When 4,000 residents in Anglesey received official letters declaring that a lord of the manor had served a “unilateral notice” against their homes to secure mineral rights beneath their feet, their response was unsurprisingly one of alarm.
In a process being repeated across the country, inhabitants of Llanfairpwll and Menai Bridge have found themselves at the front line of efforts by the Land Registry to drag arcane property rights into the 21st century by collecting a database of the entitlements held by lords of the manor.
The result has been concern that the holders of manorial titles, favoured by wealthy individuals seeking the aura of noble lineage for a price, could exercise rights over domestic property that many homeowners had no idea existed.
The anxiety has been heightened by misguided speculation that the letters are part of a rush by titleholders to cash in on any shale gas boom. However, the chances of a windfall from fracking are remote, as the state reserved ownership of all oil, gas and coal under British soil to itself more than 80 years ago.
For Lord Treffos, the Cheshire businessman and author who bought the Anglesey manorial title in 1992, and other lords of the manor, there is little prospect of easy riches. Instead, the letters being sent on their behalf by the Land Registry are causing grief.
Stephen Hayes, who has spent £35,000 on administering the title he holds covering 10,350 acres of Anglesey, is looking for a buyer after receiving what he said was abuse. He told BBC Wales: “I had actually forgotten all about the title. None of this is my doing. I’ve received continuous abuse and I’ve had my life threatened.”
The problems have arisen since the passing of a deadline last October for lords of the manor to register the historical rights, which often include ownership of underground mineral deposits and hunting and fishing rights, that come with their titles under the Land Registry Act 2002.
The title of “Lord of the Manor”, which does not confer the privileges of a peerage, is a hangover from the feudal era and does not automatically bring with it physical property. But entitlements and duties that would have once been held by a medieval seigneur are often included. Under English law, the freehold of a property covers only the surface of the land it is built on and not the ground underneath, which belongs to the Crown or other rights holders.
Previously those rights were automatically protected, but in an effort to “increase transparency” concerning myriad manorial entitlements dating back centuries, the Land Registry is attempting to prod titleholders into recording the precise details.
Among the organisations to have registered these existing entitlements are the Duchy of Cornwall, managed on behalf of Prince Charles, and the Church of England. The outcry in communities from Anglesey to Cornwall has prompted calls for the entitlements to be abolished.
Rhun ap Iowerth, a Plaid Cyrmu Welsh Assembly member for Anglesey, said: “These are ancient rights that are out of date and serve no purpose in the 21st century. It has caused real anxiety to people. The long-term answer must be to get legislation in place removing these rights.”