Gavelkind and the Land Market in Somerden Hundred, Kent, 1550-1700
Gavelkind was the default system of land-holding in Kent from the early middle ages until the reform of property law in 1925-26. The research examines how far it still influenced the lives of landowners in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, whether it was avoided using wills and settlements, its impact on the market in land, and the ability of yeomen to raise capital. It looks at land ownership, and whether the consequences of gavelkind were small plots and family decline as often suggested. The difficulty of sources has led in the past to a bias in the historiography in favour of customary tenants, and the research shows how far a community of freeholders can be reconstructed from the available sources, in particular title deeds.
Chapter 1: Research and Sources describes the research objectives, the area studied, the sources available and their limitations. The historiography of Kent and gavelkind is introduced.
Chapter 2: Gavelkind in Practice illustrates through the experience of reconstructed families the principles of gavelkind: freehold tenure, partible inheritance of sons, no escheat for felony, dower of a half, inheritance at 15, and wardship. The role of manor and royal courts in its administration is described, deductions made on the extent of gavelkind and disgavelling Acts.
Chapter 3: Social, Economic, and Political Context sets out the impact on the Somerden area of demographic change, urbanisation, the rural economy, trade and industry, and political events.
Chapter 4: Gavelkind Partition and Inheritance Practice analyses wills, settlements and deeds of partition to establish the extent to which the rules of inheritance and dower were set aside.
Chapter 5 : Gavelkind and the Land Market analyses conveyances to establish the nature of the market, and whether the influence of outsiders and commercial attitudes can be identified. Chapter 6: Finance looks at the role of mortgages in providing capital, whether this was available to rural landowners, and the consequences for family land. Chapter 7: Land Ownership maps land ownership on a sample area of 2,800 acres, comparing 1600 with 1700, to identify engrossment or fragmentation, family continuity or decline. Chapter 8: Conclusions summarises the findings, and the implications for the historiography of agrarian change, with an explanatory paradigm and suggestions for further research.
The research finds that gavelkind was still influential in family outcomes. Although the ability to devise was established, only a minority of yeomen directed their land to an eldest son. Most tried to provide land for all their sons, or a money portion of equal or nearly equal value. Daughters' portions were more generous than other areas. However, widows' rights were commonly over-ridden through a settlement, although where dower applied by default they were more favourable than elsewhere. It finds no association between partition and the loss of property, a disadvantage of which it was often accused. While the market was active it was notable for its local nature. Yeomen and local gentry were overall purchasers at the expense of aristocracy and tradesmen, but yeomen prospered more in the late sixteenth century, and were losing ground to gentry at the end of the seventeenth. There was a rise in mortgage transactions after 1630, coinciding with legal changes. Except for the largest loans the market was local. Yeomen were net lenders before 1670. Although borrowing could lead to loss of property, through re-mortgages and assignments loans could be kept rolling for many years. Some borrowing was a response to financial stress or family demands, but capital could be used for investment. Mapping land ownership shows continuity of families between 1600 and 1700, although there is evidence of coming change. Freehold tenure and partible inheritance stimulated leasing. Social stratification was already evident by 1600. Successive subdivision of holdings is not found, but yeomen were being eclipsed by the gentry by the end of the period, although the gentry families of 1700 were drawn from the yeomen families of 1600.