Feudal System, Feuds, Feudalism. The Feudal System, may be described as a tenure of land founded upon Feuds which were introduced under the new dynasties founded by the barbarous tribes who during the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries poured themselves from Germany and neighbouring- countries into the Roman Empire. In every province which they subjugated, large tracts of territory were divided by lot among the conquerors, some portion falling to the king or general of the invading tribe, and the rest to his soldiers, who received their shares as free and independent property, subject only to the condition of bearing arms, as occasion might require, in the defence of the community from hostile aggression. Of the lands assigned to the sovereign of the tribe, certain portions were afterwards elistributed by him among his adherents, and chiefly his courtiers or companions (comites), but the interest they derived under these grants was not strictly in the nature of property. It was of a beneficial or usufructuary kind only, a mere stipendiary return for services (usually of a military character) which they were expected to render to their master, and subject at some future period to resumption, the proprietas or actual ownership of the land being still considered as vested in the sovereign himself.
Some time elapsed after the feudal relation began to be known to Europe, before the right of inheritable succession was fully conceded. In its primitive state the possession was held at pleasure, or for a short term only; afterwards the tenure was for life, the lord resuming the land on the death of the tenant, and granting it out afresh. But at length the son of the tenant was permitted to succeed - an indulgence which was followed by the extension of the grant, first to the tenant and his issue (i.e. in fee tail) and finally to him and his heirs (i.e. in fee simple), the law marking out a course of descent, which enlarging by degrees, embraced his relations, lineal and collateral, male and female.
So long as the vassal's interest was either precarious or of a very limited duration, the property in the soil continued in the lord, whose condition was that of a landowner, while the vassal was a mere occupier. But the vassal on acquiring the right to hold the land for life, rose in estimation, and when at length he came to receive the pure and proper feudal donation to him and his heirs in perpetuity which left nothing in the lord but the chance of resumption on the failure of heirs, or the violation of some condition expressed or implied in the grant, the original proprietary right was exchanged for seigniorial honours, and both lord and vassal grew in dignity. A grant without words of succession was limited to the life of the grantee only - of such antiquity and so linked with history was the well-known rule which till recently required the express mention of heirs in order to convey the fee by deed. But an estate less than for life ceased, as we shall presently see, to be of any consideration as regards the feudal compact.
The tenant who under a grant to him and his heirs had acquired a permanent interest was competent to carve out various interests of less extent called in law particular estates - as (passing by holdings determinable at will) an interest to continue for any given number of years, or any other definite period of time, or for the life of the grantee or of another person; or for the life of the grantee with a capacity of transmission to his lineal heirs, male or female, or both (i.e. an estate tail). We recognise in these derivative interests the successive modifications which the tenancy underwent before it attained the hereditary estate, and which were initiated by the vassal, secure in the full possession of the fief. He did not stop there, but pursuing the precedent to its final result, even affected seigniorial rank.
Such is a brief sketch of the origin and establishment of the Feudal System, which bound together by a community of interest and duties the whole proprietary body. So strong, indeed, was that principle that it imposed upon the sovereign himself a legal necessity that all the landed possessions enjoyed by subjects of the realm should be holden either mediately or immediately of him. The system was not so much an invention of government applied systematically to the management of conquered countries, as a conventional arrangement of property, established by gradual usage and brought into general adoption by its tendency to protect persons of inferior rank from the inconvenience of civil disorder. At the same time it also tended to aggrandise the more powerful lords, and it also operated to maintain an effective force to repel hostile invaders.
The feud was conferred by words of gratuitous and pure donation, dedi et concessi, which would still be the operative words in a modern infeudation or deed of feoffment in the English law. [Feoffment.]
This donation was perfected by the ceremony of corporal investiture, or open and notorious delivery of possession in the presence of the other vassals, which delivery perpetuated among them the era of the new acquisition, at a time when the art of writing was very little known, and therefore the evidence of property was reposed in the memory of the neighbourhood, who in case of a disputed title were afterwards called upon to decide the difference, not only according to external proofs adduced by the litigant parties, but also by the internal testimony of their own private knowledge.
Besides an oath of fealty or profession of faith to the lord, which is the parent of our oath of allegiance, the vassal or tenant, upon investiture, usually did homage to his lord.
Besides the fealty and homage, the relation of lord and vassal was ordinarily attended with the following feudal incidents: - (1) Aid; (2) Relief; (3) Fine on Alienation; (4) Escheat and Forfeiture. [See those Titles.]
The fabric of the Feudal System in England was shattered by the storm of the Civil War. The restoration of the king could not restore what had thus been- in practice swept away. By the statute 12 Charles II. c. 24, all tenures of any honours, manors, lands, tenements or hereditaments, or any estate of inheritance at the Common Law held either of the king or of any other person or persons bodies politic or corporate, were turned into free and common socage to all intents and purposes. It was not till after the lapse of nearly another century that the tenures and other institutions of feudalism were put an end to in Scotland by the statutes passed after the rebellion in the 20th year of the reign of George II.
Some of the consequences of tenures as they at present exist cannot be better exemplified than by the rules as to the forfeiture and escheat of lands, both of which have, however, undergone many modifications since the statute of Charles above referred to.