Posts Tagged ‘British Inheritance Laws’

Turnpike Gate, George Morland

Turnpike Gate, George Morland

Historical romances abound with tales of aristocrats falling in love with beautiful women outside of their own class and marrying them. Several years ago in The Dairy Maid and the Master of Uppark, I wrote about Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, who married his milkmaid.  These exceptions prove the rule, for  Society frowned severely upon those who married downward. Thomas Thynne, 5th Viscount Weymouth, who made the mistake of falling in love with the tollgate keeper’s daughter, was never to become the 3rd Marquess of Bath.  He first eloped to Paris with his pretty bride, then lived in Italy, where he waited to claim his inheritance. No matter how hard his father (the 2nd Marquess) tried, he could not get around the legalities of the entail and disinherit his son. So the Marquess dug in his heels, willing himself to live longer than the Viscount …

The first Marquess of Bath was said to have been a great womanizer, gambler, and dissipator. His biggest contribution to posterity was in hiring Capability Brown to landscape his estate at Longleat, a former priory, changing the gardens from formal parterres to a more natural design.  After his death in 1792, his son, Thomas Thynne, the second Marquess of Bath, rebuilt the outdated portions of the old priory. By 1815, he had spent over£100,000 on improvements. In 1820, the second Marquess opened the grounds to the public once a week and free of charge, encouraging picknics and similar leisurely pursuits. One would think that by setting such a sober example, his children would live equally responsible lives, but this was not to be the case for all.

Longleat Outbuilding

The 2nd Marquess and his plumb intellectual wife, Isabella, had eleven children. Two daughers married well, but three of his sons caused them no end of trouble. Without consulting his parents, Thomas, the 24-year-old heir, eloped with beautiful, raven-haired Harriet Robbins, the daughter of a humble local toll-keeper named Thomas Robbins. Up to that point, the young Viscount had not led an exemplary life and had a reputation for drinking and gambling. The Marquess was furious with his son’s marriage.  He must have made his extreme displeasure known, for after two months of silence young Thomas replied in a letter from Italy:

You know the remorse I feel for having given so many miseries to so good a father … a sort of fate hurried us on … I saw myself surrounded by misfortunes which I find at last were of my own making … My mind was in a state of confusion and despair, and I am ashamed to say I tried to attach the blame on you. I did not dare open the last letter from you for a long time, but when I did, I flew to anything to drive away reflection…

The young Viscount was smitten by “the artful charms of a country girl, then hurled [his] fortune to the wind in hasty flight“.  The letter did not assuage the Marquess, who set about to disinherit his heir. He attempted to “bribe” Thomas by offering money in exchange for his inheritance, but the Viscount rejected the offer, opting to live in Italy while literally waiting for his father to die.


Longleat House. Image @Wikimedia Commons

Weymouth was not the only child to disappoint the Marquess, for two of his other three sons, Charles and Edward, lived lives of such extravagance and mounted such enormous debts, that the Marquess fired off a letter to The Times “disclaiming all responsibility for their behaviour” and any liability for their debts. Charles and Edward had expected their father to bail them out. When this did not occur, they moved from England. It is thought that Charles ended up in Canada and Edward in Australia, but the records are not clear on this topic.   Thomas’s mother, Isabella, was the only member of the family to travel to Paris to visit the Viscount and his wife. Seeing that they were reasonably happy, she forgave them for their unkindness and misconduct, but she was never able to arbitrate a truce between her husband and son. Before her death in 1830, she wrote in a letter to her husband:

Accept my grateful thanks for all the kindness and happiness you have bestowed on me for so many years, which has been returned by the warmest affection that one mortal is capable of for another…Talk to our children of your interests, of your affairs, and try to get reacquainted with theirs. Be their friend, as well as their respected father …

London to Paris Routes, Planta's Paris, 1825

London to Paris routes

Despite his wife’s wishes, the Marquess remained obdurate. After Isabella’s death, any hope of reconciliation vanished, and both he and his son were determined to outlive the other. In January of 1837, the Viscount died at the age of 41 without an heir. He shrugged off his mortal coil a scant five weeks before his father, who died at the age of 74.  Harriet, only a few years younger than her husband, was now a widow.

