Gavelkind, Inheritance in Opposition to Primogeniture

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In the past on Every Woman Dreams, I discussed the 19th Century Entail and the legalities of primogeniture during the Regency period.  Today, I am adding the exceptions to the practice of the eldest son inheriting everything. Customs throughout the world vary. Some peoples divide their land and moveable property equally among all the sons, or among all the children, present it to the eldest, to the youngest, to the daughter(s), or to the child who cares for his/her parents until their deaths, or deal it out to each child when he/she marries.


More details Monument at Swanscombe recording the legend of how Kent managed to extract concessions from William the Conqueror. Wikipedia

However, in the county of Kent (yes, the Kent that is Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s home shire in Pride and Prejudice), Ireland, and Wales there was a system of land tenure referred to as “Gavelkind.” Gavelkind is a system of partible inheritance, which resembles Salic patrimony. [Salic patrimony, or inheritance or land property, after the legal term Terra salica used in the Salian code, refers to clan-based possession of real estate property.] Gavelkind appears to have its roots in some sort of ancient Germanic tradition. Under Gavelkind, land was divided equally among sons or other heirs.

These practices were in place until the Administration of Estates Act of 1925. Until then, there were a number of estates “degaveled.”

“All land in Kent was presumed to be held in gavelkind until the contrary was proved. It was more correctly described as socage tenure (or Borough English), subject to the custom of gavelkind. The chief peculiarities of the custom were the following:

**A tenant could pass on part or all of his lands as a fiefdom from fifteen years of age.

**On conviction of a felony, the lands were not confiscated by The Crown.

**Generally the tenant could always dispose of his lands in his will.

**In case of intestacy [Intestacy is the condition of the estate of a person who dies without having made a valid will or other binding declaration. Alternatively this may also apply where a will or declaration has been made, but only applies to part of the estate; the remaining estate forms the “intestate estate”.], the estate was passed on to all the sons, or their representatives, in equal shares, leaving all the sons equally a gentleman. Although females claiming in their own right were given second preference, they could still inherit through representation. [Hello, Anne De Bourgh!!! Plot Point!!!! It seems Miss De Bourgh could inherit Sir Lewis’s estate!]

**A dowager was entitled to one half of the land. [Another plot point! Lady Catherine De Bourgh could own half of her Rosings Park.]

**A widow who had no children was entitled to inherit half the estate, as a tenant, as long as she remained unmarried.

“Gavelkind, an example of customary law in England, was thought to have existed before the Norman Conquest of 1066, but generally was superseded by the feudal law of primogeniture. Its survival in one part of the country, is regarded as a concession by the William the Conqueror to the people of Kent.” [R. J. Smith, “The Swanscombe Legend and the Historiography of Kentish Gavelkind,” in Medievalism in the Modern World. Essays in Honour of Leslie J. Workman, ed. Richard Utz and Tom Shippey (Turnhout: Brepols, 1998), pp. 85-103.]

Wales held a similar custom to gavelkind. It was known as cyfran. Under cyfran, upon the landowner’s death, the property was divided equally among all the man’s sons, including any illegitimate sons. This dividing of ever smaller pieces of land by successive generations of sons created a sort of “Theban war” among brothers, according to Welsh historian, Philip Yorke. The Welsh eventually took up the idea of primogeniture, but the custom of gavelkind was not replaced completely. Like those in Kent, there were pockets of resistance.

The Irish system was closer to the tradition of tribal succession. Unlike the Welsh system of dividing the land among all the sons, the Irish placed the property into “common stock,” where the property was redivided among the surviving member of the sept. [Sept comes from Síol, a Gaelic word meaning “progeny” or “seed” that is used in the context of a family or clan with members who bear the same surname and inhabit the same territory.] Under Irish law, the land was divided among the landowner’s sons. It was the Norman conquerors who gave this Irish inheritance law the name Gavelkind for its apparent similarity to the Saxon Gavelkind inheritance found in Kent.

AnAngelComes_LargeSo what does all this have to do with my recent Regency romantic suspense release? In Angel Comes to the Devil’s Keep, there are multiple questions of inheritance. The hero, Huntington McLaughlin, cannot fulfill his duties to the dukedom because of a debilitating accident. The heroine’s father learns he is the new heir apparent to the Earl of Sandahl, a brother who despises him and will do anything (including murder) to prevent his younger brother from inheriting.

“Angel” is the first book in a new trilogy: The Twins. It is a “sweet” romantic suspense set in the Regency, which will appeal to a general audience.

Book Excerpt:

Another hour passed before Angel could speak privately with her father. “What did the duke say?”

Horace Lovelace frowned, and the chiseled hardness upon his lips took Angel by surprise. “It was an odd conversation. Devilfoard appeared both mollified and concerned over my reunion with Sandahl. Even so, the duke did not demand my withdrawal. In fact, Devilfoard summoned his duchess to his study and explained the situation. The duchess expressed a like determination to act in a responsible manner. It was as if I played a role in an intricate dance. As crass as it sounds to say so, I felt as if my appearance brought the duke and duchess to a new understanding.”

