Estates and land are the foundation of property law in England and the United States. After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when William the Conqueror, or William I, became the King of England, he recognized that land ownership was essential to the governance of his kingdom. Announcing himself owner of all English lands, he distributed property to those loyal to him. The recipients became “tenants”; the rent was called “services”; knights performed “services” on behalf of the king, thus earning their honorific title and their rights to certain lands.
William bestowed a special designation, tenant in chief, to those who were offered more land than they could use. Everything necessary to survive and flourish at this time came from the land: food, water, shelter, building supplies and other equipment, and mineral resources. Tenants, therefore, would parcel out tracts of their land to others in exchange for fees and services. Recipients of the parceled tracts would parcel out smaller tracts of land, and this process of parceling would continue until the people living on the land had no rights to the land.
The result was that ownership in tracts of land became known as freehold or nonfreehold. Interests in freehold tracts included fee simple estates, fee tale estates, and life estates; interests in nonfreehold tracts included periodic tenancies, terms, and tenancies at will. These six categories of land ownership and title remain with us today.