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The transfer of land in medieval England from 1246 to 1430: the language of acquisition

  • William S. Deller (a1)


Records of proof-of-age hearings from 1246 to 1430 which mention land transfer are analysed by techniques aimed at overcoming the legal conventionality of the texts and the widespread plagiarism of the records of previous hearings. References are examined decade by decade, initially in terms of the numbers of testimonies mentioning land and, most importantly, in terms of their changing syntax, vocabulary and choice of detail. This approach gives clues to the state of the land market itself and to the mentalities of those involved. Particular attention is paid to the effects on the market of the economic and demographic shocks of the fourteenth century.

French Abstract

Le transfert de terre dans l'Angleterre médiévale de 1246 à 1430: le langage de l'acquisition

En Angleterre, pour la période médiévale de 1246 à 1430, un corpus de minutes d'audiences, mentionnant un transfert de terre, a été analysé, au sein des nombreuses procédures destinées à définir l’âge d'un individu. L'auteur fit appel à des techniques visant à surmonter le langage juridique conventionnel de ces textes ainsi que le plagiat systématique des formulations d'une audience à l'autre. Les actes sont examinés décennie par décennie, d'abord en comptant le nombre de témoignages mentionnant la terre et ensuite en notant tout changement de syntaxe, de vocabulaire et de choix des détails. Cette approche donne ainsi des indices-clefs sur l’état du marché foncier lui-même et sur les mentalités des acteurs concernés. L'auteur accorde une attention particulière aux effets sur le marché des chocs économiques et démographiques advenus au cours du XIVe siècle.

German Abstract

Landübertragung im mittelalterlichen England von 1246 bis 1430: die Sprache der Aneignung

Aufzeichnungen über Anhörungen zum Altersnachweis, in denen Landübertragungen erwähnt werden, werden für den Zeitraum von 1246 bis 1430 analysiert. Dabei werden Techniken verwendet, die darauf abzielen, die Rechtskonventionen der Texte und die weitverbreiteten Plagiate der Aufzeichnungen aus früheren Anhörungen zu überwinden. Die Belege werden jahrzehnteweise ausgewertet, zunächst nach Anzahl der Zeugenaussagen, in denen Land erwähnt wird, und dann vor allem im Hinblick auf Veränderungen in der Syntax, im Vokabular und in der Wahl der mitgeteilten Einzelheiten. Durch diesen Ansatz ergeben sich Hinweise auf den Entwicklungsstand des Landmarktes selbst und auf die Mentalität der Beteiligten. Besondere Aufmerksamkeit gilt der Frage, wie sich die ökonomischen und demographischen Schocks des 14. Jahrhunderts auf den Markt auswirkten.


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1 As early as the eleventh century English tenants-in-chief were commuting military obligation by payment of scutage and progressively thereafter the emphasis in ‘feudal’ lordship shifted away from military service to income for the Crown provided by feudal ‘incidents’ of which wardship was one. Keefe, T. K., Feudal assessments and the political community under Henry II and his sons (Berkeley, 1983), 15–9; Pollock, F. and Maitland, F. W., The history of English law before the time of Edward I, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1968), i, 307; Waugh, S. L., The lordship of England: wardships and marriage in English society and politics 1217–1327 (Princeton, 1988), 315.

2 Calendar of inquisitions post mortem and other analogous documents preserved in the Public record Office, Henry III-Henry V, 21 vols. (London, 1904–2002) [hereafter CIPM], iii, no. 429 (1297). References to particular testimonies given in this article indicate the volume and number of the hearing in the published calendars. The date of the hearing is given in brackets. The transactions referred to, of course, typically took place 21 years previously.

3 The first recorded proof of age was that for Roger Bertram which was undated but referred to an alleged majority on 4 December 1245. London, The National Archives [hereafter TNA], C 132/47/27, (CIPM, ii, no. 848). The end of the reign of Henry V in 1422 is a convenient end point for this study, though for statistical purposes the sequence has been continued to the end of the decade (1430) since most of the data is presented in ten-year aggregations. It is hoped that later fifteenth century proofs will be the subject of a further separate study.

