What is Copyhold?

Copy Court Roll, Atherstone.
Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR4691/1

Copyhold is one of the three main forms of land ownership found in the post-medieval period. Freehold corresponds to ownership as we now know it, and Leasehold refers to property held on a lease for a fixed period (short or long) from a freeholder. Copyhold was somewhat similar to leasehold, since the property concerned belonged to the lord of the manor in which it was located, and was held from him by the de facto owner. It had developed from medieval ‘customary’ tenure (holding according to the custom of the manor) because changes of ownership were made in the manor court and recorded on the manor court rolls. The new owner received a copy of the entry on the roll to prove his tenancy (the records are usually described as ‘rolls’, even though for Atherstone from the 17th century onwards they were recorded in books).

The most important feature

The most important feature of copyhold tenure for tracing the history of houses is that the primary record of a transaction is the court roll rather than an individual deed.  Thus, for ‘deeds’ for Atherstone copyhold property, we can use the 85 volumes which comprise the records of the manor court. These run from 1589 to 1608 and then unbroken from 1645 to 1893.

Copyhold tenure was governed by the ‘custom of the manor’ which varied considerably from place to place; in Atherstone it was of the most liberal type, known as copyhold of inheritance, meaning that a copyholding could be inherited, and it could also be sold or mortgaged without the permission of the lord of the manor, by paying a standard fee. This was effectively equivalent to freehold. However, its ‘owner’ was still technically a tenant of the manor, and the court rolls or books therefore record changes in ownership. He also had to pay a fixed rent, other manorial dues (e.g. heriot, a fine paid on the death of the tenant, consisting of either a sum of money, or the best beast or best possession) and he had to attend the manor court.

Transfers from one owner to another took place in the manor court by a formal procedure. The holding was ‘surrendered into the lord’s hands’ (via his deputy, the steward), to the use of a named person (the key point). It was then granted to this person to hold according to the custom of the manor, paying the usual rent, and he was formally admitted as tenant. If the ownership had changed because of the death of the previous tenant, then the jury would ‘present’ to the court the name of his heir, and the latter would simply be admitted.

The end of the medieval period

By the end of the medieval period, copyhold transactions sometimes became very sophisticated, so that anything that could be done with freehold land could also be done with copyhold, such as placing it in the hands of trustees in a marriage or family settlement, mortgaging it or bequeathing it. Bequests were made by the owner before his death surrendering the property ‘to the uses of his will’; these were not stated then, but after he died, his heirs would bring the will to court and its terms would be recorded. It was also possible to carry out the legal process known as a Common Recovery, which was used either to sell property that had been the subject of a settlement, or preceding a new settlement. For an example, see C114 (the entry for 30 Nov 1792), and for details of how this worked, see Alcock, Old Title Deeds.

For a mortgage, the owner had to attend the manor court and conditionally surrender the property to the lord’s steward. It was then granted to the use of the mortgagee, and details of the amount lent (and sometimes the interest rate) were usually entered in the records. The ‘condition’ stated that if/when the loan was repaid, the surrender became null and void. Dates when repayments were due were often given and if the mortgagee defaulted, he was likely to lose his property. If all went well and the loan was repaid, the property was re-surrendered by the mortgagor to the use of the mortgagee, although in principle this was not necessary, since the repayment made the original surrender void.


A simpler type of court roll entry is an Admission.  It records the death of a tenant, the succession of his widow or heir and the payment of the heriot (a sum due on the death of a tenant, often one year’s rent). By manorial custom, a widow could generally remain in occupation of the holding unless she re-married (the widow’s freebench); very occasionally, a widower could retain his late wife’s holding in the same way.

From the 16th century onwards, Copyhold was gradually converted, either into leasehold (by agreement between the lord of the manor and the tenant), or into freehold by a ‘deed of enfranchisement’, and a few such deeds are recorded for Atherstone. However, a considerable amount of property remained copyhold until the 1922 Law of Property Act enfranchised all copyholdings after 1st January 1926.