Women under English law
Many Old English lived in tower houses in 1500 but the wealthy and powerful lived in large castles with impressive fortifications. They had stables, gardens, orchards, fishponds, and mills. They imported furniture, tapestries, clothes, jewellery, ornaments and wine from the Continent and many employed Gaelic bards and harpists to entertain and impress their guests.
Rich women enjoyed many privileges but political, economic, legal and religious aspects of life were male centred.
- Estates and titles were handed down in the male line, usually through the eldest son, a practice called primogeniture.
- The other sons were 'set up' on land or in careers considered prestigious at the time, such as the church, the army or law.
- Marriage was almost the only option for girls. Young women competed to secure marriage with eligible eldest sons. Some Catholic women became nuns but options for single women outside their families were very limited.
- Rich families had to provide dowries to make their daughters more attractive on the 'marriage market' and form desirable alliances. This system could create financial problems for the father and his heir.
- The property of a married woman came under the control of her husband by English common law.
- A husband might be unreliable and a wife might die young, possibly in childbirth, so lawyers invented marriage settlements. A trust fund was set up for the protection and convenience of the daughter and her children and it was controlled by dependable male relatives or friends. Only rich people could afford this expensive procedure however.
- Besides English common law courts, there were courts of equity where women in difficulties who could afford it might receive a more favourable hearing than in a common law court.
- A widow was entitled to one third of her husband's estate for life. Rich families drawing up marriage settlements specified an annual pension called a jointure for the widow from the estate. Jointures could put impoverished estates under financial pressure, especially if there were surviving widows of two or more generations alive at the same time.
- The birth of a daughter was often greeted with dismay. Only a son could carry on the family name and inherit an aristocratic title, while a surplus of daughters needing dowries over several generations could cause financial difficulties.
- Most married women of the period had few legal rights and could be subjected to the harshness of English common law with no recourse to settlements, jointures or courts of equity.
- The Old English were descendants of the ____ who arrived in Ireland in the ___th and ___th centuries.
- Write a brief note on the Fitzgeralds of Kildare, the Fitzgeralds of Desmond and the Butlers of Ormond.
- Discuss briefly any two aspects of Old English society in Ireland that appear to have been male-centred.
- Write a paragraph on the consequences for women of descent in the male line.
- Write a paragraph on the consequences for men of primogeniture.
- In what circumstances might the birth of daughters be greeted with especial dismay?
- Research one of the larger castles in Ireland.
- Organise a class visit to a large castle.
- Research any Old English family.
- Research marriage settlements.
- Research the topics of bride-price, dowry, jointure.
- 'The birth of a daughter was often greeted with dismay.' Suggest three of the most important changes that have occurred in Ireland so this is no longer the case.
- Research a country in our own time where the birth of a baby girl is still greeted with dismay. Suggest the social or economic conditions that appear to lead to this reaction.