Manuscripts and Special Collections


Decorative flourish from LM6 in the Wollaton Library Collection

'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.


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