What does it mean when an estate is “entailed”?

Pride and Prejudice, Downton Abbey, and countless other period pieces use an entailed estate as a key plot element.

But what is an entailed estate?

Simply stated, an entailment meant that the estate had to be inherited by a male. For example, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet had five daughters. No sons. Therefore the estate passed to the closest male heir.

(For more on finding the closest male heir, look at this post.)

In order for an estate to be entailed, one of two scenarios had to happen.

SCENARIO ONE

The possessor of the land didn’t own the property outright. Many years prior, an ancestor of his had been granted the ability to live on it as if it were his own, but since he didn’t own it, he couldn’t will it to whomever he wished.

This granting of land had restrictions on transfer. There were several types of restrictions that could have been placed on the land. Sometimes it was stated that it could only pass to his biological children. Other times, as in the case of P&P and Downton Abbey it was restricted to male biological heirs.

With enough time and money, this could be avoided through legal loopholes that had become common practice by the Regency.

SCENARIO TWO

The property is owned outright, but the somewhere down the line, the estate had been willed as a “life estate”. This meant the male heir had ownership for his lifetime, but he couldn’t sell it because once he was dead, it was already willed to his next male heir.

This is likely the type of scenario that causes problems for our Regency heros and heroines because it was very difficult to get around.

So not all land was entailed and not all land had to go to the first male heir. If there were no restrictions and a man (or woman) owned the property outright, they could will it to whomever they wished whether son, daughter, brother, cousin, or servant.

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