This section is from the book "Real Property, An Introductory Explanation Of The Law Relating To Land", by Alfred F Topham. Also available from Amazon: The New Law Of Property.
In one sense all land is freehold, for each acre of land is owned by the Crown, and is held by one or more freeholders of the Crown.
To explain these terms we must once more go back to the time of William I.
If A, a tenant in chief, granted out part of his lands to B, C, and D, and others, "and their heirs," to hold from him in return for fixed services, e.g., to supply a certain number of soldiers, or to plough a certain number of acres of land in each year, B, C and D were freeholders, for their services were free services. In course of time the services rendered by B, C, and D have been changed to a payment in money, or have even been forgotten, but their successors are still freeholders.
The same tenant in chief may have granted other parts of his land to E, F, and G and their heirs, who were villagers (villani) in return for services which were not fixed in their nature, and were therefore considered to be of a servile nature: e.g. where the tenant was compelled to work for two days in each week for A, at any kind of work that A might choose. This was called villein tenure (the tenure of a "villager "), and this term came to imply "unfree tenure." These tenants were very much under the control of their land-lord, their disputes were settled in the lord's court, and their title to their holdings was entered in the rolls of the lord's court, their title-deeds being copies of the rolls. Hence this tenure has come to be called Copyhold.
Again, the tenant in chief (or his successors) may have granted other parts of his lands to H, I, and J, for fixed terms, e.g. as weekly tenants, or for a fixed number of years. In such a case H, I, and J were considered as mere bailiffs of A, even though the term fixed was 1000 years or more; they have merely a personal estate in the land and are called leaseholders.
A freehold estate may therefore be defined as an estate in land which is not limited to expire within a certain time,.and for which the services are not and never have been of an unfree nature.
Freehold estates themselves are of many kinds; they may be classified in two ways; (1) in respect of quality, i.e. the nature of the services, and (2) in respect of quantity, i.e. the duration of the estate.
Classification according to quality -
1. Military tenure or knight service (abolished during the commonwealth) (a). The services consisted in fighting for the lord or providing him with soldiers and arms.
2. Spiritual tenure or Frankalmoign (which may still exist but cannot be newly created). Where land was granted to the church, and no services were due, other than prayers for the soul of the grantor.
3. Lay tenure or socage [possibly derived from soc = a plough-share].
The services were of any kind not being military, and were chiefly agricultural. Nearly all the freehold tenure of the present day is socage tenure.
Classification according to Duration of Estate.
A tenant who held under (1) military tenure or under
(a) Re-enacted, 12 Car. II. c. 24.
(3) lay tenure need not necessarily be a tenant in fee simple.
A person is a freeholder who holds any of the following estates -
(1) A fee simple;
(2) A fee tail;
(3) An estate for his life or any other definite period of uncertain duration.
This last sentence needs some explanation. The period must be definite, i.e. if it is not a fee simple or fee tail there must be some definite event, on the happening of which the estate will cease. E.g. a grant to a widow "until she marries again." The definite event is her re-marriage. But the estate is of uncertain duration - you cannot tell how long it will be before she marries again. Therefore it is a freehold. If these words were added "but for not more than 100 years" - a certain time would be fixed on the expiration of which the estate must end, and the estate would then be merely a term of years, that is to say a leasehold.
The classification of tenure may be illustrated by the following table: -