So many Regency romances tangle with the laws of primogeniture—the right, by law or custom, of the firstborn male child to inheritthe family estate–that I thought I should expound a little on the topic.
In today’s world, it’s obvious that leaving entire estates and titles to the oldest son is grossly unfair to everyone concerned, including the son who doesn’t want—or is too incompetent to take on—the enormous responsibility of running a sheep farm and sitting in parliament. But the laws were established in medieval times when large expanses of land meant protection and power. The king granted lands in return for service, and his lords expected the same of their sons. To divide the land would be to divide families and the armies serving king and country and weaken defenses.
To accomplish this establishment of power, the entail was created. This is a legal document signed by the earl or baron to whom the land was granted that allows him to retain ownership interest in the estate, not actual ownership. Can you see the benefit to the estate if there’s a dissolute title holder? With an entail, he cannot sell it or surrender it or gamble it away. The land and all attached to it will go to his heir intact—so it behooves the heir to take good care of it and go out and fight his father’s battles.
Originally the entail was attached to the title granted by the king, but the custom benefited the entire estate and continued through the descendants. The document specifies which property is entailed—the grant from the king, certainly, but if the earl purchases other lands, he can choose if he wants those entailed to his heir. It also specifies what type of entail is involved. Normally, the entail would specify the next eldest male descendant and the heirs male of his body (legitimate biological children). There are other versions if you want to get into how the entail can be broken when there are no male heirs and why the Rule Against Perpetuities complicates everything. Here’s a great blog at proromantica.com explaining in terms of Downton Abbey.
The interesting part to me—and I used this in This Magic Moment—is that to avoid the Rule Against Perpetuities, most entails needed to be signed and agreed to by the eldest son. In fiction, we seldom see anyone giving up wealth by not signing that entail. Since it protects the land from being gobbled up by debtors, it would most likely be foolish not to sign it. In Magic Moment, the signed entail was never filed and the estate became the target of debtors. The new duke was faced with being the Duke of Nothing—one can see why the entail continued through generations, especially as land owners borrowed heavily against the land to pay taxes.
There are no end of variations historical romance writers can play with when it comes to inheritance. Because I’m so aware of the injustice and inequality of the laws, I’m always flinging my characters into opposition with it. In Formidable Lord Quentin, I came at it from two different directions at once. When my heroine’s husband, the Marquess of Belden, died, his title and the northern land to which the title was attached, went to a distant cousin he despised—because of the entail and because they were childless. But the wily marquess used the coal he squeezed from those lands for investments that were not entailed. So when he died, his will left all his wealth to his widow—and his despised cousin inherited nothing but barren land.
Then on the other hand, Lady Belden, his wealthy widow, is the daughter of an Irish earl who ran off to the Americas to avoid debtors. She had no control over her father’s lands or his property or the horses she had raised from childhood. When her younger siblings—including her father’s six-year-old legitimate male heir—are abruptly returned to her safekeeping, she isn’t about to let them go. Except her father couldn’t leave her the boy’s guardianship because she was female—and thus her husband’s despised heir inherits the responsibility.
Really, luckily for me, sometimes the law creates more conflict than it resolves! Do you have any favorite books where part of the conflict develops from the laws of inheritance? Why do you think we enjoy them?
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