Tenure by Courtesy of England: John of Gaunt and Henry of Bolingbroke

Michael Hicks explores the legal rights of widowers in their wives' estates and discusses the two most prominent widowers in late medieval England.

The properties of married couples were legally controlled by husbands in late medieval England. Should the husband die first, the widow normally enjoyed dower – a third of his landed estates –  and jointure that had been settled on them both, plus any inheritance of her own. [1. See e.g. M.A. Hicks,  ‘Crossing Generations: Dower, Jointure and Courtesy', The Fifteenth-Century Inquisitions post-mortem: A Companion, ed. Michael Hicks (Woodbridge, 2010), 29, 33.] Some dowagers remarried several times, lived on for decades, and long postponed the succession of the heirs,  who might be their descendants but often were not. No wonder stepsons or  collateral heirs resented them. The large numbers  of long-lived dowagers and their longevity has been seen as a problem. [2. R.E. Archer, ‘The Problem of Late Medieval Dowagers', Property  and Politics: Essays in Late Medieval English Essay (Gloucester, 1984).] Widowers were different. They had no automatic right to part of their wives' estates after their deaths.  Should the couple have begotten a child, even if it subsequently died, the husband was entitled to hold all his wife's  estate – not just a third – for life. This was called courtesy or law of England. [3. Hicks,'Crossing Generations', 40.] Widowers who had not fathered any children kept nothing of their wives' lands. [4. E.g. Robert Armburgh. No wonder he (and others) tried to machinate a life estate, The Armburgh Papers. The Brokholes Inheritance in Warwickshire, Essex and Hertfordshire, c.1417-c.1453, ed. C. Carpenter  (Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1998), 36.]  Whereas dower was universal, courtesy was not. Widowers were less numerous than widows. Generally they outlived their spouses for shorter periods. [6. This is an impression that needs testing.] Both types of tenure postponed the succession of the right heirs, who need not be descended from the widow or widower. In a few instances male tenants by courtesy  outlived their partners for many years. The last two dukes of Lancaster, John of Gaunt (d. 1399) and his son Henry of Bolingbroke (d. 1413),  are striking examples of courtesy  and are reviewed here.

John of Gaunt, the third son of Edward III, was born in 1340, created earl of Richmond in 1343, and progressed to become duke of Lancaster and titular king of Castile and Leon. By 1363 John ‘was the greatest feudatory in England' [7. S. Armitage-Smith, John of Gaunt (London, 1904), 19.]– he became indeed the greatest English nobleman in the late middle ages.  This was because in 1359 he had married  Blanche of Lancaster, younger daughter and coheiress of Henry of Grosmont, duke of Lancaster (d. 1361), who was already 18 at the death of her father. [8. CIPMxi. 118.] In  1362 Blanche became sole heiress on the death of her sister. John and Blanche had six children, three of whom survived infancy, among them Henry of Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV. John had done homage for Blanche's half of the Lancaster estates in 1361. Their first child John, probably born and dead in 1362, entitled him to courtesy. [9. Ibid. 94; R.Somerville, History of the Duchy of Lancaster, I (London, 1953), 49. There were no writs and no IPMs for Blanche ] When Blanche died in 1369 therefore, her heir was her three-year-old Henry, but it was her husband who held her estate for life. John of Gaunt lived until 1399: his son Henry therefore had to wait thirty years for his inheritance. [10. Admittedly he did not come of age until 1386.] All those years when John was the greatest English nobleman  in England , it was not in his own right, but as tenant by courtesy.  He was to marry twice more  and to father more children, none of whom had any rights to the Lancaster inheritance. His second and third duchesses had no title to Blanche's estates. Their dower was confined to those land that John held in his own right – much less than a duchess normally enjoyed. Had Henry died, his whole sister Elizabeth would have succeeded on John of Gaunt's death to Blanche's Lancaster estates and titles, but not to the duchy of Lancaster that had been granted to John in 1362 in tail male, nor indeed any other properties of John himself, also in tail mail.

At least it was his own father that kept Henry of Bolingbroke out of his inheritance. Whether Henry saw this as a problem is not recorded. He kept the duchy of Lancaster as a separate entity after his accession as king.  Henry himself married another great heiress, Mary Bohun, younger of the last earl of Essex, Hereford, and Northampton, probably in 1380. [11. K.B. McFarlane, Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights (Oxford 1972). 16-17. ] She came of age on 22 December 1384. [13. GEC vi.475.] The birth of their first son on 16 April 1382, when Mary was thirteen, entitled Henry by courtesy to a life estate. [14. McFarlane, Lancastrian Kings, 17. The baby died. ] Their share included the great Welsh lordship of Brecon. Although only a teenager, Mary had at least another seven children in twelve years, six of which survived.  The future Henry V was born in 1387.  Mary herself died in 1394. Henry had secured all her lands by 1387, held them by  courtesy from 1394, [15. CPR 1391-9, 100. A tenant's IPM records their son, the future Henry V, as heir, CIPM xvii.511, but there were no IPMs for Mary.] and continued to hold them until his death in 1413, nineteen years in all. It was the resources of his late countess that he held by courtesy that enabled him to build his chivalric reputation, to act in major political roles in the 1390s, and that qualified him to become duke of Hereford in 1397 ahead of his father's death. Whether her eldest son Henry of Monmouth, the future Henry V, objected to his father encumbering his inheritance is not recorded. When Henry V acceded, he followed Henry IV's example by vesting his Bohun inheritance permanently in the crown. [16. Somerville, Lancaster, 177-8. ]

There are gaps in the IPM files in the chain of evidence. Recorded are the death and heirs of Duke Henry in 1361 in his IPM, of his eldest daughter Maud Countess of Zeeland in 1362, and details of the shortlived partition of the estates, [17. CIPM xi.118, 299.] but there are no IPMs for Blanche, John of Gaunt (because the duchy was merged with the crown in 1399), Mary Bohun, or Henry of Bolingbroke (because of his accession). There no writs of diem clausit extremum There was no need for such writs or for IPMs for Blanche and Mary because their lands continued with their husbands till the latters' deaths. Only when the widower died – the tenant by courtesy – was an IPM normally held that reveals to us that the property was held by courtesy. This suggests that the family of the heir initiated the IPM process and had no need to do so in such cases and that the crown passively acquiesced. Was there not scope here for concealment? [18. The insane are a parallel, see K. Parkin, ‘Tales of Idiots, Signifying Something: Evidence of Process in the Inquisitions post mortem', The Fifteenth-Century IPMS, ch.4.]

It sometimes happened that widowers held property by courtesy because they had fathered children that predeceased them One such instance is John of Gaunt's younger son and Henry IV's youngest brother Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter (d. 1426), who had a son who entitled him to the estates of his wife Margaret Neville  for life after her death, but because his son predeceased him, the heirs were Margaret's collateral relatives. They held the reversion. Well before his death Thomas arranged with them for their peaceful succession. [19. CIPM  xxii.793-5.]  To have only temporary rights to an estate undermined any authority that it normally bestowed: they could only appoint to offices or properties during their own lifetime and could not sell or grant it away at all. The heirs had reversionary interests: suitors were better advised to petition these heirs rather than the tenant by courtesy.   Gaunt and Bolingbroke had no such problems, because the line of succession of their issue was secure. Not only did they enjoy the revenues of their late wives by life, they  were able to treat the estates as their own and to use them to achieve political dominance. They were surely the greatest exemplars of tenure by courtesy.