The “Entail,” Primogeniture, and Why Matthew Inherits Downton Abbey

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.)

Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England: the Victorian mansion serving as TV’s Downton Abbey

Medieval Primogeniture

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, where 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, the daughters’ sons and grandsons couldn’t even 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!)

King Phillip VI -- re Downton Abbey
King Philip VI of France

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 of England. Edward 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.

The Entail

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 HAVEN’T FINISHED 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.

Inheritance Today

Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbely
Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey and would-be consort of a countess

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 an only slightly less sexist version still governs the throne. (Princesses can inherit if they’ve got no brothers. Thus, Queen Elizabeth.) But in 2013, the government installed a newfangled gender-neutral primogeniture system for kings and queens, starting with royals born in 2011 or later. So Prince William and Kate Middleton’s daughter would someday inherit the throne if she were the eldest. She has an older brother, though, so the throne goes to another likely lad either way.

By the way, Downton‘s creator, Julian Fellowes, is married to 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 imposing the gender-neutral version on the British aristocracy.


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© 2013, 2018, 2019 by David W. Tollen.

41 thoughts on “The “Entail,” Primogeniture, and Why Matthew Inherits Downton Abbey

  1. I fail to understand why our government recently kept in place the ability to pass down $5,000,000 tax free to your heirs. How is that good for the economy? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a proven capitalist and believe lower income and capital gains taxes grow the economy and everybody wins. But people that inherit money don’t have an incentive to create jobs like businesspeople with low tax rates do so why do they deserve a break?

  2. Um, this was answered back in the Fall of 2010! Mary and Matthew’s son is the next Earl and heir- as Mary can inherit the title, but not the money and estate. Problem though if Matthew did not list “future children” in his will perhaps.

  3. I have a question that is related to this, as well as to Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Bennett’s heir for the entail of Longbourne is Mr. Collins. I would assume that when inheritance is through the male line only, they both should have the same last name. I don’t think Lord Robert’s name is Cawley, either. Can you explain how it could be otherwise? Thanks.

    1. Good question, Janet! Matthew and Earl Robert must come from the same male line in Downton Abbey, and the same goes for Mr. Bennett and Mr. Collins in Pride & Prejudice. So by our naming system, they should have the same last name. And in Downton Abbey, they actually do. You don’t notice it because no one called an earl by his last name back then. So we hear “Lord Robert” over and over, but not “Mr. Crawley” or “Lord Crawley.” However, I remember a scene where a military officer calls Matthew “Crawley,” and Robert thinks the officer is talking to him and so looks a bit offended, momentarily.

      Re Pride and Prejudice, during the early 19th Century and earlier, men sometimes changed their surnames to honor a patron or benefactor. So it’s likely Mr. Collins had a male-line ancestor named Bennett who changed his name to Collins when he received an inheritance from someone named Collins — maybe a relative on a female line. Or it could be the reverse: Mr. Bennett truly comes from the Collins family, but some ancestor inherited from a relative named Bennett and changed the name. (Obviously, those examples of inheritance do not follow primogeniture. It wasn’t universal, and in fact some people willed land to a family friend, just as they do now.)

    2. “Lord Robert” is the Earl of Grantham, but his actual family name is Robert Crawley. Most peers have a different family surname to their title. I think there about 5 peers where the title and family names are the same. Earl Spencer is one, Earl Grey would be another, but these few are the exceptions.

  4. [Spoiler Alert: Downton Season 4 info below.]

    Season 4 just started in Sweden where I live, and now I’m confused. How come Mary can all of a sudden inherit? Is it because Matthew put in money in the estate, and that part is now outside of the entail?? I’ve ruled out that the fact that she’s a widow makes a difference, because if that was the case, Lady Violet would have been able to inherit before her son. I’ve been googling like crazy since yesterday. 🙂

    1. I’m jealous that you’ve already got Season 4! I haven’t seen the new shows, so I can only guess at what’s going on, but Mary definitely should not be able to inherit the title or the real estate. However, she’s now the mother of the heir to both. That could eventually give her a title like Countess Dowager (but not Countess in her own right), and control of the real estate as her son’s guardian, once Lord Robert passes away. Also, Matthew bought some kind of interest in Downton Abbey and the earldom’s property during Season 3 (I think), using inherited money to rescue Lord Robert from debt. So Mary might have inherited Matthew’s interest. I don’t think the show ever made clear what kind of rights Matthew got from the deal. But a property-owner with an entail, like Lord Robert, did have the right to sell limited time rights: rights that would operate during the owner’s life but not interfere with inheritance by his (primogeniture-selected, male) heir. So it’s likely Mary steps into Matthew’s limited-time rights. None of that would interfere with primogeniture and the entail, which dictate that when Lord Robert dies, Mary and Matthew’s son inherits the title and the real estate.

