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The issues of entails, marriage settlements and dower are closely related to inheritance and marriage and potentially important in the selection of a mate.
The issue of parcener explains why daughters take the precedence of their eldest brothers and also why they inherit equally with each other unlike their brothers.
Under the common law, the right of inheritance of land held by military tenure (where the original holder of the title to the land owed his lord military service) belonged to the eldest son. If the son had died, but left children, then the younger brothers and sisters were skipped, and his eldest surviving son inherited. If he had no children, then the next eldest son inherited and so on.
But if there were no sons at all or if they had died without children, then all the daughters would inherit title to the land equally. This rule applied in every generation. Daughters were always preferred over uncles.
So, say John had three younger brothers Tom, Dick and Harry. If John had died before his parents, all land they held by military tenure in common law would descend to John's eldest son. If he left daughters only, Tom, Dick and Harry still would not inherit. Instead John's three daughters would all inherit equally between them (they were called parceners).
By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, marriage settlements, trusts and other methods of entailing land circumvented these common law rules (usually to the detriment of the daughters' estates--these entails almost always were designed to send the property intact to the uncles or male cousins instead of being split among the daughters).
Titles, of course, could not be shared, and often were specifically tied to male issue, but this sharing of the elder brother's status is a result of applying the parcener principle to a related situation.
An entail was a legal device used to prevent a landed property from being broken up, and/or from descending in a female line. This is a logical extension of the prevalent practise of leaving the bulk of one's wealth (particularly real estate) to one's eldest son or "heir".
Entailed property is usually inherited by male primogeniture, in more or less the same way as are most titles of nobility (i.e., by the nearest male-line descendant (son of son etc.) of the original owner of the estate or title, whose ancestry in each generation goes through the most senior line of descendants in existence). Entailment also prevents a father from disinheriting his eldest son. Women generally inherit only if there are no male-line heirs left, and if there is more than one sister, then they are all equal co-heiresses, rather than only the eldest inheriting.
Motivation for Entailing Property
In order to understand entails, the first thing to consider is the importance that ownership of land had. Ownership of land wasn't just an ornament to the family (in the way that a collection of paintings or a library might be considered an ornament). Land was what made a family part of the aristocracy or gentry. Ownership of land produced an income that was steady, predictable, and recurring. That income was what freed the family from the necessity to earn their living by daily effort. It freed them to secure and enjoy an education, to -- as they chose -- dabble in the arts and sciences, become involved in politics, or lead a life of idleness and refinement. This gave ownership of land a cachet that went beyond ownership of cash or movable goods. A landed estate was The Patrimony -- it conferred status in society, not just on one person for one generation, but on the family so long as it lasted.
This fact wasn't lost on members of the gentry and aristocracy. Nor were they blind to two real dangers that threaten a landed estate: dissipation by sale, if the head of the family at any point in time (a wastrel, say, or a foolish speculator) were to sell his land to raise funds, and then fritter away the sales proceeds; and subdivision (if an estate were divided equally between all sons or children over several generations, then a single Patrimony, sufficient to make its holder a gentleman and member of the gentry, becomes a multitude of smaller patrimonies that, individually, don't qualify his descendents for the same social status).
The result is that the whole family sinks into obscurity, which was held to be a bad thing. The answer to this problem is primogeniture among male heirs, which keeps The Patrimony itself intact and under the control of the head of the family in each generation -- though at the cost of unfairness to other surviving children of the family head.
If the family head dies without sons, then by operation of common law, the estate would be inherited equally by all the man's daughters. If there were several daughters, they each would inherit an equal share, and the subdivision problem occurs. But even if the head of the family died leaving only one daughter, the daughter almost surely will marry -- and at her death her heirs would be, presumably, the children she had with her husband. Which means that the patrimony of her maiden name ceases to exist, and becomes part of the estates of her husband. Nobody in the woman's line would consider the prospect of this to be a good thing, and so the answer was to make provision to extend primogeniture to the entire male line, not just to the male sons of a given holder of a landed estate.
Legal Notes on Entailment
It should be mentioned that entails had to be periodically renewed, and could be "broken" with the consent of a heir who has come of age.
If a man were to leave only daughters on his death, and there were no further patrilineal heirs lurking in the wings behind him, then technically, the estate would be broken up and shared equally by his daughters. However, in such a case, the man would generally recognize that he would most likely not have sons and could then petition the courts to have the entail broken in favor of one of his daughters, which would keep the estate from being subdivided, even though it would pass out of his family's patrimony when she married.
A 'marriage settlement' is a legal document that usually ensures that some or all of the dowry (property that the wife brings to the marriage) ultimately belongs to her, and will revert to her or her children (though she does not necessarily have personal control over it during her marriage) upon the death of her husband. It may include details of the Widow's Bed and any jointure she would be intitled to receive. A jointure is an annuity, an annual income, separate from the Widow's Bed, to be paid to the widow following her husband's death. The settlement can also specify a guaranteed minimum that the children of the marriage would inherit.
Essentially, a marriage settlement is an overall pre-marital agreement, largely but not necessarily exclusively financial, negotiated between the bride's family and the bridegroom or his family, and can be highly complicated, depending on the circumstances of the families involved.
Remember, marriage was largely, if not solely, a financial arrangement.
At common law, the right of dower guaranteed the wife 1/3 of her deceased husband's estate. A claim for dower was made when a husband died intestate, or sometimes as a form of contest against what a widow viewed as unfair terms of her deceased husband's written Will.
This should not be confused with the right of dower, as it was a separate provision of a marriage settlement, usually at least equal to the dowry of the bride. Traditionally this referred to an actual bed and all of its fittings and mourning linens. It later expanded to ensure provision for a widow's bed and board, following the death of her husband. If no specific sum was stipulated in the marriage settlement, then the dower would ensure that the widow was provided for, assuming that her husband was not himself destitute.
The benefit of stipulating a Widow's Bed in the terms of the marriage settlement was clear, when the couple was young, as it was often a far greater sum that 1/3 of the bridegroom's current net worth. It was, of course, hoped that the husband would, by the time of his death, be worth rather more, and that her actual inheritance would therefore meet or exceed the value of the Widow's Bed.
See Also Dowry
A dowry or 'marriage portion' was settled upon a woman by her own family upon her marriage. However, once given, the bride lost all control over it, as she and all that she owned were now the property of her husband (whether it be money (usually), land, jewels, or other items of value). An estate or land was often part of the dowry of a bride from a wealthy family, which was then stipulated as part of her Widow's Bed. This was a means of keeping assets within the family, even when one had daughters.
However, under certain circumstances, it was expected that the bridegroom or his family would return the dowry, such as if both husband and wife died, and there were no children from their union. It was also expected that the dowry would help to support the bride, should she become a widow. Failure of the bride's family to pay the agreed-upon dowry could result in the marriage being called off.