In the feudal system the demesne (// di-MAYN; from Old French demeine, ultimately from Latin dominus, "lord, master of a household" – demesne is a variant of domaine with an unetymological s inserted) was all the land, not necessarily all contiguous to the manor house, which was retained by a lord of the manor for his own use and support, under his own management, as distinguished from land sub-enfeoffed by him to others as sub-tenants. The system of manorial land tenure, broadly termed feudalism, was conceived in Western Europe, initially in France but exported to areas affected by Norman expansion during the Middle Ages, for example the Kingdoms of England, Sicily, Jerusalem, Scotland, and Ireland.
In English common law the term ancient demesne referred to those lands that were held by the Crown at the time of the Domesday Book (1086). Immediately following the Norman Conquest of 1066 all land in England was claimed by King William the Conqueror as his absolute title by allodial right, being the commencement of the royal demesne. The king made immediate grants of very large parcels of land under various forms of feudal tenure from this demesne, generally in the form of feudal baronies. The land not so enfeoffed thus remained within the royal demesne, for example royal manors administered by royal stewards and royal hunting forests. It was from the income produced by these manors retained within the royal demesne that the king financed his administration, until the advent of taxation. Manors in the royal demesne were let out at "farm" to the sheriff of each shire in which they were located. Thus in return for an annual fixed payment made by him into the exchequer, known as the "farm", the sheriff was free to extract and retain whatever additional revenue he was able from the land "farmed", which amount was by design, to effect his remuneration for his burdensome office, considerably greater than the "farm". The procedure is fully described in the mediaeval Dialogue of the Exchequer. The royal demesne could be increased, for example, as a result of escheat or forfeiture where a feudal tenure would end and revert to its natural state in the royal demesne. During the reign of King George III (1760-1820), Parliament appropriated most of the royal demesne, in exchange for a fixed annual sum thenceforth payable to the monarch, called the Civil List. The position of the royal estate of Windsor, still occupied by the monarch and never alienated since 1066, may be a rare remnant of the royal demesne.
Barton of the West Country
The term "barton" (Old English: beretun) was historically used almost synonymously with "demesne" in the West Country of England, principally in Devon and Cornwall. In the post-feudal era, its use survives today to designate a large farmhouse near the manor house, or a former manor house which suffered a loss of status being later used or let as a farmhouse. Richard Carew (d.1620), in his 1602 "Survey of Cornwall" defined "barton" thus: "That part of the demesne which appertaineth to the lord's dwelling-house they call his barton". However, there are instances of parts of the barton being let (rented) out to tenants, in a way that uses barton effectively as a synonym for the manor rather than for that part of the manor directly managed by the lord of the manor.
A well-known historic barton is Barton Regis ("Barton of the king"), now a suburb of Bristol, Gloucestershire, but originally an estate comprising the barton of the royal Bristol Castle, where the castle's provisions were produced and stored.
Initially the demesne lands were worked on the lord's behalf by villeins or by serfs, who had no right of tenure on it, in fulfillment of their feudal obligations. As a money economy developed in the later Middle Ages, the serfs' corvée came to be commuted to money payments. With the advent of the early modern period, demesne lands came to be cultivated by paid labourers. Eventually many of the demesne lands were leased out either on a perpetual (i.e., hereditary) or a temporary renewable basis so that many peasants functioned virtually as free proprietors after having paid their fixed rents. In times of inflation or debasement of coinage, the rent might come to represent a pittance, reducing the feudal aristocrat to poverty among a prosperous gentry. Demesne lands that were leased out for a term of years remained demesne lands, though no longer in the occupation of the lord of the manor (see, for example, Musgrave v Inclosure Commissioners (1874) LR 9 QB 162, a case in which the three judges of the Queen's Bench Divisional Court and everyone else concerned assumed without argument that farms which were let by the lord of the manor were part of the lord’s demesne land).
Since the demesne surrounded the principal seat of the lord, it came to be loosely used of any proprietary territory: "the works of Shakespeare are this scholar's demesne."
- "Demesne - Define Demesne at Dictionary.com". Dictionary.com.
- James Robert Vernam Marchant; Joseph Fletcher Charles. "Cassell's Latin Dictionary". cdict.giga.net.tw.
- "manor". TheFreeDictionary.com.
- Collins English Dictionary, London, 1986, p.125: from bere, barley + tun, stockade
- Byrne, Muriel St. Clare, (ed.) The Lisle Letters, 6 vols, University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1981, vol.1, p.622, note 1, discussing Carew's definition
- e.g. Simonsbath Barton, near Simonsbath House, Exmoor
- e.g. Brightley Barton, Chittlehampton and West Molland Barton in Molland, both in Devon
- Carew, Richard, Survey of Cornwall, 1602, p.111
- Court books and rolls of the Manor of Cuttenbeake 1588 listing tenants of the barton of Cuttenbeak.