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So much of the drama of Downton Abbey rests on the entail. If you’ve read Jane Austen or To Kill a Mockingbird, you’ve heard about these mysterious legal arrangements. Last night at the local library, I learned for once and for all what an entail is and what their history was.

Any Downton Abbey fan knows that Lord Grantham can’t leave his estate to his daughter because of the entail. It must go to the oldest male heir and that heir died on the Titanic. A distant cousin, Matthew will inherit the massive house, all its furnishings and grounds. That information can suffice, but as we’ve go to wait till January for our next Downton Abbey fix and since the library had a historian speak on Downton Abbey background, and since I’m geeky enough to dash off to such an event, I can now illuminate this entail business.

Get out some No Doze and here we go!

Way back when in England everyone who helped out the powerful got parcels of land and the poor could work as farm hands and use the commons for pastures. The problem that soon surfaced was that as the father died all the sons would get a divided parcel of land. Well, that would mean in a few generations people would be living on like one acre. That’s no good. Land meant wealth, power and status.

So when the Normans invaded they were bright enough to be careful that the parcels of land they confiscated and doled out remained intact. So land was passed down by primogenator, i.e. to the eldest living son. This method gave the British aristocracy a lot of power. In fact, by the 18th century the aristocracy in England had more power than the monarch. (That wasn’t the case in France so I guess they did things differently over there.)

Women’s property and money was subsumed by the husband upon marriage.

Entails (Sometimes In tails)

According to LexisNexis, an entail means:

To settle property upon a person with limitations in respect of the succession. Precisely, to create an estate in tail, that is, a fee tail, in conveying or devising real property. To involve, e. g., the trial of a law suit “involves” much preparation.

But we figured that. Entails made this even more secure, power more consolidated. The land the nobles got in the Henry’s era weren’t all that big compared to what the Crawleys have. Why?


Small fields and forests got taken by a few families

Because of the Privatization and Enclosure Acts, which began in the 1600s, allowed people to petition Parliament to consolidate plots disenfranchising small farmers. Before you knew it 4 million acres in Britain were owned by 12 individuals (Ye Olde 1%). Enclosures allowed the rich to become richer. They also made farming more efficient for a time. Yet the small farmer sure got squeezed out.

Common Recovery document

An entail could be “smashed” as Violet periodically urges and even by Jane Austen’s time they were becoming unpopular. One way to break an entail was this loop hole – when the legal son turned 21 he could turn the property over to fee simple (i.e. owning a land with a deed) that way the new owner could do with it as he pleased, will it to anyone, split it up, sell off parts.

There was also something called a Common Recovery whereby an owner could break an entail by creating this legal mess whereby the landowner transfers the land to an agent or lawyer and then some bogus chap John Doe, Richard Row, Moses Mill or such seems to take the land and sell it all so the owner can do what he wants with it. It’s all quite confusing and I have no idea why the owner could sell to an agent but not to someone else, but then these property laws are all about power and injustice when you start reading through some of these articles.

The Fines and Recoveries Act of 1833 put an end to this charade and allowed that a lease could trump and entail.

So it seems that Robert Crawley could have signed away his entail at age 21, but if he was a serious sort who liked tradition, he wouldn’t have felt the need to. Most 21 year olds probably figure they’ll have at least one son. He still could . . . we’ll have to see what happens in January.

Commoners try to keep the commons