, slaves, villeins, 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.


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:

· Date

· 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 FamilyHistorians (Phillimore,1986) provides valuable help on reading and understanding these documents.


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.


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.


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 enrolled either.

Family photograph of my great-great-great-grandfather, William Joseph Havers (1813-77), who inherited his father's tenancy of Bacons, near Ingatestone, Essex.


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 neighbouring landowners.

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 parish registers.

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


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.

Author: Navin Kumar Jaggi

Co-Author: Gurmeet Singh Jaggi


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