The term tenure may refer to landholding of any type; it usually implies, however, that the landholder does not have absolute possession but derives the right from some other person. This meaning of the word originates from its sense in feudalism; so used, tenure is the antithesis of alod, absolute ownership without obligation to others.
The modern Anglo-American law of land developed out of the institutions of English feudalism established after the Norman Conquest (1066). Theoretically, the monarch was the ultimate owner of all the land; in practice, however, certain land was held according to earlier custom. Those who were feudal tenants always held land of another (the lord or landlord) to whom obligations were owed. The type of tenure essentially established the tenant's social status; the term estate (deriving from status) thus came to be applied to the various types of tenure.
The early tenures were classified basically as free or unfree. Unfree, or servile, tenure was generally that of the villein, who performed menial services and was a tenant at the will of the lord (see manorial system). Tenancy by custom eventually became a permanent right in the property when such tenures were recorded in the copy rolls (parchment records) of the manorial court, and the villein became a copyhold tenant.
The various types of free tenure are sometimes described as means for ensuring performance of all the services required by the state. Military needs were guaranteed by knight tenure (see knight
Socage tenure is especially important because it is the basis of all modern estates, while the other classes of tenure have all disappeared. The socage tenant, or socager, held his land in return for performing duties to the lord. These incidents of socage were essentially like the aids and scutage exacted of knights; like those, they were also eventually commutated into fixed money payments.
In the development of the law of land perhaps the most important incident was the fine for alienation. This was the payment of a sum to the lord for permission to alien (or alienate) the estate, i.e., to grant it (sell or make a gift of it) to another. The right of free alienation, a cornerstone of modern property law, was partly guaranteed in 1290 by the statute Quia emptores, which abolished the fine. However, freedom to dispose of land by will on the tenant's death was not established until passage of the Statute of Wills (1540). In inheritance of land primogeniture was usually observed; different local customs, notably borough-English and gavelkind, were, however, also observed. If the tenant had no heir the estate went back to the lord; such reversion was called escheat.
Socage tenure eventually developed many varieties, commonly called fees. (The word fee stems directly from fief and ultimately from feud, both terms of feudal law.) Fees are divided into freehold and nonfreehold. The freehold fees are fee simple, fee tail, and life fee.
A fee simple is essentially absolute ownership of land; it includes, therefore, complete freedom of alienation and (since 1540) of devising (bestowing by will). An estate in fee tail was one bestowed as a gift to the donee and to his issue (children) or a class (male or female) of his issue. Read literally, the terms of the grant prevented alienation of the land out of the prescribed line of succession. A life fee or a life estate was one that would endure for the lifetime of the grantee and after his death would go to some other person. The life tenant had no power of alienation.
Nonfreehold estates include estates for years, periodic estates, estates at will, and estates at sufferance. An estate for years is one that will expire at the end of a fixed period. A periodic estate is one for a set term, which is automatically renewed if neither party takes steps to terminate it. Most modern leases of real property and buildings establish periodic estates. A tenancy at will is one that may be terminated by the tenant or the landlord; it is generally interpreted by a court as being implied from the facts. An estate at sufferance arises when a tenant continues to occupy the land after the right to occupancy has expired; the tenancy subsists only so long as the landlord does not object.
The struggle over whether land should be freely alienable dominated English land law; it was resolved by the 18th cent. when the alienation of land could no longer be restricted beyond a limited period. The ultimate effect of this tendency was to assimilate the law of real property in most important respects to that governing personal property. At the time of the American colonization this development to free alienation was already well advanced; hence, few of the typically feudal features of land law were adopted in America. Today some of the states provide that landownership shall be in free and common socage and others that it shall be alodial. In practice there is little difference.