The Ceremonies of Homage and Fealty (c.1480)

Sir Thomas Lyttelton, Littleton's Tenures, ed. Eugene Wambaugh (Washington, D.C.: John Byrne, 1903), pp. 39-42.


        "Homage is the most honorable service, and most humble service of reverence, that a franktenant1 may do to his lord. For when the tenant shall make homage to his lord, he shall be ungirt, and his head uncovered, and his lord shall sit, and the tenant shall kneel before him on both his knees, and hold his hands jointly together between the hands of his lord, and shall say thus: 'I become your man from this day forward [of life and limb, and of earthly worship,] and unto you shall be true and faithful, and bear to you faith for the tenements that I claim to hold of you, saving the faith that I owe to our sovereign lord the king'; and then the lord, so sitting, shall kiss him.

But if an abbot, or a prior, or other man of religion shall do homage to his lord, he shall not say 'I become your man, &c.,' for that he hath professed himself to be only the man of God. But he shall say thus: 'I do homage unto you, and to you I shall be true and faithful, and faith to you bear for the tenements which I hold of you, saving the faith which I do owe unto our lord the king.'

Also, if a woman sole shall do homage, she shall not say, 'I become your woman'; for it is not fitting that a woman should say, that she will become a woman to any man, but to her husband, when she is married. But she shall say, 'I do to you homage, and to you shall be faithful and true, and faith to you shall bear for the tenements I hold of you, saving the faith I owe to our sovereign lord the king.' [ . . . ]

Note, if a man hath several tenancies, which he holdeth of several lords, that is to say, every tenancy by homage; then when he doth homage to one of his lords, he shall say in the end of his homage done, 'Saving the faith which I owe to our lord the king, and to my other lords.'

Note, none shall do homage but such as have an estate in fee simple2 or fee tail,3 in his own right, or in the right of another. For it is a maxim in law, that he which hath an estate but for term of life shall neither do homage nor take homage..."

1. A freeman or woman who holds title to realty, either by inheritance or by grant for life.

2. Land held without condition or restriction as to disposition by owner and his/her heirs.

3. Land held by a tenant and a fixed line of heirs-of-the-body, or heirs specially named by the grantor of the estate--a means of insuring that the land will revert to the estate of the original grantor if no suitable heir survives.



(Lyttelton, 43-44)

        "Fealty is the same that fidelitas is in Latin. And when a freeholder doth fealty to his lord, he shall hold his right hand upon a book, and shall say thus: 'Know ye this, my lord, that I shall be faithful and true unto you, and faith to you shall bear for the lands which I claim to hold of you, and that I shall lawfully do to you the customs and services which I ought to do, at the terms assigned, so help me God and his saints'; and he shall kiss the book. But he shall not kneel when he maketh his fealty, nor shall make such humble reverence as is aforesaid in homage.

And there is great diversity between the doing of fealty and of homage; for homage cannot be done to any but to the lord himself; but the steward of the lord's court, or bailiff, may take fealty for the lord.

Also, tenant for term of life4 shall do fealty, and yet he shall not do homage. And divers other diversities there be between homage and fealty."

4. One who holds land only as long as he or some designated other(s) shall live.

An Important Note on "Good Lordship" and the Lord's/Lady's Duties to Vassals:

        Lyttleton's attention to the formal structure of these ceremonies may mask, for the modern reader, the very real responsibilities which vassalage imposed upon the lords and ladies who received homage and fealty.  The lands held of the lord/lady were obviously a primary contribution to vassals' well-being, their "livelihood" or source of income from tenants' rents, as well as material wealth in the form of crops and pasturage.  However, in times of war or less formal social disturbance, one's lord was expected to offer protection in return for the services rendered by vassals, and failure to protect one's vassals was considered just cause for their abrogation or rejection of the homage/fealty relationship.  Once sensitized to this issue, one finds many works of literature whose plots are motivated by lords' bad behavior and vassals' negotiations for redress of grievances, or even outright rebellion.  Malory's Morte Darthur contains innumerable instances in which Arthur's quality as a prince is measured by his ability to bring law and order to endangered people, and King Mark is made a notorious example of a "felon lord" who openly conspires against his (arguably faulty) vassal, Tristan.  The Breton lais "Equitan" (OF, Marie de France) and "Sir Gowther" (ME, Anon.) feature very bad behavior by lords who are punished for adultery (King Equitan by his seneschal) or who must undertake agonizing penance to make up for their misdeeds (Gowther's penance set by the Pope).

 Selected Bibliography of English Legal History:

Coke, Sir Edward. Coke Upon Littleton. Ed. Thomas Coventry. London: Saunders and Benning,         1830.

Holdsworth, W.S. A History of English Law. 7 Vols. 3d. ed. London: Methuen, 1923.

Littleton, Sir Thomas. Littleton's Tenures in English. Ed. Eugene Wambaugh. Washington: John         Byrne, 1903.

Pollock, Sir Frederick, and Maitland, Frederic William. The History of English Law. 2 Vols.                 Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1923.

Thorne, S.E. "English Feudalism and Estates in Land." Cambridge Law Journal (1959): 193-209.         Rpt. in Essays in English Legal History. London: Hambeldon, 1985. Pp. 13-29.