4 A new series, covering the gap in the fifteenth century, followed its predecessor numerically, but was financed by the (then) Arts and Humanities Research Board (with additional assistance from Trevelyan Fund of the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge) and with Christine Carpenter as Academic Director and General Editor. Up to the present, five volumes have been published, which take the Calendar of inquisitions post mortem and other analogous documents to 1447.

5 Original records for the thirteenth century have been used; for subsequent proofs, the printed calendar versions have been consulted, supplemented by reference to originals where appropriate to check translations. All translations follow the printed versions.

6 Brooke, C. N. L. and Postan, M. M. eds., Carte nativorum: a Peterborough cartulary of the fourteenth century (Northamptonshire Record Soc., 1960), vol. 20, xxviii.

7 Brooke and Postan eds., Carte nativorum, xivi; C. Howell, Land, family and inheritance in transition: Kibworth Harcourt 1280–1700 (Cambridge, 1983), 245–8.

8 Harvey, B., Westminster Abbey and it estates in the middle ages (Oxford, 1977), 293330; Razi, Z., Life, marriage and death in a medieval parish: economy, society and demography in Halesowen 1270–140 (Cambridge, 1980), 7697; Harvey, P. D. A. ed., The peasant land market in medieval England (Oxford, 1984); Smith, R. M. ed., Land, kinship and life-cycle (Cambridge, 1984); Slota, L. A., ‘Law, land transfer and lordship on the estates of St Alban's Abbey in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries’, Law and History Review 6 (1988), 121–38; Sreenivasan, G., ‘The land-family bond at Earl's Colne (Essex) 1550–1650’, Past and Present 131 (1991), 337; Whittle, J., ‘Individualism and the family land-bond: a reassessment of land transfer patterns among the English peasantry c. 1270–1580’, Past and Present 160 (1998), 2562; Mullan, J. and Britnell, R., Land and family: trends and local variations in the peasant land market on the Winchester bishopric estates, 1263–1315 (Hatfield, 2010).

9 C. Briggs, ‘Credit and the freehold land market in England, c. 1200–1350: possibilities and problems for research’, in P. R. Schofield and T. Lambrecht eds., Credit and the rural economy in north-western Europe, c. 1200–1800 (Turnhout, 2009), 109–27; P. R. Schofield, ‘The market in free land on the estates of Bury St Edmunds: sources and issues’, in L. Feller and C. Wickham eds., Le marché de la terre au Moyen Âge (École Française de Rome, 2005), 273–95.

10 Davis, M. and Kissock, J., ‘The feet of fines, the land market and the English agricultural crisis of 1315–1322’, Journal of Historical Geography 30 (2004), 215–30; Yates, M., ‘The market in freehold land, 1300–1509: the evidence of feet of fines’, Economic History Review 66 (2012), 579600.

11 Dyer, C., An age of transition? Economy and society in England in the later Middle Ages (Oxford 2005), 244.

12 Carpenter, C., ‘Introduction’, in Parkin, K. ed., Calendar of inquisitions post mortem and other analogous documents preserved in the Public Record Office, Vol. XXII: Henry VI (1422–27) (London, 2003), 19.

13 Saul, N., Knights and esquires: the Gloucestershire gentry in the fourteenth century (Oxford, 1981).

14 Wright, S., The Derbyshire gentry in the fifteenth century (Derbyshire Record Society, 1983), 196; Payling, S., Political society in Lancastrian England: the greater gentry of Nottinghamshire (Oxford, 1991), 221. Most had incomes round the £10 mark.

15 ‘Testimonies’ can be used interchangeably with ‘jurors’ since in only in a handful of cases did a juror submit more than one testimony, notably when, in a very few cases, the hearings of sisters of similar age were held together or within a short time of each other. An example is provided by the proofs of Elizabeth Stabolgi and her sister Philippa, who had married a member of the Percy family, heard in Lincoln in May 1376 and in April the following year, respectively. Six of the jurors were used on both occasions: CIPM, xiv, nos. 317 and 346. For the overwhelming majority of jurors, however, their testimony was a unique occasion in their lives.

