Feudal relief was a one-off "fine" or form of taxation payable to an overlord by the heir of a feudal tenant to licence him to take possession of his fief, i.e. an estate-in-land, by inheritance. It is comparable to a death duty or inheritance tax.
The equivalent duty at the lower levels of the feudal hierarchy was heriot (in England) or le droit du meilleur catel (in France).
The word relief comes from the Latin verb levo, to raise, lift up, elevate, with the addition of the Latin inseparable adverbial particle re-, which has three distinct meanings: back, against and again. The Latin composite verb relevo results. The term used in mediaeval Latin charters is Relevius. The payment thus obtains an heir's "relief" by his being "re-elevated" or "lifted-up again" into the place of honour and privilege formerly occupied by his predecessor.
As fiefs were originally granted by William the Conqueror as a reward for past service, there was no logical reason in feudal terms why the tenant's heir should take up the fief without himself having provided the king with some similar valuable past service. The payment of a fine for such "relief" can thus be seen within the logic of feudalism as payment in-lieu of such past service. Thus the right to inherit a fief was akin to a pre-emption right: the king would re-grant the fief to the heir in priority to a third party, so long as the heir paid his fine. This was a valuable right as the heir was more expert in the exploitation of the fief in question than of any other comparable estate of land, for example he was aware through experience of its optimal cropping rotation based on its differing soil-types and micro-climates, and he had available a local work-force loyal to his family.
Example from Pipe Rolls
Ricardus filius Willelmi de Scalariis II pro relevio suo de dimidia baronia...£... (received from Richard son of William de Scalarius II for his relief concerning half a barony.....the sum of £...prob. £50)
Varieties of relief
In the case of a feudal baron, that is to say one who held per barioniam, it is termed "baronial relief", set at £100. Following Magna Carta of 1215, the standard rates became one quarter of a year's profit of the estate payable by an under-tenant, and a full year's profit payable by a non-baronial tenant-in-chief.
It is clear from the pre-eminent positioning in Magna Carta(1215), of the clauses concerning the regulation of relief, that the question of the exaction of extortionate reliefs was one of the major complaints made by the barons to King John. These clauses, in order numbers 2 and 3 follow no other but a clause which promises the free election of bishops to the English church, an issue of paramount significance in the mediaeval world. There can be no better exposition of the charging structure than that given in the Charter itself, which is quoted as follows:
(2)"If any earl, baron or other person who holds lands directly from the Crown for military service shall die, and at his death his heir shall be of full age and owe a Relief, the heir shall have his inheritance on payment of the ancient scale of Relief. That is to say, the heir or heirs of an earl shall pay £100 for the entire earl's barony, the heir or heirs of a knight 100 shillings at most for the entire knight's fee and any man that owes less shall pay less in accordance with the ancient usage of fees".
(3)"But if the heir of such a person is under age (i.e. 21) and a ward, when he comes of age he shall have his inheritance without Relief or fine".
In summary therefore Magna Carta set feudal relief for earls (who all held per baroniam and were therefore themselves barons) at £100 and for knights at 100 shillings ( i.e. £5) per knight's fee, in both cases restoring the rates to their traditional levels. Although no mention appears to be made of the rates payable by barons for their baronies, it is known that the level set was as for earls, £100. The relative proportion of relief for barony and knight's fee of 20:1 seems to imply that originally a barony consisted of, or was equivalent in some way, to 20 knight's fees.
- Sanders, I.J. English Baronies, A Study of their Origin & Descent 1086-1327, Oxford, 1960
- Cassell's Latin Dictionary, revised by Marchant & Charles, 260th. thousand
- Sanders, 1960, op.cit. p.30, barony of Caxton, footnote 6
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th. ed., vol. 14, "Knighthood"
- Davis, G.R.C., Magna Carta, Published by the British Library Board, London, 4th. ed.,1982, p.24
- Sanders, 1960, preface, vi