A liberty was an English unit originating in the Middle Ages, traditionally defined as an area in which regalian right was revoked and where the land was held by a mesne lord (i.e. an area in which rights reserved to the king had been devolved into private hands). It later became a unit of local government administration.
Liberties were areas of widely variable extent which were independent of the usual system of hundreds and boroughs for a number of different reasons, usually to do with peculiarities of tenure. Because of their tenurial rather than geographical origin, the areas covered by liberties could either be widely scattered across a county or limited to an area smaller than a single parish: an example of the former is Fordington Liberty, and of the latter, the Liberty of Waybayouse, both in Dorset.
In northern England, the liberty of Bowland was one of the larger tenurial configurations covering some ten manors, eight townships and four parishes under the sway of a single feudal lord, the Lord of Bowland, whose customary title is Lord of the Fells. Up until 1660, such lords would have been lords paramount.
Legislation passed in 1836 ended the temporal jurisdiction of the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Ely in several liberties, and the Liberties Act 1850 permitted the merging of liberties in their counties. By 1867, only a handful remained: Ely, Havering-atte-Bower, St Albans, Peterborough, Ripon and Haverfordwest. St Albans was subsequently joined to the county of Hertfordshire in 1875.
The Local Government Act 1888 led to the ending of the special jurisdictions in April 1889: the Isle of Ely and Soke of Peterborough became administrative counties, while the three remaining liberties were united to their surrounding counties.
Inner Temple and Middle Temple, which occupy an area in London known as The Temple, describe themselves as liberties based on letters patent from 1608 and retain a large degree of independence to the present day. They are extra-parochial areas, historically not governed by the City of London Corporation, and are today regarded as local authorities for most purposes.
The local government functions of the Inner and Middle Temples are allocated by the Temples Order 1971 which provides that the Sub-Treasurer of the Inner Temple and the Under-Treasurer of the Middle Temple may exercise any function of an Inner London borough defined in either of ss.1(4) or 6 London Government Act 1963 which is not expressly excepted by an Act or Order. Exceptions in the 1971 Order include various matters associated with housing, planning, public welfare and health; the effect is usually to direct such excepted powers or responsibilities to the Common Council of the City of London. The City of London Police have policed the Temples since 1857 by consent rather than by imposition.
The term "liberty" was used in Ireland after the Norman conquest.
The term "liberty" was also used in England for a demarcated area in the vicinity of a prison where convicts could live, upon regular payment of fees. Examples include the Liberty of the Fleet in the City, and the Rules of the Bench in Southwark.