The historical oddities of the English aristocracy and the prevalence of medieval law certainly play their part.
Downton Abbey, like Upstairs Downstairs before it, is about the lives and dramas of an aristocratic family, at times mirrored by the lives and dramas of the downstairs service hierarchy. It is at once a show about masters and servants in the twilight of the British Empire before the First World War, and a show about individuals — upstairs and downstairs — who were born into certain positions in life and in these are trapped in a search for meaningful autonomy.
The central tension “upstairs” (aside from various love stories both up and down) concerns Lord and Lady Grantham, aristocratic land owners in the North of England and guardians of a great American fortune, searching for a suitable heir.
Despite three fine daughters, no son means no heir apparent. These girls, therefore, who are believed to have everything, are at real risk of losing it all. In this story, the personal choice of an ancestor combined with English law to leave these girls out of the inheritance entirely.
Why is land and a landed inheritance so important?
The land, with its tenants and other assorted income is what supports an aristocratic family, freeing them from having to work (à la middle class Matthew Crawley who once earned his living as an attorney), therefore keeping them firmly in society’s upper echelons.
Land ownership is both a source of real, immediate wealth, and as the ultimate symbol of aristocratic status, is also a source of future wealth for a family through generations.
In light of this, finding a way to keep land within the family becomes an all-important, all-consuming mission.
What is an entail? And what is this family’s specific arrangement?
In English common law, entail is an estate of inheritance in real property which cannot be sold, devised by will, or otherwise alienated by the owner, but which passes by law to the owner’s heirs upon his death.
What this means, however, is that the present occupant, in this case Lord Grantham, is simply a custodian for future generations, not an outright owner, and he cannot therefore change the terms of the entail written by his forefathers – in other words, he personally cannot decide upon whom to bestow his property.
In addition to having no power to include his daughters in the inheritance, Lord Grantham’s father also managed to tie up the funds from his son’s marriage to Cora so that they cannot be passed down to Robert and Cora’s daughters, but instead must go, along with the title and the estate, to a male heir.
What next then?
The girls must be married regardless, but ideally the eldest daughter, Lady Mary, would marry the next in line to the Downton Estate in order to stay in the house and share in the inheritance — hence the ‘will they? won’t they?’ drama between Lady Mary and heir presumptive Matthew Crawley.
If Mary is not married to the heir, she and her sisters stand to lose it all. This is where the hushed talk of breaking the entail comes in. The idea here would be to separate Lady Grantham’s money from the building and lands of Downton Abbey, in order for her daughters to retain the inheritance their mother brought into the marriage.
But herein is another difficultly: according to Blackstone’s legal commentaries (Commentaries on the Laws of England) written in the 1760s, “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband . . .”
The only way a woman’s inheritance could remain her own is if it were to be fenced off by means of a trust or other legal document. It is this “loophole” that the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Lady Grantham are trying to find.
Even if this were possible, the land would still pass to the male heir but the money to maintain the house and land would pass to the daughters. With no money to pay for the upkeep of the land, all might still be lost if the heir is forced to sell off the estate in total or in part. If this were to be the eventuality, the very fate of this aristocratic family, dependent on land ownership, would be put in danger.
The unequal law of primogeniture therefore, seeks to keep estates, and by extension, aristocratic families, intact.
Still, change is coming. The First World war will soften class distinctions, continuing the erosion of the aristocracy, but as the Dowager Countess tellingly explains to Lord Grantham, the aristocracy did not survive this long by immobility and total opposition to change.
- The Downton Abbey entail…(obiterj.blogspot.com)
- Peers ‘should end Downton Abbey-style succession rules’ (bbc.co.uk)
- Why Everyone in the Universe Should Watch Downton Abbey (gawker.com)