Blogging the Magna Carta #4

by Phyllis Irene Radford

Continuing with the series on the Magna Carta as a foundation for modern lawmakers instead of or including the U.S. Constitution:

For the entire document, you may go here:

For a more scholarly analysis of the Charter and its relevance to modern life:

In feudal England land was the source of wealth.  Therefore many of the clauses in the Magna Carta address the issues of inheriting, distributing, and administering the land.  Both the king and the barons need codification of this essential issue before moving on to other matters. 

This was a time when women rarely were allowed to inherit from a husband or a parent, either land or titles, in their own name.  Men had a bad habit of getting themselves killed in the perpetual wars that justified the entire system of protection in return for service and taxes.  If the newly deceased male had no children by his current wife, or if he had sons by a previous wife, the widow needed some guarantees that she’d come away with enough money to survive, and that her dowry or marriage portion wouldn’t be stolen by the new owner, presuming the deceased hadn’t squandered her money on things like armor and horses and hiring men-at-arms, or upkeep on the home.  Even castles need new roofs upon occasion.

Today we view two clauses that deal with pesky widows and their demands for means to support themselves, or attract a new husband who would take care of her.

7. A widow, after the death of her husband, shall forthwith and without difficulty have her marriage portion and inheritance; nor shall she give anything for her dower, or for her marriage portion, or for the inheritance which her husband and she held on the day of the death of that husband; and she may remain in the house of her husband for forty days after his death, within which time her dower shall be assigned to her.

If a woman’s husband expanded the estate by purchasing land, or fisheries, or mines, or other money making schemes, while they were married, she could inherit those.  Any money or land she brought to the marriage were also hers; for her heirs.  However, if her family didn’t need to marry her off to someone else, she was subject to a guardian.

If you are a fan of Jane Austen you will see a similar problem in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and also in Persuasion.  All three books look at the problem of women legally thrown to the wolves because a man must inherit and he didn’t care to continue supporting the widow and her daughters.

8. No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she prefers to live without a husband; provided always that she gives security not to marry without our consent, if she holds of us, or without the consent of the lord of whom she holds, if she holds of another.

That’s right, if she’s got enough money in her own name from that dowry, marriage portion, and joint purchases, she can’t be forced to marry.  But again, she can’t marry just anyone.  Her guardian and overlord must give his permission.  Even if the next husband is chosen for love, or friendship, or compatibility when lonely, new marriage treaties and alliances must be arranged with new conditions on who gets what when one or both die.

Aren’t there some cults in our country, and around the world, doing the same thing?

Have to keep those independent, free thinking women in control unless they rebel against the God given authority of a man.

Phyllis Irene Radford is a founding member of the Book View Café.  Though raised in the seaports of America she was born in Portland, Oregon and has lived in and around the city since her junior year in high school.  She thrives in the damp and loves the tall trees.

For more about her and her fiction please visit her bookshelf here on BVC

Or her personal web page


About Phyllis Irene Radford

Irene Radford has been writing stories ever since she figured out what a pencil was for. A member of an endangered species—a native Oregonian who lives in Oregon—she and her husband make their home in Welches, Oregon where deer, bears, coyotes, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers feed regularly on their back deck. A museum trained historian, Irene has spent many hours prowling pioneer cemeteries deepening her connections to the past. Raised in a military family she grew up all over the US and learned early on that books are friends that don’t get left behind with a move. Her interests and reading range from ancient history, to spiritual meditations, to space stations, and a whole lot in between. Mostly Irene writes fantasy and historical fantasy including the best-selling Dragon Nimbus Series and the masterwork Merlin’s Descendants series. In other lifetimes she writes urban fantasy as P.R. Frost or Phyllis Ames, and space opera as C.F. Bentley. Later this year she ventures into Steampunk as someone else. If you wish information on the latest releases from Ms Radford, under any of her pen names, you can subscribe to her newsletter: Promises of no spam, merely occasional updates and news of personal appearances.


Blogging the Magna Carta #4 — 8 Comments

  1. It can be chilling to look at this in context, can’t it? I am in the process of doing some research for an Elizabethan set YA series I want to do (sometime down the road). Records on women of the day are so poor that it can be confusing which woman is who. It didn’t help that daughters were often named for mothers and grandmothers — but if women had been inheriting property, you can be sure those records would have been pristinely clear about who was who. I was most surprised to learn that there is a margin of error of about 5 years as to the date of Anne Boleyn’s birth. Not to mention the quaint way people had back then of spelling names as the fancy took them.

  2. In my neighborhood we have a high percentage of families homeschooling for religious reasons. Their goal is to keep their daughters virginal by never introducing them to a male outside the family until they choose a husband for her.

    They are closer to Muslim ideals than they think and they can’t believe anything good ever came from any Muslim.

    Which century are they living in?

  3. Phyllis: Most of the Muslims I grew up with or work with – especially, but in no way exclusively, the women – would describe that particular ideal pithily as ‘barbarism’. And several of the loudest such decriers I’ve known are… certainly not amongst the most secular, or even particularly western-liberal.

    These lads of yours can hold their head high amongst paranoid misogynists on an ecumenical level. I give you that they aren’t approaching Deep Afrasian Boonies levels yet, by a long chalk; but for novices they’re showing a certain promise. Give ’em a couple more generations to get into the swing of it!

    – Or, not.

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  5. Gray,

    Agreed. I’m looking at the horror stories coming out of Africa and deeply rural middle east for the comparison. We have some real isolation prone survivalists on this mountain who think the MC is too new. Any gov’t is too much gov’t. They shoot postmen and child service inspectors.

  6. People sometimes forget that even into this century, women did not have a lot of rights. I was stunned when I found out that a woman could be forced to move to wherever her husband wanted to move — even if he was not the sole breadwinner, and not the major breadwinner. Or a judge could pull her access to a joint account, etc.

    And there are so many people who seem to think that the world would be a better place if we only went back to that.

    As someone who has no immediate male relatives, and certainly doesn’t want my ex-spousal unit involved, this is a frightening idea.

  7. If she holds lands, she is obliged to marry a man who can perform military duty for the lord. They were, after all, the lord’s lands.

  8. I owned land in Southern Chile, while married, and had to deal with the fact that women there still have limitations on their rights — as in, no bank account without husband’s co-signature. We were building a house in a rural area, where women were supposed to stay home as men went out partying, etc. When my husband (now ex) fell ill, the workmen would not take orders from me. I had to prop up sick husband in the doorway and have him tell them what to do. Grrr.