English common law dealing with land ownership was based on the feudal system in which the monarch owned all the land but allowed favored individuals the use of it, as tenants, in exchange for service. The tenancies were called "feuds", "fees", or "fiefs", and the tenants would further pass on rights down to others in their retinue. King to overlords, overlords to vassals, vassals to serfs.
The service one rendered in exchange for land 'ownership' could be anything from military service to the King, or it could be a 'sergeantry' such as delivering grain. Over time, the giving of service was replaced by something we're all familiar with today: giving of taxes! Virginia quitrents were a vestigial example of this.
The key points of the feudal system were that ultimately the King retained control, and that payment of some kind was made. True personal land ownership was impossible because the title one held was always subservient to the King.
Now, an important issue in this system was whether the tenancy one enjoyed was "heritable", that is, able to be passed to an heir or heirs. A variety of different types of 'ownership' came into being to allow for flexibility in this regard. For example, land held in 'fee simple' was heritable, meaning that the heirs would continue to enjoy the tenancy (provided of course they continued to render service).
As time went by the common laws regulating this system became more complex, and it became possible for different people to have different rights on the same parcel of property. This is effectively the system we have to day, and it can be confusing to understand. One person can have a right-of-way over someone else's land, another can have mineral rights, another can have a life estate (ownership during their lifetime, reverting to another at death), and the gas company can have an easement to maintain the gas pipes. Yes, many people all having a legal "piece" of the action!
Many terms relating to the feudal system are found in our legal dictionary.
Here is another source of information about the feudal system:
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