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The act of the English Parliament, passed in the year 1290, that officially ended feudalism in England.

I say ‘officially’ ended because it would be hyperbolic to say that one piece of legislation alone could end a centuries old economic system. Still, Quia Emptores was much more than a mere formality.

The system of feudalism as practiced in England and medieval northern Europe in general was based on a pyramid of power and land ownership, where peasant serfs worked land and owed allegiance to a local lord who oversaw them, while this local lord and several others of similar position owed allegiance to a still more powerful lord, who himself might be one of or subservient to one of the great lords of the nobility, who formally owed allegiance to the king. In an economy that was overwhelmingly agricultural, property, status, wealth, and power were therefore synonymous. Property titles and with them rank, wealth, and power were either inherited or bestowed, and were subject to the prerogative of anyone up the chain of command. Obviously, this system had no role for transacting land or investing in it, and no way around the social rigidity.

By the thirteenth century, however, the lords under the nobility, the so called ‘gentry,’ had obtained additional power and land holdings. Among the reasons were lands bestowed to families by the crown for military service, such as in the crusades, and the rise of some non-agricultural activity in the economy, such as shipping, which allowed some wealth to arise that did not derive from the land. In any case, the gentry were now growing in wealth and power and in a position to challenge the existing order.

With the increasing wealth of the gentry and nascent merchant classes, their support was crucial to the crown, if for no other reason than that they were now much of the tax base, and so they began to be included in the parliaments that were summoned by the king. This group would eventually become the House of Commons as opposed to the House of Lords, which was the nobility who had always been called to parliament. In any case, they used their new found parliamentary power to advance their class interests.

The culmination of this effort was the Quia Emptores statute, which took its name from the first two Latin words of first phrase of the text – “Because buyers (want land)…” The statute said that:

It is lawful for each free man to sell at will his land or tenement or part thereof

With this statute, all land in England became, in legal jargon, “fee simple,’ meaning it could be bought or disposed of at will, unless the crown objected. There statute paid some lip service to ‘insuring the ancient rights of the top lord,’ but this was designed to be ignored, and since many of the nobility were actually eager to be able to sell their land for cash, they did not resist the bill as vehimently as one might think. With land on the open market, the livelihood of the gentry was no longer at the behest of the nobility, and the feudal social order broke down. The nobility were still large land owners, but so were the gentry, and all landowning families were potentially independent.

In so establishing capitalism, Quia Emptores also redefined the monarchy. The king was now not just the most powerful noble, but had a legally enshrined unique position as the only person anyone owed allegiance to.

Incidentally, the breakdown of the feudal order did not improve the lot of the peasants. Whereas previously they were locked into the bottom of a rigid social system, at least it was one that ensured their protection and basic survival. With the new money economy, they were forced to sell their labor in a labor market that was stacked against them. Further, as the gentry class grew even more powerful, legal maneuvering such as the enclosure movement expanded the rights of landowners at the expense of their employees.

The passage of Quia Emptores is regarded as a very significant event in the history of the Common Law. In France and in the Spanish Monarchy, for instance, vestiges of the feudal legal order lasted for centuries more.

help from Imagining the Law by Norman F. Cantor (New York, Harper Collins, 1997) and a college course taught by said author.

By the beginning of the 13th century, the feudal system had arguably reached its zenith, and began its long journey of decay into the much diminished form as we know it today.

The start of the decline is found in the statute Quia Emptores 1290 18 Edw I c1 ("Forasmuch as Purchasers of Lands and Tenements..."). Prior to Quia Emptores, the feudal system sanctioned the introduction of someone new (i.e. the alienation of land) into the feudal system by two methods. The first was substitution, and the second was known as subinfeudation.

With substitution, the new tenant ('the grantee') would take the grantor's place in the feudal chain, and the grantor would drop out altogether. Originally this required the overlord's permission as feudal incidents were very personal in nature. However the financial aspects of land ownership came to dominate by the end of 13th century, and a lord's consent was often taken as given.

The second method, subinfeudation, allowed the original tenant to become a lord themselves. They would grant the land to the grantee, on the basis that the grantee would perform the feudal services due to him as his lord. The interest of the original tenant becomes token.

The greatest impact that subinfeudation had on the feudal chain was that it reduced the chances that land would come back to the overlord through escheat. Escheat was a feudal incident of landholding that allowed land to revert back to the lord if the tenant died without an heir or was attainted for felony. By lengthening the chain, it made the chances of escheat less and therefore less valuable as a right.

The direct effect of Quia Emptores was to forbid the subinfeudation of land. The statute officially allowed all tenants to alienate all or part of their land by substitution without the lord's consent, but with the new tenant to stand in the shoes of the old with the same (or a proportional extent of) feudal services.

The statute had two important limitations. By its terms it could only apply to land already held in fee simple. It was still possible to subinfeudate land through a life estate or fee tail. Secondly through a presumption of statutory construction, the statute did not affect the crown, and thus did not affect tenants-in-chief (those who held directly of the King).

The practical effect of this statute was that it has been impossible, since 1290, to convey a fee simple such that it created a feudal lord and tenant relationship between the parties. Another more economically important effect was that it brought land slowly and inevitably closer to the King, through the operation of escheat, which reduced the number of rungs in the feudal ladder every time it operated.

Today, the cumulative effect of the statute means that there are no more intermediate (or 'mesne') lords, and everyone holds land directly of the Crown. Escheat remains in many jurisdictions to some extent in that when the landholder dies intestate without successors, land can escheat back to the Crown as feudal lord of the land that was held.

References

  • Peter Butt, Land Law (5th Ed), Butterworths 2006
  • Mossman et al, Property law: Cases and Commentary (2nd Ed), Emond Montgomery Publications 2005

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