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KAI RYSSDAL: The days of the feudal system are, for the most part, long gone. At least in Europe the hierarchy of serfs and vassals collapsed back in the 1600s. Remnants remain, though, especially in Britain. Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports on the business dealings of one modern day lord of the manor.
Stephen Beard: Alstonefield — the perfect setting for this story. The rolling landscape unchanged for centuries. Sheep have grazed on the hillsides since feudal times. Fitting, then, that the Lord of the Manor has been lording it over the villagers, causing a kind of peasants’ revolt.
Woman: He’s just making a living out of other people isn’t he? It’s just not on is it?
Man: He saw an opening and decided he’d have a go. He saw a loophole in the law and he tried to exploit it.
And here is how the problem arose . . .
[Sound of an auction.]
Titles like “Lord of the Manor” often come up for auction. People usually buy them for a laugh. But a businessman called Mark Roberts spotted a business opportunity. He bought the title of Lord of the Manor of Alstonefield for $20,000. And then, says lawyer Roger Pitz-Tucker, he laid claim to odd strips of land around the village and put the squeeze on the local serfs: in one case for about $40,000.
ROGER PITZ-TUCKER: He charged one person about A£19,000 for crossing a 3-foot strip of grass to get into his garage.
This corner of English law is as murky as the Middle Ages. The feudal system was never completely abolished here. Some of these ancient titles do still have some curious rights attached.
PITZ-TUCKER: Very often there’s an ancient royal grant of the right to treasure trove — gold or silver hidden on the land. Or also to anything found on the seashore. And very often this can include a beached whale.
Alstonefield is landlocked, so no beached whales for his lordship. But he had other fish to fry. The villagers say he was out to fleece them.
SUE FOWLER: Oscar! Oscar!
Farmer Sue Fowler calls her prize ram down from the hillside for his feed. Sue led the uprising against the Lord of the Manor. She says the villagers were furious when he claimed ownership of all the village greens.
FOWLER: By actually putting notices on all the greens, claiming that they were his and that it was private property. And that really started our battle to win back our village greens.
Eventually a public inquiry was called. As the transcript reveals, lawyers, villagers and officials ruminated over the minutiae of village life:
TEXT: There is evidence of use, but other than Mrs. Hornblower, the users all moved to the village after the pond was restored. Mrs. Wilderspin had used it only since 1996. In my judgment, Mrs. Hornblower’s newt-watching activities must have begun after the pond restoration.
Eventually the villagers won. The Lord of the Manor was sent packing. A document came to light showing that all the rights were all signed away in the 1800’s. Sue Fowler is angry.
FOWLER: We had to fight for something that’s always been ours against this complete stranger coming along with no evidence whatsoever. Just a myth.
BEARD: A title.
FOWLER: And a myth.
The Lord of the Manor was not available for comment. Not surprising, perhaps. He has 60 other manorial titles to his name, and no doubt other battles to fight — enforcing his feudal rights in this less-deferential age.
In Alstonefield, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.
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