Question from Hope - Passing of estates to sons or wives
I have a question on inheritance laws. If a lord died would his estate pass to his wife or his eldest son? And if the wife wasn't the son's mother, would she be sent back to her family? Or stay with her stepson?
Each elite family handled this slightly differently.
During the marriage negotiations, dower rights were generally established. These provided for the woman should her husband pre-decease her. Frequently this included the use of property and house for her lifetime. SO, although the bulk of the estate was inherited by the eldest son, or daughter in the absence of sons, the mother was provided for in some fashion out of the estate she brought into the marriage or the estate of her spouse.
This was the case regardless of whether she was mother to the heir. Although widows without children generally had a smaller portion of dower rights from the estate.
The worst scenario was a clutch of dowagers of successive generations, all widowed young and living long overlapping lives: this nearly bankrupted the great Mowbray family, original Dukes of Norfolk, between about 1400 and the 1480’s.
The first Duchess, Elizabeth Fitzalan, became a widow and was awarded her ’widow’s third’, a phenomenal grant of property and income, for her lifetime. She soon took the late duke’s servant as her husband, with whom she had children, and lived on in splendour at Framlingham Castle marrying twice more and dying in her mid 60’s in 1425.
Her son, John Mowbray, the second duke, took back her portion into the main body of the family but then he died in 1432 at the age of 40, leaving his widow Katherine Neville aged about 30 and rich beyond belief. Katherine lived into her eighties during which time she attracted three further husbands, having children with the first of them, on whom she spent Mowbray money freely, to much criticism from some quarters. Katherine’s most notorious marriage was with Sir John Woodville when he was 20 and she 67.
Katherine’s widow’s entitlement was a blow to the family finances but worse was to come when her son, the third duke, died at 46 leaving a wife, Elizabeth Bourchier, to be provided for and then his son, the 4th and last duke, died at 32 leaving yet another, Elizabeth Talbot. In total these women were drawing the bulk of the income from the estates, and things got so desperate that adjustments had to be made from one to provide for another. With no male heir the dukedom became extinct in 1476, the fortune – what portion was left of it - going to the last duke’s only child Anne, Countess of Norfolk.
She was recognised by Edward IV as a potentially very wealthy woman, once all the dowagers had died and their various widows’ entitlements were brought back into the Mowbray estate, so five–year-old Anne Mowbray was married to his four-year-old son, Prince Richard in 1478, but it was not to be a happy ending. Anne died 4 years later in 1481, her husband and his brother vanished from the Tower in1483. This is also the last summer we hear of Katherine, who would have been about 83 at her passing; her daughter-in-law the third duchess was already deceased.
In 1483 the Mowbray Inheritance was divided between the elder sons of Isabel and Margaret Mowbray, daughters of the first duke; Margaret’s son John Howard was made Duke of Norfolk in a new creation and although he was killed at Bosworth, his family became one of the most powerful in Tudor England. Henry VII was not very sympathetic to the increasing plight of Elizabeth Talbot, the surviving Mowbray dowager, who, having no family to protect her widow’s rights, died in relative poverty (for her) in a nunnery.
If the wife was not the eldest son’s mother there were many difficulties, which can be demonstrated with this same family. An earlier Mowbray, John third Lord Mowbray lost his first wife, Joan Plantagenet, to the plague in 1349. By the time of his own death in 1361, also from plague, he had made a not very successful marriage with Elizabeth de Vere. She soon remarried and Joan’s son had to sue his stepmother and her husband for abuse of Mowbray property – including the felling and selling of 12,000 valuable trees without permission. Some of these widowed women who had no blood link with the noble family must have been a real thorn in the side.
I am updating a book I wrote on this family and would be grateful if anyone has any information to share on the remarkable, yet mysterious, Katherine Neville, Duchess of Norfolk.
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