Landholding in England/Chapter 17

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CHAPTER XVII.—THE END OF THE FEUDAL SYSTEM


THE feudal system had been slowly dying for a hundred and fifty years. Henry VII. struck at the very fife of its life when he forbade tenants to wear their lords' liveries, The new race of landlords, sprung up after the seizure of the Church lands, held their new possessions with none of that saving grace of reciprocal rights—rights balanced and tempered by duties—which was the central idea of feudality. The growing ascendency of the Crown, in loosening the hold which a feudal lord had over his tenants, had also loosened the hold which a tenant had on a feudal lord. The system survived in name, but the soul had gone out of it, and it was now little more than an excuse for periodical exactions and "fines." And as it had now long been the policy of the Crown to convert as many tenures as possible into tenures in capite (held directly of the King himself), the Long Parliament soon turned its attention to this branch of the royal revenues. It chose the moment when the "Treaty of Uxbridge" came to naught—that is, the moment when the moderate party in Parliament was overborne by the more extreme party, soon to be identified with the Army. On 24th February 1645 the Commons voted the abolition of the Court of Wards. The only immediate consequence was, that the Long Parliament received from this time forth, until 1656, all the profits of wardship, fines, and other feudal prerogatives, always supposed hitherto to be inseparably connected with the Crown. These profits (from 1645 to 1656) are set down as £1,400,000.[1] On 22nd November 1656 Cromwell's Third Parliament passed, nemine contradicente, "An Act for taking away the Court of Wards and Liveries, and all wardships, liveries, primer-seizins, and Oustre le Mains, and all other charges incident and arising for or by reason of any such tenures, etc., as from 24th February 1645." The Act took away "all homage, fines, Ucences, etc., and all tenures in capite and by knight-service, and all tenures by soccage in chief; and turned all tenures into free and common soccage" (Scobell, Part II. 375). But all heriots[2] and other feudal dues payable to intermediate lords or other private persons were retained. Purveyance and compositions for purveyance were taken away by another Act of this Parliament;[3] and both these reforms were re-enacted immediately after the Restoration by 12 Charles II. c. 24.[4] But all feudal charges were not even by this swept away entirely. Blackstone says: "The statute of Charles II. reserves the reliefs incident to soccage tenures; and therefore, whenever lands in fee simple are holden by a rent, relief is still due of common right upon the death of a tenant."

It was inevitable that the feudal system should be abolished. It had long been an anachronism, and the more often money-rent took the place of the old personal service, the more the system lost such virtue as it once possessed. But the practical outcome of the abolition was to benefit landlords, not tenants. The "great men" succeeded in shaking off their feudal burdens, but it was at the expense of the little men, just as the Excise Act passed by the Long Parliament in 1642-1643 was a relief to the rich at the expense of the people at large. The landlords got their lands free of all aids and tenures, and their tenants, no longer bound to them by any reciprocal obligations, were compelled to pay whatever rent the landlord demanded, on pain of being turned out ; and, after the Rent Act of William III., of having their private goods distrained on.[5]

The feudal was a system of dual ownership, and when first established it implied the fullest responsibility of the tenant of the Crown for the land he held. It was fully recognised that the tenant held the land first of all, with regard to the good of the State, and only secondly to his own benefit. For the good of the State, he was bound to perform certain duties. For the good of the State, he was not allowed to turn his sub-tenants adrift—if he did, he would be preventing them from performing their duty to the State. But in proportion as personal service came to be compounded for by money, this grand original idea of mutual duty began to decay, and the way for the new landlords of the Reformation had been preparing long before Henry VIII. seized the Church lands. The idea that the possession of land involves duties has faded more and more into the idea of the "sacredness of property." Formerly, it was the rights of the King, as the visible embodiment of the State, that were "sacred." The idea of the State waned more and more, even when changes took place which we have been taught to call victories of "liberty." The poor of England were more completely disinherited by each one of these victories, not because liberty is an illusion, but because in England the rich, since they robbed the poor of their lands, could never afford to acknowledge the rights of the poor. The very worst features of the violent ages were perpetuated in our Poor Laws. Of old, villeins were not allowed to pass freely from one part to another; the same disability was enforced by the Poor Law, which ordered the whipping of a poor man who left his parish without permission. In modern times it became legal to kidnap men for the navy. Could there be a more flagrant denial of personal rights than this? There had been Statutes of Wages in the old time, but the very preambles complain that they were evaded; whereas from the days of Elizabeth onwards, the justices actually did keep wages at the minimum, set long hours, and whipped the poor on the least sign of insubordination. The countrymen of Hampden boasted of liberty, but they were content to live in a nation of slaves—homeless and landless men, whom their own selfish policy had made so numerous that they were alarmed at the great army of destitute unemployed who had been weeded off the lands which the gentry had been stealthily enclosing for a century. These poor creatures had place and work under the feudal system, but none under the Commonwealth. There is not a particle of evidence that there was work waiting to be done—all the evidence shows that they were not wanted. Every now and then some silly scheme was proposed to make work for them, in a brief spasmodic effort which never did or could do any good. It never seems to have occurred to anyone but the diggers and levellers that the balance of social life was destroyed when so many thousands of small yeomen were cast landless upon the world. These unfortunates were the derelicts of the feudal system. Under that system, men had been of more account than money. A new system had come in, under which money was of more account than men.


  1. Sinclair, Stevens, etc.
  2. "Heriots, which I think are agreed to be a Danish custom … are a render of the best beast or other good (as the custom may be) to a lord on the death of the tenant."—Blackstone (quoted in Richardson's Dictionary).
  3. Scobell, Burton's "Diary." Whitelock's "Memorials."
  4. The reign of Charles II. is always supposed to have begun on 30th January 1649.
  5. In feudal times, if the tenant did not pay his rent, all the lord could do was to seize such movable property (ploughs, etc.) as went with the holding, and really belonged to the lord, who originally provided it. And the officers were so afraid of seizing the property of the wrong man that they often dared not seize at all.