16 918 jurors mention some contact with the legal system, often using an eyre or other court hearing as a remembrance aid for the birth date. When closer contact is mentioned, a typical juror was a clerk, bailff or other court officer. For example, CIPM, v, no. 421 (1312).

17 Fowler, R. C., ‘Legal proofs of age’, English Historical Review 22 (1907), 101–3; Hunnisett, R. F., ‘The reliability of inquisitions as historical evidence’, in Bullough, D. A. and Storey, R. L. eds., The study of medieval records: essays in honour of Kathleen Major (Oxford, 1971), 206–36; Bedell, J., ‘Memory and proof of age in England, 1272–1327’, Past and Present 162 (1999), 327; Rosenthal, J. T., Telling tales: sources and narration in late medieval England (University Park, PA, 2003), 157.

18 For an extended discussion of the veracity of proofs, see W. S. Deller, ‘Proofs of age 1246 to 1430: their nature, veracity and use as sources’, in M. Hicks ed., The later medieval inquisitions post mortem: mapping the medieval countyside and rural society (Woodbridge, 2016), 136–60.

19 Clanchy, M. T., From memory to written record: England 1066–1307 (London, 1979), 191.

20 Deller, W. S., ‘The texture of literacy in the testimonies of late-medieval English proof-of-age jurors, 1270 to 1430’, Journal of Medieval History 38 (2012), 207–24.

21 W. S. Deller, ‘Proofs of age 1246 to 1430’, 141.

22 J. C. Russell, British medieval population (Alberquerque, 1948), 92–112.

23 One group of jurors at a hearing, for example, brought along the charter they claimed to have witnessed on the day of the heir's birth, ‘which Walter showed to the escheator’: CIPM, xiv, no. 163 (1375).

24 To allow for possible inaccuracy, the data have been analysed using ten-year intervals to smooth out, as far as possible, individual lapses of memory.

25 CIPM, ii, no. 686 (1288).

26 CIPM, ii, no. 739 (1289).

27 For a fuller account of juror questioning, see Deller, W. S., ‘Thirteenth-century proofs of age: the development of a hybrid legal form’, Journal of Legal History 31 (2010), 245–72.

28 Two blatant examples of almost word-for-word copies of a previous proof are CIPM, ix, nos. 590 and 591 from Essex, 24 March 1350 and Kent, 19 May 1350; and CIPM, ix, nos. 9672 and 9670 from Surrey, 14 February 1351 and Sussex, 28 March 1351.

29 CIPM, xx, no. 130 (1413).

30 About 4 per cent of land testimonies directly echoed the content or wording of testimonies from other hearings. Over twice as many ‘crime’ testimonies did so.

31 See note 45.

32 Jurors were nominally chosen by the sheriff to whom the writ was sent. It is likely, however, that heirs or their families had the local knowledge to suggest suitable men.

33 Examples of this approach, using similar methodology, include Lee, B. R., ‘A company of women and men: men's recollection of childbirth in medieval England’, Journal of Family History 27 (2002), 92100; Bailey, B. Gregory et al. , ‘Coming of age and the family in medieval England’, Journal of Family History 33 (2008), 4160; Deller, W. S., ‘The first rite of passage: baptism in medieval memory’, Journal of Family History 36 (2011), 314; Deller, ‘Texture of literacy’.

34 The most extensive recent study of the transfer of customary land concluded that periods of high mortality were associated with peaks in the number of land transfers: Mullan and Britnell, Land and family, 71–4. As for freehold land, in a recent analysis of nearly 25,000 feet of fines records from 21 counties, the authors concluded that both the Great Famine and the plague caused increases in market activity, though of differing natures. Bell, Adrian R., Brooks, Chris and Killick, Helen, ‘A reappraisal of the freehold property market in late medieval England’, Continuity and Change 34 (2019), 287313.

