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Inheritance, Endowments and the Widows Portion

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The widow’s portion is to some degree a question of just how far you want to go down the road of King Arthur Pendragon: Exciting Adventures in Medieval Litigation and the Development of the Common Law.    In the real world, there were a lot of court cases about dower (what this is called in law) — there were, I believe, cases where mothers ended up suing their sons for not giving them what they were entitled to. 

I’m not an expert, but I’ve looked into this a bit.  Some thoughts:-

- There isn’t a commercial market in “knightly real estate” as such.  In principle, I believe you can alienate land held by knight service, but as you’re still liable for the knight service, you’re not likely to do so to any significant extent.   The instinct, I think, was always to amass land, not to alienate it unless in truly desperate circumstances.  Endowments are the main exception, and those are obviously about the care of your immortal soul.

There are plenty of instances of people paying kings to make them baron of such-and-such, though, and I’m sure that such things also happened at lower levels of the hierarchy.  But it would be a large sum of money, and involve loyalty, politics etc. —this is an enormous favor, and one always wants to ask why it’s not going to some deserving household knight or somesuch.  Cf. heiresses (a more normal way to acquire land).

As it happens, the law of dower discouraged the development of a market in landed property, even where the land was held by fee simple (no service).  The wife doesn’t get 1/3 of what the husband has at the time of his death — she gets 1/3 of whatever he had at any point during the marriage, even if he has sold or given it to someone else.  This prevents obvious dodges such as giving your property to your brother before you die to prevent your wife getting her dower.  Heirs were expected to compensate buyers for this after the death of the seller, so a husband would be directly damaging his heir if he alienated property to which his wife had a claim.  

On the whole, the heir is more likely to look for other ways to supplement his income, such as marrying well (since the main effect is to make it difficult for him to support a wife and children, a dowry is the natural thing that might compensate), office, plunder, winning tournaments, adding improvements, etc.

-In reality, of course, the heir is often the son of the widow, and she will go on living in the manor with him after his father’s death.  In fact, she has a right to do so (freebench), although it varied from place to place for how long she could do so, and exactly how it worked, whether it terminated if she remarried, etc.  In such cases,  though, you can probably forget about the dower — she might be getting separate income, but in practice it’s all going into the “Family” pot in the abstract and standardized £10 manor.  (Part of why this is all a bit wacky is that in the real world, manors were obviously not standardized at all.)    

In some places, I believe that freebench and dower were mutually exclusive — the widow did not get 1/3 unless she left the household (most often to remarry, I imagine).  If you adopt that, this will not come up in situations in which a mother is continuing to live with the son and heir. 

- Pendragon describes the developed position in the common law, pretty much.  But unsurprisingly, in the real world it was more complicated.  Local customs varied — and courts could regard local custom as having the force of law.  For instance, in Salford, freebench seems to have been the entirety of a widow’s rights, and there was no dower.  In Bristol, you could at least make a case quite late (16th century) that dower only applied to what the husband had at the time of the marriage, not any subsequent acquisitions.  In Lincoln, there was a custom that the dower only consisted of land that the husband held at the time of his death, not at any time during the marriage.  I’m not sure how many of those specific examples are known definitely to be medieval, but they give the general picture.  Early on, there were, I believe, cases where dower was only so long as the wife remained chaste and unmarried, although this is not the way it worked in the law as it eventually developed.

So if this really bothers you, you can just declare that “The custom of Salisbury [or wherever] is [like Salford].”  

As with manors, there should “realistically” be more local variation in Pendragon in general — if a GM and their players want that headache!  (And medieval England is comparatively *standardized* compared to the continent...)

-  If you really want to complicate this, though, as far as this sort of thing goes, Pendragon tends to default to the later common law — it’s the equivalent of how it would be if the game picked one period for military technology.  You could instead have the game change the legal position of widows to match how the law developed in reality.  

Approximately — the following simplifies things a bit, even from my non-expert perspective.  Someone who really knows their way around this would probably find it very oversimplified.  But it’s about right.

