Thursday, June 2, 2011

Of Wimseys and Wellesleys: Entailed Property

I've reached the end of my original Of Wimseys and Wellesleys series on titles and forms of address in the British aristocracy, but thought I'd continue to blog about related topics as they occur to me and I have time.

Today I'm going to talk about entailed property, which almost any lord or duke will have as part of his inheritance. Though it's not limited to men with titles, as fans of Pride & Prejudice well know. I haven't made a careful study of how entails work, so I'm open to correction, but here's my understanding:

Entails were designed as a way to keep a family's real property in one piece down through the generations by tying it to each generation's senior legitimate male representative. In a sense, a lord or duke doesn't own his entailed lands so much as hold them in trust for his son, grandson, and so on after him. He can't sell entailed land, and he can't bequeath it outside the line of succession.

If entailed land brings in a profit, through rents, farming, mining, or whatever, that money does belong to the current possessor (we'll call him Lord Stark, because I've got Game of Thrones on my brain). He can spend it or save it as he chooses. If he has a large family, he'd be prudent to set some of his income aside to help provide for his daughters and younger sons.

It's only entailed property that has to go to the firstborn legitimate son. Lord Stark, assuming he's of sufficient importance, probably owns a lot more than just his entailed estate with the family castle on it. He has money that he's inherited or earned from his land and investments, and he has non-entailed real estate he's inherited or bought down through the years. He can leave that property to anybody, pretty much, related or not, just as you or I can will our estates as we wish.

The system worked well enough when there was a straight line of succession and the family maintained enough wealth to provide for daughters and younger children. But, as Pride and Prejudice teaches us, that was by no means always the case. Entails could impoverish daughters and enrich distant cousins. They could make families land rich and cash poor, up to their ears in debt but unable to clear the slate by selling their land. All of which was terrible for the families...but a boon for writers in search of conflict.

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