December Meeting, 1941

    A STATED Meeting of the Society was held, at the invitation of Mr. Augustus P. Loring, Jr., at No. 2 Gloucester Street, Boston, on Thursday, December 18, 1941, at three o’clock in the afternoon, the President, Kenneth Ballard Murdock, in the chair.

    The records of the Annual Meeting in November were read and approved.

    The Corresponding Secretary reported the death of Howard Judson Hall, a Corresponding Member, on December 14, 1941.

    The Corresponding Secretary reported the receipt of a letter from Mr. Edward Kennard Rand accepting his election to Honorary Membership in the Society.

    Mr. George L. Haskins read the following paper:

    Gavelkind and the Charter of Massachusetts Bay

    THE provision in the Massachusetts Bay Company charter of 1629 as to how the land shall be held is familiar to colonial historians. The territories included in the grant are to be held of the King, as of the manor of East Greenwich in the County of Kent, “in free and common Socage, and not in Capite, nor by Knights Service; And Also yeilding and paying therefore to Vs, our Heires and Successors, the fifte Parte onlie of all Oare of Gould and Silver, which . . . shalbe there . . . obteyned, for all Services, Exaccons, and Demaundes whatsoever. . . .”542 Almost the identical clause appears in the Province charter of 1691,543 and it is also found in contemporary New England grants.544 Accordingly, interest has long attached to it on the part of antiquarians and lawyers. Its meaning, however, has never been agreed upon, so that a fresh consideration of the problems involved is not out of place.

    The general import of the provision is clear. It contemplates a tenurial relationship between the King and the colony, and land is to be held in free and common socage. Tenure was inevitable, for no land of the King, wherever found, could be conceived of outside the traditional tenurial scheme of the English land law. Tenure in socage was chosen as being the most usual form of tenure at that time in England;545 it was “in free and common Socage, and not in Capite, nor by Knights Service” because that was, for the colonists, the most desirable form of socage tenure. To it attached none of the feudal incidents, like marriage, wardship, primer seisin, livery, and license to alien, which attached to socage in capite or to knight’s-service.546

    While this general aspect of tenure in the charter has not always been appreciated, the real stumbling block has usually proved to be the reference to the manor of East Greenwich. Opinion as to its meaning has always been sharply divided, some thinking the phrase “whimsical,”547 others that it was empty and meaningless so far as the colonists were concerned.548 A by no means voiceless majority have vigorously contended that land in Massachusetts (and in other colonies as well) was attached to the Kentish manor for the express purpose of making gavelkind an incident of the tenure.549 They reached this conclusion because there was in England a general presumption at common law that gavelkind was a custom which attached to all lands anywhere in Kent.550 Since the manor of East Greenwich was in Kent, it was thought to follow that the custom obtained in that manor. Hence the conclusion seemed inescapable that if land in the New England colonies were granted “as of the manor of East Greenwich,” the charters established gavelkind as an incident of the socage tenure.551

    Now gavelkind, as is well known, is the name given to a custom of land tenure, the chief peculiarity of which is the mode of descent. Instead of descending to the eldest son, the lands of a deceased proprietor were divided equally among all the sons. This might mean physical division, or it might mean that the lands were held jointly by the sons as a group of coheirs living in common.552 What has seemed to some people to reinforce the “gavelkind theory” is the fact that from an early date partible inheritance existed in the colonies of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. In 1627 Isaak de Rasieres, then Acting Secretary of New Netherland, visited Plymouth553 and observed that “in inheritances they place all the children in one degree, only the eldest son has an acknowledgment for his seniority of birth.”554 How early a similar practice made its appearance in Massachusetts Bay is not clear; but the Body of Liberties of 1641 apparently provides that in cases of intestacy land is to descend to the heirs male, with a double portion to the eldest.555 With slight modifications this law remained in force, with respect to fees simple, throughout the colonial period.556 Similar rules of descent prevailed at times in other New England colonies—Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire—and seemed further to support the “gavelkind theory.”

