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Land and Property Records including Title Deeds

Nature of Source

Documents recording various methods of conveying property or land proving entitlement to ownership. Up to 1926 copyhold and freehold were the two main forms of tenure. Property transactions can be traced back to medieval times and feudal society. Under feudalism, the lord of the manor held all lands and allowed the use of these lands under condition of some form of service, usually knight service in the case of free tenure, or labour service if unfree. The only mechanism for legally transferring freehold land was by means of a public act of enfeoffment called ‘livery of seisin’ in which an actual clump of the land passed hands in the witness of others. No written deed was necessary until 1677, when the Statute of Frauds made it compulsory. Over time written evidence of a transfer (a deed) became necessary especially as the lord was compelled to accept a tenant as the legal heir.

By the 13th century a standard form of deed had evolved called a deed of gift or feoffment. Feoffment recorded real property sales which increased following the Statute of Wills in 1540 which allowed land to be legally devised (given in a will). An alternative simple form of conveyance known as Bargain and Sale became possible from 1535 which removed the need of a ‘livery of seisin’. Whilst this method lacked the legal guarantee of title provided with a feoffment, the Statute of Uses of 1535 effectively provided such guarantees. Often a combination of both methods of sale were used. Although the Bargain and Sale with enfeoffment did provide an adequate conveyance, there were certain drawbacks and so the Lease and Release method evolved in the early 17th century. These are two linked but separate documents created to transfer property from one party to another. It allowed for a secret but legally valid method of selling property.

By the mid 18th century, lease and release was virtually the only form of conveyance and was finally abolished by the Real Property Act of 1845.

Land and property records are better understood with a basic understanding of property ownership. The transfer of land was determined by the feudal system. The essential tenet of the feudal system of land tenure was that in theory all land belonged to the Crown, as the ultimate superior. The Crown could assign a Tenant-in-Chief with the use or benefit of the land in return for some service such as his ability to raise men at arms and generally administer the land on behalf of the Crown. The Tenant-in-Chief could then parcel out land to tenants or vassals who owes the superior 'fealty' or loyalty and also 'homage'. The owner could pass the land to an heir but within a strict set of rules. The superior received 'feu duty' from the vassal usually in the form of some physical payment at the point of the transfer. However, if a person died intestate or without legal heir, the crown as the ultimus haeres or last heir assumed ownership of the moveable and heritable (property or land) assets. In the event of a minor becoming the legal heir, the crown would assume control until such point that the minor became of age.

The territorial rank immediately below the Crown was the Earl who controlled territory known as an Earldom followed by manorial lord in England and Barony in Scotland. In Scotland the title of baron is not a noble title (unlike England) which means that barons are not peers and therefore do not sit in the house of lords. The opposite to feudal property tenure is allodial tenure which means full and absolute ownership of land without obligation of service to any superior. The land is held outright by the individual as opposed to feudal tenure in which the crown owns all land and grants use of land to his or her subjects. Since 2004 all privately held land in Scotland is allodial. In England the crown remains the sole owner of all land and the tenure is held by fee simple

Forms of Land Tenure

1. Freehold

There were three types of freehold interest in land:

Fee Simple

Land and property held in fee simple gives the owner absolute ownership without restriction and can be transferred to anyone by will, gift or sale, without legal restriction.

Fee Tail

Land and property held by fee tail ensured that property inheritance was restricted to the male line and ensured land was kept within the family. In the event of no male issue the land reverted back to the original grantee. Land held under fee tail would not appear in a will. Fee tails often generated disputes and these were dealt with in equity courts such as the Chancery court. 13th century disputes were known as mort d'ancestors and were heard at the General Eyre, Assizes, King's Bench or Court of Common Pleas. Later disputes were known as novel disseisins. The records are kept at The National Archives (TNA). Sometimes a private Act of Parliament was promoted in order to break an entailed property. A fictitious law suit normally heard at the Court of Common Pleas and known as Common Recovery could be used to break an entail. The judgement sought was to confirm that the buyer was entitled to buy a property in fee simple. The judgements can be found at TNA on the Plea Rolls until 1583 in series CP 43. There are indexes in series CP 60.

Life Estate

A property held by life estate allowed a tenant to remain in possession of the property only for the duration of the tenant's life after which time the interest reverted to the original holder.

2. Copyhold

Copyhold Property not held by freehold was known as copyhold tenure. Copyhold tenure is most associated with manorial governance and feudalism but continued as a form of tenure into the 20th century. The manor itself was classified as freehold land but those that occupied individual dwellings were tenants of the lord of the manor. Copyhold tenants had little control over their property and required permission from the manor to inherit, sell, sublet, buy or mortgage their copyhold property. These transactions, referred to as Surrenders and Admissions, were recorded in the manorial Court Roll or Court Book with a copy given to the tenant. These records are also found amongst close, plea and recovery rolls and cartularies (charters).

Two types of copyhold tenure existed.

