Nicola here! Today I’m dipping into the subject of titles
once again. This is a hot topic in the UK at the moment because there is a bill
before parliament to change the laws of succession to the throne. You would
think in this day and age that a proposal to change the law to allow a
first-born princess to take the throne with precedence over a younger brother
would not be controversial. Not so. It has stirred up a great deal of debate,
not least as to whether the same rules should apply to the aristocracy.
Kings are different
The rules pertaining to the succession to the monarchy have
always been different from those that apply
to aristocratic titles. At present
succession to the British throne is by what is called male-preference cognatic
primogeniture. This means that if the reigning monarch has a son, he will
inherit regardless of whether he has elder sisters. If there is no male heir
then the eldest daughter will succeed as in the case of the current Queen. This
wasn’t always the case, of course. Originally in England and Scotland there
were no fixed rules governing succession to the throne. Witness William the
Conqueror willing the throne to his second son William Rufus whilst his eldest
son Robert got the Duchy of Normandy. Robert didn’t like it, and invaded, but
he was paid off. Then there was the anarchy when Henry I named his daughter
Matilda as his successor but his nephew Stephen took the throne instead.
Stephen and Matilda fought it out over a period of years and it was her son,
not his, who inherited next. Richard II named his nephew Arthur as his heir
rather than his younger brother John. Then there were all the primogeniture
squabbles of the Wars of the Roses. A little known fact is that Henry VIII’s
will proposed that his daughter Elizabeth should be succeeded by Lady Anne
Stanley, descendent of his sister Mary, Duchess of Suffolk and Charles Brandon.
That, of course, never happened.
Out of all this confusion came the Act of Settlement of 1701
which still governs succession to the throne, with various other pieces of
legislation also in effect. The current amendment proposes that the first-born
child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince William and Princess Kate)
should one day inherit the throne regardless of whether it is a girl or a boy.
The oldest of the old boys’ clubs
In contrast to the monarchy, inheritance in the aristocracy
has in the main part been governed by male primogeniture. This means that in
most cases the title – and the entire estate – descends in the male line only to
the exclusion of women. So if the Duke of Dastardly has six daughters and no
sons then his title will go to his eldest surviving brother and from there to
the brother’s sons. If there are no close male relatives it will go to the
fifth cousin twice removed rather than to the daughters.
Inspiration for Plots
We all understand this. It is the basis of any number of
plots in historical fiction. The Downton Abbey story begins with the fact that
the Earl of Grantham has three daughters and no son, his close male heir is drowned
in the Titanic and the title is going to descend to Matthew, a distant relative
and (shock, horror!) a member of the middle classes who works for a living. How
different it would all have been if Lady Mary Crawley had been the heir!
Then there is Pride and Prejudice. The only reason that the
odious Mr Collins is sniffing around Longbourn is because he is Mr Bennet’s
heir. The five Bennet daughters cannot inherit the estate. So Mr Collins is
looking to smooth matters over by marrying one of them. Implicit in this is the
idea that as he is taking their inheritance, one of his responsibilities is to
look after the disenfranchised females of the family.
The idea of male primogeniture is pretty heavily embedded in
a lot of families, witness the number of aristocrats who keep on having
children until there is a male heir. I loved the story of the Sackville-Wests.
In 1954 Lionel Sackville-West and his wife Jacobine had their first daughter.
Lionel’s great-aunt Vita, who had been barred from the succession because she
was female, wrote to congratulate them. When a second daughter was born she
wrote to say how lovely it was that the first had a playmate and hoped that
they weren’t too disappointed she wasn’t a boy. By the birth of a fifth
daughter, all she could find to say was “oh dear.”
Male primogeniture is a fruitful source of plot ideas for a
historical romance writer. The idea of the spirited but penniless daughter in
conflict with the new heir is a very powerful one and it’s one of my
favourites. And of course any change to succession laws now would make no
difference to what happened historically. (Though wouldn’t it be fun if all the
heirs in the female line came forward to make a claim on their inheritance!)
According to an account I read recently, opinion within the ranks of the
aristocracy seems split on whether or not it would be a good thing to change
the laws of inheritance. More than one duke has deemed it a good idea. Some have suggested that daughters should be
allowed to inherit only if there is no son. Others have rejected the idea
outright, warning that it would lead to the break up of landed estates. Some,
rather bravely in the current climate, have stuck to the traditional view that
all men (and women) are not equal, that women are not as good at running
estates and that “the first duty of a married woman is to have babies.” To
which I can only say – well, it’s a point of view.
Girls can multitask
Arguably the case of the traditionalists is weakened by the
fact that there are already titles and estates
with provision to descend down
the female line. There aren’t a huge number of them but they do exist. I came
across one the other day when I was visiting Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. Wrest
had been in the De Grey family for over 600 years. During that time there were
a number of female heirs in the succession including Jemima Campbell,
Marchioness Grey in the Georgian era, her daughter Amabel Yorke, Countess de
Grey, her granddaughter Anne Florence De Grey and her granddaughter Nan
Herbert, Baroness Lucas. The estate at Wrest passed from the family not because
of female inheritance but because like many others it was simply too huge and
expensive to maintain after the First World War.
In Forbidden I turned the male primogeniture plot around and
had a title and estate that could pass in the female line. The heroine returns
from the dead to dispossess the male heir. Perhaps it says something about me
and the heroines I enjoy writing that I really loved putting a strong heroine
into a situation where she was only doing what the men were habitually doing!
So what do you think? Do you enjoy stories where male
primogeniture leads to daughters losing out on inheriting a title and estate?
Does the inequality of it bother you in a historical context or does it lead to
good conflict in a story? And do you think that in the real world, daughters
should be allowed to inherit the dukedom?