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.
Copyhold tenure is founded on immemorial custom. The freehold is vested in the lord of the manor. In theory the tenant holds the land at the will of the lord; i.e. the lord could in theory turn him out at any moment; but by custom which has grown up from time immemorial, the tenant has practically a fee simple, subject only to certain rights and services due to the lord which have been fixed by the custom.
In early times the tenants were "Villain," or "villagers," and they performed services of an uncertain kind to the lord. These services were considered to be servile or un-free in nature, hence the "villeins" were looked upon as partly unfree, and " villein tenure " was contrasted with freehold.
The lord of the manor holds a court, presided over by the steward of the manor, and any dealings with the land are entered on the rolls of the court. Thus each tenant may have as his title deeds copies of such parts of the court rolls as refer to his land. Hence the name "tenure by copy of court roll" or "copyhold."
In early times the tenants were bound to attend the lord's court, and questions depending on the custom were decided at the court. Now the court is held, if at all, as a pure formality, and is attended only by the steward and any tenants who have business to transact at the court.
Customary Freeholds are lands held by copy of court roll, but not at the will of the lord. The freehold is in the lord and the services are usually similar to the services due to the lord by a copyholder, the chief difference being that customary freeholds are often transferred by deed of grant and admittance, instead of by surrender and admittance. (See below.)