The Sassy Countess is a blog about historic houses, properties, castles, estates, mansions, homes, land, and lifestyles! Focusing mostly on 18th century, other time periods are also included, such as Regency, Golden Age, Gilded Age, Victorian, American Post and Antebellum, Romantic, Jacksonian, Medieval, Renaissance, Edwardian, New Republic, etc.
Primogeniture had been a
part of Europe’s history long before England felt its pull. Truthfully the
eldest son of the Celts had held a special position simply because they had
been oldest first and had been able to test themselves before the younger
siblings. This had not been the case of the ancient Britons. All children of
the Britons had held equal privilege and authority. In fact, many times the
youngest son received special treatment and had received the principal
household, titles, and belongings of his father.
The laws of equal treatment had also been true of the Saxons and Danes, with
the exception of royal inheritances. The favoritism of the eldest son came to
the Englishmen with the Norman Law and William the Conqueror.
The eighteenth century
Englishman held his public identity by his birth and social rank.
Traditionally English gentility went as far back into antiquity as was recorded
for each family. The eldest
had been esteemed “to the great delight of mother”.
Social rank of the parent fell directly upon the children, especially the
eldest son. However, a man could have created his own destiny and further his
own position within society. It was part of the Englishman’s repertoire to
continually dream of a greater destiny than that of his parent.
Englishmen of the 18th
century not only thought of their social rank as being part of destiny, it had
also been the fashion. Fashion, then as now, was a way to impress others.
Conforming to contemporary trends of society would have been used as a façade
to either “find or assume an identity by belonging or by the necessity of
following the requirements of … a role.”
The follower did this to try to fit within the noble groups rather than
expressing him or herself independently by allowing any child to inherit.
While this had certainly been law by this time, there still had been allowances
legally that would have permitted other children to inherit property had
fashion allowed it.
Fashion had been (and
still is) a very powerful regulator. Social norms, individual self-expression,
and even technology had influenced fashion. It was simply an outward sign to
display to society they had been worthy enough, to be a part of their group.
Even the Prince Regent, the later King George IV, fell to its power. He had
been virtually loved by no one until he became the fashion puppet of Beau
Brummell. Under the ultimate man of style he felt that he had become the
epitome of British manhood. What the king followed, others did also. It had
only been after years of flattery by others that George IV’s self-esteem grew
great enough that he could get rid of Brummel and replace himself as the
fashion scene’s new leader.
Another fashion of the
day had been to think the women just were not bright enough to take control of
the family, let alone the management of the great estates. They could not be in
charge because they were just too reckless. Women were the fairer sex, and just
did not have what it took to have any responsibility.
That may have been the official view, but that did not necessarily mean that
there were not girls that were loved, enough to become powerful women, or that
there were not women that actually did inherit.
Background on Why Primogeniture Was Instated
property has been a very important consideration for the British. The idea of
very expensive property falling into the hands of another person would have
been distressing for anyone. Property was the main point of pride for the
English. The pride of the societal rise of one family being owned by someone
less worthy was just one point of contention that precipitated the law of
primogeniture. Land had been important not just for mere agricultural
production, but also for independence, honor, riches, and even power.
property created a nation that coveted ground for themselves and their
families. The British believed it was “agriculture that gave a nation title to
its territory.” Having as
much property as possible allowed for the growth of more produce that not only
fed the owner’s family, it also created a surplus to sell to others. So, if a
man had wanted to be greater than he currently was, he simply gained more land.
more land was not necessarily easy. Gifts of estates were also given as gifts
by the monarch. To receive such a great reward, many people wanted to be as
close to their sovereign as was possible with the guise of showing their
loyalty to their liege and lord.
Cash alone, if purchased, procured acreage. Mortgages from banks were not in
existence for the purchase of property at this time in history. There were
loans to purchase realty, but friends and/or family gave them.
These kindred did hold mortgage to the property, and if the borrower defaulted,
the estate went to the lien holder.
Other ways of
acquiring estates had been by nefarious means. Because holding title to
profitable properties would allow the lien holder to gain property at only the
remainder of what was owed, there were many that lent out small sums with the
sole expectation of receiving said property at the earliest possible opportunity.
There had even been men, and women, that had prayed upon the weak in pocket
book, yet rich in real estate. Many a deed had been won at games of cards or
loans to card addicts.
An easier way of getting access to greater lands was to marry the woman that had
what was wanted.
unacceptable transfers of ownership were completed by dubious manner. Women
marrying down the social ladder brought men that ancestors would not have
approved of. These ancestors could be as close in relation as a parent or grandparent,
but they also may have been further back in time. Or, the property could have
been sold to someone that just rose up the social ladder himself. The idea of
ascending socially certainly was agreeable. Pride was worth acquiring, after
gained wealth and pride through many means. Merchants grew to be rich in the
city, and then moved purchased country estates to make themselves into a type
Legionaries were given farms in return for service to their country. They would
also trade treasures in for funding additional acreage.
