The English aristocracy depended for survival on the devolution of their estate from one generation to the next and by the mid thirteenth century the common law had set in place certain rules of inheritance which determined who could inherit based on a “parentelic” calculus (now there's a phrase that just rolls off the tongue!) ie who could trace their blood directly to the deceased. Rather than split the ever diminishing estate between your children (as is the case in many European countries), it was determined you should only have one heir. Bearing in mind that male descendents would always be preferred to female...the law decreed that your estate went first to children or grandchildren or in the absence of those then to brothers, cousins, nephews etc. If the deceased died leaving daughters but no sons, then the parentelic calculus (I do like saying that) would allow the daughters to inherit over say a brother or a cousin. If there were multiple males in the line then the law of “primogeniture” applied...ie it went to the first born. These basic rules of inheritance lasted into the twentieth century.
Spouses, younger siblings, illegitimate children and daughters could only be provided for during the life of the father. As nothing in the law prevented a newly inherited heir from selling off his land, to prevent a youthful heir from squandering his inheritance, family settlements, away from the will, became common. One way of disposing of property was to make a gift (generally on marriage) to the couple and their progeny eg “To H and W and the heirs of their bodies begotten”...or the “male heirs of their bodies begotten”. This gift could not then be disposed of until there were no heirs when the gift would revert to the donor. This was called the “fee tail”...or to use the word more common in our writing “entailment”. Entails in stories we are familiar with are Downton Abbey and Pride and Prejudice. For the direct family line to maintain a hold in the land, it was desirable one of the girls marry the heir...always good fodder for a story viz Matthew/Mary and Mr. Collins/Lizzie.
A quick word on dowers and jointures. For the reasons stated above, a wife was outside the laws of inheritance - your estate passed to your children or through the entail. Husband and wife were counted, at law, as one person so a husband could not make a gift to his wife during his lifetime with one notable exception. A gift from husband to wife on the day they married, at the church door could take effect on the husband’s death if he predeceased her. This was “dower” and was subject to the supervision of the church. The dower lands were nominated before the marriage service, and after the husband had given his wife the ring saying “With this ring I thee wed”, he gave her tokens symbolising dower with the words “With this dower I thee endow”. The effect of the dower was to give the wife an interest for her life in the nominated lands. This evolved into the common law so as to give to a widow one third of her husband’s estate, independent of any specific dower. However if the bulk of the estate passed outside the will through the entail, there may not have been much for the widow or other children.
There was also a practice of settling land on husband and wife jointly so as to entitle the wife to an estate called a “jointure” instead of a dower. A wife could elect to take their common law dower or her jointure but not both.
What if a man married an heiress? If his wealthy wife predeceased him, the widower was allowed, by law to continue to enjoy her estate for his life, providing there was a child of the marriage capable of inheriting. So in effect the husband held the land on trust for his child. This was called “tenancy by curtesy”.
Still awake? Well done, you have reached the end of this short legal lecture - Laws of Succession 101. For the contest judge who couldn’t understand why, in my story, Lord Somerton’s widow could not inherit his estate, hopefully this has helped explain the situation (and why Lady Somerton has a very nice dower house to move into).