Settlements were legal documents which specified what should happen to a particular landed estate. Usually the estate was 'entailed' so that it could only pass to certain named individuals. Settlements were often drawn up at the time of a marriage. The type of settlement most popular in England and Wales was known as 'strict settlement'.
The power of aristocratic families was based on their wealth, so controlling the descent of landed property was very important to them. Marriages were often arranged in order to benefit the family. Even if it was a love match, the drawing up of the marriage settlement was an incredibly important part of the process. This was because the terms of the marriage settlement could govern the family's fortunes for the whole of the next generation.
One of the most famous examples in literature of the effects of strict settlement occurs in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The Longbourn estate is entailed on Mr Collins, a cousin of the Bennet family. Mr Bennet only has a life interest, so after his death Mrs Bennet and the five Bennet daughters will lose their home. This threat lies behind Mrs Bennet's desperate attempts to find wealthy husbands for her daughters. An article entitled 'Land, Law and Love', originally published in Persuasions, the Jane Austen Journal by the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) in 1989, explains the legal intricacies of marriage settlements, entails, and women's rights in the context of Jane Austen's fiction.
In this section, details are given about how settlements worked. At the end there are links to some real examples.
Next page: Description of strict settlement
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