Jealousy of station of life, as well as inheritance of such, perpetuated the
accumulation of gentleman farms by those of lower birth.
men wanted to raise himself, and his family higher. Englishmen dreamt of
destiny. The rules of society insisted that gentlemen had a sense of personal
honor that included an “active concern for the welfare of those beneath him.”
This, however, did not include allowing that man to move up to a station of
equality. The nobility “dreaded the ignorance and especially the selfishness
and brutality of the mass.”
a foothold within the nobility was the first step because Peerages were not for
Then each man wanted to move up the social sphere to higher position of the
aristocracy. It was difficult to begin at the higher levels, but men wanted to
be there. It was only landed-men that had the rights to become magistrates and
members of the burgess. Higher political aspirations had to come after long
periods of time and acquisitions of property.
The higher up the peer, the less appreciative he was of the lower accumulating
positions of grandeur.
of grandeur had also been observed in younger siblings. The eldest son believed
himself of higher worth than that of his brothers, and especially his sisters.
Women were obviously of lower quality and should never have tried to receive
the equal stature of her eldest brother. However, to have a younger brother
receive equal, more, or in some cases the entirety of the parental estate, had
become a point of contention in England.
The oldest son then made his case that the special treatment he had received
since birth should be continued, so that he received the entire property of his
held by illegitimate children also became a problem. Churchmen wanted to bring
bastard sons into the flock by having them legitimized.
If this were the case, then valuable property, titles and honor would go to the
natural son of any number of unacceptable women. Having children out of wedlock
was considered a necessary evil. However, that evil should not allow the fruits
of such a liaison to participate in the circumstances, or property, of his
of property was not only for the men. Women, too, held a strong connection to
their domiciles. Women loved their home because they felt safe, as well for its
intrinsic worth. Beauty was thought to have feminine value. Women wanted their
children to feel the same safety within their beautiful haven that they had felt.
So much of the lives of women had been centered in the great house, much more
than those of men.
Keeping their refuge in the ownership of their children, in perpetuity, would
have been an intoxicating thought for a woman who most likely was treated as
less worthy than her husband.
Background of the Law of the Eldest Son
Ancient peoples generally believed
the woman had the right of ownership. After all, it was the woman that gave
birth. Paternity of the child could not always be guaranteed. However, the
mother’s position could never be doubted. Therefore, positions of the mother
fell to the daughter.
Then there were cultures that allowed for the land and positions of the
patriarch to follow the son’s of their female relatives. Again, the role of the
man was not always confirmed. So, moving effects to the sibling’s offspring
assured that they stayed within the family line.
eldest son always displayed his own worth by following in his father’s
footsteps from the ancient sub-continental Asians.The prominence of primogeniture possibly had its origin from the
Hindu religion. This practice was that the eldest son inherited not only the
estate, but was also the only man that had the right to bear his father’s name.
If a man only had a daughter but that woman bore a son, that boy would then be
adopted by the mother’s father as his own child to carry the name. All
contentions were required to be set-aside after formal adoption proceedings,
because the law of adoption was final.
Many ancient societies believed the
necessity of having a son outstripped that of having daughters. If one did not
produce a male by procreation, then one was adopted. Because of marauding
enemies, and difficult farm labor, the males became higher sought after. A man
had to have an acknowledged son not only as a religious duty but also to
provide for him in his old age.
Not having a male son was “equivalent to eternal damnation.”
It was at the moment of birth that a discharge of debt to ancestors occurred.
The eldest son then became the man
to say prayers at the funeral pyre of his father. Slowly, the family unit moved
to incorporate that son into the position that his father held in the family.
He then became the patriarch, acting not only as a member of the family, but
having the same final say that his father held. When the whole became
individuals, the value of property moved to the firstborn male instead of
splitting between the masses. By the time of ancient Greece, the oldest began
to inherit the domicile as well as the family honor, solely by tradition of
position of birth.
Originally written for class at American Military University.
 King George IV, “Christ
Church, Oxford, October 1811”, 1811 in Bury, Charlotte Campbell, ed. The
Court of England under George IV.: Founded on a Diary Interspersed with Letters
Written by Queen Caroline and Various Other Distinguished Persons. (London:
Hastings House, 1896), 55. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=GLoBAAAAYAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=hindoo+palace+george+iv&ots=ljmHwzHfJk&sig=LzRdhQoYx4V_sahn39or9xRaBTQ#v=onepage&q=eldest&f=false.
(accessed June 26, 2012).
 John Stuart
Mill. “Liberalism Evaluated”. 1873. in “Modern History Sourcebook”, Fordham
University. Last modified August 1998.
http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/mod/1873jsmill.asp. (accessed July 8, 2012).