Under the feudal system in late and high medieval England, tenure by serjeanty was a form of land-holding in return for some specified service, ranking between tenure by knight-service (enfeoffment) and tenure in socage. It is also used of similar forms in Continental Europe.

Origins and development

Serjeanty originated in the assignation of an estate in land on condition of the performance of a certain duty other than knight-service, usually the discharge of duties in the household of king or noble. It ranged from service in the king's host, distinguished only by equipment from that of the knight, to petty renders scarcely distinguishable from those of the rent-paying tenant or socager.

In 1895, the legal historians Pollock and Maitland described it as being a free "servantship" in the sense that the serjeant, whatever his task, was essentially a menial servant.[1] J.H. Round objects, however, that this definition does not cover the military serjeanties and glosses over the honorific value of at least some of the services.[2]

Serjeanties, as historian Mary Bateson has expressed it,

were neither always military nor always agricultural, but might approach very closely the service of knights or the service of farmers ... The serjeanty of holding the king's head when he made a rough passage across the Channel, of pulling a rope when his vessel landed, of counting his chessmen on Christmas day, of bringing fuel to his castle, of doing his carpentry, of finding his potherbs, of forging his irons for his ploughs, of tending his garden, of nursing the hounds gored and injured in the hunt, of serving as veterinary to his sick falcons, such and many others might be the ceremonial or menial services due from a given serjeanty.

The many varieties of serjeanty were afterwards increased by lawyers classing for convenience under this head such duties as those of escort service to the Abbess of Barking, or of military service on the Welsh border by the men of Archenfield.

Domesday Book

Serjeants (servientes) are already entered as a distinct class in Domesday Book (1086), though not in all cases differentiated from the barons, who held by knight-service. Sometimes, as in the case of three Hampshire serjeanties — those of acting as king's marshal, of finding an archer for his service, and of keeping the gaol in Winchester Castle — the tenure can be definitely traced as far back as Domesday. It is probable, however, that many supposed tenures by serjeanty were not really such, although so described in returns, in inquests after death, and other records. The simplest legal test of the tenure was that serjeants, though liable to the feudal exactions of wardship, etc., were not liable to scutage; they made in place of this exaction special composition with the Crown.

Some of the Domesday tenants may have been serjeants in the time of Edward the Confessor. For instance, one Siward Accipitrarius, presumably hawker to Edward the Confessor, held from the king an estate worth ₤7 in Somerset and did so in an area appropriate to his occupation, close to a water habitat.[3] J.H. Round ascribed the development of serjeanties in England to Norman influence, though he did not dismiss earlier roots.[4] The Anglo-Saxon historian James Campbell has suggested that serjeanties such as the messenger services recorded in the 13th century may represent "semi-fossilised remnants of important parts of the Anglo-Saxon governmental system".[5]

Grand serjeanty vs petty serjeanty

The germ of the later distinction between "grand" and "petty" serjeanty is found in the Magna Carta (1215), the king there renouncing the right of prerogative wardship in the case of those who held of him by the render of small articles. The legal doctrine that serjeanties were (a) inalienable and (b) impartible led to the "arrentation", under Henry III (r. 1216-1272), of serjeanties the lands of which had been partly alienated, and which were converted into socage tenures, or, in some cases, tenures by knight-service. Gradually the gulf widened, and "petty" serjeanties, consisting of renders, together with serjeanties held of mesne lords, sank into socage, while "grand" serjeanties, the holders of which performed their service in person, became alone liable to the burden of wardship and marriage. In Littleton's Tenures (15th century), this distinction appears as well defined, but the development was one of legal theory.


By the reign of King Edward I (r. 1272–1307), tenure by serjeanty was well on the retreat, as Kimball observes in her study of the English serjeanties published in 1936:

Once it began to give way, serjeanty disintegrated more quickly and easily than the other tenures as the feudal conception of society lost its hold. [...] Its miscellaneous services had [..] many fates. A large number soon became obsolete; others were commuted to money payments or changed to knight's service; a few that were honourable or ornamental were retained in their original form as part of the coronation ceremony. Some being still useful were performed by deputy, or absorbed into the regular administrative system.[6]

When the military tenure of knight-service was abolished at the Restoration by Charles II (r. 1649-1651) (cap. 24), that of grand serjeanty was retained, doubtless on account of its honorary character, it being then limited in practice to the performance of certain duties at coronations, the discharge of which as a right has always been coveted, and the earliest record of which is that of Queen Eleanor's coronation in 1236. The most conspicuous are those of champion, appurtenant to the Dymokes' manor of Scrivelsby, and of supporting the king's right arm, appurtenant to that of Worksop.

Modern remnants

The duty of supporting the king's right arm was still performed at the coronation of King Edward VII (1902). The meaning of serjeant as a household officer is still preserved in the king's serjeants-at-arms, serjeant-surgeons and serjeant-trumpeter. The horse and foot serjeants (servientes) of the king's host in the 12th century, who ranked after the knights and were more lightly armed, were unconnected with tenure.

Examples of grand serjeanty

Hereditary offices in gross

Serjeanty is to be distinguished from offices held hereditary in gross. These are not serjeanties, as they were not incidents of the tenure of a manor or other land. They are heritable in the same way as baronies by writ, so that they can pass to a daughter, where there is no son, and be split between daughters if there are several.

Examples include:

See also


  1. Pollock, Frederick; F.W. Maitland (2007-06-30). The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I (2 ed.). Lawbook Exchange Ltd. ISBN 1-58477-718-4.
  2. Round, King's serjeants. pp. 6-8.
  3. Oggins, Kings and their Hawks. pp. 46-7.
  4. Round, King's serjeants. pp. 14-20, 270.
  5. Campbell, "Agents." p. 211.
  6. Kimball, Serjeanty tenure. p. 250.

Secondary sources

Further reading

Primary sources

Secondary sources

Older works
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