Consanguinity and Affinity

Cheryl Bolen’s Note: The following by guest blogger Janna MacGregor first appeared in The Regency Reader and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

By Janna MacGregor  

In the first book of my Widow Rules series, A Duke in Time, a war hero duke falls in love with his stepbrother’s wife. Could he legally marry her? Under the Church of England’s rules of consanguinity and affinity, a brother couldn’t marry his brother’s widow. Nor could a sister marry her sister’s widower. Yet they could marry first cousins. 


Let’s take a look at a few brave couples who challenged the Church of England and the laws that stood in the way of their true love and happiness.


Way back in the day of merry ol’ England, the Church of England had pretty strict rules of who could marry whom, particularly as it related to family. Let’s get some definitions out of the way to make this a little easier to understand. 


Consanguinity basically means two people are related by blood relation and that they share common ancestors. Affinity is a relationship by marriage.


When people married in violation of the Church of England’s prohibition of consanguinity or affinity, the marriages were either void or voidable. If a marriage is void, it’s invalid and illegal. End of story. Any children born of such union were illegitimate. 


If a marriage is voidable, then it’s valid. However, it could be annulled if an interested party successfully challenged the marriage while the husband and wife were still alive. 


 Let’s talk specifics. You could marry your cousin. In Pride and Prejudice, that was why Lady Catherine De Bourgh clearly circled the wagons around her nephew Fitzwilliam Darcy and encouraged him to marry her daughter, Darcy’s cousin, instead of Elizabeth Bennett. Darcy’s marriage to his cousin would have ensured that his lovely home and wealth would stay within the family. Heck, even King George IV, the former Prince Regent, married his first cousin, Queen Caroline. We all know how that turned out. They couldn’t stand one another. 


Do I hear any “ewws?” I can’t imagine marrying any of my cousins, but it happened all the time during the Regency. Marrying within the family was a way of keeping the hard-earned wealth intact. However, the laws were less lenient for other cases. For instance, a sister couldn’t marry a brother, and a brother couldn’t marry a sister because of incest. 


By now, you’re curling your lip. 


Incest is taboo and illegal in most countries. But what if a man wants to marry his brother’s widow or vice versa? That’s a problem for our Regency couple, but not an insurmountable one. Here’s a little background: in the Regency period when a woman married, she was considered to become “one flesh” with her husband. Legally, she lost practically all rights when she said, “I do.” Usually, her property belonged to her husband after the marriage (unless she and her family had been clever enough to put it in trust or had to some pretty airtight marriage settlements.) The “one flesh” language meant that her husband had the legal authority to decide all financial and moral decisions on her behalf. Under the law, she had to grin and bear it. 
But I digress. 


When a woman became “one with her husband” that meant she became sisters to her brother-in-law according to the church. If her spouse died, she could not marry her brother-in-law even though there was not a speck of blood or in some instances, common ancestry shared between them. These are the rules of affinity that the Church of England forbid. Here’s a detailed list.

A Table of Kindred and Affinity in The Book of Common Prayer (1662.) 
A Table of Kindred and Affinity,
Wherein Whosoever Are Related Are Forbidden
by the Church of England to Marry Together.


A Man may not marry his
mother 
daughter 
adopted daughter 
father’s mother 
mother’s mother 
son’s daughter 
daughter’s daughter 
sister 
wife’s mother 
wife’s daughter 
father’s wife 
son’s wife 
father’s father’s wife 
mother’s father’s wife 
wife’s father’s mother 
wife’s mother’s mother 
wife’s daughter’s daughter 
wife’s son’s daughter 
son’s son’s wife 
daughter’s son’s wife 
father’s sister 
mother’s sister 
brother’s daughter 
sister’s daughter
 A Woman may not marry with her
father 
son 
adopted son 
father’s father 
mother’s father 
son’s son 
daughter’s son 
brother 
husband’s father 
husband’s son 
mother’s husband 
daughter’s husband 
father’s mother’s husband 
mother’s mother’s husband 
husband’s father’s father 
husband’s mother’s father 
husband’s son’s son 
husband’s daughter’s son 
son’s daughter’s husband 
daughter’s daughter’s husband 
father’s brother 
mother’s brother 
brother’s son 
sister’s son

In this Table the term ‘brother’ includes a brother of the half-blood, and the term ‘sister’ includes a sister of the half-blood.
 
