Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769)

Sir William Blackstone

Of Alienation by Special Custom

WE are next to consider assurances by special custom, obtaining only in particular places, and relative only to a particular species of real property. This therefore is a very narrow title; being confined to copyhold lands, and such customary estates, as are held in ancient demesne, or in manors of a similar nature: which, being of a very peculiar kind, and originally no more than tenancies in pure or privileged villenage, were never alienable by deed; for, as that might tend to defeat the lord of his seigniory, it is therefore a forfeiture of a copyhold.1 Nor are they transferable by matter of record, even in the king’s courts, but only in the court baron of the lord. The method of doing this is generally by surrender; though in some manors, by special custom, recoveries may be suffered of copyholds:2 but these differing in nothing material from recoveries of free land, save only that they are not suffered in the king’s courts, but in the court baron of the manor, I shall confine myself to conveyances by surrender, and their conveyances.

SURRENDER, sursumredditio, is the yielding up of the estate by the tenant into the hands of the lord, for such purposes as in the surrender are expressed. As, it may be, to the use and be-hoof of A and his heirs; to the use of his own will; and the like. The process, in most manors, is, that the tenant comes to the steward, either in court, (or, if the custom permits, out of court) or else to two customary tenants of the same manor, provided that also have a custom to warrant it; and there by delivering up a rod, a glove or other symbol, as the custom directs, resigns into the hands of the lord, by the hands and acceptance of his said steward, or of the said two tenants, all his interest and title to the estate; in trust to be again granted out by the lord, to such persons and for such uses as are named in the surrender, and the custom of the manor will warrant. If the surrender be made out of court, then at the next or some subsequent court, the jury or homage must present and find it upon their oaths; which presentment is an information to the lord or his steward of what has been transacted out of court. Immediately upon such surrender in court, or upon presentment of a surrender made out of court, the lord by his steward grants the same land again to cestuy que use, (who is sometimes, though rather improperly, called the surrenderee) to hold by the ancient rents and customary services; and thereupon admits him tenant to the copyhold, according to the form and effect of the surrender, which must be exactly pursued. And this is done by delivering up to the new tenant the rod, or glove, or the like, in the name, and as the symbol, of corporal seizin of the lands and tenements. Upon which admission he pays a fine to the lord, according to the custom of the manor, and takes the oath of fealty.

IN this brief abstract, of the manner of transferring copyhold estates, we many plainly trace the visible footsteps of the feudal institutions. The fief, being of a base nature and tenure, is inalienable without the knowledge and consent of the lord. For this purpose it is resigned up, or surrendered into his hands. Custom, and the indulgence of the law, which favors liberty, has now given the tenant a right to name his successor; but formerly it was far otherwise. And I am apt to suspect that this right is of much the same antiquity with the introduction of uses with respect to freehold lands: for the alienee of a copyhold had merely jus fiduciarium [a right in trust], for which there was no remedy at law, but only by subpoena in chancery.3 When therefore the lord had accepted a surrender of his tenant’s interest, upon confidence to re-grant the estate to another person, either then expressly named or to be afterwards named in the tenant’s will, the chancery enforced this trust as a matter of conscience; which jurisdiction, though seemingly new in the time of Edward IV,4 was generally acquiesced in, as it opened the way for the alienation of copyholds, as well as of freehold estates, and as it rendered the use of them both equally devisable by testament. Yet, even to this day, the new tenant cannot be admitted but by composition with the lord, and paying him a fine by way of acknowledgment for the license of alienation. Add to this the plain feudal investiture, by delivering the symbol of seizin in presence of the other tenants in open court; “quando hasta vel aliud corporeum quidlibet porrigitur a domino se investituram facere dicente; quae saltem coram duobus vasallis solemniter fieri debet”5 [“when a spear, or other corporeal thing, is presented by the lord, saying, that he hereby invested him; which should be solemnly done in the presence of at least two vassals”]: and, to crown the whole, the oath of fealty annexed, the very bond of feudal subjection. From all which we may fairly conclude, that, had there been no other evidence of the fact in the rest of our tenures and estates, the very existence of copyholds, and the manner in which they are transferred, would incontestably prove the very universal reception, which this northern system of property for a long time obtained in this island; and which communicated itself, or at least its similitude, even to our very villeins and bondmen.

