Nicola here! Today I’m dipping into the subject of titles once again. This is a hot topic in the UK at the moment because there is a bill before parliament to change the laws of succession to the throne. You would think in this day and age that a proposal to change the law to allow a first-born princess to take the throne with precedence over a younger brother would not be controversial. Not so. It has stirred up a great deal of debate, not least as to whether the same rules should apply to the aristocracy.
Kings are different
The rules pertaining to the succession to the monarchy have
always been different from those that apply
to aristocratic titles. At present succession to the British throne is by what is called male-preference cognatic primogeniture. This means that if the reigning monarch has a son, he will inherit regardless of whether he has elder sisters. If there is no male heir then the eldest daughter will succeed as in the case of the current Queen. This wasn’t always the case, of course. Originally in England and Scotland there were no fixed rules governing succession to the throne. Witness William the Conqueror willing the throne to his second son William Rufus whilst his eldest son Robert got the Duchy of Normandy. Robert didn’t like it, and invaded, but he was paid off. Then there was the anarchy when Henry I named his daughter Matilda as his successor but his nephew Stephen took the throne instead. Stephen and Matilda fought it out over a period of years and it was her son, not his, who inherited next. Richard II named his nephew Arthur as his heir rather than his younger brother John. Then there were all the primogeniture squabbles of the Wars of the Roses. A little known fact is that Henry VIII’s will proposed that his daughter Elizabeth should be succeeded by Lady Anne Stanley, descendent of his sister Mary, Duchess of Suffolk and Charles Brandon. That, of course, never happened.
Out of all this confusion came the Act of Settlement of 1701 which still governs succession to the throne, with various other pieces of legislation also in effect. The current amendment proposes that the first-born child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince William and Princess Kate) should one day inherit the throne regardless of whether it is a girl or a boy.
The oldest of the old boys’ clubs
In contrast to the monarchy, inheritance in the aristocracy has in the main part been governed by male primogeniture. This means that in most cases the title – and the entire estate – descends in the male line only to the exclusion of women. So if the Duke of Dastardly has six daughters and no sons then his title will go to his eldest surviving brother and from there to the brother’s sons. If there are no close male relatives it will go to the fifth cousin twice removed rather than to the daughters.
Inspiration for Plots
We all understand this. It is the basis of any number of plots in historical fiction. The Downton Abbey story begins with the fact that the Earl of Grantham has three daughters and no son, his close male heir is drowned in the Titanic and the title is going to descend to Matthew, a distant relative and (shock, horror!) a member of the middle classes who works for a living. How different it would all have been if Lady Mary Crawley had been the heir!
Then there is Pride and Prejudice. The only reason that the odious Mr Collins is sniffing around Longbourn is because he is Mr Bennet’s heir. The five Bennet daughters cannot inherit the estate. So Mr Collins is looking to smooth matters over by marrying one of them. Implicit in this is the idea that as he is taking their inheritance, one of his responsibilities is to look after the disenfranchised females of the family.
The idea of male primogeniture is pretty heavily embedded in a lot of families, witness the number of aristocrats who keep on having children until there is a male heir. I loved the story of the Sackville-Wests. In 1954 Lionel Sackville-West and his wife Jacobine had their first daughter. Lionel’s great-aunt Vita, who had been barred from the succession because she was female, wrote to congratulate them. When a second daughter was born she wrote to say how lovely it was that the first had a playmate and hoped that they weren’t too disappointed she wasn’t a boy. By the birth of a fifth daughter, all she could find to say was “oh dear.”
Male primogeniture is a fruitful source of plot ideas for a historical romance writer. The idea of the spirited but penniless daughter in conflict with the new heir is a very powerful one and it’s one of my favourites. And of course any change to succession laws now would make no difference to what happened historically. (Though wouldn’t it be fun if all the heirs in the female line came forward to make a claim on their inheritance!) According to an account I read recently, opinion within the ranks of the aristocracy seems split on whether or not it would be a good thing to change the laws of inheritance. More than one duke has deemed it a good idea. Some have suggested that daughters should be allowed to inherit only if there is no son. Others have rejected the idea outright, warning that it would lead to the break up of landed estates. Some, rather bravely in the current climate, have stuck to the traditional view that all men (and women) are not equal, that women are not as good at running estates and that “the first duty of a married woman is to have babies.” To which I can only say – well, it’s a point of view.
Girls can multitask
Arguably the case of the traditionalists is weakened by the fact that there are already titles and estates with provision to descend down the female line. There aren’t a huge number of them but they do exist. I came across one the other day when I was visiting Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. Wrest had been in the De Grey family for over 600 years. During that time there were a number of female heirs in the succession including Jemima Campbell, Marchioness Grey in the Georgian era, her daughter Amabel Yorke, Countess de Grey, her granddaughter Anne Florence De Grey and her granddaughter Nan Herbert, Baroness Lucas. The estate at Wrest passed from the family not because of female inheritance but because like many others it was simply too huge and expensive to maintain after the First World War.
In Forbidden I turned the male primogeniture plot around and had a title and estate that could pass in the female line. The heroine returns from the dead to dispossess the male heir. Perhaps it says something about me and the heroines I enjoy writing that I really loved putting a strong heroine into a situation where she was only doing what the men were habitually doing!
So what do you think? Do you enjoy stories where male primogeniture leads to daughters losing out on inheriting a title and estate? Does the inequality of it bother you in a historical context or does it lead to good conflict in a story? And do you think that in the real world, daughters should be allowed to inherit the dukedom?