Copyhold tenure was a form of customary tenure of land common in England from the Middle Ages. The land was held according to the custom of the manor, and the mode of landholding took its name from the fact that the "title deed" received by the tenant was a copy of the relevant entry in the manorial court roll. A tenant who held land in this way was known as a copyholder.
The privileges granted to each tenant, and the exact services he was to render to the Lord of the Manor in return for them, were described in the roll or book kept by the Steward, who gave a copy of the relevant entry to the tenant. Consequently, these tenants were afterwards called copyholders, in contrast to freeholders. The actual term "copyhold" is first recorded in 1483, and "copyholder" in 1511-12. The specific rights and duties of copyholders varied greatly from one manor to another and many were established by custom. Initially, some works and services to the Lord were required of copyholders (4 days work per year for example), but these were commuted later to a rent equivalent. Each manor custom laid out rights to use various resources of the land such as wood and pasture, and numbers of animals allowed on the common. Copyholds very commonly required the payment of a type of death duty called an heriot upon the decease of the copyholder; to the Lord of the manor.
Two main kinds of copyhold tenure developed:
- Copyhold of Inheritance: with one main tenant landholder who paid rent and undertook duties to the Lord. When he died, the holding normally passed to his next heir(s) – who might be the eldest son or, if no son existed, the eldest daughter (primogeniture); the youngest son or, if no son existed, the youngest daughter ("Borough English" or ultimogeniture); or all sons or all children in equal or otherwise prescribed shares (partible inheritance or "gavelkind"), depending upon the custom of that particular manor. In practice, local rules of inheritance were often applied with considerable flexibility. During their life the tenant could usually 'sell' the holding to another person by formally surrendering it to the lord of the manor on the condition that the lord regrant it to the 'buyer'. This three-party transaction was recorded in the manorial roll and formed the new 'copyhold' for the purchaser.
- Copyhold for Lives: where several (usually three) named persons held the premises for the duration of their lives. The first-named life tenant acted as tenant and paid rent and heriots; while the other two were said to be "in reversion and remainder" and effectively formed a queue. When the first life died, the second-named inherited the property and nominated a new third life for the end of the new queue. These were recorded in the court rolls as the "copyhold" for this type of tenant. It was possible to exchange the reversion and remainder lives with different ones during a lifetime upon payment of a fine to the lord. However, it was not usually possible for these holdings to be sold, as there were three lives with an entitlement. Copyhold for Lives is therefore regarded as a less secure tenancy than Copyhold of Inheritance.
Copyhold land often did not appear in a will. This is because its inheritance was already pre-determined by custom, as just described. It could not therefore be given or devised in a will to any other person. In some instances, the executor of the estate held the copyhold for the term of one year after the decease of the testator, which was called the "executor's year", in parallel with the same concept in common law. Language regarding the disposal of the profits of the executor's year or of a heriot often indicates a copyhold.
Copyholds were gradually enfranchised (turned into ordinary holdings of land – either freehold or 999-year leasehold) as a result of the Copyhold Acts during the 19th century. By this time, servitude to the Lord of the Manor was merely token, discharged on purchasing the copyhold by payment of a "fine in respite of fealty". Part V of the Law of Property Act 1925 finally extinguished the last of them.
- Tenure in feu (the general name for the following)
- Tenure of villeinage (which preceded copyhold).
- Bland, W., Enclosure of Commons and Waste Lands, formerly in the townships of Belper, Duffield, Hazelwood, Heage, Holbrooke, Turnditch, and elsewhere in the old Parish of Duffield, jjb.uk.com
- "copyhold, copyholder". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.) (subscription required)
- William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1753), Book 2, Chapter VI "Of the Modern English Tenures"
- Andrew Barsby (1996). Manorial Law.
- Gray, C. M. (1963). Copyhold, Equity and the Common Law.
- Scriven, John, (Serjeant at law), A treatise on copyhold, customary freehold, and ancient demesne tenure: with the jurisdiction of Courts baron and Courts leet; also an appendix, containing rules for holding Customary courts, Courts baron and Courts leet, forms of court rolls, deputations, and copyhold assurances, and extracts from the relative acts of Parliament, 2 vols., 2nd. ed., London, 1823.
- Tawney, R. H. (1912). The Agrarian Problem of the Sixteenth Century.