THIS method of conveyance is so essential to the nature of a copyhold estate, that it cannot possibly be transferred by any other assurance. No feoffment, fine, or recovery (in the king’s courts) has any operation thereupon. If I would exchange a copyhold estate with another, I cannot do it by an ordinary deed of exchange at the common law; but we must surrender to each other’s use, and the lord will admit us accordingly. If I would devise a copyhold, I must surrender it to the use of my last will and testament; and in my will I must declare my intentions, and name a devisee, who will then be entitled to admission.6

IN order the more clearly to apprehend the nature of this peculiar assurance, let us take a separate view of its several parts; the surrender, the presentment, and the admittance.

1. A SURRENDER, by an admittance subsequent whereto the conveyance is to receive its perfection and confirmation, is rather a manifestation of the alienor’s intention, than a transfer of any interest in possession. For, till admittance of cestuy que use, the lord takes notice of the surrenderor as his tenant; and he shall receive the profits of the land to his own use, and shall discharge all services due to the lord. Yet the interest remains in him not absolutely, but sub modo [to a degree]; for he cannot pass away the land to any other, or make it subject to any other encumbrance than it was subject to at the time of the surrender. But no manner of legal interest is vested in the nominee before admittance. If he enters, he is a trespasser and punishable in an action of trespass: and if he surrenders to the use of another, such surrender is merely void, and by no matter ex post facto can be confirmed. For though he be admitted in pursuance of the original surrender, and thereby acquires afterwards a sufficient and plenary interest as absolute owner, yet his second surrender previous to his own admittance is absolutely void ab initio; because at the time of such surrender he had but a possibility of an interest, and could therefore transfer nothing: and no subsequent admittance can make an act good, which was ab initio void. Yet, though upon the original surrender the nominee has but a possibility, it is however such a possibility, as may whenever he pleases be deprived or deluded of the effect and fruits of the surrender; but if the lord refuse to admit him, he is compellable to do it by a bill in chancery or a mandamus:7 and the surrenderor can in no wise defeat his grant; his hands being for ever bound from disposing of the land in any other way, and his mouth forever stopped from revoking or countermanding his own deliberate act;8 except in the case of a surrender to the use of his will, which is always revocable.9

2. AS to the presentment: that, by the general custom of manors, is to be made at the next court baron immediately after the surrender; but by special custom in some places it will be good, though made at the second or other subsequent court. And it is to be brought into court by the same persons that took the surrender, and then presented by the homage; and in al points material must correspond with the true tenor of the surrender itself. And therefore, if the surrender be conditional, and the presentment be absolute, both the surrender, presentment, and admittance thereupon are wholly void:10 the surrender, as being never truly presented; the presentment, as being false; and the admittance, as being founded on such nature presentment. If a man surrenders out of court, and dies before presentment, and presentment be made after his death, according to the custom, this is sufficient.11 So too, if cestuy que use dies before presentment, yet, upon presentment made after his death, his heir according to the custom shall be admitted. The same law is, if those, into whose hands the surrender is made, die before presentment; for, upon sufficient proof in court that such a surrender was made, the lord shall be compelled to admit accordingly. And if the steward, the tenants, or others into whose hands such surrender is made, do refuse or neglect to bring it in to be presented, upon a petition preferred to the lord in his court baron the party grieved shall find remedy. But if the lord will not do him right and justice, he may sue both the lord, and them that took the surrender, in chancery, and shall there find relief.12

3. ADMITTANCE is the last stage, or perfection, of copyhold assurances. And this is of three sorts: first, an admittance upon a voluntary grant from the lord; secondly, an admittance upon surrender by the former tenant; and thirdly, an admittance upon a descent from the ancestor.

