Is Feudalism Really a Thing of the Past?

Legislation aims to keep up with growth and changes in society. In consequence it can be extensive. We have seen 31 Acts passed onto the UK statute books so far this year including the Digital Economy Act 2017 and the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017. To give an idea of the extent of some statutes, the Companies Act 2006 with 1300 Sections and 16 Schedules is over 700 pages long. The annual Finance Act over the last five years has averaged just under 500 pages in each year.

With all this voluminous up to date legislation are there any subsisting relics from the past? Somewhat surprisingly the oldest statutes still in force are remarkably old. There are still 9 Statutes from the 13th Century, the oldest of which is 750 years old although admittedly most of the sections of those statutes have now been repealed.

The 1290 Statute Quia Emptores (which translates as ‘because the buyers’) is however still in force. It prevents subinfeudation and allows freeholders to sell their land on (effectively by substituting themselves rather than creating a further feudal chain beneath them) and was enacted to try and prevent land disputes.

Feudalism was the medieval system whereby very simply, land was held by subordinates in exchange for military and other services given to their overlords. There was a pyramid system here. The Monarch (referred to below as the Crown) owned everything and allowed Lords to occupy some of his lands in return for service. In turn the Lords allowed some of these lands to be occupied by Knights who in turn allowed some of the land to be occupied by Serfs. Serfs were bound to the land (the Manor) of their baronial lords.

While Serfdom had effectively ended in the UK by the 16th Century Manorial Rights do still exist. Since 1925 they can no longer be created but some of them – the right to mines and minerals as well as sporting rights (to hunt and fish) are potentially valuable. The Land Registration Act 2002 provided a framework for protecting and noting Manorial Rights.

The underlying principle of Feudalism is that all land ultimately belongs or belonged to the Crown and this principle still applies under the Land Registration Act 2002 to the extent that if someone buys land from the Crown Estate the Crown does not have to prove it owns it.

We often hear the phrase that ‘An Englishman’s home is his Castle’ which was first attributed to Sir Edward Coke, then Attorney General, giving judgment in a 1604 legal case. This does create a misconception that individuals can do what they wish on their own land, but as the Feudal system shows, the land is not truly our own and the idea that you can do what you like on your land is wholly unrealistic.

As an example, the Localism Act 2011 introduced the concept of Assets of Community Value and establishing a procedure whereby community groups can identify and have land listed as an Asset of Community Value enabling them to bid for it and preventing or inhibiting the open market sale of that land. This can make a pub owner’s life very difficult.

It is perhaps inevitable that our legal system, having no formal written constitution and relying instead on a blend of common law and statute, will still show vestiges of the ancient feudal system.

At Hart Brown we are always delighted to help anyone on a property transaction to navigate the potential complexities and peculiarities that may be involved.


This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.


John Guthrie

Associate, Commercial Property

John started his career at Hart Brown in 2016. He is a Commercial Property solicitor with 21 years post qualification experience in property. He is...

John Guthrie Associate, Commercial Property

Associate, Commercial Property

John Guthrie

John started his career at Hart Brown in 2016. He is a Commercial Property solicitor with 21 years post qualification experience in property.

He is a member of the Law Society and has written articles for the local press in Kent, Sussex and Surrey.

John's specialisms:

The full cycle of business leases, buying and selling businesses as a going concern, specific expertise in the leasing and disposal of licensed premises, development work and residential leasehold extensions.

His most memorable case:

Handling the property aspects of a £20 million company acquisition and restructuring the leaseback arrangements to achieve a substantial SDLT saving.