For the process for appointing a parish priest in the Church of England, see Parish.

Advowson (or "patronage") is the right in English law of a patron (avowee) to present to the diocesan bishop (or in some cases the ordinary if not the same person) a nominee for appointment to a vacant ecclesiastical benefice or church living, a process known as presentation (jus praesentandi, Latin: "the right of presenting"). The word derives, via French, from the Latin advocare, from vocare "to call" plus ad, "to, towards", thus a "summoning".[1] In effect, an advowson is the right to nominate a person to be parish priest (subject to episcopal approval), and such right was often originally held by the lord of the manor of the principal manor within the parish.[2]

Legal status

Legally, advowsons were treated as real property that could be held or conveyed, and conversely could be taken or encumbered, in the same general manner as a parcel of land. Advowsons were one of the earliest incorporeal hereditaments, and often held in fee tail. Litigation on the basis of an advowson was somewhat specialized, with unique forms of action inapplicable to other realty, such as quare impedit.

Following reforms of parish administration in the late 19th century (principally the imposition of secular parishes and wider county and district authorities) the advowson had negligible commercial value. The Benefices Act 1898 (Amendment) Measure 1923 phased out advowsons so that they could not be sold or inherited after two vacancies occurred after 14 July 1924 and enabled their elimination earlier by direction of the current patron.[3]

The rich body of common law regarding advowsons can sometimes become relevant in modern times when dealing with disputes over modern incorporeal hereditaments, such as farming allotments, that are not handled by statute or adequately settled by other common law. This took place in the 1980 case of First Victoria National Bank v. United States.[4]


Advowsons were valuable assets for a number of reasons, principally as a means for the patron to exert moral influence on the parishioners, who were his manorial tenants, through the teaching and sermons of the parish priest. The manor was a business enterprise, and it was important for its commercial success that all who lived there should live and work in harmony for a common purpose, and should obey the law of the land and of the manorial court. Such a law-abiding attitude could be fostered by a suitable parish priest, and clearly the appointment of a priest who preached against this would be a disaster for the interests of the lord of the manor. An appointment could also be used as a reward for past services rendered to the patron by the appointee. A benefice generally included use of a house, i.e. a vicarage, parsonage or rectory, as well as the income from the glebe and tithes, which would provide for the living expenses of the incumbent, and the value of the advowson would thus vary according to how richly endowed the glebe had been out of the lord of the manor's manorial lands. For example: the advowson of the parish of Paulerspury in Northamptonshire (Peterborough diocese) was bought by New College, Oxford, in 1750 for the sum of £1,300.[5]

Advowsons were frequently used by lords and landowners as a means of providing a career and income for a younger son who, due to the custom of primogeniture, would not inherit any of the paternal lands. If the father did not already own a suitable advowson, he might purchase one for this purpose. Appointments however were subject to the approval of the ordinary (usually the bishop of the diocese) who could refuse for good reason although since the Reformation the refusal could be tested in the civil court.[6]


The creation of an advowson was a necessary part of the process of creating a parish, which was generally performed by a lord of a manor by building a church within the boundary of his manor, or within that of a newly subinfeudated manor, and then transferring proprietary rights of certain individual named fields, mills or messuages (i.e. houses on the manor which earned rents) to establish a glebe. Where parish churches existed on manors established before the Norman Conquest of 1066, the position is less clear and records generally are scarce from which to reconstruct a history. However Britain was split into dioceses and many parish churches were established long before that time, and the process of their creation was likely similarly performed by Anglo-Saxon thanes as by Norman lords and feudal barons. The right to advowson originated in the rights of a feudal lord to control the churches on his estates.[7] Such process was performed in conjunction with the bishop of the diocese in which the manor was situated. The lord of the manor, having incurred a very great expense in building the church and parsonage and having suffered a loss of income due to his donation of property to the glebe, quite reasonably insisted on the right to select the individual who would act as parish priest, from which office he could not be ejected by the lord until the priest's death. The bishop, without whose consecration the new church would have no religious and spiritual stature, in turn demanded the right of confirmation of the appointment. Thus from the earliest time the advowson was "appurtenant to" the manor, that is to say it appertained to the manor and was exercisable by the lord. The advowson, being real property could be "alienated" (i.e. disposed of) by sale or gift of the patron, but with special licence from the overlord as was required for the alienation of the manor itself.[8]

Turns of presentation

Where a manor was split into moieties due to inheritance by co-heiresses, the advowson was also split. For example, if a lord of a manor died without male issue but with two daughters, the manorial lands would be split into two moieties, still however within the original undivided parish, controlled by the husbands of each daughter, and the advowson would be held by each daughter's husband jure uxoris in turn. The husband of the elder daughter would have the right to the first presentation, that is to say the right to appoint a new priest to the first vacancy, whilst the husband of the second daughter – or more usually, given the life tenure of priests, their descendant – would hold the right to the second presentation. Where manors were split into three or more moieties or "purparties", the turns of presentation expanded accordingly.

