The 19th Century Entailment

Chatsworth_BridgeAs it was for centuries, a man’s status in 19th Century British Society rested in the land he held. Land was a symbol of wealth and social rank. Therefore, the need to pass one’s “wealth” to future generations increased with the number of acres of land owned. Land was “influence,” as well as affluence. To ensure one’s descendants received what was incurred, a system known as primogeniture was put in place. Primogeniture meant that all the land in each generation’s possession was left to the eldest son in the family rather than being divided equally among off the offspring. Secondly, an entail assured that said “eldest son” could not mortgage or divide or sell said inheritance. It was to be held for his eldest son, etc., etc., etc.

Primogeniture developed during Norman times. The idea was that by leaving the land to the eldest son, the estate would remain intact for future generations. It would also be economically capable of supporting a military force, which could assist the king. By the 19th Century, the King/Queen had other means to field a military presence, and social status became the basis of the practice. Customarily, primogeniture was part of a gentleman’s will or deeds of settlement. This practice remained intact until 1925, when it was changed by law.

The entail prevented a wastrel from selling off the family estate to pay his debts. Do you recall Sir Walter Eliot in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. “There was only a small part of his estate that Sir Walter could dispose of; but had every acre been alienable, it would have made no difference. He had condescended to mortgage as far as he had the power, but he would never condescend to sell. No; he would never disgrace his name so far. The Kellynch estate should be transmitted whole and entire, as he had received it.” An entail was defined by a deed of settlement (or) a strict settlement. The heir normally received the land for his use ONLY in his lifetime. His rights ceased to exist upon his death.

Originally, many attempted to entail their properties until the end of the world, so to speak. However, the law would not permit “infinity” to stand. In practice, an entailed property only remained so until the grandson of the land owner making the settlement became of age at 21 years. Then, the heir could sell or give away the property. So, theoretically, the entail only held the land through the first and second generation of land owners. However, a little coercion often secured the land for future generations.

Most land owners (and their sons) held no other financial employment. If the property owner’s son wished to keep his “allowance,” he agreed to sign a new deed of settlement, which would assure the property remained in the family for another two generations, etc., etc. However, what if no males were born to inherit? A family line could end if a female remained single or even if she married. Single females had no children to inherit, and through married females, the property passed to someone outside the family.

Such a “disaster” was part of the plot of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

“‘Oh! my dear,’ cried his wife, ‘I cannot bear to hear that mentioned. Pray do not talk of that odious man. I do think it is the hardest thing in the world that your estate should be entailed away from your own children; and I am sure if I had been you, I should have tried long ago to do something or other about it.’ Jane and Elizabeth attempted to explain to her the nature of an entail. They had often attempted it before, but it was a subject on which Mrs. Bennet was beyond the reach of reason; and she continued to rail bitterly against the cruelty of settling an estate away from a family of five daughters, in favour of a man whom nobody cared anything about.”


Phoebe Nichols as Elizabeth Elliot

The females, however, often found another means of “retaining” the property. Propriety permitted cousins to marry. A girl could remain in her childhood home when no males were available to inherit by marrying the “heir presumptive.” It was Elizabeth Eliot’s hope in Austen’s Persuasion to marry William Walter Eliot, Esq., her father’s heir. “She had, while a very young girl, as soon as she had known him to be, in the event of her having no brother, the future baronet, meant to marry him.”

And Mrs. Bennet wishes Elizabeth to marry the odious Mr. Collins in order to save Longbourn. In his proposal, Mr. Collins explains why he assumes one of the Bennet sisters would accept him. “Thus much for my general intention in favour of matrimony; it remains to be told why my views were directed to Longbourn instead of my own neighbourhood, where I assure you there are many amiable young women. But the fact is, that being, as I am, to inherit this estate after the death of your honoured father (who, however, may live many years longer), I could not satisfy myself without resolving to chuse a wife from among his daughters, that the loss to them might be as little as possible, when the melancholy event takes place—which, however, as I have already said, may not be for several years. This has been my motive, my fair cousin, and I flatter myself it will not sink me in your esteem. ”

Primogenture also created the concept of second and third sons searching for an heiress to marry so they might establish their own properties. It also sent marriage mad mothers into fits. There were only a limited number of eldest sons for daughters to land. Colonel Fitzwilliam in Pride and Prejudice says “Younger sons cannot marry where they like.” The real irony of this madness was the eldest son also inherited the debt from the previous generation. Even being the heir was not an path to “easy street.”

