A Widow’s Rights? What Was English Law on the Matter? + Release of “His Christmas Violet: A Regency Second Chance Romance”

In my tale, His Christmas Violet, 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.

Book Blurb:

His Christmas Violet: A Second Chance Regency Romance 

Sir Frederick Nolan has stayed true to his late wife through all their years of marriage, but now he is widower and has waited the proper mourning period, he sees no reason he should not finally know the happiness of having Lady Violet Graham at his side. He meant to marry Violet when he was fresh from his university years and she was but a young lady; however, the realization she was perfect for him had come too late, and Violet had already accepted the proposal of Lord Graham. 

Lady Violet Graham had never strayed from the love she held for Sir Frederick, but she had proven herself a good wife to her late husband, serving dutifully as Lord Giles Graham’s chatelaine and presenting him three sons. Now, her widow’s pension and the use of the dower house will provide her the only freedom she has ever known as a woman. She cannot think to become another man’s “property,” even when that man is the only one she has every loved. Enough is enough of not having a voice in her own future. 

They have loved each other since they were children, but how does Sir Frederick convince Lady Violet to marry him, when she is most determined never again to permit any man dominion over her person?

Book Excerpt from the second half of Chapter One of His Christmas Violet (read the first half on Wednesday’s post)

“To where did you disappear?” his best chum, Mr. Lawrence Clements, asked. “One minute we were looking at a horse, and the next you were gone.”

“I noted the Graham coach turning onto the street beyond,” Frederick admitted. 

Lawrence grinned widely. “Still dallying with that idea, are we?”

“Afraid so,” Frederick said as he looked back toward the street upon which the tea room sat. 

Clements stepped up beside him. “If you wish another wife, why not seek out a younger woman?”

“I do not desire a wife I must tend to all the time and one set on stirring up my comforts. Nor do I wish to subject my grown children to a woman likely younger than are they. I want a woman who knows something of family and trials, but one not focused on the idea of dying.” 

“Was your Alice focused on dying?” Clements asked in honest seriousness. 

“Alice proved to be a good wife, better than I thought she would be, and, even though she knew she was not my first choice, we carved out a satisfying life together. Then, she took ill. After that, all she spoke of—day and night—was when she expected to die. She no longer shared my interest in our children, the estate, the birth of our grandchildren—nothing. She no longer welcomed me into her bed, even to offer her comfort.” 

Clements said softly, “I did not realize everything had changed so dramatically for you. Why did you not say something previously?”

Frederick shrugged with a tinge of embarrassment. “What was there to say? You could not resolve the problem. Hell! I could not solve it! There was no need to burden you with my tale of woe.” 

“And you think Lady Violet Graham is the solution? In my few interactions with her, I always thought her ladyship a bit standoffish.” His friend presented him a like shrug of discomfort. “I know you do not want to hear this, but there must be several dozen candidates waiting for your attentions if you chose to travel to London. I heard from Mrs. Clements that Lady Graham has no desire to remarry. What makes you believe you can convince her otherwise?”

“Lady Violet is the most strong-willed woman I have ever known,” Frederick declared with a large smile upon his lips as he thought about the woman he would marry. “She will never cower before me, and I have no doubt when I am in the wrong, I will hear more than a few ‘I told you so’s.’” He chuckled easily while he conjured up an image of Violet, as a young girl, taking him to task. “I am looking forward to those disagreements and the coming together of one mind afterwards.” 

“You think Lady Violet will welcome you into her bed?” his friend asked with a lift of his brows, indicating his skepticism. 

“Have you never truly conversed with Lady Graham?” Frederick asked in seriousness. He had long contemplated the pleasure ahead of him, if, and when, he claimed Violet. She was quite unlike any other woman of his acquaintance. 

“I cannot say I have, at least, not beyond pleasantries,” Clements admitted. 

“I admit winning Violet’s affection will certainly not be for the faint of heart,” Frederick stated. “She will not concede easily. It will take a hundredweight of effort and more than a dash of both creativity and stubbornness to claim the lady’s hand, but I believe I am up to the task.” 

“I am returning to my initial question,” Clements said. “What makes you think her ladyship would serve you well as a wife?”

“Part of my reason has to do with the . . . . God, how do I explain the unexplainable? There has always been an ‘awareness’ of each other which has passed between us. As two of the highest-ranking families of the landed class in the shire, we were often in company. Even when our mates were still alive, there was ‘something’ indescribable which often marked our coming together in social situations. Although I should not admit this, I often asked Lady Graham to dance or asked if I might escort her in to supper while in attendance at various gatherings. You know how in society it is generally considered gauche for a man to dance with his own wife or sit beside her at an event.

“In the beginning, I thought the slight warmth skittering up my arm each time we touched was simply the appreciation of partnering an attractive woman. Yet, whenever we encountered each other, the notice of ‘awareness’ always remained, and it was not present when I sat beside any other woman, not even Lady Nolan. In fact, the more often the unusual cognizance occurred, the more I became relatively certain her ladyship felt something similar to what I was experiencing. So much so, she began to shun those moments in the last few years of Lord Giles Graham’s life. I am passably assured Lady Graham felt guilt over what passed between us.” 

In response, Clements’s eyebrow hitched higher. “If Lady Graham avoided you then, other than the fact you have both buried your mates, why would she change her mind now? You are both mourning your partners in marriage is not reason to assume she will now turn herself over to your care.” 

Frederick grinned widely. “Did I not tell you previously how we came to know each other? Not only do her ladyship and I have a history here in the neighborhood, but we have known each other since she was but a small child. Before my father rose to the baronetcy, my family resided in Yorkshire, where our family estate marched along with her father’s estate. Her brother George and I were constant companions in those days, and the then Miss Violet Kerr followed us everywhere. 

“She was so much enthralled with me, at the age of twelve, Miss Violet confessed her love for me. Naturally, I was too full of my own worth to take her avowals seriously, for I am nearly seven years her senior. However, now, I am betting her first love could some day be her last love.” 

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About Regina Jeffers

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