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How heiresses pass on titles - or don't

It is very rare these days for heiresses to pass on titles. But up till 1500 or so, if a father was a peer, then his title was passed on through his daughters. In Scotland even, many titles just went to the eldest daughter if there were no sons.

While ladies undoubtedly held titles in their own right throughout the middle ages, there was not a lot they could do with them. To the best of my knowledge there is no record of any lady baron or earl (baroness or countess) ever sitting in parliament. While I know of one who was summoned for war service, I do not think they were expected to fight.

In fact the practice was that the husband got the title. The husband would sit in parliament; the husband would go to battle with knights and men from his wife's property. The husband would deal with most legal disputes - and would probably also collect the rent. There was a Latin tag for this "de jure uxor", by the right of the wife.

But not all heiresses inherited titles; titles were pretty rare in the first place, possibly only a 100 or so peers in the middle ages. And they only inherited titles that their husband could use if they were the sole heir.

if there were two of more daughters to a baron (earls were slightly different) then that title went into abeyance until a sole heir appeared. That is, no-one held that title.

With the attrition of child deaths in the middle ages, most titles either found a sole heir fairly soon or they died out altogether. Later on the practice developed of the sovereign deciding which one of the heirs should take the title, usually after some special appeal to them and most likely after some heavy greasing of palms.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries the sport of claiming very ancient baronies, sometimes as much as five hundred years in abeyance, developed into a fine art with, probably, thousands of pounds spent on legal fees to establish the claim. Then in the 1920s an axe was put on the worst of this and severe limitations made on the baronies that could be claimed.

For earldoms, while it is evident that sole heiresses received and passed on those titles, there is no evidence that the titles went into abeyance, the contrary even. The reason was that earldoms were an important part of medieval government and had to have the office filled.

In Tudor times, all this changed and almost every new peerage from then on was created with the explicit condition that it should descend only in the male line. So heiresses to titles and abeyances of baronies only remained for those peerages that had been created before Tudor times.

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