35 Harriss, Gerald, Shaping the nation: England 1360–1461 (Oxford, 2005), 217.

36 Harriss, Shaping the nation, 240.

37 Adrian R. Bell, Chris Brooks and Helen Killick found that the Black Death ‘resulted in a new market for large properties such as those involving manors’ and that ‘war and commerce produced newly wealthy individuals and groups (the buyers) who were able to capitalise on this opportunity’: Bell et al., ‘A reappraisal’, 307.

38 CIPM, iii, no. 435 (1297).

39 CIPM, ii, no. 37 (1273).

40 CIPM, iii, no. 429 (1297).

41 For example, CIPM, iii, no. 621 (1301).

42 CIPM, iii, no. 620 (1300).

43 CIPM, iv, no. 165 (1303).

44 Nicholas was an attorney and the sheriff was standing in for the landowner: CIPM, iii, no. 621 (1301).

45 For example, Nicholas Gamyl ‘went to William Folejaumb to seek his advice on the form of the charter of feoffment’: CIPM, iv, no. 49 (1301).

46 Historians have traditionally used the term ‘market’ in differing ways in the context of peasant land transfer. For example, in his critique of M.M. Postan's argument for the existence of a peasant land market in the twelfth century, P.R. Hyams used the term to denote a substantial and sustained volume of transactions, having its origin in the thirteenth century's growth of population and the resulting land shortage, whereas Postan had in mind the transfer of often small plots that peasants had always exchanged to meet the problems of growing family or old age. Brooke and Postan eds., Carte nativorum; Hyams, P. R., ‘The origins of a peasant land market in England’, Economic History Review 23 (1970), 19.

47 Nicholas Bulloc, for example, saw the heir while in church ‘to seek the clerk to make him a charter of a cottage’: CIPM, vii, no. 480 (1332).

48 I can find only a handful of testimonies (7) which directly mention the loss of land. Examples are CIPM, iii, no. 484 (1298); ix, no. 591 (1350); xii, no. 550 (1363).

49 CIPM, vii, no. 485 (1332).

50 CIPM, xxii, no. 189 (1423).

51 When John de Clyvedon and John de Acton quarelled over a manor in Somerset, there were no fewer than six named witnesses to their eventual agreement, including three knights. The document was indentured, each party keeping half: CIPM, ix, no. 60 (1347).

52 CIPM, ix, no. 60 (1347).

53 This is the only specific mention of the word ‘fealty’ during the whole decade: CIPM, ix, no. 592 (1350).

54 For Thomas de Alford, for example, his feoffment was his marriage contract: CIPM, ix, no. 451 (1350).

55 See also, for example, CIPM, xii, no. 386 (1369).

56 CIPM, xii, no. 376 (1369).

57 The jurors’ testimony was recorded in 1371 recalling a transaction made in 1350: CIPM, xiii, no. 141 (1371). Similarly, Richard Bakester took along three witnesses to mark the payment of his half yearly rent for an oven and got a receipt for good measure: CIPM, xiv, no. 299 (1376).

58 CIPM, xiii, no. 223 (1372).

59 We are not told why he fled. CIPM, xiv, no. 346 (1377).

60 CIPM, xv, no. 659 (1382).

61 For example, CIPM, xviii, nos. 858 (1403), 999 (1403) and 1148 (1405); xix, nos. 343 (1407) and 664 (1409).

62 In 1409, Philip Smyth of Wiltshire paid 20s. in two installments for a messuage and 20 acres: CIPM, xix, no. 786 (1409).

63 In 1416, Thomas Banastre bought an acre of land in Staffordshire for five marks: CIPM, xxi, no. 671 (1416).

64 CIPM, xxiii, nos. 139, 149, 308 and 316.

65 Twenty-four jurors mentioned a ‘virgate’ in their remembrance, of whom four remembered a half virgate, two remembered two virgates, and one three virgates. The usage was mainly southern and western – occurring as far north as Lincolnshire and as far west as Somerset. Half of those mentioning a virgate also specified a ‘messuage’, so they had a complete holding in mind. One hundred and one jurors used the word ‘tenement’ (tenamentum) to describe their land memory, roughly equal to those (103) who employed the term ‘messuage’ (mesuagium). Plural use of the terms, signifying a larger transaction, was comparatively uncommon: of the 36 jurors who recalled several tenements, six occurred in the 1330s and ten in the 1420s.