MrDarcysFault Jeffers iconGIVEAWAY: an eBook copy of Mr. Darcy’s Fault and an eBook copy of Elizabeth Bennet’s Deception.ElizabethBennet Jeffers icon Leave a comment below to be part of the giveaway. (Deadline is Friday, May 29 at midnight EDST.)

70 Responses to The 19th Century Entailment

  1. Jane Austen was either mistaken, (or was writing with a very heavy degree of irony) when she implied that entails could not be ended in her time.

    Cutting (ending) an entail had, since the mid-fifteenth century, involved an elaborate and expensive legal fiction known as Common Recovery. It was not an unusual event, Indeed it was a conveyancing solicitor’s bread and butter. It was called Common Recovery because the case was heard in the Court of Common Pleas. The procedure was complicated but, if carried out correctly, the usual result was that tenant in possession obtained a title to his land which had been declared by this court to be a freehold one. He (and it normally was a he) could now sell or bequeath this landed property as he so wished.

    Though entails usually restricted inheritance to males in the first instance, they could often inherit via a woman (as presumably Mr Collins did in Pride and Prejudice), depending on the wording of the Deed. The eldest grandson born to a daughter of the tenant in possession would normally take precedence over a man who was not a direct descendant. Also, they were often worded to allow the estate to pass to a woman, to prevent it reverting to the crown in the absence of any eligible male heirs. This would obviously depend on the intentions of the freeholder who created the entail on his property in his will. Some estates had their entails cut and were then re-entailed by agreement with every generation. The agricultural revolution, which involved the sale of isolated pockets of land to consolidate holdings, might not have taken place otherwise.

    Common Recovery was abolished by the Reform Parliament in 1833. After that date, the tenant in possession could give notice to his heir, that he intended to cut the entail. The heir now had the right to challenge this in court, which he had not had under Common Recovery. He had, however, little chance of winning and was usually bought off cheaply out of court. Though entails no longer exist, family trusts now serve many of the same functions in a far less restrictive manner.

    If one assumes that Jane Austen knew correctly how the law operated when Pride and Prejudice was written, the financial aspects of the novel do, in fact, make far more sense. And so does the characters’ behaviour. For example, Mrs Bennett’s nagging her husband “to do something about it”, (the entail) is based on a correct, if vague, knowledge of the law. She was a lawyer’s daughter, after all.

    • I do not disagree with your analysis of the law, Shirley. I have written many posts on my own blog and this one that substantiate your legal points. However, it is my opinion that Austen was not speaking to the legality of entails and primogeniture, but, rather to the “tradition.” The aristocracy and the gentry protected their rights to the land. The uprisings, essentially those of the latter part of the Regency threw fear into owners of large estates and the aristocracy. Within, her own family, if not for Edward Austen Knight being adopted and inheriting property, Jane, her sister, and mother would have been left in dire straits after her father’s death.

  2. Thank you for clarifying entailment, complex indeed. It certainly helps to explain the intense anxiety that drives AUSTEN’S novels. But I’m confused by Emma as she doesn’t seem to be under nervous pressure to marry well to save their estate from entailment or even to marry at all. Granted her sister married well but Emma is still the mistress of the house. So what would happen upon her father’s death had she not married so well.

    • Emma would take up residence with her sister’s household. There were means of caring for a woman in one’s household (such as codicils to a will, language in the original marriage settlement, etc.), but those were the exceptions to the rule rather than the way the law treated women in the time period. Women were the property of first their fathers and then their husbands. They held no rights, not even to their children.

      • When there were no sons and the property wasn’t entailed, the sisters inherited equally. When Mr. Woodhouse dies the sisters will inherit it jointly. As George’s son will have the abbey, John’s son will probably inherit the Woodhouse place.

