Manuscripts and Special Collections

Inheritance: View Documents

Click on the links to view images of the original document, alongside transcripts and translations where available.

Transcripts and translations for manuscript items are also available for download:  


Document 1

Ne D 4632: Extract from the will of Sir William Cantelowe of London (21 Feb. 1462, Latin) 
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This is a typical example of a will made by a gentleman or aristocrat. Normal inheritance rules favoured the eldest son, who would inherit the whole property and pass it to his own sons. If the eldest son died before he could take possession, the second son would inherit, and so on. If there were no sons, then the daughters would inherit ahead of more distant male relatives. However, they would inherit jointly, meaning that the eldest daughter would have to share with her younger sisters, and that the estate would probably have to be sold or split up.

Sir William gave all his property to his wife for her life, revealing the important position which widowed women could hold. She would have had an income from the rents and proceeds, and a certain status as the manager of the estate until her son came into possession.


Document 2

Pa L 2: Extract from bill of complaint of Elizabeth Whitfield, née Swillington (second half of 15th century [after 1456], English) 
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Women who inherited land could be attractive marriage prospects for ambitious men. This document, though, shows that marriage was not the only way to acquire wealth – it could sometimes be stolen. In the 1430s Elizabeth Swillington’s claim to manors owned by the late Margaret Gra was disputed by another distant relative, the powerful Ralph, 3rd Baron Cromwell (1393?-1456), Lord Treasurer to King Henry VI. In this extract, Elizabeth complains that she was seized by force and held at Lord Cromwell’s castle at Tattershall, Lincolnshire, where Cromwell and his henchmen tried to persuade her to sign away her inheritance. The document goes on to relate how Elizabeth was kept prisoner for months or years in various places including the enclosed nunnery of Catley Abbey, which she threatened to burn down. She was eventually forced to sign away her rights when trapped in the chapel at Tattershall. Her husband Bartholomew Whitfield refused to accept compensation of 10 marks and 100 sheep in case it invalidated a later claim. This bill of complaint after Cromwell’s death was an attempt to get the land back from his executors. 

Further reading:

• Thorlac Turville-Petre, ‘The Persecution of Elizabeth Swillington by Ralph, Lord Cromwell’ in Nottingham Medieval Studies, vol. 42 (1998), 174-187


Document 3

Special Collection JN147.T4 : Extract from Magna Carta (1215, Latin)
From Richard Thomson, An historical essay on the Magna charta of King John … (London : Printed for John Major ... and Robert Jennings ..., 1829), 68-69 
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Magna Carta enshrined the principle that a widow should not be denied the land or goods (her ‘dower’) to which she would be entitled after the death of her husband. There is more on 'dower' in the section relating to female property owners .


Document 4

WLC/LM/6, f. 1: Heldris de Cornuälle, ‘Le Roman de Silence’, lines 308-326 (early 13th century, French) 
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Concerns over female inheritance in a male-dominated feudal society are shown in this passage. The fictional King Ebain of England, grief-stricken at the deaths of two counts who had married twin sisters and fought each other to death in a quarrel over who should inherit, bans women from inheriting land, Landowners with female children are worried that their land will be taken by the King. Later in the story the Cornish aristocrat Cador and his wife Eufemie decide to avoid this fate by bringing up their only daughter, Silence, as a boy.

This situation would not have occurred in the real 13th-century England, which was governed by common law agreed over time, rather than the King’s command .

Document 5

WLC/LM/6, f. 222v: Heldris de Cornuälle, ‘Le Roman de Silence’, lines 6633-6646 (early 13th century, French) 
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In this passage, the autocratic King Ebain restores women’s inheritance rights as a reward for Silence’s loyalty to him in her career as a knight and in her successful quest to bring the wizard Merlin to court. Ironically, although Ebain says that ‘No man could put a price on / A woman who does not practice deceit’, Silence had been disguised as a man throughout all these heroic deeds. 


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