Of Property Ownership and Inheritance, by Jann Rowland

Of Property Ownership and Inheritance, by Jann Rowland

This month I wanted to discuss a few things relating to property ownership and all that entails (pun intended—sort of . . .) The ownership of property was a large part of what made a Regency man a gentleman. The second aspect of attaining gentleman status was having tenants who farmed the land in the gentleman’s stead, paying the man rent for the lease of the land. Both pieces were essential. Of course, if you did not own land, you could not be a gentleman, and conversely, if you owned land and farmed it yourself, you were a farmer, and not a gentleman.

That is not to say tenants farmed all the gentleman’s available land. There was generally a portion put aside for the home farm, the portion of the property that would largely feed the gentleman and his family. Then there was also the glebe, or the land that supported a parson, if a living was attached to an estate. The glebe could be a separate parcel of land set aside for the parson’s support, or it was often strips of land of every field on the estate.

Furthermore, if there were any wooded parts of the estate, trees could be felled for timber, any deposits of iron, coal, etc., could be mined, all adding to the gentleman’s overall income. The best and most prosperous estates were those which were diversified, which would give the gentleman the ability to withstand the sudden failure or devaluing of one of the industries on his estate. For example, if there was a drought and the harvest was sparse, the other industries—cattle, sheep, goats, or other livestock, and what we have already discussed—would keep his estate afloat and provide a portion of his income.

I apologize if I have spoken of this before, but it is good background information for what I really want to talk about. Laws of inheritance were an important part of the lives of gentlemen. In the case of an estate free of any encumbrance, the gentleman had the power to leave it to whomever he wished, though it was traditional to leave it to an eldest son. Should that son prove to be incapable or unsuited for caring for the land, the gentleman could pass him over and leave it to any of child, whether sons or daughters.

One of the most common misconceptions about Regency times was the notion that women could not own land. That is untrue. Women could, and often did, own their own estates. Any elder relation could leave a woman an estate and it would become her property to manage as she saw fit. What one must remember is when the woman married, the land became the property of her husband. In a very real sense, it was possible for an unmarried woman to own land, but not for a married woman, unless her father/guardian set up inheritance conditions that superseded the requirement for a woman’s property to go to her husband when she married. The husband, of course, would need to agree with those restrictions and sign the marriage articles.

As an interesting aside, let us speak of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her daughter Anne. We are never told the specifics of that situation, other than that Rosings Park had been the possession of Sir Lewis de Bourgh before his death. At the time of Pride & Prejudice, then, who owned the estate? Given Lady Catherine rules over the property with an iron fist, it is possible she owned it outright. Based on my research, it was not unheard of for a man to leave his property to his wife after he died, especially if he had no heir, or his only heir was a daughter. And as Anne is such a mousey creature, can you imagine her in a tug-of-war with her mother for control? Neither can I. It is equally possible, however, that the estate is Anne’s, and her mother manages it on her behalf. Again, the same basic principles apply in the dynamic between Anne and her mother. Even if it was hers, it is unlikely she would have attempted to wrest control of the estate from Lady Catherine.

Then what of entails? If you have been a reader of this blog and remember back a couple of years, I wrote a post about the possibility (probability, I suspect) that Jane Austen’s understanding of entails was not quite accurate. For the purposes of this post, let us discuss what would happen based on the principles of entail as written in her novels.

In their simplest sense, entails were a way for a landowner to avoid the dissolution of the estate via various means, among which include breaking it up among multiple heirs, or bankrupting it because of a dissolute heir. Entails tended to be very specific. An entail was always set for a specific number of generations. For example, a gentleman who put an entail on his property could specify it last for five generations, meaning that once the fifth after him had inherited, the entail was deemed fulfilled and would lapse. The new gentleman could then decide whether to enact another entail. In practice, the entail was almost always for five or six generations.

There were also safeguards against leaving the estate in limbo. What I mean by that is this: what happens if an estate is entailed and there are no more possible heirs? This could be easily accomplished. If the man who instituted the entail has two sons, and the sons only produce daughters, suddenly he was in a bind. Heirs to an entail were always men and descendants of man. Women could not inherit an entailed estate. If you read a book about the son of a daughter inheriting an entailed estate, call the author out, as that is inaccurate. Elizabeth’s son, for example, could not inherit Longbourn, as the direct male line did not exist through her.

