'To have and to hold to him and the heirs of his body lawfully procreated'
There are many different inheritance codes and traditions. In Kent the dominant inheritance code was ‘gavelkind’, by which all sons inherited equally. However, the predominant inheritance rule throughout the rest of England in the medieval period and afterwards was male-preference primogeniture, whereby estates passed in total to the eldest son. In both these codes women could inherit, but only if they had no brothers. Since 1925, modern inheritance law in the United Kingdom has treated daughters in the same way as sons.
Despite this, male-preference primogeniture was still in use by our own Royal Family to govern who inherited the throne until the early 21st century. The daughters of a prince would take the throne ahead of the children of a princess, even if the princess was older.
Complete exclusion of females from succession is a well-known part of the ‘Salic Law’, but is not part of the British law code. Indeed, England had a female ruler in 1141 when Matilda (1102-1167), the only surviving child of King Henry I, briefly deposed her cousin Stephen of Blois. He had taken the throne despite having sworn to uphold her succession.
The following extracts from literary and historical texts give some insights into women’s inheritance in medieval society.
Transcripts and translations for manuscript items are also available for download:
Document 1: Extract from the will of Sir William Cantelowe of London (21 Feb. 1462, Latin)
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.
Ref: Ne D 4632
Transcription and Translation
|Et post ipsius domine Elizabeth decessum voluit quod dictum Messuagium habitacionis sue et tenementum proximum annexum cum eorum pertinenciis ac dictas terras et tenementa in dicta parochia sancti Clementis cum pertinenciis suis integre remaneant
Willielmo Cantelowe filio suo habendum et tenendum sibi ac heredes de corpore sue legitime procreate Et pro defectu huismod heredis tunc Remanere inde henrico Cantelowe filio sue et heredes de corpore suo legitime
procreate Et pro defectu huismod heredis tunc Remanere inde filiabus suis Anne Johanne et Katerine ac heredes de earum corporibus legitime procreate Et pro defectu alicuius huiusmodi heredis de earum corporibus legitime procreate
Tunc Remanere inde Thome Cantelowe filio suo
|… And after the death of the same Dame Elizabeth he wishes that the same messuage of his habitation and the annexed tenement nearby, with all their appurtenances, and the said lands and tenements in the said parish of St Celemnts with their appurtenances, should remain together to William Cantelowe his son, to have and to hold to him and the heirs of his body lawfully procreated. And in case of the default of such heirs, to remain to Henry Cantelowe his son, and the heirs of his body lawfully procreated. And in case of the default of such heirs, to remain to his daughters Anne, Joan and Katherine and the heirs of their body lawfully procreated. And in case of the default of such heirs of their bodies, to remain to Thomas Cantelowe his son…
Document 2: Extract from bill of complaint of Elizabeth Whitfield, née Swillington (second half of 15th century [after 1456], English)
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.
Ref: Pa L 2
Transcription and Translation
heme of þe full gret Iniuries and of þe vnconciently demenyng of Elizabeth Whitfeld after þe[-]
of Margaret late Wiffe to sir John Gra knyght, auncestre to þe same Elizabeth in þe fourme specified[-]
herto annexed, caused by Rauffe late lord Cromwell, to þe gret disheriticioun and hurt of hir and hir heirs for[-]
without your gode gracez conciently shewed to your said besechers, folowe herafter
¶ First þe same lord . sent oon Herry of Twhayts and other with hym . with wepons of werr vnto Drifeld
on Yorkis wold . þe Friday next after lawe sonday . and ther and þan forcibly toke þe same Elizabeth and fro thens
hir caried agayn hir will, by nyght and brought hir vn to Lincoln afore þe same lorde
who þen called his who þen calling hir his ky[-]
and þat he wold help hir to recouer hir Inheritaunce þat with wrong was holden fro hir.
¶ And þen þe same lord Cromwell sent þe same Elizabeth vnto þe Castell of Tatesale, where she was[-]
straungely demeaned and gouerned . and for faute of socour and help by þe sekness of mygrayne she þere by processe of
tyme lost hir eye . and enblemysshid for euer . for faut of help and leechecraft.