      • So how distant of a male relation from the father/owner of an estate that had died without sons could qualify for ownership under entailment? I suppose nephews of the patriarch, based on P & P (that obsequious awful clergiman cousin of the Bennet girls), and I guess any sons from prior marriages… Do the male heirs on the matriarch’s side enter into the equation?

        • Every property wasn’t entailed and if property was tied up by a marriage settlement, there was usually a clause detailing what happened when there was no son. Longborne where the Bennets live has been tied by a settlement, a deed or legacy that returned it to the Collins family if the Bennets don’t have a son. Property could come from the mothers side ( a generation or more back)and likely Longbourne did . That would explain the difference in surnames.
          Whether maternal relatives were involved depended on the the origin of the land when it came into the family. If a man bought it or if he received it from his wife. Land that came into the family with a marriage settlement might be tied up so that it went back to that family if there were no more male descendants of that woman.

          • Thanks so much! It must have been a very good time to be an attorney – the whole inheritance thing was so convoluted – at least they could be sure of profiting from estate battles!

  3. Great article. I’m sort of glad that things changed as if you had more than one child, things got touchy for the others. Do not enter me into the drawing as I have both novels and have read them both! Loved them! Thank you for doing the research again!

  4. I’ve been looking for an explanation on entailment for ages and now I understand. Thanks! I would love the chance for a new book – you can never have enough.

  5. Thanks for sharing your knowledge of entailment to us. I have read this topic many times in the past but I still need a refreshment. Regina, please enter me for Mr Darcy’s Fault as I already have the other book. Thank you very much for the generous offer.

  6. Mr Bennet had intended for his son to inherit and take care of all his sisters. Does that mean the entail would have ended with him (probably the third generation, grandson of original landowner) and he would then have been free to sell Longbourn?

    • Mr. Bennet’s grandson would be the one able to sell Longbourn, but as Mr. B. had no son, there was no grandson. It is a perpetual two generations plan to make the entail last until infinity. Therefore, the only way Mrs. Bennet and the girls could remain at Longbourn was if one of the daughters married Mr. Collins, for Collins was the heir presumptive. If Mrs. B. had a change-of-life baby and that child was a boy, Longbourn would remain in the Bennet family. The other possibility we see in many Austenesque pieces is Mrs. B. dies, and Mr. B. remarries a younger woman who delivers him a son. This cuts off Collins’s claim to the property.

      • I’ve always been bothered by a plot bunny in which the Bennets have a son who grows up. inherits Longbourn, and kicks out his mother into the hedgerows. But you’re saying it would have to be Mr Bennet’s grandson who can sell Longbourn?

      • While my several generations great grand father didn’t have to worry about an entail, he had several marriages in his lifetime. His first wife died fairly early without children from the marriage. He and his second wife DID have children, but she died after several years. I am descended from his THIRD marriage, so two women had to die in order for me and my siblings to be born (stating our case simply). Re: Collins and his proposal to one of the daughters–I always thought that Mary would be the perfect sister to marry him. I do like the stories I’ve read where this is what happens.

        • Austen reportedly said that Mary would marry one of Mr. Phillips’ law apprentices so that is the direction I have always taken the story. Kitty would marry a clergyman, but would pass from the cough (likely asthma, as we now know it) of which Mrs. Bennet complains within the story.

  7. Thank you for the informative post. I have researched the entail in the past and have found it quite interesting. It makes sense. You did give me another way of looking at Mrs. Bennet. I still see her as silly, but have more understanding of her.

    • Like you, I still find Mrs. Bennet’s “nerves” as amusing as did her husband, but I know the business of the entail and no heir must have laid heavy upon her soul.

    • As I said in another comment, Sandi, I am the oldest in my family also. I am the one with the education and the responsible one. Even so, I would not be afforded the responsibility of the family’s survival. It is often difficult for those of us in the U.S. to understand the entail laws of England during the Regency.

  8. Thank you so much for the post!! It was most instructive! As I have read and reread the classics over the years, various of these questions have come up in my head and where to begin searching for the answers is quite daunting. I guess the reality was not really as romantic as beloved novels. 🙂

    • Ninette, I understand the reality of a romantic novel. I spent TOO many years reading what was required. Now, I read for pleasure. The purpose of the post was to answer questions I often receive from readers.