  •  Uther/Anarchy:  Equivalent to the 11th century.  There is no hard-and-fast rule.  A lord is expected to see to it that a widow receives some reasonable proportion of her husband’s lands to support her and her children, but the lord decides what is reasonable.  
  • Boy King/Conquest: Equivalent to the 12th century.  Dower develops, and before the end of the Conquest period is firmly established as a common law rule.  It applies only to the land that the husband had at the time of marriage, not any later acquisitions.  Husbands can decide at the time of marriage what their wife will get at their deaths, but the wife can also go to law to claim her common law dower.
  • Romance Period/Tournament: Equivalent to the 13th-early 14th centuries.  The widow’s rights expand.  By the end of the Romance Period, the dower comprises 1/3 of any lands that the husband had at any time during the marriage and that her children by him could inherit.  This remains standard throughout the Tournament period.
  • Grail/Twilight Periods: Equivalent to the mid-14th through 15th centuries.  Legal ways for husbands to get around dower, such as jointure and use (see below), become common and although in law the widow’s position remains the same, in practice the widow’s rights diminish somewhat.

Jointure: Jointure is where, as part of the marriage settlement, a portion of lands is set aside to be jointly held by both husband and wife and to go to the spouse who outlives the other — as an alternative to dower.  In law, a widow (before 1536) could always reject this and claim her common law dower instead.  But obviously that involves going to law to enforce her rights, and litigation is time-consuming, expensive, and uncertain.  One author I looked at indicated that by about 1400 (beginning of the Twilight period) jointure was being treated as superseding dower, effectively if not in legal theory, and that as a result many widows were getting less than the “reasonable third” to which they were in law entitled.  

Use:  Use was a situation where one granted land to someone else in return for them letting you retain the practically advantageous rights associated with it.  Effectively, the grantor was in the position of the owner, but technically, it was the people to whom he had granted the land who owned it.  This could be used as a dodge to get out of various obligations, including dower.  If a husband had done this before marrying, the land was effectively his, but as he was not in law the person who was holding it, his wife had no claim on it after his death.

Edited by Voord 99
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18 hours ago, dvdmacateer said:

If  a £10 manor is passed on isn't the recipient out  of pocket since the £10 is reduced by the Widow's portion and endowments etc? Can land be bought? I looked through the various supplements and haven't found anyway of doings so.  

Well, you could cut out the knight's discretionary budget unless he makes savings elsewhere, but honestly I wouldn't worry about it for player knights (unless the player is interested in tracking these details).

That said, here are a few scenarios for a £10 BoE manor and a widow with standard £3.5 dower:

  • The heir inherits the manor and his mother is still alive. She stays on to manage his household until he is married ('freebench', as Voord mentioned). Her widow's portion remains within the manorial budget, and they don't need a steward, so there is no net gain or loss.
  • The heir has inherited the manor and found a wife. His mother is still alive and living with them. Her widow's portion remains within the manorial budget, but technically the manor now has to support two ladies instead of one. That's a loss of £1 (assuming they share one lady's maid), so no discretionary income unless they make savings elsewhere. My general assumption for ease of tracking is that either the manor foregoes a chaplain (£1), or the motherly advice and help around the house makes up domestic savings to cover the loss.*
  • The heir has inherited the manor and found a wife. His mother remarries and goes to live with her new husband. She now claims her widow's portion of £3.5, but that includes servitium debitum obligation of £1.5, so the manorial budget is down by £2. Assuming £1 savings as above, the heir now loses his discretionary income. If he's on good terms with his mother and her new husband, he might be able to get £.5 or £1 back (e.g. in gifts for her grandchildren). Maybe his friends help out a little, and/or his lord gives him a bit extra in Christmas gifts, so there's room to say it all balances out if you want to.

One wrinkle on the above: I'm assuming the heir has younger siblings who are taking up the £1 allotted for children in BoE. If the heir is an only child and has no other dependents, he will be saving £1 until he has children of his own. (EDIT: BoEnt says the widow's portion is 'to support herself and her children, if any'. This might mean children of the second marriage etc., but maybe it's room to argue that some of the £3.5 comes back to the manor to support her other children.)

*For savings, there is also the option of having the ladies put some of their personal production back into the manorial budget. This is from some of Greg Stafford's rules on his old website, mainly intended for player ladies, that I think didn't make it into recent books -- noble ladies roll Industry in winter phase, success gains £1 income, critical gains £2.

Some knights might go to the law courts to get out of paying a widow her dues. There's a litigation process in BoW, pages 76-7.

Also, I don't know if this is historically accurate, but I'm thinking that a widow who enters a nunnery loses her widow's portion. (EDIT: I think in real history the dower might tend to go to the nunnery, but you could say it doesn't work out like that in all cases to cover this shortfall.)

