Watching Downton Abbey

Highclare Castle, or Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey premiered in 2010, but my wife and I never watched it. We decided to start this weekend. In the first episode, the Earl of Grantham, who married a rich American but who has only daughters, learns that his presumptive heir, a cousin, has died on the Titanic. Drama ensues, because when the Earl and his wife, Cora, married, there was a marriage settlement in which her fortune was added to the Earl’s estate, which is entailed. Everyone had assumed that Cora would have a son, but because she didn’t, the whole estate—the title, the land, and the money—will pass to the cousin rather than to his eldest daughter, Mary. But Mary was engaged to be married to the cousin, and so, problem solved. But with the cousin dead, an even more distant cousin was likely to inherit the whole estate, leaving Mary with only a small settlement when her father died. Would the earl try to bar the fee tail, so as to allow Mary to inherit the money if not the title or the house? Will the family try to fix up Mary with the distant cousin?

My wife leaned over to me and asked, “what’s an entail?” “Press pause,” I said.

English land law was my favorite thing in law school. It’s obscure, obsolete, maybe essential to understanding modern land law, and beautiful in its intricacies. So what I want to know is, did PBS really make a series fifteen years ago that revolves around the details of entailed estates, and I am just learning about it now? Will the law be at the center of the story, or was it just the first episode? I am hooked.

Photo credit: Steve Daniels (CC BY-SA)

2 responses to “Watching Downton Abbey”

  1. Salem

    PBS didn’t make Downton Abbey. It was made by Carnival for ITV, which is the UK’s largest commercial TV station.

    The business with the entail is the main storyline of the first two seasons. But the focus is less on the law, and more on the social, romantic, etc events that happen in the shadow of the law. Think Jane Austen – there’s normally an entail, but the story doesn’t play out in courtrooms.

    1. Thanks for the correction regarding ITV!

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