  9. Wonderful post. I am the second of 10. Two girls before my parents had a boy. The spare came at 7. And one more last. How crazy that would have been. I think my oldest brother would have been like Mrs Bennet just to keep from being responsible for 7spinster sisters.Lol.

    No need to enter me in giveaway. I already own both ebooks. I couldn’t wait! I highly recommend them. I am sure I will read them over and over.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Becky. I am my mother’s only child, but I have some 7 other siblings by three more of my father’s escapades. I assume he meant to keep trying until he got it right. I am the oldest of the eight. It would be right for me to inherit for I have always been the most dependable of the bunch (at least of what I know of the others).

  10. Thank You for the explanation, it makes the actions and aims of many of Austen’s characters much clearer

    • There are other issues of property law that an attorney could recite from memory, but for the average reader these are the issues with which we deal in the Regency period.

  11. Great information. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if my brother had inherited two hundred years ago.
    Thanks for the chance to win one of your books!

    • I am certain my brother would have left us all high and dry, Linda. Borrowing money and not returning it seems to be a personality flaw he has yet to master.

  12. Hopefully the station of daughters as inferior is finally over – though in Pride and Prejudice both the Bennet parents are at fault, one for not providing for the future and the other for not bringing up/educating all her daughters correctly.

  13. In my family, there has always been an eldest daughter, and then sons and daughters! It seems to run true no matter who we marry! Can you imagine the disappointment when the first child was a daughter? And the relief when a son is born afterwards!

    • Yes, the idea of no sons must play heavy in a family such as the Bennets. Mrs. Bennet likely felt herself a failure and Mr. Bennet likely thought he truly chose below him. A strain on the marriage would be understandable.

  14. I’ve spent far too many hours delving into this complex topic. You’ve managed to capture the foundation of the law and lay it out beautifully. I think it’s a fascinating bit of trivia that across the channel, in 1804, the introduction of the “Napoleonic Code” turned the French laws of primogeniture into a thing of the past. Changes in the law there permitted equal division of the inheritance among the children. This change produced exactly situation that the English laws were in place to prevent: A formerly great landowning family could be reduced in a few generations to being peasant farmers due to the property and land being divided amongst succeeding generations.

    • In one of my new Regency releases, a conversation develops on how some societies have the female inherit and some even have the youngest inheriting. It is all quite fascinating. Needless to say, there are more specifics to be named, but I was hoping for a good overview. I know readers in the States who get all glassy eyed when they read how this system affected 19th Century life in the UK.

  15. In my case and the only child and female, I would have to marry for my benefit and I would have had a Mr Elliot or a Mr Collins inheriting the properties of my family ^^ I would have eventually found my Mr Darcy or my Captain Wentworth 🙂
    I would like to participate on the giveaway. I have alreary bought and read Elizabet Bennet’s deception (and I have LOVED it), would it be possible to participate only to win Mr Darcy´s fault? If so, I am in!!
    Thank you.

    • If your name comes up in the giveaway, I can easily make the switch for you.
      I am very much in your boat, except I am still looking for Mr. Darcy or even a Captain Wentworth.

  16. You have brought up details that I did not know Regina. The part about each heir having to sign an entail for his allowance and even that the entail was only until the 3rd generation, I had not read. Thank you for always enlightening us writers and readers alike! The entail did make sense for the family to be able to keep their wealth and position but it is still sad to know that the other children were pretty much overlooked. Does make one sympathize with Mrs. Bennet more. 🙂

    • I wrote several Regency books before I knew the “allowance” stipulations, Brenda. It was eye-opening to me, but I know many in America are less likely to understand this system.

  17. Great post! I didn’t know much about entails and how it would effect the characters’ reaction to things. Make sense now!

    • The entail theme is a favorite plot point in many Regency novels. I imagine Jane Austen realized its importance as part of a character’s reactions. We must remember that Austen wrote “contemporary” stories, not historical ones. Society of that time lived the idea of entails and the required dispositions for second sons and third sons.

