William the Conqueror, took over the rule of England in 1066, introducing the Norman system of feudalism into England. The lands of the conquered English lords reverted to William or were confiscated. The king was lord (owner) of all the land, and everyone else merely "held of him." The king held of no man. The king had the Dominum directum, and the grantee or vassal, had Dominum utile ("seisin" or right of possession conveyed by the ceremony of "livery of seisin," originally a form of entry onto the land.) The land was then divided into estates and granted to Norman barons who held them as "fiefs" or "fees" of the king. All landholders were freemen. The barons' land holdings were called his "honor" and could be concentrated in one district or scattered around.
State functions under feudalism were performed by "vassals" (freemen but subordinate) as personal duties to their "lord." This was in the form of an unwritten and customary contract between subordinates and superior where ongoing obligations of "honorable services" were discharged in exchange for the ongoing privilege of holding land. A king or great man would grant "beneficium" or land to a follower. That follower, seeking protection, gave his land and himself ("commendation") to a greater man, who would then provide protection in return for services. The duties of lord and vassal were hereditary, lasting for generations for the duration of the "tenure." In addition, the contract was unamendable by either party.
There were several kinds of feudal tenure. Tenure in land by "chivalry" or by knight's service obligated the land holder to provide knights on call by the lord for military service. The set number of knights or "knight's fees of the vassal's fief" was laid down in the original land grant or "enfeoffment." By feudal law, a vacant military fief reverted to the lord until its new tenant performed homage and fealty.
Tenure of "grand serjeantry" obligated a certain number and type of goods to go to the lord as set down in the enfeoffment of the vassal's fief.
"Petty serjeantry" obligated the vassal to personal services to the lord in exchange for his fief.
Tenure in "frankalmoign" was held by the Church in exchange for prayers and a tacit obligation to provide royal clerks for administration.
"Socage" tenure was maintained by an annual cash payment to the lord and survived to become the modern "fee simple."
Tenure in "villeinage" was the customary unfree tenure of the serfs within the manors.
If tenure ceased to exist, the land reverted to the grantor who could regrant all or part as a new tenure. A fief could not be "willed" by passed through the laws of tenure and primogeniture.
In addition to the obligations of tenure, the vassal was obliged for "three aids" to the lord:
Payment of ransom when he was captured;
Sharing of expenses for knighting of the lord's eldest son; and
Providing for the dowry of the lord's eldest daughter for her first marriage.
Feudal law permitted a holder of a fief to exercise the right of "subinfeudation" or to make grants to others as his vassals. However, legally the specific fief carried the same obligations as originally granted and the vassal of that fief was fully responsible for his obligations. The tenure, not the person, determined feudal obligations, applying even to tenure held by the Church.
All but the king and the serfs were simultaneously lords and vassals in the feudal hierarchy. Each vassal was a "tenant-in-chief" to his immediate lord. Those at the bottom were "rear tenants" to those above their lords. Those below the tenant-in-chief, but above the rear tenants, were mesne tenants. A vassal's lord's lord was an "overlord" or "suzerain" to that vassal. That vassal's lord became his "mesne" lord in the hierarchy. The king was "liege lord" to every vassal in the hierarchy and in every oath of homage and fealty, the vassal declared his first loyalty to the king. Feudal law, however, declared the king to be only "primus inter pares" or first among equals, and he was theoretically subject to the same limitations as any other lord in his relations with his vassals. Exceptions were that feudal resources could not be used for private warfare and that no castle could be erected without royal permission and then the local lord would only serve as governor for the king.
The right to all lands was vested in the sovereign. These were, parceled out among the great men of the nation by its chief, to be held of him, so that These tenants were bound to perform services to the king, generally of a military character. These great lords again granted parts of the lands. they thus acquired, to other inferior vassals, who held under them, and were bound to perform services or "tenure" to the lord.
The duty of the holder of any tenure also had the obligation of "homage" and "fealty." Homage required the vassal receiving his fief to kneel before his lord and place his own hands in his lords saying that he became that lord's man. Then the vassal rose and swore his fealty to his lord.
In addition to continuous feudal obligations of tenure, the vassal might be called upon to render an occasional service or feudal incident. The incident of "wardship" occurred when the lord stepped in to administer a fief that had passed to a minor (under-aged) vassal. During the warship, the lord could collect all the profits. When the heir came of age, he was entitled to "ousterlemain" or ousting of the management by the lord. But the lord could then demand half the profits of the fief. A payment by the heir of an annual "relief" amount was then fixed by the lord. When heirs could not pay enormous reliefs imposed by a king, the lands could be forfeited to him.
The incident of "marriage" originally fell on an unmarried ward heiress of a chivalry fief (later, also included male heirs,) where the lord was entitled to choose her husband. Failure to marry the chosen individual resulted in a fine. The marriage of an heiress to a socage fief was controlled by her relatives.
The incident of "primer seisn" fell upon those royal heirs who were wards of the king. Upon coming of age, they not only had to pay a relief but an additional payment of primer seisn after a symbolic exchange of a bit of dirt or soil to the new vassal to acknowledge that the vassal was merely holding land owned by the king and to symbolize delivery of the fief to the vassal. Only then could he do homage and fealty and enter his fief.
Fiefs descended according to primogeniture - males over females and first born male over others. If a vassal had no legitimate children, the incident of "escheat" applied to the fief and reverted to the grantor (or his line).