IN admittances, even upon a voluntary grant from the lord, when copyhold lands have escheated or reverted to him, the lord is considered as an instrument. For, though it is in his power to keep the lands in his own hands, or to dispose of them at his pleasure, by granting an absolute fee-simple, a freehold, or a chattel interest therein; and quite to change their nature from copyhold to socage tenure, so that he may well be reputed their absolute owner and lord; yet, if he will still continue to dispose of them as copyhold, he is bound to observe the ancient custom precisely in every point, and can neither in tenure nor estate introduce any kind of alteration; for that were to create a new copyhold: wherefore in this respect the law accounts him custom’s instrument. For if a copyhold for life falls into the lord’s hands, by the tenant’s death, though the lord may destroy the tenure and enfranchise the land, yet if he grants it out again by copy, he can neither add to nor diminish the ancient rent, nor make any the minutest variation in other respects:13 nor is the tenant’s estate, so granted, subject to any charges or encumbrances by the lord.14

IN admittances upon surrender, of another, the lord is to no intent reputed as owner, but wholly as an instrument: and the tenant admitted shall likewise be subject to no charges or encumbrances of the lord; for his claim to the estate is solely under him that made the surrender.15

AND, as is admittances upon surrenders, so in admittances upon descents by the death of the ancestor, the lord is used as a mere instrument; and, as no manner of interest passes into him by the surrender or the death of his tenant, so no interest passes out of him by the act of admittance. And therefore neither in the one case, nor the other, is any respect had to the quantity or quality of the lord’s estate in the manor. For whether he be tenant in fee or for years, whether he be in possession by right or by wrong, it is not material; since the admittances made by him shall not be impeached on account of his title, because they are judicial, or rather ministerial, acts, which every lord in possession is bound to perform.16

ADMITTANCES, however, upon surrender differ from admittances upon descent in this; that by surrender nothing is vested in cestuy que use before admittance, no more than in voluntary admittances; but upon descent the heir is tenant by copy immediately upon the death of his ancestor: not indeed to all intents and purposes, for he cannot be sworn on the homage nor maintain an action in the lord’s court as tenant; but to most intents the law takes notice of him ancestor, especially where he is concerned with any stranger. He may enter into the land before admittance; may take the profits; may punish any trespass done upon the ground;17 nay, upon satisfying the lord for his fine due upon the descent, may surrender into the hands of the lord to whatever use he pleases. For which reasons we may conclude, that the admittance of an heir is principally for the benefit of the lord, to entitle him to his fine, and not so much necessary for the strengthening and completing the heir’s title. Hence indeed an observation might arise, that if the benefit, which the heir is to receive by the admittance, is not equal to the charges of the fine, he will never come in and be admitted to his copyhold in court; and so the lord may be defrauded of his fine. But to this we may reply in the words of Sir Edward Coke,18 “I assure myself, if it were in the election of the heir to be admitted or not to be admitted, he would be best contented without admittance; but the custom in every manor is in this point compulsory. For, either upon pain of forfeiture of their copyhold, or of incurring some great penalty, the heirs of copyholds are enforced, in every manor, to come into court and be admitted according to the custom, within a short time after notice given of their ancestor’s decease.”


     1.    Litt. § 74.
     2.    Moor. 637.
     3.    Cro. Jac. 568.
     4.    Bro. Abr. tit. Tenant per copie. 10.
     5.    Feud. l. 2. t. 2.
     6.    Co. Copyh. § 36.
     7.    2 Roll. Rep. 107.
     8.    Co. Copyh. § 39.
     9.    4 Rep. 23.
   10.    Co. Copyh. 40.
   11.    Co. Litt. 62.
   12.    Co. Copyh. § 40.
   13.    Co. Cop. § 41.
   14.    8 Rep. 63.
   15.    4 Rep. 27. Co. Litt. 59.
   16.    4 Rep. 27. 1 Rep. 140.
   17.    4 Rep. 23.
   18.    Copyh. § 41.