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Gavelkind was a system of land tenure associated chiefly with the county of Kent, but also found in Ireland and Wales and some other parts of England. Its inheritance pattern is a system of partible inheritance, which bears resemblance to Salic patrimony: as such, it might testify in favour of a wider, probably ancient Germanic tradition. Under this law, land was divided equally among sons or other heirs. The word Gavelkind is thought to have originated from old Irish phrases 'Gabhaltas-cinne' or Gavail-kinne, which means family settlement. (Modern Gaelic 'gabhail-cine'.)
Monument at Swanscombe recording the legend of how Kent managed to extract concessions from William the Conqueror.
Before abolition of gavelkind tenure by the Administration of Estates Act 1925, all land in Kent was presumed to be held by gavelkind until the contrary was proved. It was more correctly described as socage tenure, subject to the custom of gavelkind. The chief peculiarities of the custom were the following:
A tenant could pass on part or all of his lands as a fiefdom from fifteen years of age.
Generally the tenant could always dispose of his lands in his will.
In case of intestacy, the estate was passed on to all the sons, or their representatives, in equal shares, leaving all the sons equally a gentleman. Although females claiming in their own right were given second preference, they could still inherit through representation.
In Wales there was a custom of inheritance similar to that of gavelkind in England which, in Welsh, was known as cyfran.
Under Welsh common law on a landowner's death the land would be divided equally among all his sons, including illegitimate sons.
The ultimately infinite division of ever smaller pieces of land by successive generations of sons has been blamed for the comparative weakness of the Welsh polity as opposed to the system of primogeniture in England where the entire patrimony was received intact by the eldest son. The Welsh historian Philip Yorke, writing in 1799, summarised the situation:
Our laws of gavelkind, had ill effect, applied to the succession as the freedom of the State; it balanced the power and raised the competition of the younger branches against the elder; a Theban war of Welsh brethren ending in family blood, and national destruction.
-- Philip Yorke, The Royal Tribes of Wales, p. 46
The Laws in Wales Acts (1536-43) saw the Welsh legal system being replaced with that of the English, and the law of gavelkind was replaced with that of primogeniture; however, as in England, the custom of gavelkind was not finally abolished until the Administration of Estates Act 1925.
Gavelkind in Ireland
This was a species of tribal succession, by which the land, instead of being divided at the death of the holder amongst his sons, was thrown again into the common stock, and redivided among the surviving members of the sept.
Under Early Irish law land was divided at the death of the holder amongst his sons. The Normans gave this Irish inheritance law the name Gavelkind due to its apparent similarity to Jute Gavelkind inheritance in Kent.
^ abWatson, Alan (2001). Society And Legal Change (2nd Ed). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. p. 53. ISBN1-5663-9919-X.
^R. J. Smith, "The Swanscombe Legend and the Historiography of Kentish Gavelkind," in Medievalism in the Modern World. Essays in Honour of Leslie J. Workman, ed. Richard Utz and Tom Shippey (Turnhout: Brepols, 1998), pp. 85-103.