The Entailed Estate: A Feature in Historical Fiction

Most of Jane Austen’s novels revolve around just a few topics: Love and Marriage, Money, and ENTAILS. A lot of Regency-Romance novels, Victorian tales, and even a current Edwardian TV Drama use it as a major theme.

This may be because Jane’s own life was affected by inheritance laws: after her father died, her mother, her  sister and Jane were maintained by money provided by her brothers. Entailment  is defined by  the Free Dictionary as “The process of limiting an inheritance to a specific sequence of heirs, usually applied to large estates.”

Highclere Castle
Highclere Castle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In much of the world, land has automatically been left to a male heir.  In the United Kingdom, with rare exceptions, the heirs were male; in particular the eldest son of the current person holding the property.   Believe it or not the principle of male entailment persisted until the twentieth century (1925) as we saw in the first seasons of the popular British TV Drama, DOWNTON ABBEY. Primogeniture was only quite recently dismantled.

According to a “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE hypertext” at

An entail was a legal device used to prevent a landed property from being broken up, and/or from descending in a female line. This is a logical extension of the then-prevalent practice of leaving the bulk of one’s wealth (particularly real estate) to one’s eldest son or “heir,”……

Entailed property is usually inherited by male primogeniture, in more or less the same way as are some titles of nobility — i.e. by the nearest male-line descendant (son of son etc.) of the original owner of the estate or title, whose ancestry in each generation goes through the eldest son who has left living male-line descendants (thus the male-line descendants of the second son of an owner will not have a chance to inherit until all the male-line descendants of the eldest son have died out). So, for example, Mr. Elliot is the heir to Sir Walter in Persuasion. Entailment also prevents a father from disinheriting his eldest son — a factor in Lady Susan (father to son: “You know… that it is out of my power to prevent your inheriting the family Estate.”). Women generally inherit only if there are no male-line heirs left, and if there is more than one sister, then they are all equal co-heiresses, rather than only the eldest inheriting. (“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE hypertext” at )

This site is an excellent resource for anyone who reads Jane Austen or contemporary historical fiction.

Who cared if land was sold?  This is a area where perhaps fiction  best shows us the human costs of societal conventions and the inequity of legal systems.  This has recently become important on DOWNTON ABBEY as Lady Mary and the widower of her late sister Sybil, Tom wish to make the estate profitable rather than sell parts off to pay an inheritance penalty, while Lord Grantham wishes to sell. This whole thing would have not been an issue, except that somehow Mary is now part manager of the estate because as the widow of the late heir, Matthew, and mother of the next she is acting for her son and was left his money which was not entailed. It was his inherited money that the heir Matthew used before his death to bail the Estate out of debt. The legal status of the money versus the estate makes the Downton predicament even more convoluted. (see below). The show goes a little deeper into the class system and entitlement.

Entailment recognized the importance of land to the gentry and aristocracy. Land wasn’t just a way of making a family feel important, it was the means by which they accumulated wealth and became important.  It was by land holdings and the steady and predictable income procured through tenancy, mining or other means, that freed the aristocracy from daily toils and allowed them to serve the country in politics, pursue education, dabble in the sciences, or live a life of leisure.

This meant that an heir was only rarely able to gamble away the family’s entire wealth (only the portions that were not entailed).  It almost meant a father was unable to disinherit his eldest son (for example a son by a first marriage in favor of a favored son by a second wife).  But entails had to be renewed periodically and could be broken by the heir on reaching his majority. (Information source still “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE hypertext” at but not quoted).

I don’t know the specifics but apparently there was a legal mechanism for the breaking of an entail other than the entire male line of a family dying out and the women all inheriting equally, but apparently there is a way brought about in 1472 called the “dock tail.” It was limited though.



What is sure is that it was and incredibly complex law which was centuries in the making, and only recently has primogeniture been dismantled in the UK. According to a recent article in the entailment made the male not so much an owner but a tenant under what was known as fee tail male.  “As archaic as the fee tail might sound, it still exists in four states: Delaware , Massachusetts , Maine and Rhode Island.”
Heck, I live in Maine — great article about the ins and outs of the legal system of entailments.

English: Français : Une gravure de 1833 illust...
Jane Austen – Pride and_Prejudice – Mr Darcy settled Wickham’s debts, and more or less forced him to marry the youngest daughter Lydia with whom he had run away.   Without the ruined daughter marrying, all the daughters would have been ruined and it would have been impossible for any of the daughters to make good marriages. This would have forced the mother and all the daughters to live on the small marriage settlemnt guaranteed to Mrs. Bennett and her daughters.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Entailment: The inheritence of property through a specific set of heirs, usually by  primogeniture., that is, through the male line of a family and through the eldest son (and his eldest son, and his and his,…)

When a man had no son or all his sons died before he did, the entailment went to the original owner’s (father of the current owner) next oldest son or that person’s oldest son. This extended backward in the lineage if the original owner had no sons the entail would go to his next oldest brother or his son.

On the surface, this is simple – the oldest male heir inherits everything except what a woman received or came into a marriage with in a settlement (legally, the only property she usually could call her own).

On reflection it is a complex legal system with  wide reaching, and often terrible, implications; leaving sisters and second wives with little to their names.  While it kept the aristocracy in money, one wonders if it was not the cause of many societal problems.  After all, giving many males the ability to live idly cannot be good for a society.  Forcing younger sons into the military  or the clergy (the two most acceptable professions for a non-heir) cannot have been all that great either.

Upshot: This left women screwed over much of the time and dependent on making a good marriage or their brothers (or sometimes cousins) when their father died as they may or may not have been left money from a settlement (Ie, their mother’s money) or unentailed property.

Due to their status, women of the aristocracy may not know how to boil water or do much of anything other than embroider or play whist. We see this in DOWNTON ABBEY when Lady Sybil has to be taught by the kitchen staff how to boil water so she can go to nursing school during WWI.   And, it was almost impossible for them to have a profession other than governess, or a teacher of the arts gentle women were expected to learn. Rarely did women make money at writing or painting, and if they did it may have been anonymously to protect the family name.

It also meant that male heirs who were idle or mismanaged family money could accumulate enormous debt if the family estates were mismanaged. A family could be land rich and cash poor meaning estates could fall into ruin. This meant that everyone making a living from an estate from tenants, to vicars, to the owner of the local pub suffered along with the family.







Related articles