demesne [key], land under feudalism kept by the lord for his own use and occupation as distinguished from that granted to tenants. Initially the demesne lands were worked by the serfs in payment of the feudal debt. As the serfs' labor service came to be commuted to money payments, the demesne lands were often cultivated by paid laborers. Eventually many of the demesne lands were leased out either on a perpetual, and therefore hereditary, or a temporary, and therefore renewable, basis so that many peasants functioned virtually as free proprietors after having paid their fixed rents. In England the term ancient demesne, sometimes shortened to demesne, referred to those lands that were held by the crown at the time (1066) of William the Conqueror and were recorded in the Domesday Book. The term demesne also referred to the demesne of the crown, or royal demesne, which consisted of those lands reserved for the crown at the time of the original distribution of landed property. The royal demesne could be increased, for example, as a result of forfeiture. The lands were managed by stewards of the crown and were not given out in fief.
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