“So the family now awaited with bated breath to hear if she were pregnant. Insensitive suggestions were made about getting her to submit to an official examination so as to preclude the possibility of her turning up at Longleat in years to come, having acquired a son of approximately the right age, to claim the inheritance retrospectively.

Yet such cynicism proved unwarranted. Harriet went on to marry an Italian nobleman and never did have any children. But in any case, she did not attempt, nor wish, to give any further trouble to the Thynne family. –  Strictly Private

Harriet, Marchioness of Bath

Harriet, Marchioness of Bath and Henry Thynne's wife. Image @Turtle Bunbury

As for the title and the inheritance, they passed to Henry Thynne, a captain in the Royal Navy, who died soon afterwards. A Pyrrhic victory, indeed.

Facts about Harriet Matilda Robbins – Born:18 Nov 1800. Died: 18 June 1873. Daughter of Thomas Robbins. She married, Thomas Thynne, Viscount Weymouth, son of Sir Thomas Thynne, 2nd Marquess of Bath and Hon. Isabella Elizabeth Byng, on 11 May 1820. Her married name became Thynne. She married, secondly, Count unknown Inghirami after 1837, and died on 18 June 1873 at Florence, Italy. From 1837 on her married name became Inghirami.

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The Duchess of Kent, Queen Victoria's mother, 1821, depended on an annuity and jointure after her husband's death.

The Duchess of Kent, Queen Victoria's mother, 1821, depended on an annuity and jointure after her husband's death.

The laws of primogeniture were clear: In order to keep lands and estates intact, the bulk of the inheritance was handed down to the eldest son. Other much smaller claims to the property went as follows:

  • Jointures: Provision for an annual income for the wife after her husband has died and arranged at marriage. The amount is typically based on the assets the wife brings to the union. Elopements had dire consequences, for a woman forfeits this protection when she runs away to be married.
  • Marriage Portions: Lump sums paid to the bride, which she brings to the marriage.  Mrs. Bennet brough £5,000 to the marriage, and her daughters’ portions from her estate will be £ 1,000 each. Portions obviously vary. Princess Anne, the eldest daughter of George II, received an £80,000 marriage portion, voted by Parliament in 1733.
  • Cash Settlements: Passed on to younger sons, but often these monies were not enough to sustain them. Most younger sons had to find employment or marry well.
  • Entails: Property that is entailed on the male heirs cannot be inherited by females. This practice ensures that the succession of the title, property, and lands remains within the family, although a clause could be inserted to describe what would happen if there are no males left to inherit.  Mr. Bennet’s property is entailed and will go to Mr. Collins, the next male in line.

  • Annuities: Annual moneys donated by other members of the family for support.  Several of Jane Austen’s brothers provided an annuity of £50 to their sisters and mother. In Sense and Sensibility, Fanny and John Dashwood discuss the amount of an annuity for John’s stepmother and sisters before selfishly discarding the idea. The conversation begins with John:

“That is very true, and, therefore, I do not know whether, upon the whole, it would not be more advisable to do something for their mother while she lives, rather than for them–something of the annuity kind I mean.–My sisters would feel the good effects of it as well as herself. A hundred a year would make them all perfectly comfortable.”

His wife hesitated a little, however, in giving her consent to this plan.

“To be sure,” said she, “it is better than parting with fifteen hundred pounds at once. But, then, if Mrs. Dashwood should live fifteen years we shall be completely taken in.”

“Fifteen years! my dear Fanny; her life cannot be worth half that purchase.”

“Certainly not; but if you observe, people always live for ever when there is an annuity to be paid them.”

More on English Inheritance Laws:

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A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls! – Mrs. Bennet on Mr. Bingley’s income, Pride and Prejudice, Volume One, Chapter One

One of the hardest concepts for today’s readers to grasp in Jane Austen’s novels are the economic realities of the times. What do her numbers mean in modern terms? What was the standard of living during the regency era? When Olivia Williams as Jane Austen blurted to her brother Henry in Miss Austen Regrets, “Sense and Sensibility has brought me £140. May I not be proud of that?” – how can we translate that sentence so that it would hold some meaning for us?