66 On types of land transferred, throughout the fourteenth century only a few testimonies distinguished between terra and pratum (arable land and meadow). After 1350, the term arabilis (arable) began to be used in the record. The only other commonly mentioned type of land was lignum (wood), where the intention often seemed to be to cut the timber as a crop. Sometimes a wood was sold to a consortium, presumably set up for that purpose. The comparatively high price paid per acre for woods – 20 shillings – in Lincoln, Leicester and Northampton (all purchased from religious proprietors) make the intention clear. Where terra and pratum were distinguished, the transferred meadow was always smaller in area than the arable land involved and seemed to form a unit with it. In all, 21 jurors testified to an exchange of meadow, 13 of whom also specified its size, which in most cases was less than five acres. The references date from 1291 to 1429 and are distributed evenly throughout the period. Sometimes the transfer was not a whole meadow but ‘a piece’. Nine out of the ten instances of the use of the term ‘arable’ came from the first 20 years of the fifteenth century and again referred to mainly small plots – over half recalled a single acre.

67 This section refers only to those jurors specifically mentioning acreages. (See notes above for the use of the terms ‘virgate’, ‘tenement’ and ‘messuage’). Other terms for blocks of land include ‘bovate’ which had a northerly distribution, occurring ten times in an area northwards from Nottinghamshire, and ‘carucate’ which was more popular than either virgate or bovate, with 27 mentions and was the most widely distributed, occurring throughout the southern counties and as far north as York and as far west as Cornwall. About half (13) occurred with ‘messuage’. Its use in the record was concentrated mainly in the 1330s (5 times), the 1350s (7) and the 1360s (6). It ceased to be recorded in 1405. It is never clear whether testimony mentioning acreage had statutory or customary acres in mind.

68 In the fourteenth century, only two records mentioned a purchase price. William Hoetete from Berkshire recalled in 1319 that he sold a tenement for 20 marks but had not been paid for it: CIPM, vi, no. 191; and Henry Pearson from Dorset bought a tenement in 1376 for 100 shillings ‘to hold for life’: CIPM, xiv, no. 296.

69 All the examples were from the south and east of the country, as far north as Lincoln and as far west as Hereford. There are three instances of woodland changing hands at 40 shillings an acre, two from Lincoln and one from Northamptonshire: CIPM, xxii, no. 139; xxiii, no. 419; xxiii, no. 316. In Wiltshire, a testimony in 1409 mentioned that a messuage and 20 acres cost £1 (referring to a transaction in 1388): CIPM, xix, no. 786; in Hereford, a remembrance of 1428 said a messuage and 40 acres sold for 20 marks (i.e. in 1407): CIPM, xxiii, no. 140; three messuages with an unspecified amount of land in Leicester went for £20 in the same year: CIPM, xxiii, no. 308; and in the following year, a similar three messuages cost 20 marks in Northamptonshire: CIPM, xxiii, no. 316; in 1431, a single messuage was purchased for 20 marks in Suffolk: CIPM, xxiii, no. 596. Single acres changed hands in Stafford and Norfolk for five marks in 1416: CIPM, xxi, nos. 671 and 673; and on a larger scale, ten tofts and six cottages cost £40 in Lincolnshire: CIPM, xxiii, no. 139. It is unwise to draw any conclusion from such a small sample, though the sums mentioned were likely to have seemed plausible to contemporaries.

70 The first record to do so was that of John Potel of Sussex in 1326, who paid 6d. a year for one acre in 1305: CIPM, i, no. 536. In 1308, a virgate in Northampton for 25 years cost 12 shillings a year: CIPM, vii, no. 253. In 1270, ‘certain lands’ in Lincolnshire were let for 20 years at 100 shillings per annum: CIPM, ix, no. 451. In 1351, three similar cases from Surrey and Sussex recalled 100 acres going for 60 shillings a year for a lease of between 16 and 22 years (i.e. in 1330): CIPM, ix, nos. 670, 672 and 673.

