Family Wealth & Inheritance

Chapter 1: Land

By the end of the fifteenth century, serfdom had more or less disappeared. Generally, therefore, anyone who had any land rights was able to pass them on. The basic law of inheritance for the majority of England and Scotland was primogeniture, that is, inheritance by the oldest (legitimate) son. At the lowest level, a customary manor tenant (a tenant with no written document giving him rights) would usually be permitted to continue the tenancy his father left, on payment of a “fine" or “gressom", to the lord of the manor.

This was not an absolute right. It was preferable to be a copyhold tenant – that is, one with some type of manor document showing rights. Many wealthy yeomen were, in fact, copyhold tenants of gentlemen and lords. Typically, where there was more than a pittance, the widow would be entitled to maintenance of a third of the annual value of the land.

If there were sufficient goods for the man to make a will, he would generally provide for unmarried daughters and younger sons out of cash or goods. Married daughters would have had their share on marriage. Married women could only make a will with their husband's consent, unless the right to do so had been specifically reserved to her in the marriage contract.

Where there were no legitimate sons, in England, daughters would inherit, but, rather than the inheritance going to the eldest, the lands would be split between them as “co-parcenors".

In Wales, a different system was in practice. Known as “cyfran", in Welsh or “gavelkind" in English, the convention was for a man's inheritance to be divided between all his sons, including illegitimate ones. Women could not inherit land. Gavelkind resulted in smaller and smaller inheritances, which was fairer, but had the disadvantage of encouraging fratricide, and resulted in a country with no strong, central power to stand against its over mighty neighbour. The Wales Acts of 1536-1542 which, for legal purposes, turned Wales into a group of English counties, abolished cyfran.

In Kent, the system of gavelkind was observed until the 1920s. Ireland too, operated a type of gavelkind outside the English Pale and the Anglo-Irish earldoms, which conformed to standard English practice.