A currency converter provided by the National Archives in the U.K. provides a rough idea of what these 1810 figures mean. Further clarification from experts will round out our understanding. Please keep in mind that the sums in the third column of the chart are merely approximations. At this precise time U.S. citizens should multiply these figures by two to derive a dollar amount. I am not an expert, and I will leave more detailed explanations to economists like Brad de Long.

To put some of these sums into perspective, the average annual income for an English laborer or farmer in 1800 was around 15-20 pounds. To live comfortably, an English gentleman like Mr. Bennet, would require around 300 pounds per year per individual, or over fifteen times the amount for a working man who supported his family. As you can see from the figures, as long as Mr. Bennet lived, his family was comfortably off. But the situation would change drastically the moment he died. After that unhappy event, Mrs. Bennet would be expected to live off the 4% interest of her £5,000 marriage settlement, or £200 per year. No wonder she became shrill every time she thought of her unmarried daughters, for Mr. Bennet’s entire yearly £2,000 income and his house were entailed to Mr. Collins. After Mrs. Bennet’s death, Lizzy would receive just 1/5 of her mother’s marriage portion, and she would bring to her marriage only 40 pounds per year.

Today it is hard to accurately determine the spending power of these sums (see the different estimates of Mr. Bingley’s income in the example below). Factors that influence spending power are war, inflation, cost of goods, housing and the geographic area in which the dwellings were located. In any event, Mr. Darcy’s and Mr. Bingley’s incomes would still be regarded as exceedingly fine. In fact, Mr. Darcy’s 10,000 per year represents only 4% interest of his vast fortune. And Mr. Bingley, though he receives only 4,000 per year, inherited almost 3.4 million pounds from his tradesman father in today’s terms.

…the income would normally come from agricultural profits on land or from other property and investments (in Bingley’s case it turns out the be the latter). It is not easy to translate incomes of the time into today’s money. By some calculations, the effects of inflation mean that a pound in Jane Austen’s time has the same value as almost forty pounds today; if so, Bingley’s income would be the equivalent of 150,000 to 200,000 a year in today’s pounds (or around $250,000-$300,000 in current U.S. money). Altered economic condition, however, make estimates like this tricky: for example, goods tended to be much dearer at that time, in relative terms, while labor tended to be much cheaper. In addition, average incomes in this period, even when adjusted for inflation, were much lower than today, so Bingley’s income represents a far sharper deviation from the prevailing norm than its current equivalent would be.” – Shapard, Annotated Pride and Prejudice, P 5

One can now understand why in Sense and Sensibility Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters were forced to economize. When John Dashwood, under his wife’s influence, reneged on his promise to his dying father to contribute substantial sums of money to his step family, the women were forced to live on 500 pounds per year. This paltry sum would have barely covered their living expenses had it not been for Sir John Middleton’s generosity in inviting his cousin to live in a cottage on his estate.

Like the Dashwood women, Jane Austen, her mother, and sister also experienced chronic money worry. However, through the sale of her books Jane was able to earn a much needed supplemental income. While the £140 she earned from the sales of Sense and Sensibility does not sound like much, it represents close to $9,800 in today’s U.S. sums. In fact, the proceeds from the sale of her four books netted her over 23,000 pounds or around 46,000 dollars towards the end of her life. After her brother Henry’s financial reversals, this money must have been a welcome boon indeed.

Now that you’ve gained some understanding of what these sums of money mean, please read the following statement made by Mrs. Bennet in Volume 3 of Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 17:

Dear, dear Lizzy. A house in town! Every thing that is charming! Three daughters married! Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! What will become of me. I shall go distracted.

How much does ten thousand a year in 1810 represent?
a) £339, 600
b) $680,000
c) A princely sum
d) In relative terms, all of the above

Georgianna Darcy’s marriage portion is 30,000. How much annual income would this sum derive?

a) £3,000
b) £12,000
c) £1,200
d) £120
Sources and resources:

  • Shapard, David M., The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, Anchor Books, 2004
*References, Acknowledgements, Links, and Abbreviations, For the Male Voices Web Site
**Literary Study Tour: Jane Austen, 1998
***Ian Littlewood, Jane Austen: A Critical Assessment, p 205, 1998


To learn more about the ‘Cost of Living in Jane Austen’s England: Vulgar Economy’, click here . This article from the Jane Austen Centre goes into further detail about the Mrs. and Misses Dashwoods’ economic situation.

