I'm curious on how feudalism (in medieval England primarily) worked in practice. It's pretty straight forward on paper. This is my trail of thoughts, trying to wrap my head around it.

I have just conquered a new land and declared myself the king. I have 99 loyal barons, so I give them one manor each, dividing the land into 100 parts, keeping the largest piece for my self (of course!), in exchange for their continued loyalty and 40 days of military service every year. But they don't want to fight themselves so they decides to divide their manors into smaller manors and give them to their knights, let's say they get three knights each, so now there are 99 * 4 + 1 = 397 manors (99 manors, divided into 4 smaller ones, plus my own big manor). This all works out fine for me, because I still get to collect taxes as well as I now have 99 * 3 = 297 knights in my army rather then just 99 - great! But now I get three sons, and I want to give them some land as well, what do I do? I guess I could divide my own manor into four parts and give them one manor each, but then I would loose wealth myself, wouldn't I since my manor is now smaller, or doesn't that matter, they are still paying taxes to me I guess? Or should I give my sons someone else's manor, but that would leave me with some rather disappointed barons, and that doesn't sound good. England has got quite a lot of civil wars through history though, perhaps that's the reason? Or was it that those first 100 manors I divided the country in wasn't in fact all land in the country, and up until now there have been "unused" land that no one was managing, but now that I have tree sons I can give them parts of that land?

I think that the Domesday book list something like 9000 manors, or at least I think that there are around 10000 shires in England today, that roughly corresponds to the old manors. But how many manors were there in the beginning (around 1066)? Did William the Conqueror sit down directly after the battle of Hastings and divided his new country into 10000 manors just like that, or did they pop up one by one as the years went by?

To clarify the question, it is the continues division of the land over centuries to come that I'm curious about, how did they do it without stepping one someone toes and stealing land from someone else?

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    Your sons are SOL unless you want to fragment your principality like what happened in Rus. There's a reason that primogeniture was a popular succession law.
    – SPavel
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 19:22
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    You are actually describing the number 1 reason for succession wars and the number 1 reason for conquest...those sons either get their land by taking from you or taking from someone else. You're not alone in the dilemma...your 99 Barons have 3 male children each and are in the same situation too.
    – Twelfth
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 19:27
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    First inherits; second enters the church; third goes on crusade.For example, Henry VIII studied for the priesthood until his (older) brother Arthur died. For a German example of continuous division, see Saxon Duchies. Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 19:31
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    See also Appanage for how the French attempted to "sweeten the pill of promogeniture". Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 19:40
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    Note that William the Conqueror confiscated very nearly all English landholdings, and distributed it between substantially fewer supporters. He took a vast slice for himself in the process, from which many more could be and were rewarded. Of course, royal holdings were also constantly being supplemented by confiscations. The point is that even after the initial redistribution, the king could still hand out many lands without really breaking a sweat.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 21:36

1 Answer 1


I cannot offer a complete answer but some relevant facts, many from my history degree or from having subsequently studied law. In theory, no one absolutely owned land but the king, everyone else if they had land 'held' it of the king. Hence the most complete from of land ownership that someone can have even today is 'freehold' i.e. held as a vassal of the monarch but 'free' of having to pay rent or perform knightly service etc. (Source, Halsbury’s Laws of England 5th Edition, Vol 87 [2017 reissue] para. 19)

Hence in Medieval times if a Baron was e.g. executed for treason (say, having picked the side that lost in a rebellion or civil war) his land reverted to the Crown, who might grant it to some other knight or baron as a reward for loyalty (picking the side that won in the same rebellion or civil war) - see the example at the end of Shakespeare's 'Richard II' when the new king Henry IV having successfully rebelled and made himself the new king and then put down a further rebellion orders the defeated rebels executed and awards their lands to those who remained loyal to him.

Even today in England if someone owning land dies without a will and without any relatives to inherit the land, ditto in some circumstances if a limited company that owns or leases land is dissolved, the land or lease reverts to being Crown land on the basis that it always was the monarch's to begin with. This is called 'bona vacantia'. There is an obscure 'Bona Vacantia Division' of a government department in Croydon to administer this. [Before I am told off by the vigilant 'you must quote your sources' police on this website anyone can easily verify this by Googling 'bona vacantia'.]