      A more complete answer may have to await my chance to see Season 4 …

      1. Then it must be Matthew’s interest that she has inherited. I remember from season 3 that Lord Robert wanted to make Matthew involved as “co-owner”. If Matthew’s money had been included in the entail, he probably wouldn’t have had much say until he inherited. And they probably didn’t think it mattered since Matthew was going to get the whole estate eventually any way.

        It’s a good season so far. You really have something to look forward to! 🙂

      2. Having just seen S4Ep1, I wondered the same thing, and came up with the same analysis – Matthew purchased a 1/2 interest in the Earl’s life estate. Now then – SPOILERS (for those of us in the U.S., anyway) – much is made of the death taxes, and at one point after Matthew’s will is found, it is remarked that by having Matthew’s interest pass to Mary and then (upon her death, presumably) to George, death taxes will need to be paid twice whereas (apparently) if Matthew had died intestate his interest would have gone directly to George.

        But several questions then arise – would the interest that Matthew purchased from Robert really pass to his son rather than his wife? (Remember, we’re talking about a commercially purchased interest, not a hereditary one.) Next, if the death duties would need to be paid twice if Mary takes from Matthew and George takes from Mary, shouldn’t the family lawyer, Murray, advise Mary to renounce the interest in favor of George? (after standing up to Robert, of course.) (Extra credit question: should Murray be representing both Mary and Robert, or should he be advising Mary to retain her own solicitor?)

        One other point – there really isn’t an issue of Matthew’s interest passing from Mary to George unless Mary predeceases Robert (which goodness knows, is entirely possible in the DA universe). Assuming Robert predeceases Mary, the interest which Matthew purchased is extinguished at Robert’s death, and George inherits all of the Earldom and its assets. Hopefully, he then takes good care of his mother, since as of next week she will presumably start being more motherly to him.

  5. Ooooops! I should have added a spoiler alert. 🙂 I assumed you were UK based and far ahead of us in the Downton Abbey world.

  6. In the end, you speak of the owner of the estate. Who would that be? Who started the entail to the first earl of grantham?

  7. I believe that Matthew Crawley had a reversion (that is a future interest) that descended to him from whomever created the estate tail male in the first place. Upon Robert’s death without male descendants Matthew’s reversion would become vested and possessory (that is, become a fee simple). There is no indication that Matthew’s interest was subject to the kind of limitation inherent in a fee tail, so I assume it was not. Matthew’s interest would descend to his son, unless he left a will stating otherwise. At the beginning of Season 4 we find that there is a document purporting to be a will and leaving all to his wife, Mary. As for death taxes, that will depend on the value placed on Matthew’s reversion. Keep in mind that it can still be defeated if Robert were to remarry a much younger woman who gave birth to his son. Poof, reversion gone.

  8. I’m sorry if I’ve missed the answer, but speaking of inheritance laws in England,how did Miss Haversham in Great Expectations inherit all of her father’s property? The book takes place in the 1870s.

  9. Your example regarding France is more about Salic Law not primogeniture. Salic Law (which pretty much governed the line of succession in various European states with the exception of the UK and Spain) stated that the crown only passed through the legitimate male line and gave the nobility the right to elect a new king when the reigning line died out. Hence why for instance to go further than your example, Hugh Capet the count of Paris was elected King of France after the last king from the earlier dynasty (the Carolingians) died out.

  10. Thank you for the easily-understood and thorough explanation. Hard to believe the entailment law took so long to go, but pleased – and surprised – to hear the primogeniture system is being changed.

  11. What about barring the entail at common law, as in Taltarum’s Case, 1472, the Fines and Recoveries Act, 1833, and the Settled Land Act, 1881? Lord Grantham could have ended the entail right then and there and given the three daughters a fee simple.

    Matthew, a SOLICITOR, would have known this.

    Fellowes gets the silverware right, but not the crux of the plot.

    1. Isn’t a fee simple just a piece of land/housing within a bigger estate that you have the right to live on? I would think that would strike the characters in this show as a pathetic replacement for the full estate, Highclere Castle and a fancy pants title. What Mary wants is to inherit what Matthew is inheriting. That part is really clear and I don’t really find it plausible to think anybody in their right mind would approach her about a fee simple in lieu of the title Lady Grantham and the castle too. But maybe I don’t understand what a fee simple is.

