Fealty of Harold (and England) to William of Normandy


Feoffees, pronounced feffees (fee-fees) are a legacy of the Norman feudal system. They are a type of Trustee who is a guardian/administrator of an estate. Usually this is guided by instruction of a will or deed requiring certain controls and determinations. A feoffee is a person invested with a ‘fief’. Ancient in origin, a fief was an estate of land, especially one held on conditions of feudal service (a fee). It was the central element of feudalism and consisted of heritable property or rights granted by an overlord to a vassal who held it in fealty in return for a form of feudal allegiance and services. Usually it was given by the personal ceremonies of homage and fealty.

A Fief

The definition of a fief is something that someone has control over, particularly when a lord gave a person the ongoing use of land by a person and their heirs in return for that person giving allegiance to the lord. A fief or fiefdom can be referred to as a bailiwick, a precinct or a province, it is something over which one has rights or exercises control.

Feoffees are guardian trustees, a remnant of Norman ecclesiastical law. They were the elders and rulers of a parish. Technically, they became obsolete back in the 17th century, but several survive today as charitable trustees. Some examples being, The Feoffees of St. Michael’s, Spurriergate at York, the Feoffees of Deddington, the Feoffees of Little Downham and the Lords Feoffees and Assistants of the Manor of Bridlington.

These Trustees, now subject to the general governance of the Charity Commission, hold their freehold estates in possession for a purpose, typically a charitable one. In origin (old French) as a fieffer and in Anglo-Norman French as a feoffer. Late Middle English: from Feoffe ‘enfeoffed’. The feoffee holds a fief for the use of a beneficial owner. Such trustees developed towards the end of the Middle Ages and became obsolete in 1660 at the end of the feudal system.

It was used as a form of legal loop-hole to avoid the payment of taxes (feudal relief on an inheritance). The feoffees were “an undying corporation which never suffered a minority and could not be given in heritage” (McFarlane, p.146). To effect such an arrangement, a sealed charter was normally required to specify the relevant matters, who the feoffees were to be and for what period should the lands be held. A form of conveyance.  Feoffee is an historical term relating to the law of trusts and equity, referring to the owner of a legal title of a property when he is not the equitable owner.

A ‘fiduciary’ is a person who holds a legal or ethical relationship of trust with one or more other parties. Typically, a fiduciary takes care of the assets for another person. Feoffees essentially had their titles stripped by the ‘Statute of Uses’ 1535. The modern equivalent of a feoffee to ‘Uses’ is a ‘Trustee’ (one who holds a legal managerial ownership in trust for the benefit and use of a beneficiary.

Feoffees of Tetbury

Founded in 1633, a group of four residents of the town bought the advowsons* from the landowner and took responsibility for it and the sustainability of Tetbury. Effectively, they became the ‘lords of the Manor of Tetbury’, in trust for the town. This arrangement followed upon the agreement made by the inhabitants and known as the ‘Tripartite Deed’. Thereby purchasing the manor, advowson and tolls etc., from George, Lord Berkley and his mother. (it had been in their possession since marriage with the de Braose family, in the 15th century.

Before 1633, the town administration was vested in a ‘Bailiff, the Thirteen and the Four and Twenty’ under a steward appointed by the lord of the manor (Lord Berkley). During the 18th century, the Feoffees came to dominate the government of the Borough and Parish; the overseers of the poor acted on their orders.

*Advowson (or patronage) is the right in English law to present to the diocesan bishop a nominee for appointment to a vacant ecclesiastical benefice (church living). A moiety of advowson, where there are two several patrons and two incumbents in the same church, two must join the presentation of one incumbent. The benefice, according to canon law, denotes an ecclesiastical office in which the incumbent is required to perform certain duties or conditions of a spiritual kind while being supported by the revenues attached to the office.

Impropriation – is the term of English ecclesiastical law, was the designation of the income from the tithes of an ecclesiastical benefice to a layman. The parish system required ownerships of property. The holder could discharge responsibilities by a deputy (usually known as the ‘vicar’. During the period from 1652 to 1700 the Quakers refused to pay the Tithes.

Feoffees of Little Downham

Lords Feoffees and Assistants of the Manor of Bridlington (est.1636)

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