Edited by Uqbarian
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21 hours ago, dvdmacateer said:

Can land be bought? I looked through the various supplements and haven't found anyway of doings so.  

No. Not during Uther's reign. Nobles are not commoners. You don't sell your lands.

During the Anarchy, everything is possible, but usually, it's cheaper to take the land by force.

During the last years of the reign of Arthur (Tournament Era, I believe), it's rare but possible. In the third edition, the cost of a simple manor (ie 10 £ in the modern rules) was 50 £, if I remember correctly.

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  • 4 weeks later...
On 3/28/2021 at 9:57 PM, dvdmacateer said:

Can land be bought? 

In short, no, land cannot be bought in the Feudal era.  Land is a Holy Trust, placed in the hands of the Monarch as the representative of God on Earth, and apportioned to his followers according to their merit and their birthright as the King in his wisdom sees fit.

Land ownership is a matter of inheritance. Land however can be conquered.  Occasionally nobles who fall into financial hardships must "sell" land, but this is inevitably forfeit to their creditors, and is often subject to compulsory re-acquisition by the crown in return for hard cash to the creditor via the royal privilege managed through the cities.  This is a shameful occasion and generally a matter for the Exchequer to handle quietly, as it demonstrates the fragility of the institutions of Feudalism, and thus undermines the public trust and weal.

If new lands are conquered, then there is a good chance that the King will apportion new land to his followers.  Typically Kings kept the cities as their domains across Europe, though some were the property of the Church, and occasionally the estates of lesser nobles than kings.

Now a high noble like a Duke will probably have plenty of land, and as such will have knights who own manors that sit on 300-400 acres, and a few Vassals who own multiple Manors. 

An important part of the feudal mindset which operates over who gets what land is the notion of Sub-Enfeudation.  This is the process whereby various nobles, starting with the King, take on vassals.  A lord owes protection to his vassals, but also holds the power of law and feudal duty over them.  A vassal is expected to pay certain special and occasional taxes to their lord (such as getting him out of debt), but primarily owes them loyalty and military service.  Most nobles within this system get their land from their lord, but their lord has a lord, and so forth up to the king.  Should a knight fail to present for war when called, they are expected to pay a tax called scutage, which provides a sum fit to hire a mercenary knight to take their place for the campaigning season.  Failure to either show up for the war or pay scutage constitutes a failure of feudal duty, and can see the Lord strip his vassal of his land in extreme conditions.  This potentially means that a new manor house is available for a lord to apportion to a new vassal.

Anyone can potentially reward another person with land that they own, but they cannot sell it. 

People of non-noble birth who are given land are generally viewed as "parvenues" (interlopers on noble privilege) by the existing nobility, and are bastardized appallingly.  The second generation are not treated this way, and it is considered that if the lineage of a parvenue has survived, that they are then accepted.

It is also perfectly acceptable for a father to provide for his offspring by giving each a manor house as an inheritance.  This is especially important to daughters as it serves as the major part of their dowry, and cannot be taken from them by their husband even if their marriage fails.  The husband in such an arrangement technically has access to the funds, but the wife has legal oversight, and can choose to separate her estate (with church approval), from an unreliable husband.  The chances of this increase dramatically if the wife chooses to become a nun and promise her land to the church once she dies.

 Land is not viewed as a commodity in the Medieval Mind.  It cannot be bought and sold.  It is a holy thing, gifted by God to Man.  It can only be "bought" with bloodshed, as it must be won, in this time as it was in the times of King David.

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It was a bit more complicated than that.  There is plenty of buying and selling land in England in the later middle ages.  

Technically, it’s not buying and selling the land itself, which in England (the continent is different) belongs to the crown — it’s buying and selling estates in the land.  But in practice, it’s pretty much the same thing.  

It’s land held by fee simple, though, not the kind of land held by knight service with which PKs are typically concerned.  That being said, I believe that people by the 13th century could conceive of even land held per baronium as something that they could sell, because the king’s tenants in chief were doing so and the king had to issue an ordinance banning the practice and directing his sheriffs to seize all such land.

EDIT: Looked into this a bit more, and nailed down the dates a bit.  People are certainly trying to sell lands held by knight service (or by serjeantry, which encompasses a wide range of different kinds of service) by 1217, because that appears to be the first evidence for the king trying to restrict it (by forbidding the alienation of lands where that would interfere with the seller carrying out their obligations).

Edited by Voord 99
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