“But, Papa,” Angel protested. “The duke and duchess chose Sandahl’s daughter as Lord Malvern’s future mate. If the situation deteriorates, we shall be asked to leave. Would it not be better to depart upon our terms, rather than to be driven from the duchess’s festivities?”

Her father’s steady gaze made Angel uneasy, but she remained in place. “What is the truth of your objections, Angel? Is Lord Malvern your concern in this madness?”

“No, sir.” She dropped her eyes in submission. “But I would not have you humiliated. Mama would not wish it.”

“What do you know of your mother’s wishes?” he asked harshly, and Angel flinched. “Victoria suffered every day of our married years because our impetuous joining robbed both of us of the blessings of family. If Lady Victoria Lovelace were here at this moment, she would demand I face Carpenter again. My brother did all he could to destroy my marriage felicity. It will be good for him to know his disdain only served to strengthen Victoria’s commitment to my success. To our success.”

Angel’s bottom lip trembled. “What if my uncle chooses to challenge you to a long overdue duel? I could not bear to lose you, Papa.”

Her father gathered her into his embrace. “What, ho?” he said teasingly. “You think your papa too old to defend his family?” He chucked her chin lovingly. “Have you forgotten I am the youngest of Jonathan Lovelace’s sons?”

“No—o—o,” she sobbed.

Horace gave an uncharacteristic snort of disapproval. “If Carpenter would be so foolish, my brother would lose. I would have the choice of weapons, and although I have lost my touch with a sword, I am still quite accurate with a gun.”

It bothered Angel to hear her father speak with such coldness. This was a side of him she never knew. “You could not kill your brother.”

“In a duel, death is not necessary,” he assured. “Surrender is all that is required.”

“But if you would accidentally kill Lord Sandahl?” she pleaded.

Her father smiled with irony. “I would be forced to flee to the Continent or even go to America.”

“Do not jest.”

Her father embraced her more tightly. “Trust me, Angel. I find no humor in this situation. However, nothing worth possessing comes easily.”

She clutched his lapels. “Please promise me you will take care in this matter. If you did not consider it previously, you are now Sandahl’s heir apparent. He has no male heirs, and at Lady Sandahl’s age, she is not likely to present him with one.”

“I did not think upon the title in that respect. You opened my eyes, Angel.”

Angel Comes to the Devil’s Keep

Huntington McLaughlin, the Marquess of Malvern, wakes in a farmhouse, after a head injury, being tended by an ethereal “angel,” who claims to be his wife. However, reality is often deceptive, and Angelica Lovelace is far from innocent in Hunt’s difficulties. Yet, there is something about the woman that calls to him as no other ever has. When she attends his mother’s annual summer house party, their lives are intertwined in a series of mistaken identities, assaults, kidnappings, overlapping relations, and murders, which will either bring them together forever or tear them irretrievably apart. As Hunt attempts to right his world from problems caused by the head injury that has robbed him of parts of his memory, his best friend, the Earl of Remmington, makes it clear that he intends to claim Angelica as his wife. Hunt must decide whether to permit her to align herself with the earldom or claim the only woman who stirs his heart–and if he does the latter, can he still serve the dukedom with a hoydenish American heiress at his side?

Early Reviews

The story is charming, with interesting and realistic characters, a complex plot with plenty of surprises, and a sweet romance woven through it all. The author has a good command of what it was like to be a woman in nineteenth-century England–almost as if she had been there.

Angel Comes to Devil’s Keep is a well-written tale of courage and sacrifice and what women went through in order to marry well in Regency England. The author did her homework and it shows in an authenticity that we don’t often see in Regency romances.

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Black Opal Books (both eBooks and Print copies available ~ Print copies include an autographed bookplate)

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GIVEAWAY: I have 2 eBOOK COPIES OF Angel Comes to the Devil’s Keep available to those who comment on the post. The giveaway ends at midnight EDST on August 25.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in Anglo-Normans, Anglo-Saxons, Black Opal Books, book excerpts, book release, estates, excerpt, Georgian England, historical fiction, history, Inheritance, Living in the Regency, primogenture, Regency era and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Gavelkind, Inheritance in Opposition to Primogeniture

  1. Kent is not actually a shire, just Kent, like Essex and Suffolk, Norfolk et al. don’t have the shire suffix; don’t ask me why though. XD

  2. ohmeagain says:

    This sounds like a great read. I enjoy nothing better than learning something whilst it’s weaved meticulously into a storyline. Especially when it allows me to enjoying a Regency romance novel. Thank you Regina for yet another great blog post.

  3. simonjkyte says:

    To say it is not a shire is a bit misleading anyway. Sussex is not a shire either and yet county boundary in local dialect is ‘shiremark’

  4. Pingback: Primogeniture and Inheritance and the Need for a Widow’s Pension in Jane Austen’s Novels | ReginaJeffers's Blog

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