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To study land property in England requires an understanding of the basic divisions in which land was divided. The earliest roots are in the Middle Ages. Many of these divisions were carried forward in time and subdivided further. Use of these in record keeping lasted into the 1800s.

The following Medieval land terms can provide a foundation for understanding the subdividing of land in England.


Some significant factors affecting how we view our ancestors and land ownership include when the general populace was allowed to hold land and changes in land use a defined by legislation like the Enclosure Act. These and other factors will be explored in the future on this page.

Geographic Names

There are several names for which definitions can help us better understand the terminology in records.

A hamlet is the smallest geographic entity we use. It can be a small cluster of houses, as few as two, or even just a collection of houses on one side of a road or embankment. It may not have a church, but may have a Chapel of Ease, where the preacher from the nearby village church might hold services.

A village is a small cluster of houses. It probably has a church or had one at one time. It may even have several churches and chapels used by non-conformist religions. Most villages have been around for 1,000 years, but some are new. Some have also disappeared because they were abandoned. A town is a village which at one time, perhaps recently, felt it was large enough to hold regularly scheduled markets or fairs, either weekly or annually. Thus you'll hear of villages which are called “market towns”. These are not to be confused with “townships”, which is a political congregation of houses and/or farms formed for some purpose (like building a school). A Market Town generally held a charter from the local Lord of the Manor or some nobility granting them the right to hold the market. A parish is the area served by a church. Generally, we are talking Anglican churches here, but Catholic churches had parishes, too. The Anglican Church had a great deal of power at one time, and much administrative life was lived within parish borders (like Poorlaws). The simplistic construct was one church per village, with the village being the center of a parish. But, exceptions abound. Some villages had two churches, thus two parishes. Etc. If a village was abandoned, the parish was absorbed into neighboring parishes.

An ecclesiastical parish was distinguished from the civil parishes after 1597 with the passing of the first Poor Relief Act. This division of the medieval parish created a parish that dealt solely with ecclesiastical functions and had its own church and clergyman. This Poor Law Act (1597) also lead to many subordinate areas, such as chapelries, being raised to parochial rank and new parishes being created.

A City, on the other hand, was a formal political entity, granted a charter by The Crown. The Charter usually gave additional rights and obligations to the citizens of the city. A city did not have to be large. It could be the size of any village, but cities were often ports or important trade points (like Lincoln or Gainsborough). Because of a larger population than most villages, a city might have 5 or 12 parishes within its boundaries. And, just because it's big today, that doesn't make a town or village a City. They've got to have the charter, which is not given out just because the town wants one.

SOURCE: Genuki On-line