Oh, Give Me Land, Lots of Land (or) the 19th Century Entail

Oh, Give Me Land Lots of Land (or) the 19th Century Entail

As it had been 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 amount of land owned. Land was “influence,” as well as affluence. To ensure one’s descendants received what had been 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.

Primogenture developed during Norman times. The concept was 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, primogenture 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.”

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 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.”

In “Entailment and Property Law,” Joshua Weiner explains…
“Entailment, as defined by Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, refers to the restriction of property by limiting the inheritance to the owner’s lineal descendants or to a particular class thereof. Although it was feudal in origin, an entail was legal device still used in Austen’s time to prevent a landed property from being broken up, and from descending in a female line. The law was simply an extension of the practice of leaving the bulk, if not all, of one’s wealth to one’s heir, the eldest son.

“Thus, entailed property was usually inherited by male primogeniture (by the nearest male-line descendant of the original owner). For example, Mr. Elliot is the heir to Sir Walter in Persuasion. The law also prevented a father from disinheriting his eldest son, as the law prescribed that the son was his rightful heir. Furthermore, women only inherited if there were no male heirs left, and if there was more than one daughter, then they were all equal co-heiresses, and the land was subdivided evenly amongst them all. This subdivision is the cause of Mrs. Bennet’s worry in Pride and Prejudice. She realizes that if her husband, Mr. Bennet dies, then she and her five daughters’ would have to all live off the family’s one estate that generated little income and their standard of living would fall considerably. Mrs. Bennet, therefore, urges her daughters to marry wealthy husbands before their father dies. In addition, if an heiress married, then she would be inherited by her sons, and the land would be transmitted along her husband’s male-line. Austen expected her readers from her time to understand and sympathize in the Bennet daughters’, and women’s in general, pitiful predicament.

“The basis for the law of entailment was that ownership of land was not simply an ornament to the family. Rather, it was the foundation of its aristocratic position; it is what made the family noble and enabled it to live the way it did. The land produced a steady income that freed the family from the need to labor and allowed it to live a refined and potentially idle life. Hence, real estate ownership was much more meaningful than the regular possession of other assets or even cash. The estate lent status to the entire family as long as it lasted.

“Landowners, like Sir Walter, were therefore very intent on keeping their estate whole. As in Persuasion, they recognized the threats of subdivision amongst females or the dissipation of the land by sale, if the owner had to sell the land to raise funds and then continue to lose the proceeds. The whole family would then lose social status.

“Another detail of the law was that entails were periodically renewable and even breakable with the consent of an heir who had come of age. Similarly, “instead of pushing his fortune in the line marked out for the heir of the house of Elliot, [Sir Elliot] had purchased independence by uniting himself to a rich woman of inferior birth” (Persuasion p. 28).”


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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4 Responses to Oh, Give Me Land, Lots of Land (or) the 19th Century Entail

  1. Very informative and enjoyable post – I think you summed it up perfectly in the last line, it wasn’t “easy” for anyone, just different problems depending on your position!

    • Thanks for joining me today, Willow.
      My friends often ask me if I would want to live in the early 19th Century, especially as I spend so much time there in my mind. In truth, I would not do well there. I am too independent. Heck, I live in the South and am always bucking the “good ole boy” syndrome.

  2. kerrynreid says:

    The heir could not “marry where he liked”, either, unless he “liked” someone suitable. At least, according to every Regency novel I’ve ever read! And in those novels, he generally finds a way to do so. 😉

    • Marriage was a “business” deal. We who write Regency novels walk around with our hearts on our sleeves, but marrying for love was not always part of the negotiation.
      I appreciate your feedback, Kerry.

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