Small Navigation Menu

Primary Menu

Women in court: the property rights of brides, heiresses and widows in thirteenth-century England

Citation: Lu, Shengyen (2018) Women in court: the property rights of brides, heiresses and widows in thirteenth-century England. Doctoral thesis, University of London.

Shengyen's PhD Thesis.pdf

Creative Commons: Attribution-No Derivative Works 4.0

The research targets women in court – those who were frequently recorded in legal documents managing or protecting their property rights. The main concern is the change and development of the legal status and property rights of women, namely hereditas (inheritance), maritagium (marriage portion) and dos (dower) from the end of the twelfth century to the thirteenth century in England, and how they strove for their rights in court. While the thirteenth century is significant in England for the crucial development of the common law, the evolving common law also enacted a few prominent pieces of legislation which had huge impacts for women’s property rights. A number of important questions should be addressed at this point - How did women strive for their rights and what difficulties did they encounter in court? What strategies and claims did they and their representatives use in court in order to cope with the new regulations? Also, in a rather primitive age, what was the gap between the law and practice? While recent scholarship has paid more attention to medieval English women’s property rights, very few works compare the differences between inheritance, maritagium and dower and the dynamics between them in thirteenth-century England, which is the focus of this research. Through case studies, I will examine women’s experiences of pursuing their property rights in court in order to elucidate the effects which the legislation brought, and what difficulties they might have encountered in court. The research uses case studies of women’s experiences not merely covering noblewomen but also wider groups of women in society, and by looking at court cases I aim to create a more comprehensive picture of medieval women’s property rights. More importantly, despite the focus in this research on women, it is impossible to discuss women without either putting them into the context of family or involving their menfolk; therefore, the research will not only discuss women’s participation in court but also the reactions of and dynamics among their family members when it came to property rights. Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 consist of the introduction, and historiography methodology respectively. Chapter 3 will primarily examine heiresses. Unlike the male heir, who, according to custom, inherited the whole of the father’s inheritance (primogeniture), most daughters inherited by means of an equal division of the property. The equal division of inheritance between daughters makes the cooperation and conflict between them worthy of discussion, and this will be one of the focuses of this chapter. Through examining the dynamics between co-heiresses and their family members, this chapter will also explore the difficulties heiresses encountered when claiming their inheritance. Chapter 4 discusses maritagium. This chapter will show that claiming a certain amount of land as maritagium was a strategy often used by both plaintiff and defendant. However, the strategy as such would be of more benefit to women in courts. Next, Claire de Trafford’s idea of ‘maritagium as women’s land’ will be challenged, since maritagia in most cases served as families’ property. This study suggests that, maritagium was easily disposed of during the marriage, rather than a woman being able to keep it intact for it to descend to her children; and the idea of ‘maritagium being women’s land’ could be misleading, because there was no social consciousness to suggest that maritagia should be passed on to women’s daughters as their maritagia. In Chapter 5 this study will reach the final stages of women’s lives – widowhood. Although the common law stipulated that widows were entitled to either a nominated dower, or one third of their late husbands’ property, claiming their dower in court, in fact, was a difficult task for widows to accomplish. These rights were reluctantly documented in law, thus offering no guarantee that they would be received, unconditionally, when they survived their husbands. This chapter will also show that dower was as much ‘family’s business’ as ‘women’s business’. The early development of jointure will be briefly examined as well because it not only concerned women’s dower. Finally, the rights of the most powerful group of women, widowed heiresses, will be looked at. Through case studies, I hope to offer a glimpse of how capable, influential, but vulnerable widowed heiresses could be. This study will conclude by comparing the property rights of heiresses, brides and widows. Dower might have been the only property that a woman could have sole control over, but the significance of inheritance and maritagium should not be underestimated. I shall clarify their position by exploring the differences and similarities between herediatas, maritagium and dos as the common law developed.

Creators: Lu, Shengyen and
Subjects: History
Keywords: Women Property rights Medieval England England, 13th century widows heiresses brides
Divisions: Institute of Historical Research
Collections: Thesis
Theses and Dissertations
  • September 2018 (completed)


View details