The widow’s third, Borough English and Shakespeare’s bed

I’ve been looking at old wills this week, and thought I’d share a few thoughts with you.

We often think when we can’t find a will “Oh, they can’t have had much to leave.”  But this isn’t always the case.

Firstly, it’s worth bearing in mind that right up until the Married Women’s Property Act  1882, a married woman did not have the right to have property in her own name: on marriage all her possession automatically became her husband’s. A married woman could not therefore make a valid will.  Once widowed, of course, this rule ceased to apply: but many men left their widows only a life interest in property, specifying that on her death the property should revert to – for example – a son or sons. Therefore even a widow might not be able to make a valid will.

If a husband died intestate, then one-third of his estate automatically devolved on his widow:  this is know as “Dower” *and sometimes referred to as “the widow’s third” and was not abolished until the Dower Act 1833.

Where there was no will, the heir to a property was  often – but not always – the eldest son (or daughter where there was no son). .  But in many areas of England, the system of ‘borough English” – by which the estate passed undivided to the youngest child – prevailed. So,  it’s always worth checking whether this applies.  Borough English was not abolished until the Administration of Estates Act 1925.

Shakespeare’s will (no pun intended) left his “second best bed” to his widow Anne, which seems rather mean.  But in Tudor times, a bed – and all its attendant linen and hangings – was in all probability the most valuable item a family possessed. “Second best” here indicates a guest bed – and these were often finer than the bed which husband and wife regularly slept in.  So Will Shakespeare wasn’t as mean as he’s often judged to be.

And finally: if you’ve ever looked at a grant of probate, you may have looked at the total value of the estate and come to the conclusion that the dear departed doesn’t seem to have been worth very much.  Until 1896, the value of “real property” wasn’t taken into account when evaluating the estate – and real property includes copyhold and freehold property. So a house, or business premises, providing that they were owned and not rented, fell outside the value of the legal estate.


About kate

Experienced genealogist but virgin blogger...
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