|SOME NOTES ON MEDIEVAL ENGLISH GENEALOGY
The aim of this project is to provide abstracts of the medieval feet of fines that have not yet been published, for the period before 1509.
A list of published editions, together with links to the abstracts on this site, can be found here. Alternatively, the abstracts can be searched for entries of interest.
In the 12th century a procedure evolved for ending a legal action by agreement between the parties. This is usually said to have happened in the reign of Henry II, but I am grateful to Michael Gervers for drawing to my attention an earlier example from the court of King Stephen in the year 1140, found among the records of the church of Saints Peter and Wilfrid, Ripon (in which much of the wording which later became standard is already present). The agreement between the parties was known as a final concord (or fine). Originally this was a means of resolving genuine disputes, but by the middle of the 13th century the fine had become a popular way of conveying freehold property, and the legal action was usually a fictitious one, initiated with the cooperation of both parties. This procedure survived until the 1830s.
Originally, each party would be given a copy of the agreement, but in 1195 the procedure was modified, so that three copies were made on a single sheet of parchment, one on each side and one at the foot. The copies would then be separated by cutting the parchment along indented (wavy) lines as a precaution against forgery. The right and left hand copies were given to the parties and the third copy at the foot was retained by the court. For this reason the documents are known as feet of fines.
After the early 14th century, fines were always made in the Court of Common Pleas. Earlier on, they could also be made in the Exchequer and before justices in eyre.
The process of making a fine retained the bureaucratic form of a legal action. and could involve expense, delay and inconvenience. But it did have advantages that made it popular. The foot of the fine was (usually) securely preserved among the records of the court, and was therefore safe from accidental loss or forgery. In addition, a conveyance of land by fine could be much harder to challenge than one recorded only by a charter.
Another reason for the popularity of fines was that married women could participate in them without the risk of a later challenge on the grounds that they had been coerced by their husbands. As a result, married couples often used fines to convey property. Either the property could be the wife's, or else it could be the husband's, in which case her participation would ensure she could not claim dower in it after his death.
Some notes on the format of the records and their interpretation can be found here.
Also available here, by kind permission of the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, is A Short Introduction to Feet of Fines, originally published in Foundations, volume 4, pages 45-55 (2012). This includes a discussion of the procedure by which fines were made, the records that were generated and their interpretation.
The following information is available online:
The introductions to the following editions contain more detailed information about feet of fines and their interpretation: