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The will of my ancestor, Matthew Wilson of Wannerton, dated 1776, refers to "my Freehold or Copyhold Lands or Tenements in the parish of Clent or elsewhere".

What do the terms freehold and copyhold mean? What is the difference between them?

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2 Answers 2

Freehold land is land owned outright, for an unlimited duration. A freeholder can dispose of their property as they wish, before or at death.

Copyhold land was land held by a manorial tenant. To take over a tenancy (e.g. at the death of the previous tenant) the new tenant had to pay a fine (heriot) at the manor court, and their resulting right to hold that land was recorded in the court rolls of the manor, of which they were given a copy (hence copyhold). Copyhold came with a set of rights and obligations which were enforced at the manorial courts, including rules about how (and even if) the land could be handed on after death. Because of these restrictions, copyhold land did not often get mentioned in wills, as the tenant did not have freedom to dispose of it as he or she chose.

A 'Lease for 3 lives' was not uncommon, predetermining a list of three individuals who would take over the tenancy in succession (on payment of the relevant heriot at each death). I have an example in my own family of a lease for 3 lives that includes a widow (Elinor John), her son (Charles John) and his sister's son (Charles James) -- at the time the copyhold was granted to Elinor, her eldest son Charles did not have a family of his own, so they had to choose one of Elinor's daughter's children to keep the tenancy in the family for longer.

Copyhold tenure was abolished in England and Wales by the Law of Real Property Act in 1922 that required copyhold tenure to be converted into freehold on the payment of compensation to the lord of the manor. The process was complete by the mid 1930s when copyhold land ceased to exist.

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Broadly speaking freehold is absolute ownership of land (technically of real property which means land and all immovable structures attached to it) or at least the closest thing to absolute ownership you can get as technically all land in England belongs to the Crown and a freeholder holds their land in fee simple from the crown in perpetuity.

The key point is that no money or service was owed by a freeholder to the crown or any other overlord.

A copyhold was a form of tenure, now abolished, which derived it's name from the fact that the record of the tenancy was copied into the court rolls of the manor from which the land was held. Like other forms as tenure such as leasehold some form of service was due in return for the right to use the land.

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