Remember that scene in Jane Austen’s Emma where Mr. Knightley says, “Brother and Sister! No, indeed.” This exclamation comes after Emma Woodhouse’s comment that they are not so much “brother and sister” as to make a recent dance that they’d shared unseemly.


Why did she say that? Remember that her sister had married Knightley’s brother. Emma mistakenly believed that any relationship outside of friendship would be verboten with her Mr. Knightley. If her sister died, Emma couldn’t marry her brother-in-law. Same was true for Mr. George Knightley. He couldn’t marry Emma’s sister if his brother died. But there was no such relationship between Emma and Knightley. So Emma and her dear Mr. Knightley didn’t run afoul of the Church of England’s strict rules when they pledged their troths to one another.
Yet, it’s a telling tidbit about our dearly loved Jane Austen. Her own brother Charles John Austen married his deceased wife Fanny Palmer’s sister, Miss Harriett Palmer, making the marriage voidable. But his marriage survived. How, you ask?


Because under the Ecclesiastical Court, a voidable marriage could only be struck if someone. . .really, anyone complained. This usually happened when a greedy relative sought to ensure they weren’t cut from inheriting the husband’s property. In Charles’ case above, no one complained because he and Harriett were as poor as church mice.


In A Duke in Time, the male protagonist, Christian, the Duke of Randford, falls in love with his deceased half-brother’s wife, Katherine Vareck. If they married, then their voidable marriage could be declared void if a nasty relative complained. For that very reason, I purposely made certain that Christian had no heir presumptive in the woodwork who would have cause to complain about the marriage. A voided marriage between the couple would have instantly made any children born of the marriage declared bastards and incapable of inheriting from their father.  A definite stain on Christian and Katherine’s happily-ever-after.


English history is rife with these types of marriages. In 1835, the Seventh Duke of Beaufort’s marriage to his dead wife’s half sister was brought before Parliament to legitimize the marriage to ensure his heir inherited the dukedom. A parliamentary bill was hastily composed which resulted in the Marriage Act of 1835. It declared that any prior voidable marriages similar to the Duke of Beaufort’s would be declared legal if not already void. However, any English marriage that violated the rules of affinity after August 31, 1835 would be void. When you come across various plots with these twists, just remember that there’s more to a Regency marriage than meets the eye in our cherished romances.

Janna MacGregor is the author of the beloved Cavenshem heiresses series. Before she wrote romance, Janna practiced law in Missouri and Kansas. Her latest, A Duke in Time, the first in her new series from St. Martin’s Press, The Widow Rules, is out now.

May-December Marriages in the Regency

In my latest book (A Proposal of Marriage) some readers had a difficult time accepting the significant age difference in my 20-year-old heroine and the 43-year-old man she marries. I know when I was 20 I would have thought a man even just ten years my senior far too old. But let us not judge Regency-era characters by today’s standards.

Not just in England, the country in which I set my books, but also in the United States during the 1800s those May-December weddings were far more common. Some have speculated the reason for this may have to do with younger men in those days having fewer financial options and having to wait until they inherited before they were in a position to wed.

As a student of Regency England, I can point to several actual marriages among the upper classes in which there were significant age differences. All but one of them was a successful marriage.

Emma Hamilton (by Romney)

The one that was not as successful was that between the former Emma Hart and the English ambassador to Naples, Sir William Hamilton. The marriage between Lady Hamilton and Sir William was successful—until the naval hero Lord Horatio Nelson entered her sphere and became her lover. Sir William was 28 years older than his wife. Her lover was just seven years her senior. The two lovers carried on their affair right under the nose of her cuckold husband—even through her “secret” pregnancy of Lord Nelson’s illegitimate child.

Lady Harriett Cavendish, the daughter of the Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, married her aunt’s lover, Granville Leveson Gower, a man 12 years her senior. It was a solid marriage, during which Harriett adored her husband, who became the ambassador to France.

