By the beginning of the 13th century, the feudal system had arguably reached its zenith, and began its long journey of decay into the much diminished form as we know it today.
The start of the decline is found in the statute Quia Emptores 1290 18 Edw I c1 ("Forasmuch as Purchasers of Lands and Tenements..."). Prior to Quia Emptores, the feudal system sanctioned the introduction of someone new (i.e. the alienation of land) into the feudal system by two methods. The first was substitution, and the second was known as subinfeudation.
With substitution, the new tenant ('the grantee') would take the grantor's place in the feudal chain, and the grantor would drop out altogether. Originally this required the overlord's permission as feudal incidents were very personal in nature. However the financial aspects of land ownership came to dominate by the end of 13th century, and a lord's consent was often taken as given.
The second method, subinfeudation, allowed the original tenant to become a lord themselves. They would grant the land to the grantee, on the basis that the grantee would perform the feudal services due to him as his lord. The interest of the original tenant becomes token.
The greatest impact that subinfeudation had on the feudal chain was that it reduced the chances that land would come back to the overlord through escheat. Escheat was a feudal incident of landholding that allowed land to revert back to the lord if the tenant died without an heir or was attainted for felony. By lengthening the chain, it made the chances of escheat less and therefore less valuable as a right.
The direct effect of Quia Emptores was to forbid the subinfeudation of land. The statute officially allowed all tenants to alienate all or part of their land by substitution without the lord's consent, but with the new tenant to stand in the shoes of the old with the same (or a proportional extent of) feudal services.
The statute had two important limitations. By its terms it could only apply to land already held in fee simple. It was still possible to subinfeudate land through a life estate or fee tail. Secondly through a presumption of statutory construction, the statute did not affect the crown, and thus did not affect tenants-in-chief (those who held directly of the King).
The practical effect of this statute was that it has been impossible, since 1290, to convey a fee simple such that it created a feudal lord and tenant relationship between the parties. Another more economically important effect was that it brought land slowly and inevitably closer to the King, through the operation of escheat, which reduced the number of rungs in the feudal ladder every time it operated.
Today, the cumulative effect of the statute means that there are no more intermediate (or 'mesne') lords, and everyone holds land directly of the Crown. Escheat remains in many jurisdictions to some extent in that when the landholder dies intestate without successors, land can escheat back to the Crown as feudal lord of the land that was held.
- Peter Butt, Land Law (5th Ed), Butterworths 2006
- Mossman et al, Property law: Cases and Commentary (2nd Ed), Emond Montgomery Publications 2005