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Primer Seisin in United Kingdom

History of Primer Seisin

Primer Seisin, which is usually regarded as a separate incident, and figures as such in Blackstone’s list, is perhaps better understood, not as an incident at all, but as a special procedure—effective and summary—whereby the Crown could enforce the four incidents already described.

It was an exclusive prerogative of the Crown, denied to mesne lords. The Bishop of Durham enjoyed it, so it seems to be stated in a charter of 1303 (Lapsley, Pal. of Durham, 133). But this forms no real exception; since the Bishop, as an Earl Palatine, enjoyed the regalia of a king.

When a Crown tenant died, the King’s officers had the right to enter into immediate possession, and to exclude the heir, who could not touch his father’s lands without permission from the Crown: he had first to prove his title by inquest, give security for any balance of relief or other debts, and perform homage. From Statute of Marlborough, c. 16, primer seisin extended over serjeanty as well as knight’s service. Statute of Merton, c. 7, provided that a ward might refuse a marriage on undertaking to pay the offered price when he came of age. Under c. 8, double the value might be exacted for a secret marriage or one in fraud of the lord’s right.

It will be readily seen what a strong strategic position all this assured to the King in any disputes with the heir of a dead vassal. If the Exchequer had doubtful claims against the deceased, its officials could satisfy themselves before admitting the heir to possession. If the heir showed any tendency to evade payment of feudal incidents, the Crown could checkmate his moves. If the succession was disputed, the King might favour the claimant who pleased or paid him most; or, under colour of the dispute, refuse to disgorge the estate—holding it in custody analogous to wardship, and meanwhile drawing the profits.

If the son happened to be abroad when his father died, he would experience difficulty in forcing the Crown to restore the estates. Such was the experience of William Fitz–Odo on returning from Scotland in 1201 to claim his father’s carucate of land in Bamborough. Primer seisin was thus not so much a separate incident, as a right peculiar to the Crown to take summary measures for the satisfaction of all claims against a deceased tenant or his heir.

Magna Carta contains no direct reference to it, but chapters 37 and 53, providing against the abuse of prerogative wardship, have a bearing on the subject. Sir Edward Coke (Coke upon Littleton, 77 A) is the original source of much confusion as to the nature of primer seisin, which he seems to have considered as a second and additional relief exacted by the Crown, amounting to the whole rent of the first year. The Popes, he further held (erroneously), were imitating this practice when they exacted a year’s rent from every newly granted benefice under name of “first fruits.” These errors have been widely followed (e.g. Thomson, Magna Charta, p. 416; Taswell Langmead, Const. Hist., 50).

Source: Part II. Magna Carta: A Commentary on the Great Charter of King John, with an Historical Introduction, by William Sharp McKechnie (Glasgow: Maclehose, 1914).

See Also

Magna Carta
History of Magna Carta
English Court System

English Law: Primer Seisin in the Past

The right which the king had, when any of his tenants died seised of a knight’s fee, to receive of the heir, gived he were of fall age, one whole year’s profits of the lands, if they were in immediate possession; and half a year’s profits, if the lands were in reversion, expectant on an estate for life. 2 Bl. Com. 66. [1]


Notes and References

  1. Partialy, this information about primer seisin is based on the Bouvier´s Law Dictionary, 1848 edition. There is a list of terms of the Bouvier´s Law Dictionary, including primer seisin.

See Also

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  • Article Name: Primer Seisin
  • Author: Lilly Daniels
  • Description: History of Primer Seisin Primer Seisin, which is usually regarded as a separate incident, and figures as such in [...]

This entry was last updated: November 23, 2020

Magna Carta


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