Crown land is a designated area belonging to the Crown, the equivalent of an entailed estate that passed with the monarchy and could not be alienated from it.

In the United Kingdom and during the British Empire, the hereditary revenues of Crown lands were a feature until the start of the reign of George III when the Crown Estate was surrendered to the Parliament of Great Britain in return for a fixed civil list payment – the monarch retains the income from the Duchy of Lancaster. The concept of federal lands in the US was developed in parallel to that of Crown land in Canada and Australia.

In the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its predecessor the Austrian Empire Crown lands were alternative administrative units to Duchys, as in the Kingdom of Poland and its successor, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

United Kingdom and its predecessor states
See Crown Estate.

The Commonwealth of Nations
In theory, also, state lands in the former British colonies were supposed to be vested in the crown, and they are called crown lands; actually, however, the various national legislatures have full control over them, including power of disposal. In the Commonwealth of Nations, the law concerning these lands has developed further.

In Australia, public lands are considered to belong to the Crown. This includes land for nature conservation and various other governmental purposes, as well as vacant land. Public lands comprise around 23% of Australian land, of which the largest single category is vacant land belonging to the Crown, comprising 12.5% of the land.

Crown land is held in the ‘right of the Crown’ of either an individual State or the Commonwealth of Australia; there is not a single ‘Crown’ (as a legal governmental entity) in Australia (see The Crown). Various States have adopted differing policies towards the sale and use of their Crown lands; for instance, New South Wales passed a controversial reform in 2005 requiring Crown lands to be rated at market value.

Crown land is used for such things as airports (Commonwealth) and public utilities (usually State).

In Tasmania, the management of Crown land is governed by the Crown Lands Act 1976.

Because the mainland area of the Commonwealth of Australia has not increased since federation, the only crown land held by the Commonwealth government consists of land in the Northern Territory (surrendered by South Australia) the Australian Capital Territory, and small areas acquired for airports or defence. This contrasts with the United States, where the expansion of the country since federation in 1787 means that most of the public land, except for public land in the original 13 states and Texas, is owned by the federal government.

In Canada, about 89% of Canada’s massive land area (or 8,886,356 km²) is Crown land, which may either be federal (41%) or provincial (48%); the remaining 11% is privately-owned.

Most federal Crown land is in the Canadian territories (Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon) and is administered on behalf of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada; only 4% of land in the provinces is federally-controlled, largely in the form of National Parks, Indian reserves, or Canadian Forces bases. In contrast, provinces hold much of their territory as provincial Crown land (for instance, 95% of Newfoundland and Labrador is provincial Crown land) which may be held as Provincial Parks or wilderness.

Much of Canada’s natural resource extraction industry is based on Crown land (largely but not exclusively provincial) rented for logging and mineral exploration rights; revenues flow to the relevant government and may constitute a major income stream, such as in Alberta. Crown land may also be rented by individuals wishing to build homes or cottages.

The term crownlands, in Austria-Hungary under the Dual Monarchy, was applied to the various provinces.

In Poland and later the Nobility Commonwealth, the Crown lands were known as królewszczyzny (sing. królewszczyzna) which translates to regality. Since 15th century they have been leased or gifted to the members of nobility. Those nobles who had received the privilege of administering the Crown lands (and thus keeping most of its profits) had the title of Starosta. Once given a Crown land, one had the right to keep it ‘for life’.

Ruch egzekucyjny (execution movement) of the late 16th century, led by Jan Zamoyski, Lord Grand Chancellor of the Crown, put as one of its goals the ‘execution of lands’, i.e. return of all Crown lands, which were often illegally held by next generations of Starostine families. In 1562-1563 they forced most of the Crown land in the Crown of the Polish Kingdom to be returned to the monarch, however they failed to force the magnates of Grand Duchy of Lithuania to give up their prizes (Poland and Lithuania were ruled by the same king, and became one country after the Union of Lublin in 1569).

Crown lands formed about 15-20% of Poland (later, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), and were divided into two parts:

  • the table lands (dobra stołowe or ekonomie), which were providing money for the king’s personal treasure and expenses, among them the support of the army (wojsko kwarciane)
  • the rest, which the king was obliged to lease to the outstanding members of the nobility.

Eventually the nobility controlled most of the Crown lands. People without a formal title of nobility inherited or granted were not allow to be infeudated with regalities.

Among the largest Crown lands in the 16th and 17th centuries were the territories of Grodno, Malbork and Wielkorządy with Niepołomice in the Crown of the Polish Kingdom, and Mohylew and Sambor in Lithuania.

The conditions of peasants were better in the Crown lands than on the hereditary estates of the nobility, as there were fewer serfdom obligations.

Crown lands were reformed in 1775, lessening the abuses of the nobility, and the Great Sejm of 1788-1792 decided to put them on sale, to raise funds for reforms and modernising the army. After the partitions of Poland in 1795 they were directly annexed by the partitioning powers.

Prior to the Overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy, the Hawaiian monarchs had access to 1.8 million acres (7,300 km²) – the private lands of Kamehameha III which he set aside for the dignity of the royal office for the ruler of the Hawaiian Monarchy in March 8, 1848 during the Great Mahele. Kamehameha III and his successors made these lands their private property, selling, leasing or mortgaging at their enjoyment.

At the death of Kamehameha IV, it was decided by the Supreme Court that under the above mentioned instrument executed by Kamehameha III, reserving the Crown Lands, and under the confirmatory Act of June 7th, 1848, “the inheritance is limited to the successors to the throne,” “the wearers of the crown which the conqueror had won,” and that at the same time “each successive possessor may regulate and dispose of the same according to his will and pleasure as private property, in like manner as was done by Kamehameha III.”

Afterwards an Act was passed January 3, 1865, “relieve the Royal Domain from encumbrances and to render the same inalienable.” This Act provided for the redemption of the mortgages on the estate, and enacted that the remaining lands are to be “henceforth inalienable and shall descend to the heirs and successors of the Hawaiian Crown forever,” and that “it shall not be lawful hereafter to lease said lands for any terms of years to exceed thirty.”

The Board of Commissioners of Crown Lands shall consist of three persons to be appointed by His Majesty the King, two of whom shall be appointed from among the members of His Cabinet Council, and serve without remuneration, and the other shall act as Land Agent, and shall be paid out of the revenues of the said lands, such sum as may be agreed to by the King.”

The lands were held by Queen Lili’uokalani before January 17, 1893. On this date, the government of the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown by American and European residents of Hawai`i, with the help of the US Military and with the enforced abdication of the queen, the lands “vested in the king for the purpose of maintaining the royal state and dignity” were taken in charge by the provisional and republican governments.

The United States gives the State of Hawaii control of the Crown Lands.