Downton Abbey Revisited: What Mary Owns, and Baby George Crawley

by | Jan 9, 2014 | The Recent Modern Age

[SPOILER ALERT: Details below from Downton Abbey Season 3 + Ep. 1, Season 4.] In a post last year, I explained The Entail, Primogeniture, and Why Matthew Inherits Downton Abbey. But the intricacies of noble (and royal) inheritance never end, and Downton Abbey’s fourth season raised new questions. During Season 3, Matthew invested some money in Downton Abbey, and in exchange, Lord Robert gave him half ownership. So what happens to Matthew’s half interest now that he’s dead?

Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle

Downton Abbey (in real life, Highclere Castle)

The answer starts with Robert. He doesn’t own Downton Abbey the way most people own real estate. Most people own real estate in “fee simple,” which means they can sell it, permanently. But because of the entail (as explained in the earlier post), Lord Robert only owns a “life estate” in Downton Abbey. The property automatically passes on to his entail-chosen heir when he dies, so all he can sell is ownership during his own lifetime. In other words, if Robert sells all his rights to Joe Schmoe, Joe owns Downton Abbey during Robert’s life. When Robert dies, Joe’s ownership ends, as Downton transfers to Robert’s entail-chosen heir. (By the way, Robert can’t sell his title, Earl of Grantham.)

So when Robert sold Matthew a half interest in Downton, he was really selling a half interest in his life estate. Matthew’s rights would end on Robert’s death, as the property transfers to Robert’s entail-chosen heir. That was a originally a technicality, since Matthew himself was the heir. The deal just gave him some control over Downton a bit early (and also rescued the estate from financial ruin). But with Matthew’s death, his ownership transfers to his own heir — and there’s no ancient entail or other restriction on Matthew’s recently purchased rights. Whoever inherits from Matthew, through garden-variety inheritance rules, gets exactly what Matthew himself owned: a half interest in Downton Abbey that continues until Lord Robert dies.

coronet, British Earl

Coronet of a British Earl, like Downton’s Lord Robert

So who inherits from Matthew? If it’s his widow Mary, then for the remainder of Lord Robert’s life, Mary and Robert are half owners. If it’s Matthew and Mary’s baby, George, then the little guy becomes the half owner. In that case, George’s guardian would probably exercise his rights while he’s a minor. In the first episode of Season 4, we can’t tell who will become the guardian, Mary or Robert himself. But it doesn’t matter because, by the end, we learn that Matthew wrote a will leaving all his property to Mary. (I don’t know why a will was necessary. Even without one, the surviving spouse would generally inherit.)

Mary, then, shares half ownership of Downton Abbey with her father, Robert, so long as he lives. When Robert dies, all rights transfer to Baby George. Of course, if George is still a minor, Mary might then take full control as his guardian, until George grows up.

Baby George himself, of course, only gets a life estate in Downton Abbey. The entail continues …


© 2014 by David W. Tollen


  1. Sarah

    The correct title for Robert is not Earl Robert, nor Lord Robert. It’s Robert Crawley, earl of Grantham, the earl of Grantham or Lord Grantham.

  2. Darryl Yau

    I don’t understand how baby George will inherit the title from Robert now that Matthew is dead considering that Matthew never received the title from Robert. Upon Robert’s death, wouldn’t his title transfer to his next (cousin) in line ? Reasoning is similar to how Matthew received the money from Lavinia’s father over the heirs of the two other deceased heirs that were in line before him.

    • David Tollen

      Hi, Darryl. Matthew inherited from Lavinia’s father through a will. I don’t remember the terms of the will, but Lavinia’s father could create almost any system he wanted. Primogeniture and the entail weren’t involved.

      As for Baby George, primogeniture never cares whether your father or other ancestor actually inherited the title; only whether he was next in line to inherit. For instance, when King Edward III of England died, his title went to his grandson, Richard II (of Shakespeare fame), rather than to any of his surviving sons. Richard was the son of Edward’s first son (the Black Prince), who was already dead, and it didn’t matter that the first son never inherited the title. Richard was first in line after Edward because he was the first son of Edward’s deceased first son. So Richard became king.

      Another way to put it is that Baby George IS the next cousin in line.

  3. B.W. McEvers

    There is a thread somewhere concerning Downton Place. That’s where the Crawley family will go to live if they have to sell Downton Abbey. But, they can’t sell Downton Abbey so how does all that sort out?

  4. Anna

    Thank you for all this explanation – I now have a clear understanding of how all the entail properly worked, rather than my muddled understanding and, oh-well-it’s-good-TV-so-ignore-it attitude. But one thing that I want to understand before season 6 begins and 1925 rolls in is – when the laws of entail were abolished would that mean Mary becomes heiress after all – or does the destruction of entail only apply to *new* entails – i.e. would it mean that fee simple applies to George’s heir but not Robert’s? I’m a terrible googler and cannot seem to figure it out!

    • David Tollen

      Hi, Anna (and sorry for the slow reply). I don’t know the details of the law England used to outlaw the entail, but often those sorts of legal changes have no retroactive effect. So the law would only apply to the inheritance of heirs born after the effective date of the law. In that case, nothing would change for Mary or Baby George.

      But a solution like that would get complicated, so the legislature would have to think through all the complex permutations of primogeniture and address them. At least, ideally it would. That doesn’t necessarily mean Parliament did the job well.

  5. Koh Faycestealer

    i have wondered why they had the ability to sell it. this makes sense

  6. Margaret

    You said in this post, “Baby George himself, of course, only gets a life estate in Downton Abbey. The entail continues …”

    But in your earlier piece “The “Entail,” Primogeniture, and Why Matthew Inherits Downton Abbey” you said that “England outlawed the entail in 1925.” So the entail *doesn’t* continue. Season 6 ends in 1926, so, according to you, entails have ended.

    I’d be interested in seeing a post from you about the effect of the entail ending on the inheritance of the estate and if that had any impact on the life-interest that Mary now holds. For example, could she now leave some of that to her youngest child? Or, if it’s still only a life-interest, then could Robert leave the estate to whomever he wants to, including splitting it among his wife, children and grandchildren?



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