A similar age difference, a 13-year gap, distinguished the marriage of the 1st Viscount Palmerson (father to the future Prime Minister) and his second wife and mother of his children. (His first wife had died on childbed, along with their only babe.)

Harriett Arbuthnot

Harriett Fane, one of 14 children born to a younger son of the Earl of Westmoreland, found security when she married Charles Arbuthnot, a man 26 years older than her. Her husband not only was a member of Parliament, but he was also close friends to the hero of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, a man who was completely smitten over Mrs. Arbuthnot, though there’s no evidence of an actual affair between the two. She did serve as his hostess—and a buffer against the large number of women who threw themselves at this hero, who also served twice as Prime Minister. When Mrs. Arbuthnot died suddenly at age 40, both men (both easily old enough to be her father) grievously mourned her and lived together the rest of their lives.

And the largest age gap I’m going to write about today is the 32-year-old gap between the wealthy banker to the ton, Thomas Coutts, and the actress Harriett Melon. She seemed most fond of her husband and was close to his grown daughters by his deceased first wife.

Remember, in many cases young men in their twenties during the early part of the nineteenth century did not have the financial resources in which to offer for a wife. If she wanted home and family, she was often better off marrying an older man.

England’s Most Common Surnames

With England now being such an international country, names from many ethnicities can be found. But when Henry Brougham Guppy published his seminal work on British names in 1890 (Homes of Family Names in Great Britain), the names had been little affected by foreign influx.

At that time, he discovered a little more than a dozen English names that were in use throughout the land. To qualify for this distinction, a name had to be used in at least 40 of England’s old counties. Here’s the list:

Allen

Brown

Clarke

Cook

Cooke

Hall

Harris

Johnson

Martin

Robinson

Smith

Taylor

Turner

White

Wilson

Wright

Surnames for West Ridings, Yorkshire

Henry Braugham Guppy compiled a thorough study of British surnames in his 1890 book Homes of Family Names in Great Britain. Therefore, the names listed at that time, before modern mobility and communications, give a solid indication of the regionalism of British names.

In Yorkshire, a number of names could be found in two or three surrounding counties.  These include Bancroft, Baxter, Beaumont, Birkenshaw, Calvert, Crosland, Crossley, Crowther, Cundall, Driver, Duckett, Dugdale, Eastwood, England, Farrar, Frankland, Grayson, Hague, Handley, Hanley, Hardacre, Hargreaves, Hartley, Heaton, Hebden, Holgate, Harner, Hayle, Illingworth, Ingham, Jenkinson, Kaye, Leeming, Lockwood, Lofthouse, Lemley, Marsden, Marston, Morrell, Oddle, Oddy, Pickles, Priestley, Redman, Schofield, Senior, Shillitce, Shuttleworth, Slinger, Stead, Stones, Sutcliffe, Swales, Sykes, Thwaite, Waddington, Waite, Wolfenden.

The following names were only in West Ridings.

Names Peculiar to West Ridings, Yorkshire

Surnames A-B

Addy, Ambler, Appleyard, Armitage, Balmforth, Barraclough, Batty, Battye, Beaver, Beevers, Bentham, Binns, Blakey, Bottomley, Bramall, Brear, Brears, Broadbent, Broadhead, Broadfield.

Surnames C-F

Capstick, Clapham, Clough, Cockshott, Crapper, Crawshaw, Demain, Demaine, Denby, Denison, Dibb, Dyson, Earnshaw, Emmott, Feather, Firth.

Surnames G-I

Garside, Geldard, Gelder, Gledhill, Gott, Haigh, Hainsworth, Haley, Hampshire, Hanson, Hardcastle, Helliwell, Hepworth, Hey, Hinchcliff, Hinchcliffe, Hirst, Hobson, Holdsworth, Houldsworth, Holroyd, Horsfall, Houseman, Ingleby.

 

Surnames J-P

Jagger, Jowett, Jubb, Kenworthy, Laycock, Lodge, Longbottom, Lamb, Mallinson, Mawson, Midgley, Moorhouse, Murgatroyd, Myers, Newsholme, Newsome, Noble, Peel, Petty, Popplewell, Poskitt.