Heritable Copyhold

Heritable copyhold allowed the tenant to pass the property to an heir, usually the eldest son (primogeniture, the most widespread custom) or youngest son (borough english often practised in East Anglia) or equally between all sons (gavelkind, practised in Kent). By the mid 19th century most copyhold land had been converted to freehold and in 1922 copyhold tenure was abolished and in 1925 all copyhold land was converted to freehold.

Copyhold for Lives

Secondly, copyhold for lives allowed property to be passed to usually three lives such as the tenant, his wife and his heir. When all three had died, the land reverted to the lord who could then grant it to a new tenant. Copyhold for lives was often converted to leasehold.

3. Leasehold

A lease gave tenure of a property but not ownership for a fixed period in return for a stated rent. The lease could be fixed for a certain amount of years or fixed for the term of three lives such as the father, the son and daughter. The lease could extend through generations of the same family if renewed for another three lives. If the husband as the lease holder died the widow would assume the remaining portion of the lease until her death. Remaining portions of a lease could also be bequeathed in a will.

Title Deeds

A title deed was drawn up to transfer property and or rights from one person to another. The vendor was obliged to produce the deed by which the property was acquired. Before the Law of Property Act of 1925, the entire series of deeds was required at the point of sale and could cover hundreds of years. The Act of 1925 rendered this obligation redundant and only required the production of deeds up to 30 years back or back to the last person's deed whichever was earlier. Deeds describe the exact nature of a person's interest in a property whether held by freehold, leasehold or copyhold. Many were destroyed and those remaining can be found in County Record Offices. Title deed papers can include grants, sales, leases, agreements and settlements of disputes and can provide a detailed description of the property and a plan since 1840 as well as contracts for sale and auction catalogues. Where property or land was inherited rather than bought, it is possible that a copy of the will might be found amongst a bundle of title deeds. If the will dealt solely with the transfer of property, it is possible that the will was not proved at court and might have remained undiscovered. Civil registration certificates and copies of entries from parish registers can also be found amongst deed papers.

Deed Registers

Deed registers document transactions on a piece of land whereas a title registration officially records the owner of the land. A voluntary system of property, deed and land registration began in 1862 with the establishment of the Land Registry in London. However, Some local registries were in operation before 1862, notably in the Yorkshire ridings (East, North and West) and Middlesex as well as Ireland. The Middlesex records are now at the London Metropolitan Archives, West Riding 1704-1970 at Wakefield Archives, East Riding at the Archives and Local Studies Service, Beverley and North Riding at the North Yorkshire County Record Office, Northallerton. A fifth registry covering the Bedford Levels is kept by Cambridgeshire Archives. Also see the London Metropolitan Archives Information Leaflet Number 38 The Middlesex Deeds Registry, 1709-1938 and the TNA Research Guide Enrolment of deeds and registration of titles to land.

Compulsory registration was made in 1897 to cover counties throughout England and Wales and became universal after 1925. Complete coverage of England and Wales was achieved by 1990. The written records kept in the registry of deeds were known as memorials with an abstract of the original certificate given to property or land owner. The name of the person owning the property must be known to search the registers but may not appear at all if the person held land under a lease for less than 25 years.

Land and Property Disputes

One of the main causes of legal wrangling often concerned disputes over land and property possession and occupancy. Land tenure is an issue of great complexity partly as a result of the difficulties in proving ownership and establishing a rightful heir. Land tenure disputes occurred where two or more parties challenged each others claim to ownership or tenancy of a piece of land or property. The case for each party could be argued in a court of law with a final decision arrived at by a judge or jury.

Land tenure disputes were heard in common law courts or courts of equity. In the 13th century three competing courts were active in hearing common law cases, namely the Exchequer (which later developed into an equity court), the Court of Common Pleas, and the King's Bench. In the 12th century the King's Court (Curia Regis) divided into two separate entities. Firstly the Court of Common Pleas and secondly the King's Bench. Equity courts such as the Chancery and Exchequer courts did not develop until the mid-14th century and for many offered a fairer less rigid system of justice. At a local level customary law, upheld in courts such as the Court Baron or Court Customary, controlled land tenure issues.

Civil cases were built around the writ system with different writs issued depending on the type of case. Pleadings in which the parties outlined their claims and counterclaims were taken orally so no official record exists. The outcome itself only generated a rather brief set of documents with few details. The legal profession relies to some extent on precedence and for this reason many pleadings were recorded unofficially by law students. The transcripts are known as year books and many have been transcribed from the original French to English.

Although land tenure disputes were settled in a court of common law, a number of other supplementary sources could shed light on the case itself. Wills were sometimes made solely as a mechanism for property and land distribution and could offer important background information about a court case. Close rolls recorded the workings of the Chancery and were used to enrol land related documents such as deeds of sale, wills, leases and quit claims. Fine rolls also a product of the Chancery covered areas such as occupying inherited land and Patent rolls dealt with land issues such as land rights. After a dispute a person may have used a fictitious court case in one of the common law courts to establish the right of ownership. The resulting feet of fine or final concord provided a land owner with a court ruling conferring land rights to an individual. Other property documents such as charters and title deeds could provide additional and supplementary information on a land tenure dispute.

