Part two of this post series on the entail describes how the device was used to preserve a family’s physical assets–land and monies. Ordinarily, an individual would have the power to divide, mortgage, sell or even blow his or her inheritance. A safeguard against spendthrifts, the entail held a property in trust for future generations of the family.
The entail makes for great drama particularly when it allows only males to inherit. Something as important to a family–like a castle or a country seat (not to mention a hereditary dignity)–might be absorbed into another family when its heiress marries. To prevent this from happening, an entail could restrict inheritance to the male line only, thus preserving the historical link between a family’s surname and its legacy.
An awkward transition occurs when there is no direct male heir. Or there is one, but Papa has left dependents from a second marriage. Daughters are particularly vulnerable when they have no close male relative to inherit and thus be inclined to shelter them. Females without such protection occupy the entailed family home on borrowed time. They are at the mercy of a distant male heir. He could expel them at will upon taking possession of his inheritance.
Many families, however noble, eventually run into a cash crunch. This can be particularly painful when your asset portfolio is historically made up of illiquid assets, like large chunks of land. But when conveyance is restricted by an entail–that too poses an awkward circumstance when pockets are to let.
If the future heir can be persuaded to part with his claim, however, the entail can be broken.
Two branches of the illustrious Pitt family were endowed with considerable estates and fortunes–the barons of Camelford and the earls of Stanhope. Individuals from both attempted to dissolve the entails protecting their families’ legacies, but for different reasons.
The last Lord Camelford, Thomas Pitt, was half-mad and wholly dangerous. The subject of a past post in this blog, he had no intention of marrying and having children. Nevertheless, he was determined to make sure his estates and fortune went to his sister, to whom he was devoted.
According to his cousin, the formidable Lady Hester Stanhope, Lord Camelford paid fifty thousand pounds to break the entail holding the Camelford estates and fortune in trust for the next male heir. The arrangement must have paid off this individual in exchange for the surrender of his future interest in the inheritance. I haven’t yet discovered the identity of this person. He was most likely a distant male cousin, like Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice.
He might have even been the earl of Stanhope, whose money problems will be examined shortly.
The effect of Lord Camelford’s bargain allowed his closest relative, a female, to inherit. So when he was killed in a duel, his very pretty sister Anne Pitt inherited not only his fortune, which was considerable, but also the London residence, Camelford House, and the family’s fabulous Cornwall estate of Boconnoc.
The aforementioned Earl of Stanhope, Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope, was also a Pitt through his mother. He had several children, including Lady Hester. All the Stanhope estates and fortune were entailed to his heir, a boy still in his minority when Papa ran into financial difficulties (again).
According to Hester, her father held her brother prisoner at the family’s country seat. Young Philip Henry would be released at twenty-one years of age, but on one condition. He must give up his future inheritance to Papa, and release all future claims and rights to the earldom’s estates and fortune.
It was a deplorable circumstance that proved an embarrassment to his cousin, the prime minister, William Pitt the Younger.
Hester foiled her father’s plan by helping her brother to escape. She died penniless, but managed to save the Stanhope legacy for future earls.
*This blog post deals with English law as it was during the Regency. Not as it stands today. Secondly, this blog post is not intended as legal advice. There are generalities being made here–every circumstance warrants a fresh analysis not possible in this format.