Surnames R-T

Ramsden, Redmayne, Rishworth, Rushworth, Robertshaw, Roebuck, Sedgwick, Sidgwick, Shackleton, Sheard, Stansfield, Sugden, Sunderland, Tatham, Teal, Teale, Thackery, Thachray, Thornber, Thwaites, Tinker, Townend.

Surnames U-Z

Umpleby, Uttley, Varley, Verity, Wadsworth, Watkinson, Weatherhead, Whiteley, Whitley, Widdop, Widdup, Woodhead, and Wrathall. –Cheryl Bolen, author of three dozen historical romances set in Regency England.

Yorkshire Surnames: North, East Ridings

The variance of language in Yorkshire in days gone by was described in the previous blog, so it will come as no surprise that even within Yorkshire, again in days gone by, surnames could be completely different, depending upon what part of Yorkshire one lived.

In Victorian times Henry Brougham Guppy did an extensive study of surnames in Great Britain, and he divided Yorkshire’s into two groups. The first is North and East Ridings, and the second is West Ridings. We’ll discuss the first in this blog.

But first, here are some surnames that can be found in Yorkshire and in two or three surrounding counties: Alderson, Allinson, Appleton, Boyes, Calvert, Cockerill, Craven, Cundill, Dent, Featherstone, Flintoff, Hopper, Hornby, Horner, Lofthouse, Lowish, Lumley, Porritt, Sayer, Shipley, Dissall, Sleightholme, Speence, Swales, Thwaite, Tindall, Topham, Wise, Weatherill, and Yeoman.

Names Peculiar to North and East Ridings

Surnames A-D

Agar, Blenkin, Blenkiron, Bosomworth, Botterill, Bowes, Brigham, Codling, Coverdale, Creaser, Danby, Dinsdale, Duck, and Duggleby.

Surnames E-J

Elgey, Elgin, Ellerby, Foxton, Galloway, Garbutt, Goodwill, Grainger, Harker, Harland, Hawking, Hebron, Heseltine, Hick, Holliday, Holyday, Horsley, Hugill, Iveson, Jacques, Jordison, and Judson.

Surnames Surnames K-M

Kendrew, Kettlewell, Kilvington, Kipling, Knaggs, Lamplough, Lamplugh, Laverack, Laverick, Leak, Leake, Leaper, Lackenby, Matson, Matterson, Matison, Medforth, Megginson, Medforth, Meggison, Megson, and Monkman.

Surnames O-R

Outhwait, Parnaby, Petch, Pickersgill, Plews, Porret, Porritt, Precious, Prodham, Prudom, Pybus, Raw, Readman, Rennison, Rider, Rodmell, Rounthwaite, and Rowntree.

Surnames Beginning with S

Scarth, Sedman, Sellars, Sellers, Severs, Spenceley, Spensley, Stainthorpe, Stavely, Stockhill, Stockill, Stockill, Stokell, Stonehouse, Sturdy, Suddaby, Suggett, Suggitt, and Sunter.

Surnames T-Z

Tennison, Tweedy, Tyerman, Ventress, Ventris, Weighell, Weighill, Welburn, Wellburn, Welford, Whitwell, Wilberforce, Wilberfoss, Witty, Wray, and Wrighton.

Next blog: West Ridings (Yorkshire) SurnamesHis Lady Deceived

Cheryl Bolen is the USA Today, New York Times bestselling author of more than three dozen novels set in Regency England. Her latest release is His Lady Deceived.

England’s North Country: Words Apart

IMG_8075

Writing on the English North Country in 1985, Frank Entwisle wrote, “When we were lads and wore long shorts and wiped our noses on our jersey sleeves, we lived in Sunderland, a bleak northeast coast borough of 180,000 souls which called itself the greatest shipbuilding town on earth. . .

“Six miles north was another industrial river, the Tyne. The nearest Tyneside town was Shields. And between Sunderland and Shields, among the colliery winding towers and black pit villages, there was swamp to which we went with ha’penny fishing nets on bamboo sticks to dredge for sticklebacks and tadpoles.

“It was there we met the boys of Shields, who spoke with so different an accent that we pitched them in the ponds on the reasonable grounds that they must be Scotchies. . .

