Gavelkind was a system of land tenure associated chiefly with the county of Kent, but also found in Ireland and Wales and some other parts of England. Its inheritance pattern bears resemblance to Salic patrimony and as such might testify in favour of a wider, probably ancient Germanic tradition. Under this law, land was divided equally among sons or other heirs.
Gavelkind in Kent
Before abolition of gavelkind tenure by the Administration of Estates Act of 1925, all land in Kent was presumed to be held by gavelkind until the contrary was proved. It was more correctly described as socage tenure, subject to the custom of gavelkind. The chief peculiarities of the custom were the following:
- A tenant could pass on part or all of his lands as a fiefdom from fifteen years of age.
- On conviction for a felony, the lands were not confiscated by The Crown.
- Generally the tenant could always dispose of his lands in his will.
- In case of intestacy, the estate was passed on to all the sons, or their representatives, in equal shares, leaving all the sons equally a gentleman. Although females claiming in their own right were given second preference, they could still inherit through representation.
- A dowager was entitled to one half of the land.
- A widow who had no children was entitled to inherit half the estate, as a tenant, as long as she remained unmarried.
Gavelkind, an example of customary law in England, was thought to have existed before the Norman Conquest of 1066, but generally was superseded by the feudal law of primogeniture. Its survival (until as late as 1925) in one part of the country, is regarded as a concession by the Conqueror to the people of Kent.
Gavelkind in Wales
The ultimately infinite division of ever smaller pieces of land by successive generations of sons has been blamed for the comparative weakness of the Welsh polity as opposed to the system of primogeniture in England where the entire patrimony was received intact by the eldest son. The Welsh historian Philip Yorke summarised the situation clearly;
Our laws of gavelkind, had ill effect, applied to the succession as the freedom of the State; it balanced the power and raised the competition of the younger branches against the elder; a Theban war of Welsh brethren ending in family blood, and national destruction.—Philip Yorke, The Royal Tribes of Wales, p. 46
The Laws in Wales Acts (1536-43) saw the Welsh legal system being replaced with that of the English, and the law of gavelkind was replaced with that of primogeniture, however, as in England, the custom of gavelkind was not finally abolished until the Administration of Estates Act 1925.
Gavelkind in Ireland
This was a species of tribal succession, by which the land, instead of being divided at the death of the holder amongst his sons, was thrown again into the common stock, and redivided among the surviving members of the sept.
Under Brehon Law land was divided at the death of the holder amongst his sons. The Normans gave this Irish inheritance law the name Gavelkind due to its apparent similarity to Saxon Gavelkind inheritance in Kent.
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