¶ Att þe furst commyng of þe said lorde to þe saide Castell he somdele comforted hir . to
þe þentent to haue hir livelode a
within þe same weke sent to hir . John Fulneby John Kighhley John Tailbois and William Stanlowe[-]
þey with gentill langage meoved and counsailed hir to be reuled after þentent of þe same lorde and to[-] hir right of hir Inheritaunce of þe manour landez and tenementz in a bill herto annexed . specified . Vnto hym[-]
she shuld haue good Inogh
|The complaints of the full great injuries and of the unconsciously demeaning of Elizabeth Whitfield after the [death] of Margaret, late wife of Sir John Gra, knight, ancestor of the same Elizabeth, in the form specified [and] hereto annexed, caused by Ralph, late Lord Cromwell, to the great disinheriting and hurt of her and her heirs for [ever], without your good graces consciously showed to your said beseechers, follow hereafter.
First, the same lord sent one Harry of Twhayts and others with him, with weapons of war, to Driffield on the Yorkshire Wolds on the Friday after Low Sunday [the Sunday after Easter]. And there and then they forcibly took the same Elizabeth, and carried her from there against her will by night, and brought her to Lincoln before the same lord, who then calling her his kin, [said that] he would help her to recover her inheritance that was wrongly held from her.
And then Lord Cromwell sent Elizabeth to the castle of Tattershall, where she was remarkably demeaned and governed and for want of succour and help, by the sickness of migraine, she there by process of time lost her eye and was blemished for ever, because she had no help or leechcraft [medical attention].
When the lord first came to the castle he somewhat comforted her, intending to have her livelihood, and within the week sent to her John Fulneby, John Kighhley, John Tailbois and William Stanlowe. With gentle language they moved and counselled her to be ruled according to the intentions of the same lord, and to [grant] him her right of her inheritance of the manors, lands and tenements in a bill hereto annexed, [and said] she should have good enough [in return].
• Thorlac Turville-Petre, ‘The Persecution of Elizabeth Swillington by Ralph, Lord Cromwell’ in Nottingham Medieval Studies, vol. 42 (1998), 174-187
Document 3: Extract from Magna Carta (1215, Latin)
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.
Ref: From Richard Thomson, An historical essay on the Magna charta of King John … (London : Printed for John Major ... and Robert Jennings ..., 1829), 68-69, Special Collection JN147.T4
After the death of her husband a widow is to have her marriage portion and inheritance immediately and without difficulty, nor is she to give anything for her dower, or for her marriage portion, or for the inheritance which she and her husband held on the day of his death, and she may remain in her husband’s house for forty days after his death, during which she is to be assigned her dower.
Document 4: Heldris de Cornuälle, ‘Le Roman de Silence’, lines 308-326 (early 13th century, French)
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.
Ref: WLC/LM/6, f. 1
Document 5: Heldris de Cornuälle, ‘Le Roman de Silence’, lines 6633-6646 (early 13th century, French)
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.
Ref: WLC/LM/6, f. 222v
Transcription and Translation
|Or a lirois ebayns grant ire
Ahi . ahi . fait il chaieles
Quel duel por .ii. orphenes pucieles
Que mes barons en ai perdus
Jen sui certes moult esperdus
Mais par lefoi que doi saint pere
Ja feme niert mais iretere
Ens el roiame dengletiere
Por tant com iaie a tenir tiere
Et cen iert ore la ueniance
Deceste nostre mes estance
Lasise fait a tols iurer
Por bien lesairement durer
Alquant lefont ireement
Et liplusor moult liement
Qui nen donroient une tille
Mais cil qui na mais une fille
Et a ballier grant teneure
Cuidies quil nait alcuer rancure
Now King Ebain was overcome with anger and fury.
Ah! Ah! he cried in Heaven's name -
what grief for two orphaned girls
(that has caused) my barons to have been lost to me.
I am, truly, distraught.
But here, by the faith, with which I am bound to Saint Peter 1
(I swear) that never again will a woman inherit
in the Kingdom of England.
Therefore, for as much as I do hold this land,
And, as I have now adjudged, from now on this will be the retribution
for this, our loss, and our plight.
All were summoned (as was the custom) to swear to uphold
that the pronouncement that the King had made that day would remain in force.
Some did it very angrily
But most did it quite gladly.
for (of course) in having nothing to give they would (gladly) give an axe.
But for those who had no more than a daughter
and who held great estates from the King
Who would say that their hearts were not filled with bitterness?
1. Swearing by St Peter would probably be a solemn oath in the presence of witnesses, with hand laid on relics or on a manuscript of the Gospel
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