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A Brief Guide to the History of Owning Property in England

A photo of Kelly Tonge
20th May 2024

The origins of the modern conveyancing process in England can be traced back to the Norman Conquest of 1066, a time when Feudalism was the most common form of government, and land ownership was the most important form of wealth. Land was owned by the wealthy and leased out to tenants, most commonly, farmers.

You will no doubt be familiar with the Doomsday Book; a vast survey of the land orchestrated by William the Conqueror, who, concerned with the threat of a Viking Invasion soon after his victory at Hastings, needed to raise money to build an army. By conducting this survey, he could record who owned what land, and how much to tax the landowners.

Feudalism began to break down in the later medieval period, which was largely due to the economic state of the country as a result of war and disease (which killed off a huge portion of the population) From a land law perspective, the collapse of that system of government led to the development of a more constructive conveyancing process. The introduction of the Magna Carta in 1215 established basic provisions when it came to property rights and transfers, as well as limiting the powers of the monarch, who up until then, could just ‘take’ land at will.

Fast forward to 19th century England, the population was growing exponentially, as was the disdain of the aristocracy and landed gentry, who controlled much of the land and lived out their lives in luxury whilst the general population suffered unspeakable hardships. These lower classes rightly wanted to limit the powers of the wealthy, and in relation to property law, proposed a plan to government to make it easier and fairer for the average person to acquire land. This plan was largely unsuccessful and was never made mandatory, which is not surprising given many of the people creating new laws were landowners themselves, and very much a part of the problem.

However, the turn of the 20th century saw an extremely sharp decline of the aristocracy and other privileged social classes. Mass political reform and more and more of the population being given the right to vote meant that buying and selling property was no longer just for the rich and powerful. These decades laid the groundwork for the modern conveyancing process we know today. Interestingly, it was only in the 1970’s that more of the general population actually owned their homes (albeit mortgaged) than renting.

Homeownership in England peaked at the turn of the 21st century but has sadly been on the decline ever since, perhaps as a result of recession, political austerity and the financial difficulties facing working classes and younger generations.

Hopefully in the very near future, we see an increase in the help available to younger generations and impoverished society, so more of us can deservedly experience the feeling of security that comes with owning a little piece of the world.

This blog was written by Kelly Tonge, Conveyancing Executive, based in our Hinckley office.