A Widow’s Rights Play a Large Role in my “His Christmas Violet” Release – What Was English Law on the Matter?

In my tale, His Christmas Violet, part of Regency Missives and Mischief, the heroine, Lady Violet Graham, is a widow. Being a widow at the time, particularly, women in the aristocracy or gentry class, provided a woman more freedom than she ever could expect in remarrying. She would customarily receive some sort of allowance to live on. Often, she would have access to the dower house. Lady Violet believes she has “earned” those rights, and, so, when Sir Frederick Nolan announces his intentions to make her his new wife, Violet wants NONE of the matter, even though, she has privately loved Sir Frederick since she was a young girl. Yet, our Violet worries Sir Frederick will be as high-handed as was her late husband, Lord Giles Graham.

Therefore, a basic understanding of a woman’s rights after her husband passes is required to move the story along. Here are some of the key points.

English Common Law provided a widow a life interest in one-third of the freehold lands her husband owned at the time of their marriage. She could not be denied these rights unless she was found guilty of treason, felony, or adultery. The law of dower gave a wife one-third of any property a man held on his death. That excluded entailed property, for the most part. However, the husband could defeat dower by leaving his wife as little as £50. The Court of Chancery did rectify such lapses if the widow had the resources or the  friends to help her bring suit and there was any property or money to be had. The court looked to the amount of the dowry and the position the widow had held as wife. Obviously, the court would see that a countess was provided for better than the widow of a vicar. Unfortunately in this cases, the countess had had a father or guardian who made sure iron-clad settlements were drawn up, whereas the vicar’s wife might not have been so lucky.

Even if the father did not bother to arrange the marriage settlements before the actual marriage (i.e., an elopement), and the husband did not leave his widow anything in his will, she was, as previously explained, supposedly entitled to one-third of his own estate. This is called her dower. She was to ask the sheriff to see that this was arranged properly. However, quite often the husband had no property he owned outright, as it was all entailed. Then, she would have to petition the Court of Chancery for a sum upon which to live.

It was difficult for a husband to set up a trust for his wife during his lifetime, other than in a will, if doing so was not accomplished before the marriage. Because a husband and wife, under law, were considered one, he could not legally give himself his own money. There were cases where a husband did give the wife money and wrote it out that this money was to be hers to do with as she would. However, in such one case where the woman took that money and purchased houses, she lost the property without recompense when her husband died, and the heir sued to have the houses declared part of the estate. Other situations that were deemed illegal included where the husband gave his wife money in a trust and then raided the trust, presented her property and then sold it for his profit, etc.

The Oxford Reference defines the Statue of Uses as, “The use was a legal device whereby property could be held by one person for the benefit of another, e.g. when a landowner was absent on crusade. But, by extension, it might be employed to evade or avoid obligations, defraud creditors, or escape legislation against mortmain. Henry VIII pressed strongly that uses should be restricted, arguing that his revenue was affected, but the Parliament of 1532 was unwilling to legislate and was told sharply ‘not to contend with me’. In 1535 Parliament accepted 27 Hen. VIII c. 10, which complained of ‘subtle inventions and practices’ and restored obligations to the beneficiary.” The “jointure” came into practice with the Statue of Uses. It was a settlement on a bride by her future husband of a freehold piece of property to be used to secure her widowhood. The bride was required to surrender her dower (not her “dowry,” although the terms can be confusing). 

Later in the 19th Century, wives lost their right to inherit, meaning in the 1830s, if the woman had no jointure rights recorded in her husband’s will, the widow could be left without anything upon which to survive. She could also lose the right to the property if she remarried. It would automatically revert back to his heir. 

Jointures were usually payable be the heir of the estate as an annual payment, which was equal to one-tenth of the dowry she brought to the marriage. This number was established because it was assumed that the wife would outlive her husband by ten years, for that was often the difference in their ages when they married. She would receive this payment for the remaining days of her lifetime. Thereafter, the principle would be allotted to her children. Providing the widow one-tenth of what she brought into the marriage meant she received back her dowry. The percentages were per year. The amounts were generally paid quarterly. The formula generally followed this plan: pin money was 2% of the dowry, while jointure was 10%.

As stated above, the jointure is usually set forth in the marriage settlements, which is a prenuptial or ante nuptial agreement. These funds are supposed to come to the widow without let or hindrance. However, it is often set up to be the income from some piece of land. If there is no income from said land, she is out of luck.

Yet, if the husband had not set up a jointure (her annual annuity), but, rather, left her a small sum in his will, that was all she would receive. Or if the heir was not her son, and the estate was encumbered by a mortgage, she might have a problem receiving either the jointure or the dower.

She was supposed to receive a sum large enough to allow her to live decently according to her rank, but not all knew equality under the law. There were even cases where the man left most of his cash to a grandson of a child by his first wife. In a few such cases, the courts felt the widow should have the return of most of her dowry, if nothing else.


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It will also be available on Kindle Unlimited on November 5.

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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