The Downton Abbey TV series begins with a predicament for the Earl of Grantham. Earl Robert has no sons, and an “entail” keeps any of his three daughters from inheriting his great estate and mansion: Downton Abbey. Robert’s heir is Matthew Crawley, a distant cousin. Matthew will someday inherit both the earl’s title and his real estate, thanks to the entail. What is this “entail”? (I’m a lawyer and amateur historian, so this question is just made for me.)
The Downton story begins in 1912, but the family’s problem has its origin centuries earlier, in the High Middle Ages. Most European monarchies and noble families operated under the primogeniture system. The eldest son inherits the title, even if he has an older sister. In many versions of primogeniture, daughters couldn’t inherit their father’s title even if they had no brothers. And in some, even the daughters’ sons and grandsons couldn’t inherit. The title had to pass to and through men. (Another wrinkle: all men in the line of descent had to be legitimate sons, with married parents. No bastards!)
France’s King Charles IV, for example, died in 1328, leaving only daughters. French primogeniture denied them the throne. The king’s closest male relative was his nephew, Edward: his sister’s son. But nephew Edward was disqualified too, since his claim ran through a woman. So the throne went to the king’s cousin, the son of his father’s younger brother, who became King Philip VI. (Actually, the French nobility hastily adopted the rule against men claiming through their mothers, to make sure nephew Edward couldn’t inherit — since he happened to be King Edward III of England. The would-be heir didn’t agree, and the result was the Hundred Years’ War.)
Downton Abbey reveals that Earl Robert inherited from his father, who presumably got the title from his father — in a line of succession stretching back to the first Earl of Grantham, based on a strict male-only version of primogeniture. The system keeps Robert from leaving the title to one of his daughters. If Robert had a younger brother, he’d be next in line, and his sons (Robert’s nephews) would follow. But no such luck. Who then? Somewhere up the line, one of those historic earls had a younger son who didn’t inherit the title. If that younger son has a living descendant through an all-male line, he becomes the earl after Robert. That’s Matthew.
But what about Robert’s real estate, as opposed to his title? What about Downton Abbey and the surrounding farmland? That’s where the entail comes in. An entail (a.k.a. “fee tail”) is basically a will that sets up a primogeniture system for real estate. A lord or other landholder leaves his house and land to his son “and the male heirs of his body.” It ensures that a single male descendant gets all the family’s real estate. Where the family has a noble title, the entail follows the title, so the same man gets the real estate and the lordship. Earl Robert’s family has an entail, so Matthew gets the earldom, the farmland, and Downton Abbey.
The show throws in another complication. Lord Robert married a rich American, Cora, and her money is vital to the family. Why can’t the couple’s daughters inherit their mother’s cash? The two families signed legal documents adding Cora’s fortune to the entail.
[SPOILER ALERT: Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens in Season 3.] What if there’s no one left with the necessary all-male descent? If we’re talking about a kingdom, the parliament or nobles will pick someone — they’ll bend the rules — because you’ve got to have a king or queen. A noble title, on the other hand, will often die out without a proper heir. There won’t be a new earl or duke or whatever. At the end of Downton Abbey Season 3, Matthew dies, and if he’d left no son, the Earldom of Grantham could go extinct. We don’t know if the Downton family has some more distant male-descended cousin. Happily, the family faces no such trouble. Matthew married Earl Robert’s eldest daughter, Mary, and fathered a son. The baby is the heir — through his father Matthew, ironically, not through his maternal grandfather, the actual earl.
Unlike titles, real estate never dies. So in most cases the entail will just end if there is no male-descended heir, and the owner can decide who inherits his land and house.
England outlawed the entail in 1925, and most U.S. states have too. But that only applies to real estate. England still allows male-only primogeniture for aristocratic titles. And until 2013, the crown itself could only pass on to a woman if she had no brothers. (That’s how Queen Elizabeth II inherited. She has only a sister.) But in 2013, Parliament installed a newfangled gender-neutral primogeniture system for kings and queens, starting with royals born in 2011 or later. So little Princess Charlotte, daughter of Prince William and Kate Middleton, would someday inherit the throne if she were the eldest. But she’s not. So either way, the throne goes to another likely lad: her big brother, Prince George.
By the way, Downton‘s creator, Julian Fellowes, married the niece of an English earl. If not for primogeniture, his wife would have inherited the title when the old earl died childless in 2011. Instead, the title died with the earl because there was no all-male descended heir. So Fellowes is intimately familiar with primogeniture — and he’s argued for applying the gender-neutral version to the British aristocracy.
© 2013, 2018, 2019, 2022 by David W. Tollen
- Highclere Castle (April 2011), by Richard Munckton from Windsor, Melbourne, Australia — provided through Wikimedia Commons
- Philippe VI de Valois d’après le Recueil des rois de France de Jean Du Tillet. Bibliothèque Nationale de France
- Julian Fellowes May 2014 — provided through Wikimedia Commons under the the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.