The New York Times recently published a story about momentous changes possibly coming to the hallowed British laws governing titles and property. The article is titled “Son and Heir? In Britain, Daughters Cry No Fair.” Royal heredity laws were recently changed to benefit the baby due soon to Prince William and Duchess Catherine. Boy or girl, the child will become third in line to the throne. (I’m thinking that fun-loving Prince Harry will not really mind giving up his place).
This raises questions for other families still under the laws of primogeniture: inheritance by males only. Only in the British Isles does this still happen. Most European countries have long since required parents to provide for all of their children, regardless of sex or birth order. But in the British Isles, titles and lands have been held together and preserved for families precisely because the oldest son almost always inherits, and no one else gets anything.
But the changes in royal inheritance law have emboldened other families to question the age-old way of doing things.
For example, Liza Campbell, pictured above, grew up on her family’s Scottish estate, complete with castle, knowing all the while that her younger brother would inherit it all. (There is still actually a Thane of Cawdor–he’s not just a character from Shakespeare’s MacBeth). Her father always told her, “Your face is your fortune”–meaning that it was up to her to marry well since there was nothing else coming to her.
Now, laws to allow the oldest child to inherit, whether male or female, are making their way through the British legal system. This means that both titles and lands could still be held together for a family, but having the all-important son would no longer be a requirement. In Downton Abbey terms, Lady Mary would just inherit the whole kit and kaboodle, and she could marry whomever she pleased.
The ultimate source on titles in Britain, Burke’s Peerage, still publishes the guide found on many a British bookshelf. Naturally, it’s now an interactive website, too. Founded in 1826, Burke’s Peerage also lists the genealogical history of all the royal families of Europe and the presidential families of the United States.
Only in Great Britain, though, do titles mean anything in a legal sense. Many Europeans use their hereditary titles, but they have no legal standing. And unless the person in question inherited the lands and estates that used to go along with the title, there is no income either. Of course, the “death tax” wreaks havoc on those lucky enough to actually inherit real estate as well as titles. Some people joke that royal titles in most of Europe are about as valuable as vanity license plates. In Britain, though, inheritance among the aristocracy still means something. So any change will have profound results. Whether there should even be heredity titles–or a monarchy–are subjects of another whole debate. Change comes slowly in a land as bound by tradition as Great Britain.
The article from The New York TImes is at
Join me next time for more explorations into the history of Europe and the British Isles!