      1. Fee Simple can cover the entire estate.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fee_simple

        Barring the Entail” could be accomplished via “Common Recovery” before 1833, and after that a simpler “Deed of Disentailment” could be obtained to break the entailment. So Earl Robert could have barred the entail if he wanted to, although it might involve a loss of status and position in society as a side effect – but if he truly wished to provide for his daughters he could have done it. But perhaps the plot/storyline required that he either not do it or that he was unaware of it (!?)

        See:
        https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/manuscriptsandspecialcollections/researchguidance/deedsindepth/freehold/commonrecovery.aspx
        https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/manuscriptsandspecialcollections/researchguidance/deedsindepth/settlements/settlement.aspx

        As for the entailment on Longbourn in ‘Pride & Prejudice’, see here for a discussion of it and whether Jane Austen got it right or got it wrong:
        http://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1958&context=fac_artchop

  12. Forgot to mention:

    The 1925 legislation did not outlaw entails.

    It merely put the legal estate in the tenant for life.

  13. So, if they each own half of the estate, who gets more say in what happens? If Robert and Mary absolutely cannot agree on an issue, who gets the tie-breaking vote?

    1. With shared ownership — of an estate or anything else — the law offers no real solution if the two owners can’t agree. (This can seriously damage family relations when parents leave a house to two children.) But it’s possible to solve the problem in advance, in a contract, creating a decision-making system — like giving one owner the decisive vote on certain choices or designating a third party tie-breaker. Unfortunately, we don’t know the terms of the contract between Matthew and Robert, under which Matthew invested in the estate. So we don’t know whether Robert and Mary would have a way to solve an irreconcilable difference.

  14. The government, however, plans to install a newfangled gender-neutral primogeniture system for kings and queens, starting with the next generation. –> If we think that fairness should trump tradition, it brings the whole concept of royal and aristocratic titles into question.

    1. I’m not sure what you’re getting at, Chris, unless you are saying all royal and aristocratic titles should be abolished. I don’t see how this “newfangled” system has any bearing on a decision of that nature..

      The gender-neutral primogeniture system for kings and queens has been in operation in other countries’ monarchies for a while now. Great Britain’s adoption of a gender-neutral system is simply accepting how contemporary citizens in general feel about it. If anyone had been uneasy about a queen ruling Britain, their current monarch would have to dispel all doubts! Even if this system had been instituted before Elizabeth ascended the throne, males had been born first. Only if Princess Charlotte had been born before Prince George would it mean anything.

  15. MOVIE SPOILERS AHEAD…………
    How can Lady Bagshaw leave her estate to her “maid”? I thought wills and wishes were irrelevant; for example Downton Abbey could not be passed to the Crawley daughters.

    1. Good question, Jamie! The answer is that wills and wishes were only irrelevant if a the estate had an entail: the legal arrangement described in the post above. Lady Bagshaw’s does not.

      Not all estates were bound by the entail in the early 20th Century. In fact, it was relatively rare by then (and never common outside the aristocracy and gentry). Entails were created by wills or other legal grants, so however Lady Bagshaw got her estate, it wasn’t through an ancestor who imposed an entail. Downton Abbey, on the other hand, has an entail — thanks to a will from generations ago.

      The Downton Abbey Wiki says Lady Bagshaw’s estate (Brampton) once belonged to the Crawleys, and she inherited it from her father, who was Earl Robert’s great uncle. She apparently did not inherit a title with the estate, which isn’t surprising, since her father was the younger son of an earlier Earl of Grantham. It’s also unsurprising, then, that neither her father nor his predecessors attached an entail to the estate. As noted in the post above, entails were often used to link property to noble titles. The entail on Downon Abbey, for instance, ensures that whatever man inherits the real estate also inherits the title, Earl of Grantham. With no title, Lady Bagshaw’s family may have felt to need for an entail.

      BTW, Lady Bagshaw is described as a “Dowager Baroness,” but that’s just a coincidence, with no connection to her estate. “Dowager” means widow of a titled lord. Her deceased husband, then, held the title baron; it didn’t come with her estate.

      All in all, Lady Bagshaw is free to give her estate to whomever she likes. It’s just regular property, like yours or mine. (And her natural daughter seems a likely heir — in no small party, IMHO, because she’s such an ideal girlfriend for Tom.)

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