Encroachment of canon law

Canon law, however, by the 12th century, decreed that the right to present belonged to the saint to whom the church was dedicated and that only ecclesiastical courts could rule on cases involving advowsons. King Henry II's Constitutions of Clarendon held otherwise, and after Thomas Becket's murder, the king once more ruled that cases involving advowsons should be heard by secular courts.[2]

Effect of the Reformation

In the Reformation in the 16th century, the Dissolution of the Monasteries led to the transfer of much monastic property to laymen, and with the properties passed the advowsons which the monasteries had held: thus creating a large group of lay patrons (see impropriation). In 1603, there were an estimated 3849 livings in the hands of lay impropriators out of a total of 9284.[9]

There were also many lords of manors and patrons of appurtenant livings who were recusants, that is to say who remained Roman Catholics and refused to adopt the new Protestant religion. Such patrons were disbarred from making presentations by the Presentation of Benefices Act 1605 (3 Jac. 1 c 5), which transferred the right for the time being to the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge according to the geographical location of the parish.[10] The university was allowed to assign this right to a third party adherent to the new religion, for consideration or otherwise.[11]

Value as historical records

The records of historic presentations to manors are held amongst the muniments or archives of their dioceses. Often such records exist unbroken for several centuries, and record the names of the patron and the appointee, with related information. These records are thus of great value to non-ecclesiastical historians of the manors concerned, and also to genealogists, for example by confirming the name of the lord of the manor at a certain date, confirming the dates of his life, and the name of his heir, spouse or widow. Most of the secular historical records relating to manors are contained within manorial rolls or in the archives of the ancient departments of state, for example the records of the Exchequer, royal courts etc. The existence of an entirely independent set of records within the diocesan archives, generally published in the calendars of the bishops of the see in question, is thus a valuable resource.

Current position

In the 20th century it became the policy of many English sees to acquire the advowsons to the parish churches within their ecclesiastical jurisdictions. This gave the bishop total control over the selection of parish priests, which might give him political as well as religious influence over a parish. Thus the days of the fiercely independent, often right-wing "fox-hunting parson" like Jack Russell (d. 1883), are now historical. With the abolition of manorial courts in the 19th century, the powers, but not the vestigial office, of lord of the manor, were largely eliminated, yet owners of former manorial estates, often inherited, still held the historic advowsons appurtenant to their lands. In most instances, such holders of advowsons were willing to donate them without payment to the diocese, on being asked to do so in a polite letter from the bishop.[12] Advowsons had lost any value to their private holders, since few landowners any longer wished to exert a proxy influence over the morals of their neighbours, formerly manorial tenants, and few wished their younger sons to be parish priests, which carries a lower status than formerly. It is however still a sign of a great aristocratic past for an individual to hold one or more advowsons. In Debrett's Peerage of 1968, Victor Hervey, 6th Marquess of Bristol (d. 1985), then aged 53, was listed as being "patron of thirty livings". Sizable numbers of advowsons are also held by organizations such as the Church Society.[13]

See also


  1. Collins (1986), Dictionary of the English Language, London.
  2. 1 2 Saul, Nigel (2000). A Companion to Medieval England 1066–1485. Stroud: Tempus. p. 11. ISBN 0-7524-2969-8.
  3. Neep & Edinger 1928, p. 8.
  4. First Victoria National Bank vs. US, Resource, 1980, retrieved 1 December 2008
  5. A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 5, the Hundred of Cleley pp 245-289. Victoria County History. 2002.
  6. Neep & Edinger 1928, p. 10.
  7. McGurk, JJN (1970). A Dictionary of Medieval Terms: For the Use of History Students. Reigate, UK: Reigate Press for St Mary's College of Education. p. 1. OCLC 138858.
  8. Mirehouse, John (1824). A Practical Treatise on the Law of Advowsons. Joseph Butterworth & Sons.
  9. Dickens, AG (1999), The English Reformation, London: Batsford, p. 364.
  10. MacLean, Sir John (1881–82), "The History of the Manors of Dean Magna and Abenhall" (PDF), Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 6: 177, note 5.
  11. History of Horton Court manor, Gloucestershire.
  12. For example, the advowson of the manor of Siston, Gloucestershire.
  13. "Church Society Trust - Clergy Appointments - Sole Patronage". Retrieved 16 October 2016.


External links

Look up advowson in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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