“The point of this joyful reminiscence is to show how two northern English populations, sharing the same industrial culture, the same everyday experiences—separated by but six grubby miles—could have different vowels and even a varying fund of words.

“A lane can be a lonnen in Northumberland, a snicket in Yorkshire, a vennel in Durham, and a loaning in Cumbria.”

One wonders today with the explosion of global media if such regionalism could still exist, if boys living a mere six miles apart could still speak so distinctly different. I think not.

Entwisle’s essay (in the National Geographic book Discovering Britain & Ireland) goes on to elaborate on what constitutes Norhumbria. Today, he says, it’s comprised of the old counties of Northumberland and Durham and the new metropolitan counties of Cleveland and Tyne & Wear. It is one of the largest English counties and one of the most sparsely populated.—Cheryl Bolen, whose last releases were the Christmas novellas His Lady Deceived and One Room at the Inn, both set in Regency England.

Next Blog: Surnames Found in Yorkshire

Photo caption: I visited Northumbria in 2017, the village of Haworth, home of the Bronte sisters on the Yorkshire Moors.

 

Authentic Cornish Surnames

What I love about the Guppy book (discussed in the previous blog) is that by virtue of having been written in 1890, many of the British still lived near the place of their birth. This date is important in the study of Cornwall because it was around this time that the tin mining industry pretty much came to a halt in England’s westernmost country, which had led the world in the production of tin. The Cornish had always made their living from the sea (fishing) and mining. Once the tin mines closed, many in Cornwall left—many even leaving for foreign parts like the United States.

At the writing of Guppy’s book, there were some 300 family names that were peculiar only to Cornwall. Regardless of locale, some of these are still awfully unique—and often humorous, like Cobbledick or Kneebone. How would you fancy being Mr. and Mrs. Pedler?

Read on for those unique Cornish names.

Cornish names starting with “B” 

Benny, Berriman, Berryman, Bice, Biddick, Blamey, Boaden, Boase, Bolitho, Borlase, Brendon, Budge, Bullmore, Bunt, and Burnard.

Cornish names starting with “C”

Cardell, Carlyon, Carne, Carveth, Cawrse, Chenoweth, Clemow, Clyma, Clymo, Clymo, Coad, Cobbledick, Cobeldick,  Congdon, Couch, Cowling, Crago,  Cragoe, Craze, Cowle, Cundy, and Curnow.

Cornish names starting with D-G 

Dingle, Dunstan, Dunstone, Eddy, Eva, Freethy, Galty, Geach, Geake, Gerry, Gillbard, Glasson,  Goldsworthy, Grigg, Grose, and Gynn.

Cornish names H-J 

Hambly, Hawke, Hawken, Hawkey, Hayne, Hearle, Henwood, Higman, Hodge, Hollow, Hotten, Ivey, Jane, Jasper, Jelbart, Jelbert, Jenkin, Jose, and Julian, and Julyan.

Cornish names K,L 

Keast, Kerkin, Kestle, Kevern, Kitto, Kittow, Kneebone, Laity, Lander, Lanyon, Lawry, Lean, Liddicoat, Littlejohn, Littleton, Lobb, Lory, Lugg, and Lyle.

Cornish names M-O 

Mably, Maddaford, Maddiver, Magor, Mayne, Morcom, Morkam, Moyle, Mutton, Nance, Oats, Oates, Odger, Odgers, Old, Olver, Opie, and Oppy.

Cornish Names Starting with “P” 

Pascoe, Paynter, Pearn, Pedlar, Pedler, Pender, Pengilly, Penna, Penrose, Peter, Pethick, Philp, Pinch, Polkinghorne, and Prisk.

Cornish names beginning with R-S

Raddall, Raddle, Rapson, Retallack, Retallick, Rickard, Rodda, Roose, Rosevcare, Rosewarne, Roskelly, Roskilly, Rouse, Rowse, Rundle, and Runnalls. Sandercrock, Sandry, Scantlebury, Seccombe, Skewes, and Spargo.