71 CIPM, xiv, no. 299. Two groups of jurors in the Welsh Marches and Shropshire testified to leasing a whole manor for £10 in 1361 and another for 30 marks per annum in the same year: CIPM, xv, nos. 659 and 894. John Savage paid 6s. 8d. a year for six acres in Dorset in 1388, and William Geny acquired a messuage and 20 acres in Abergavenny for ten shillings a year in 1389: CIPM, xix, nos. 664 and 778.

72 For a more general discussion of the development of literacy during this period, as evidenced by proofs of age, see Deller, ‘Texture of literacy’.

73 CIPM, v, no. 543 (1314); viii, no. 76 (1343).

74 CIPM, ix, no. 61 (1347); xiv, no. 162 (1375).

75 CIPM, ii, no. 817 (1291); iii, no. 432 (1297).

76 CIPM, iii, no. 622 (1300); iv, nos. 49 (1301) and 240 (1304); v, nos. 67 (1308) and 152 (1309).

77 CIPM, iv, no. 49 (1301).

78 Not that it did him much good. He lost his land anyway: CIPM, v, no. 67 (1308). The practice of publicly reading written charters concerning quite small transactions was common: for example, CIPM, v, no. 357 (1311).

79 In 1316, for example, two jurors in the proof of Robert Belet, in Norfolk, referred to the date of their charters, for example, ‘Alan de Swafham of Marham, says the like, and knows it because he bought lands in Marham the same year, and knows the truth by the date of his charters’: CIPM, vi, no. 762. The first mention of a dated charter is from Westminster in 1300 (CIPM, iii, no. 62) and reference to dated documentation is common thereafter.

80 The first reference to an indenture is from Devon in 1316: CIPM, vi, no. 62. Sometimes a witness kept a copy: CIPM, xiv, no. 299 (1376).

81 CIPM, ix, no. 60 (1347).

82 For example, CIPM, vii, no. 480 (1332).

83 Albinus Alcock was in church for that very purpose when he witnessed the heir's baptism: CIPM, xiv, no. 305 (1376).

84 CIPM, xiii, no. 287 (1373).

85 CIPM, x, no. 118 (1353).

86 CIPM, viii, no. 68 (1336).

87 For example, CIPM, xxiii, nos. 139 (1427), 308 (1428), 316 (1429) and 596 (1431).

88 From this (scanty) evidence, it seems that access to the court was dominated by those near to it: five of the references were from jurors living in London and the neighbouring counties of Middlesex, Essex and Surrey; the only other counties represented were Lincoln and Northamptonshire.

89 For one group of jurors, involvement in the law meant loss of liberty. ‘Simon de Asfordeby, Robert Poper, Robert son of Robert, Robert de Kele, William son of Eudo, and Richard son of John, each 50 years of age or more, say the like, and know it because on Saturday next after St. James the Apostle in the same year the said Simon, Robert Paper, and Robert son of Robert, recovered seisin of tenements in Burton Stather, by assise of novel disseisin, before the justices of King Edward II, at the assizes at Lincoln, against the aforesaid Robert de Kele, William, and Richard, and others, and because that disseisin was made by force and arms the said Robert de Kele, William, Richard, and a certain Henry Godknave, were adjudged to the king's prison, to make a fine to the king for that cause, and by this they well know that 21 years have elapsed’: CIPM, viii, no. 65 (1336).

90 CIPM, x, no. 194 (1354).

91 CIPM, xi, no. 378 (1362).

92 CIPM, iii, no. 484 (1298); iv, no. 239 (1304).

93 For example, CIPM, ix, no. 125 (1348).

94 Simon Jacob and William Stacey, for example, were in dispute over ‘two marks of yearly rent’: CIPM, ix, no. 125 (1348).

95 For example, CIPM, ix, no. 451 (1350).

96 For example, CIPM, ix, no. 451 (1350).

97 For example, CIPM, xi, no. 378 (1362).

98 For example, CIPM, xi, no. 381 (1362); xii, no. 85 (1366).

The transfer of land in medieval England from 1246 to 1430: the language of acquisition

  • William S. Deller (a1)


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