Also see
Court of Wards & Liveries

Enclosure Maps and Awards
Feet of Fines/Final Concords
House Histories
Land Tax Assessments & Returns
Return of Owners of Land
Valuation Office Field Books & Maps
Wills and Inheritance and Letters of Administration (Admons) (pre-1858)

Where Found

County Record Offices (Holdings include calendars and indexes. ARCHON Directory: Find the details of a UK archive from a searchable list of over 2,500 archives The catalogue can be found on the TNA Discovery home page)
British Library
The National Archives
Land Registry
Solicitors, building societies and banks

Period Covered

1220 - Onwards

Genealogical Value

Name, address, occupation and marital status of grantees and grantors (buyers and sellers). Description of land or property. Sometimes father or grandfather's name, residence and occupation. Sometimes death date of former owner. Wills and maps are often attached to the documents. Family relationships are often outlined in some detail. Useful for house histories.

Further References

Alcock, N.W. Old Title Deeds: A Guide for Local and Family Historians: Phillimore, 2001


Durie, Bruce. Documents for Genealogy & Local History: The History Press, 2013


Cornwall, Julian. An Introduction to Reading Old Title Deeds: Federation of Family History Societies, 1997


Jacob, Giles. A New Law-Dictionary: Containing The Interpretation and Definition of Words and Terms Used in the Law: London, 1729 five editions (Some editions available to read online or download from Google Books and the Internet Archive)


Munby, Lionel M. & Thompson, Kathryn (eds) Short Guides to Records: First Series-Guides 1-24: The Historical Association, 1994


Oates, Jonathan. Tracing Your Ancestors from 1066 to 1837: Pen and Sword Books, 2012


Round, J.H. (ed). Rotuli de Dominabus et Pueris et Puellis de XII Comitatibus (1185): Pipe Roll Society, 1913 (The book provides information on the land held by widows, heiresses and wards of court of tenants-in-chief or in the gift of the king. A digitised Latin version is available to download or read online at the Internet Archive. The book is also available to view at The National Archives in series E 198/1/2)


Webb, Clifford. Dates and Calendars for the Genealogist: Society of Genealogists, 2013


Westcott, Brooke. Making Sense Of Latin Documents For Family And Local Historians: Family History Partnership, 2014


Wormleighton, Tim. Title Deeds for Family Historians: Family History Partnership, 2012


TNA Research Guides:
Enrolment of deeds and registration of titles to land
Land conveyances by feet of fines 1182-1833
Land inheritance in the Court of Wards and Liveries 1540-1645

Websites and (Worked example of using Land Tax and other records including Tithe Maps) (In depth description of deeds and property transfers, including a glossary and flowchart to locating property records) (Guide to estate records and property tenure) (Who Owns England? A Guide to Modern Domesdays)
British Records Association
(The association offers advice and guidance on the care and preservation of historic archival material with special emphasis on title deeds. Publishes genealogical related books and free online guides) (The British Records Association Guidelines including "Interpreting Deeds: How To Interpret Deeds-A Simple Guide And Glossary") (Landed families of Britain and Ireland: Results of long-term research into the landowning families of the British Isles and the country houses which they owned. Each post will concern the history and properties of a particular family, making it possible to trace both the links from families to houses and from houses to their owners over time)
How to interpret deeds (A guide from the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service) (English Weights & Measures and Money & Coins) (Old English Money)

Online Databases

Online Catalogues (Listing of online catalogues for the partial whereabouts of records including Access to Archives [A2A], National Register of Archives [NRA])
(Inheritance Disputes Index 1574-1714. Search more than 77,000 names of those involved in over 26,000 law suits at the English Court of Chancery. The index covers the wills, bequests, grants of administration, descent of property, identity claims and other testamentary disputes tried in the Chancery Court in London. The index also contains the reference of the original record held at The National Archives) (City of York Deeds Registers, 1718-1866) (Land Registry Digital Archives. Free online access to summaries and scanned images of Land Registry’s historical 1862 Act Register of around 2,000 individual properties registered across England & Wales)
Manorial Documents Register (Partial whereabouts of records) 
The National Archives Discovery Catalogue (Summary description of records)
British Library Manuscript Catalogue (Summary description of records) (Warwickshire, Miscellaneous Parish Records including deeds produced in association with Warwickshire County Record Office)
British History Online (Catalogue of Ancient Deeds: Online and searchable transcripts of ancient deeds held at TNA) (Original manuscripts available for purchase)

CD Roms

S & N Genealogy Supplies (Deeds Index Database: Searchable database with approximately 11,000 deeds, documents, certificates, etc)