Cornish names beginning with “T” 

Tamblin, Tinney, Tippett, Toll, Tom, Tonkin, Trebilcock, Tregear, Tregellas, Tregelles, Tregoning, Treleaven, Treloar, Tremain, Tremayne, Trembath, Trerise, Tresidder, Trethewey, Trevail, Treweeke, Trewhella, Trewin, Tripcony, Trounson, Trudgen, Trudgeon, Trudgian, Truscott, Tyack, and Tyacke.

Cornish Names beginning with U-Y 

Uren, Vellenoweth, Venning, Verran, Vivian, Vosper, Wearne, Wellington, Whetter, Wickett, Woodley, Woolcock, and Yelland.

–Cheryl Bolen is the NY Times and USA Today bestselling author of three dozen historical romances set in Regency England. Watch for her Deceived Series, with His Lady Deceived releasing Sept. 3, 2019. More information is available at http://www.CherylBolen.com.

Authentic Highland Names

I have a friend born in the Scottish Highlands during World War II who still vividly remembers the first time she ever saw a black person. She was in college. I would say that until the mid-twentieth century many of those in the British Isles had rarely ventured far from their home county.

Because of more limited media and transportation options in those earlier days, regional dialects and surnames were apt to stay pretty pure. That is why I adore Henry Brougham Guppy’s 1890 work titled Homes of Family Names in Great Britain. (This book was recommended to me by fellow author and blogger Sarah Waldock. Check out her interesting blog at http://sarahs-history-place.blogspot.com/.) Writing his work 130 years ago, Guppy was able to methodically pinpoint which regions and counties various surnames were located.

For Scotland, he divided the country into four regions: Scottish Border Counties, the Lowlands south of the Forth, Central Scotland, and the Highlands north of Forfarshire, Perthshire, and Argyllshire.

Because a lot of romance readers love books set in Scotland, and particularly in the Highlands, I thought I’d share those Highland names he pinpointed more than a century ago.

Here’s the List

Cruickshank

Cumming

Duncan

Farquhar

Farquharson

Forbes

Geddes

Fordon

Grant

Innes

Low

Lumsden

McDonald

McIntosh

Mackintosh

McKay

MacKay

McKenzie

Mackenzie

McKie

Mackie

McLeod

Macleod

McPherson

Macpherson

McRae

Macrae

Middleton

Milne

Munroe

Rennie

Ross

Stephen

Strachan

Sutherland

Urquhart

Watt

Now that we live in such a global village, I’m betting you know many, many people with those surnames. – Cheryl Bolen, whose latest release is Last Duke Standing, Book 3 in the Lords of Eton.

Why Was Straw Laid in the Streets?

© Cheryl Bolen

Recently as I was reading some letters written by Sarah, the 1st Duchess of Marlborough, she wrote (pre Regency) that she was  going to have straw laid in her street:

The place [Scarborough] was so very dirty and so noisy I am going to lay straw in the street to hinder the intolerable noise of the horses that go by my window.

I hadn’t heard of that practice since a long, long ago reading of Thackeray’s classic 1848 novel Vanity Fair, when I first became acquainted with the practice of laying straw in the streets to muffle sound. Here’s how Thackeray used it:

She had the street laid knee deep with straw; and the knocker put by with Mr. Bowl’s plate. She insisted the Doctor should call twice a day; and a deluged her patient with draughts every two hours. When anybody entered the room, she uttered shshshsh so sibilent and ominous that it frightened the poor old lady [Mrs. Crawley] in her bed.

Apparently laying straw in the streets was a common occurrence in England’s cities.

Here’s what nineteenth century novelist Ellen Wood wrote on the subject in her serialized novel, The Shadow of Ashlydyat, that was published between 1861 and 1863:

For some distance on either side; ankle-deep down Crosse Street as far as you could see, lay masses of straw. As carriages came up to traverse it, their drivers checked their horses and drove them at a foot-pace, raising their own heads to look up at the windows of the dwelling; for they knew that one was lying there hovering between life and death.

The solemnity spread through the town, and Wood later wrote:

Knockers were muffled; bells were tied up; straw, as you hear, was laid in the streets; people passed in and out [of the bank], even at the swing doors, when they went to transact business, with a softened tread … and asked the clerks in a whisper whether Mr. George was yet alive.