Now, what actually happens in that situation I can conjecture, but I’ve never been able to find anything on the subject that would explain it in detail. If anyone knows, feel free to comment and let me know. I have read articles suggesting that the property reverts back to the crown, and that is a possibility. What I suspect, and have used in a couple of novels, is that a master made provision in a will for something of this nature and the will is then used to determine what happens, and the entail is broken. In Shadows Over Longbourn, for example, when Mr. Collins senior and his son die and do not leave a will, it reverts back to Mr. Bennet’s previous will, which specified that Jane’s eldest son was to become the new heir. Again, not sure if that is historically accurate, though I have always thought it makes sense.

One more thing to understand about entails is that an entail could be broken. In the text of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet notes that he did not save for his children because “[His] son was to join in cutting off the entail, as soon as he should be of age . . .” Now, that is often taken as the son would inherit and see to his mother and sisters’ support. What I suspect it really means, however, is that he would join with his father and end the entail. By joint agreement, the master and heir could agree to end the entail, regardless of how much longer it was specified to last.

All this leads to the final point, and the major point of this post. What happens if an estate is entailed, there are no male heirs of his body, and the gentleman’s wife is with child when the gentleman passes? The answer is quite simple: there is now a question of who inherits the estate that can only be resolved by the birth of the child. If the child is a boy, the child becomes the new owner of the estate, while the previous heir remains simply the heir. If a girl, then the heir becomes the new master, and inherits his property. The child is always presumed to be the issue of the gentleman—the parentage is not questioned. It’s not like they had DNA testing in those days. The widow and any female children retain possession of the property until it is proven they have no right to it with the birth of a daughter. One thing to note is that a son would not inherit at once, as he can only inherit when he is of age. Until that time, the estate is presumed to be his, but managed by someone else of the family—likely the mother or an uncle, or other relation. Then when he is of age, he inherits. If he passes before inheriting, the terms of the entail again come into force and the heir would inherit.

The more astute among you will have realized by now why I have given you such a long explanation of inheritance, and why I specifically highlighted the last paragraph. And you would be correct. My next offering, scheduled for release on May 20, deals with this particular premise. What happens if Mr. Bennet dies and Mrs. Bennet is with child? To discover that, you will need to read and find out! More, including the cover reveal and book description, to come on the FB page.

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May 2, 2021 11:10 AM

Thanks for the informative post. I always find this interesting but confusing.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
April 29, 2021 7:28 AM

Sounds intriguing! I never knew so much about entails and things!

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
April 28, 2021 7:13 PM

Wow, that was always confusing to me. Thanks for digging deeper and explaining this tangled web of bureaucratic red tape, Regency style. Blessings on all your hard work.

Caryl Kane
Caryl Kane
April 28, 2021 2:30 PM

Fascinating post!

Shana Jefferis
Shana Jefferis
April 28, 2021 1:24 PM

Hi Jann,
I’ve just finished with your April 28 post as well as the related post of January 9, 2019 (I highly recommend it to anyone reading this comment thread). Fascinating stuff! I have only written two regency era books, so my research will pale in comparison with yours, but I have one point on which we differ. I’ve read a great deal of contradictory views, but my understanding is that entails could be written in very specific ways. What I mean is that entails could be set up to benefit the eldest son, or they could be written in such a way that the heir must be male, or must be “of my body”, or both. But an entail could be set up to convey a property to the eldest daughter, or all the daughters, or to a third cousin, etc. I do not suggest these alternatives were common, only that they were permitted. I would love your thoughts on this. Regards, Shana

Mirta Ines
April 28, 2021 9:04 AM

All fascinating and informative! Good work!

Regina Jeffers
April 28, 2021 7:31 AM

Thanks for your explanations. Inheritance laws are crazy when compared to modern standards. Here are a few posts of close to a dozen posts I have done on the topic.

Female Inheritance https://reginajeffers.blog/2021/01/04/female-inheritance-and-the-release-of-the-mistress-of-rosings-park/

Primogeniture and Inheritance and the Need for a Widow’s Pension in Jane Austen’s Novels https://reginajeffers.blog/2017/11/20/primogeniture-and-inheritance-and-the-need-for-a-widows-pension-in-jane-austens-novels/

“Kinks” in the Peerage Laws in Great Britain https://reginajeffers.blog/2020/11/11/kinks-in-the-peerage-laws-in-great-britain/

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