Manuscripts and Special Collections

Freehold land

Detail from Ne D 2622 - Exemplification of a common recovery

Freehold land was and is held 'in fee simple'. Freehold land was owned absolutely by the owner, who was free to sell it, pass it by will, or settle it, so that it passed to anyone he or she choosed. If no other arrangements were made, the land would pass to the heir of the owner after his or her death.

This definition is true for all periods. However, researchers should be aware of the special legal status of married women until the late nineteenth century. Marriage was crucial for the economic prospects of middle and upper-class women, because few of them were able to earn their own livings. However, marriage also put an end to any economic independence a woman might have had. According to Blackstone, the legal commentator writing in the 1760s,

'By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs every thing' [Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769), Book 1, Chapter 15, Section III]

Therefore, all land owned by women became the legal property of her husband after their marriage, and any transactions were done in his name. This remained the case until the Married Women's Property Act of 1882.

The ways used by lawyers to record the legal transfer of freehold property varied over time. In this section, the main types of deeds are explained on a roughly chronological basis


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