Few things show inequality more than Land Registry records and, when it comes to that, Britain surely stands alone. In the thousand years since the Norman conquest, most of the land in England has been held and remains held by a very small and select segment of the population.
According to the author Kevin Cahill, the main driver behind the absurd expense of owning land and property in Britain is that so much of the nation's land is locked up by a tiny elite. Just 0.3% of the population 160,000 families own two thirds of the country. Less than 1% of the population owns 70% of the land, running Britain a close second to Brazil for the title of the country with the most unequal land distribution on Earth.
Much of this can be traced back to 1066. The first act of William the Conqueror, in 1067, was to declare that every acre of land in England now belonged to the monarch. This was unprecedented: Anglo-Saxon England had been a mosaic of landowners. Now there was just one. William then proceeded to parcel much of that land out to those who had fought with him at Hastings. This was the beginning of feudalism; it was also the beginning of the landowning culture that has plagued England and Britain ever since.
The dukes and earls who still own so much of the nation's land, and who feature every year on the breathless rich lists, are the beneficiaries of this astonishing land grab. William's 22nd great-granddaughter, who today sits on the throne, is still the legal owner of the whole of England. Even your house, if you've been able to afford one, is technically hers. You're a tenant, and the price of your tenancy is your loyalty to the crown. When the current monarch dies, her son will inherit the crown (another Norman innovation, incidentally, since Anglo-Saxon kings were elected). As Duke of Cornwall, he is the inheritor of land that William gave to Brian of Brittany in 1068, for helping to defeat the English at Hastings.
But the Normans and their descendants are eclipsed by the landed gentry in Scotland. Today, the work of the highland clearances completed, more than half the land in Scotland is in the hands of just 500-people.
The land on which many of our lairds sit was stolen in the 17th century," says [Andy Wightman, author of The Poor Had No Lawyers, Who Owns Scotland (And How they Got It)]. "But these ill-gotten gains were protected by acts which maintained their hegemony after the rest of Europe ditched feudalism and concentrated land ownership."
He describes how the aristocracy embraced the 1560 Reformation as a means of getting their hands on land belonging to the "Auld Kirk". They needed to protect their stolen goods with a robust law.
The Act of Prescription (1617) did the trick. Thus any land occupied for 40 years or more was indemnified from future legal challenge. The law remains in place and has effectively upheld the gentry's rights to stolen goods for 400 years.