Later, in 1889, English poet Amy Levy also used straw in the streets to impart imminent death in her poem, “Straw in the Street,” in her collection, A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse:

Straw in the street where I pass to-day

Dulls the sound of the wheels and feet.

’Tis for a failing life they lay

Straw in the street.

Here, where the pulses of London beat,

Someone strives with the Presence grey;

Ah, is it victory or defeat?

The hurrying people go their way,

Pause and jostle and pass and greet;

For life, for death, are they treading, say,

Straw in the street?

 

From what I gather, wealthy people regularly exercised such a practice during run-of-the-mill illnesses, not just for those terminally ill.  One assumes the practice came to a halt with the advent of . . . the rubber tire! 

Many thanks to English doctoral student Chloé Holland for her research on Wood and Levy. – Cheryl Bolen, whose final book in the Lords of Eton series, Last Duke Standing, can now be ordered, prior to its Jan. 15 release.

The Late Duchess Writes on Primogeniture

©Cheryl Bolen

I don’t remember where I got the 1984 book, The Englishwoman’s House, but it’s quite a treasure with essays from well-known women of the era and pictures to illustrate their homes. In addition to notables like Laura Ashley and Barbara Cartland, the book brims with aristocratic homes. But it’s the essay by the late Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire (1920-2014) that I’ve never been able to purge from my mind. It starts off with these sage words from the remarkable woman, a former Mitford sister:

If you are a woman who finds herself married to the hereditary owner of what used to be known as a stately home and is now called a historic house, you soon become aware of the unwritten rules of primogeniture.

You live in furnished rooms, surrounded by things which do not and never will belong to you. You are also aware that if you should become a widow, you move, pronto, and the familiar things stay.

All interest is centered on the eldest son and his family. Younger sons are looked on as a sort of long-stop insurance but the birth of a daughter is greeted with sighs from the family solicitor. This situation is taken for granted by Englishwomen. It is the way of primogeniture and it is the reason that, in spite of savage taxation, there are still wonderful interiors in English houses, hundreds of which can be seen by paying a pound or two in the season. I have seen it from both sides, having married a younger son who became his father’s heir through the depredations of War. [The elder son, who was married to President Kennedy’s sister Kathleen, was killed in World War II.] It is part of the Great Unfairness of Life, but it works.

At Chatsworth [Chatsworth House, believed by many to be England’s finest stately home – pictured always at the top of this blog], there is ample evidence of the system. Furniture and pictures from abandoned Cavendish [the family name] houses (Devonshire House and Chiswick House in London, Compton Place at Eastbourne and Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire) crowd the attics and give so much to choose from that, as well as rearranging most the rooms here, I have furnished two country hotels.

The duchess’s sitting room with green silk, pleated walls anchored with gilt fillets

Because of the war, the family left Chatworth in 1939 and did not think about moving back until 1957, when they added central heating and 17 bathrooms to the house, which features anywhere between 175 and 300 rooms, depending upon the source. The roof of the house, according to the duchess, is one third of an acre. Eighty percent death duties decimated the family’s coffers and took 17 years to pay. Many of the family’s properties were turned over to the National Trust in lieu of taxes. The duke gave her free hand to oversee turning the stale, neglected Chatsworth rooms to a showplace to attract paying visitors to the family’s most prized property.

The bedchamber of Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire in the 1980s.

The duchess’s entry in The Englishwoman’s House addresses her own private chambers, the faded photos of which are pictured here. She said the ceilings were lowered sometime in the 1800s so that she has ample personal storage in a sort of mezzanine over her bedchamber and sitting room. These dazzling chambers with formidable art and antiques she shared with three dogs!

“If ever I have a house of own,” she wrote, “I will try for something different, partly because nothing could be as beautiful as Chatsworth.”

I’ve only featured a small portion of her intriguing tale told with great wit. If you can find a copy of the book, it’s worth it just to read her cleverly written piece.–Cheryl Bolen’s trilogy, The Lords of Eton, began with the May release of The Portrait of Lady Wycliff and the June release of The Earl, The Vow and The Plain Jane.