Your example where the king gives 99 barons land and some of them sub-divide their landholding between knights: this did happen and was called 'sub-infeudation' [Google that as well, pedants! there is a Wikipedia article on it] but once the knights began sub-dividing their holdings as well it became legally and practically difficult for the nobility to extract all the rent or services due to them as is recited by Section I of the Statute of Quia Emptores of 1290. Section II of the Stature therefore banned further sub-infeudation. (Source: Quia Emptores, passed during the reign of King Edward I, one of the oldest Acts of Parliament still in force. On the UK government legislation website, helpfully in English translation as well as the original Medieval Latin: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/aep/Edw1/18/1/contents. As I have said, this Act is still in force, so you had better not go round practicing sub-infeudation!)

In most of England primogeniture applied, which meant the eldest son got all the land and any others had to seek their own fortune in the world. (Kent and some towns including Nottingham had different customary inheritance rules - See https://www.thefreedictionary.com/gavelkind or Google ‘Gavelkind’ – equal division among the children; See Wikipedia article on 'Ultimogeniture' or Google ‘Borough English Inheritance’ – basically the youngest son rather than the eldest inherits the land.)

Hence even in the eighteenth century a significant proportion of emigrants to the American colonies were the younger sons of landowners who did not inherit the land and had to make their own fortune elsewhere. This may have remained a sore point with some of them: it has been suggested (I regret I can't remember where I read this) that opposition to primogeniture in the new United States was partly because its leaders were or were descended from the younger sons who resented the fact that they did not inherit any of the family land back in England. Thomas Jefferson introduced a bill to abolish it in Virginia in 1777.

Primogeniture was not the norm in most other European countries. While it seems unfair it had advantages. If estates and farms had to be sub-divided between all surviving sons they might become too small to be economically efficient or even viable. Also, in Anglo-Saxon England a kingdom tended to be inherited as a whole: contrast among e.g. the Welsh or in early-Medieval France the kingdom might be split between surviving sons, leaving smaller kingdoms less likely to strong enough to maintain their independence and often likely to fight each other.

Your statement "I think that there are around 10000 shires in England today" - no, a 'shire' is effectively the same thing as a County, hence 'the County of Yorkshire. There are less than 50 in England. [Source - I am English, so know this]. There are a much larger number of lords of the manor, see Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_of_the_manor I do not know how many, you may be thinking of that. This is mostly a feudal relic nonsense I wish was abolished, and most people are unaware of them. However, as relics of the old feudal manors they did have right to receive nominal rents from what was known as Copyhold land until the 1930s, and they can pop up unexpectedly and claim right to minerals discovered under people's land even today. This creates a legal problem over ownership of underground oil deposits that has partly inhibited the spread of 'fracking' technology to extract oil deposits in England in recent years.

  • Source for hence Thomas Jefferson not wanting primogeniture in the new United States: its leaders were or were descended from the younger sons who resented? From what I read Jefferson was at least second generation "American", so it seems like a lot of grudge (and more for a family that, after all, was well off). There are other possible reasons to be against primogeniture (for example avoiding concentration of land in too few hands, primogeniture being linked to nobility and/or medieval economical system at a time that capitalism was starting...).
    – SJuan76
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 21:43
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    SJuan76 - source for Jefferson personally being against primogeniture economist.com/blogs/lexington/2010/10/… but where I read about this being because many of the leading men of the Colonies were descended from younger sons who emigrated because they missed out under primogeniture I cannot instantly remember or find. I agree this would not be the only reason. E.g. where the right to vote was limited to property owners one might want property spread among more people so more could participate in electing legislators.
    – Timothy
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 23:20
  • This looks like a good answer but it would be good if you provided some sources. Maybe I'm not the only one who wants to read more (?)
    – JLK
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 23:32
  • JLK - Thank you for your comment. I have added sources for local alternative customs to primogeniture in Medieval and later England and qualified what I said about Thomas Jefferson's reasons for opposing primogeniture. It will take me longer to find sources re e.g. some of the things I recalled about Anglo-Saxon England and I have to stop now, so that must wait day or two.
    – Timothy
    Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 0:52
  • "Google that as well, pedants! there is a Wikipedia article on it" - Presumably you googled it and saw the wiki url, so why not simply insert the link instead of the flame bait? Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 14:15

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