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Watch Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in this hilarious 5-minute sketch, titled The Duke of Northampton, in which the duke (Fry) discusses his “ownership” of Huntington Castle and his responsibilities to keep his estate intact for the next heir.

(Click on the bolded words for live links.) For another take on primogeniture laws and on the fee entail, click here to read my post on Jane Austen’s World titled The Fee Entail in Pride and Prejudice.

For other, more serious resources, click on these links:

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    The Bennet sisters of Pride and Prejudice were considered gentlewomen because their father, having inherited money, did not have to work for a living. In Jane Austen’s era, families with inherited money were considered to have a higher class and social standing than a family that lived on an income gained through hard work and labor. However,

    The squire of a great country house, in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, standing on his terrace looking out across his broad acres, was rarely the owner of his land or even his house. He was the life tenant, in possession of the family capital but unable to deal with his estates as if he owned them outright. His interests were subordinate to those of the family, and the family was of more importance than he was. He was the king in check, his freedom of manoeuvre limited by a peculiarly English system of inheritance, the strict settlement (English & Saville, 1983, p. 11).

    As the plot of Pride and Prejudice unfolds, one starts to sympathize with silly Mrs. Bennet’s determination to marry her daughters off to practically any eligible (and unknown) man who happened to stop by the neighborhood. Due to the stipulations of Mr. Bennet’s will that only a male heir can inherit his estate, none of the Bennet girls will receive any of their father’s money. Unless they married well, they will be left destitute. For Mrs. Bennet the situation was made even more galling knowing that Mr. Bennet’s cousin, a man the family had never met, would also inherit Longbourn House, their family home.

    Mr. Bennet to Mrs. Bennet:

    “About a month ago I received this letter, and about a fortnight ago I answered it, for I thought it a case of some delicacy, and requiring early attention. It is from my cousin, Mr. Collins, who, when I am dead, may turn you all out of this house as soon as he pleases.”

    “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.

    “It certainly is a most iniquitous affair,” said Mr. Bennet, “and nothing can clear Mr. Collins from the guilt of inheriting Longbourn. But if you will listen to his letter, you may perhaps be a little softened by his manner of expressing himself.” – Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 13

    As it turns out, Mr. Collins, a ridiculous and self-important man, had good intentions. He arrives at the Bennet’s doorstep determined to ask for one of the Bennet daughters’ hand in marriage. In his mind, his generous act would make up for the unfairness of the will’s stipulation. Mr. Collins tells Mrs. Bennet about his desire to court Jane, the eldest daughter. When Mrs. Bennet informs Mr. Collins that Jane is practically engaged to Mr. Bingley, he quickly turns his attentions to Elizabeth, providing one of the most memorable marriage proposals in literary history, and one that I relish reading over and over. Learn more about entails from Wikipedia below:

    Pride and Prejudice contains a particularly thorny example of the kind of problems which could arise through the entailing of property. Mr. Bennet, the father of protagonist Elizabeth Bennet, had only a life interest in his property, known as Longbourn. He had no authority to dictate to whom it should pass upon his death, as it was strictly arranged to be inherited by the next male heir. Had Mr. Bennet fathered a son, it would have passed to him, but it could not pass to any of his five daughters. Instead, the next nearest male heir would inherit the property; in the course of the novel, this was revealed to be Mr. Bennet’s cousin, William Collins, a minister in his mid-twenties. The inheritance of the Longbourn property completely excluded the five legitimate Bennet daughters. Such entails typically arose from wills, rather than from marriage settlements, which usually made at least some provision for daughters.

    Read more about the topic here: The British Aristocracy, Capital and Income, and Nineteenth Century Company Accounting, Christopher J. Napier

    Illustration by C.E. Brock. In the novel, I recall the proposal scene occurring after breakfast. I do not recall Jane describing Lizzie at her sewing table as Mr. Collins proposes.

    Update: Read more about the entail as explained by a British lawyer named Henry in a post I titled: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Entail in Downton Abbey and More.

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