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  • Writer's picturecaitlyncallery9

Primogeniture. What if the heir couldn’t do the job?

Primogeniture is the right of the first born legitimate child to inherit their parent’s entire or main estate. In practise, this right was usually reserved for the first born legitimate male child.

The main aim of primogeniture was, of course, to keep estates undivided, so that their wealth and power was not diminished. Giving the inheritance to the first born male also made sense, historically, since males of the ruling classes were often powerful warriors, able to fight to protect their holdings, where women were, by and large, less able to do so.

Of course, primogeniture had many unintended consequences too: the poor treatment of female children who could be left destitute if their brothers weren't inclined to look after them; resentment and jealousy of younger brothers who got nothing; no checks and balances on a profligate heir who was not a good steward.

But what if the oldest male child, the heir, simply wasn't capable of taking on the responsibility thrust on him by accident of birth?

In “The Earl Pretender,” the first born legitimate male is Ben. Ben will, by right and by law, inherit his father's title, and all entailed lands and assets, along with any unentailed assets not willed elsewhere. But Ben has what we now know as Down’s Syndrome. He would find it very difficult to manage his estates and carry out his duties, not least because he would not necessarily command the respect of his employees, fellow peers, and society in general, in the same way an heir without a disability might have done.

Ben would have also found it difficult to manage his estates well. Innocent and overly trusting as he is, he would need protecting from those willing to prey on him.

So what was to be done to help and protect both him and the family?

1.       Theoretically, the crown could appoint a Regent for him. This would usually be a family member who could be appointed to take the reins instead of the actual peer. That was, indeed, how the crown dealt with the incapacitation of George III.

2.       If the heir was deemed unfit before the previous peer died, the crown could interfere and appoint a different heir to inherit in place of the first-born.

3.       However, the crown could also choose to withhold titles, lands and privileges from those who they saw as unfit to hold them. They had the right, for example, to leave the title in place but take control of everything else. While this was a power that was rarely used in practice, it was an ever present danger, and not one to be taken lightly.

During the Regency, the crown was always short of money. A combination of war with France, and with America, together with the Prince Regent’s extravagant lifestyle and inability to exercise restraint when it came to spending, meant that the Crown was always looking for ways to increase the money and assets available to them. Declaring a peer unfit to hold his lands and money, then confiscating those things, would have been a perfect way to enrich themselves.

This, in turn, made drawing attention to Ben's disability a risk for his family. If they did so, and the Crown chose to take control, the family stood to lose everything. But if they did not admit to the problem, they could not apply for a Regent to manage the estate on Ben's behalf.

It left families like Ben's in a quandary, wanting to do their best for both the person they loved, and for their estate and holdings, and all those whose lives and livelihoods depended upon it.

Privilege and wealth did not always make for an easy life.

The Earl Pretender is published on 19th June 2024 by The Wild Rose Press.

Stately Home: Lyme Park, Cheshire.

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