  18. Great post! It kind of makes me feel a little sad for younger sons and daughters. Then suppose the elder died without an heir and the younger son was to inherit. What if he was off in the army or clergy, would he even be prepared to take over? I guess that is where the land steward comes in. I suppose with the smaller estates, it wouldn’t be so bad. My preference would have been a family business where all participated and were recipients, even though there might have been a chairman of the board, so to speak. Crazy me. Thanks, Jen

  19. Thanks for the very informative post. In this day and age it’s difficult to contemplate how all-consuming the issue of marriage had to be for so many. And, for the women, at so young an age. We are fortunate to be free of it all!

    • The entail passing to grandson rather than son is something of which I held no initial knowledge when I first started writing Regency based novels.

  20. I’m the elder of two daughters and our Dad pre-deceased our Mum, so if we’d lived 200 years ago, we’d have been in a very poor situation indeed. Our Mum was also badly disabled after a series of strokes. Not sure who would have inherited as Dad had one sister who had no children. His Dad was an only child so it would probably have been a very distant cousin. Thank goodness we live nowadays and women can work and inherit!

    Once again, thanks for a very interesting and informative article.

    • There were ways that a female could inherit, but those were few and far between. I once wrote a piece where Anne de Bourgh could inherit based on Sir Lewis’s ancestors having received his baronetcy from the King some 400 years prior. It is all very complicated.

  21. I was interested to learn that an eldest son was often forced to sign-up for the entail in order to receive their allowance. After reading the article, one can see why Lady Cahterine wanted to join Pemberly and Rosings. Thank you for the giveaway!

  22. Not only do you write wonderful books, but I am amazed at all the time you put into research you then share with us, your followers. The information you provided this time cleared up some confusion. Very enlightening. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us. Once again your generosity in offering a giveaway is admirable.

    • I often say, Christa, that I sometimes spend days trying to find accurate information which will be less than a paragraph in the book. Sometimes, I fail, but it is not for a lack of effort. Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate them.

      • Regina, I feel this is a wonderful way to put all your hard research work to good use… I have always said that knowledge, in all its forms, is meant to be shared. I think this way you also fulfill that part of you that may want to include more info in your books but can’t. 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing!!

        • Ninette, I am never happier than sitting on the floor of the research section of the local library with books spread out before me. Knowledge is not only power, but also the food of life.

  23. Thank you for another fascinating post. How unfair the system was. I imagine the pressure it generated on all my the eldest son must have been horrific. I imagine Mrs. Bennet was created to stand as an example of a worst case scenario.

    • I cannot imagine what it would be like to know such a system. What if the father runner the estate into debt? What if it did not survive the Year without Summer (1816)? It is all quite mind boggling, Barbara.

  24. This is really interesting – thank you. It must have been really hard on younger sons at the time, but it is obvious why it had to be that the eldest son inherited, as otherwise the estates would have been divided and not able to support them all. The main drawback must have been if the eldest son was not responsible enough to handle the responsibilty thus depleting the estate anyway. This would be truly devastating if a younger son would have been the better choice if that was possible.
    And the thought of it going to someone unknown and totally unsuitable as Mr Collins – well yes it does make you see Mrs Bennett in a slightly better light.
    Thanks for the chance of winning a free book!

    • The younger son being the responsible one is one I often use for Colonel Fitzwilliam and his older brother. I never make Matlock’s heir totally incompetent, but less than the colonel.

  25. Thanks for a great post, Regina. Poor Mrs. Bennet, she’s often pilloried in all the variations, but how scary it must be to know that if her improvident husband dies, she and her daughters are left penniless, homeless and dependent on charity. Of course she’d urge her daughters to marry the first man who offers!
    Thanks for the generous giveaway, I’d love to read any of the books on offer!

    • I show some of that particular scenario in Elizabeth Bennet’s Deception. Although sometimes poorly executed, Mrs. Bennet does only what needs to be done. In the 2005 film, we hear…
      Elizabeth Bennet: [On Marriage] Is that really all you think about?
      Mrs. Bennet: When you have five daughters, Lizzie, tell me what else will occupy your thoughts, and then perhaps you will understand.

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