    The question is no more settled today. Professor Richard B. Morris, after considering the evidence, concludes that there is ground for regarding “the ‘Kent charter’ series as containing exemptions from the inapplicable rule of primogeniture.”557 Professor Charles M. Andrews and Professor Zechariah Chafee, Jr., who have each greatly clarified the problem, deny that the provision in these charters has any reference to gavelkind.558 The problem seems, accordingly, to merit reconsideration.

    As stated before, rules of partible inheritance in cases of intestacy existed in the Bay Colony from an early period.559 One of the first questions in the solution of the problem is whether these rules of descent were those of gavelkind. The answer is emphatically, no. Let us consider these rules in relation to the customs and incidents of gavelkind.

    There are, roughly, five main characteristics of gavelkind.560 i. On the death of the proprietor, the lands were divided equally among his sons or their representatives.561 2. The wife’s dower, instead of one-third as at common law, was one-half of the lands of which her husband had been seised during coverture. 3. The husband’s right of courtesy extended to merely one-half, instead of all, his wife’s lands; it was not dependent on the birth of issue alive and was defeated by his second marriage. 4. The heirs came of age for purposes of alienation at fifteen. 5. The proprietor’s estate was not forfeited for felony, as it was at common law, but the heirs succeeded.

    As to equal succession, the Body of Liberties of 1641 enacted that when parents died intestate having no heirs male of their bodies, their daughters should inherit as coparceners.562 It further provided for a double portion to the eldest son, which at once varies the gavelkind formula.563 The provisions were reënacted in 1647.564 From the wording of these laws it is not clear whether the sons were preferred to the daughters: that is, that daughters were to take only in the event that there were no sons; or whether there is merely a provision made as to how the daughters, in the event of no sons, were to hold the property: namely, as coparceners. The ambiguity is removed by the revisions of 1660 and 1672. Although the eldest son still received a double portion under these enactments, they speak of division among the “Children or other heires.”565 Any further doubts as to the meaning of the earlier law are resolved by the probate records, which show that from at least as early as 1640 no distinction was made between sons and daughters.566 The Massachusetts Bay law of descent in the seventeenth century, in other words, was not that of gavelkind. It should be recalled in this connection that in 1627, when the colony of Plymouth was still held as of East Greenwich, de Rasieres speaks of children, not sons, as taking equally.567

    In the matter of dower the laws of Massachusetts Bay are explicit. By enactment in 1647 the widow was given a one-third interest for life in the houses, lands, tenements, and hereditaments of which her husband had been seised during coverture.568 This law also included one-third of the personalty absolutely, but the addition was dropped in 1649 and did not again appear among the laws until 1692.569 At Plymouth, under the Code of 1636, the widow received one-third of the realty for life, one-third of the personalty absolutely.570 Courtesy is not mentioned in the laws of either colony. As for alienation of land, the age was twenty-one, as at common law.571 No suggestion of the gavelkind rule of fifteen years appears.

    In one respect only does there appear to be any resemblance between Massachusetts practice and the incidents of gavelkind, and that is in the fact that lands were not forfeited for felony.572 But from what has been said above, it seems more likely that this is not to be traced to the Kentish custom but to Puritan mistrust and hatred of the feudal system and its incidents.573 The section of the Body of Liberties which provides that there shall be no forfeitures includes the prohibition with a long list of other feudal privileges of overlords and bears out the above interpretation.574

    In short, it seems almost certain, as a result of this comparison between the incidents of gavelkind in Kent and the customs of Massachusetts, that gavelkind did not exist in the Bay Colony. Proponents of the opposite view, it seems, have been led astray by a superficial resemblance of rules of partible inheritance. For one thing they have forgotten that partible descent in England was never confined to gavelkind lands in Kent. There are instances of such customs scattered all over England, in Norfolk, Suffolk, Somerset, Gloucester, and East Anglia.575 For another thing they have overlooked the fact that nine colonial charters outside New England contained the same East Greenwich clause as did the Massachusetts charter. These are the charters for Virginia,576 the Carolinas,577 New York,578 and New Jersey.579 In none of them did the East Greenwich clause prevent primo-geniture.580 The oversight is perhaps a commentary on sectionalism in American historical writing.

    The problem, however, is not entirely one of matching sticks. There is another reason for asserting that gavelkind was not made an incident of land tenure in Massachusetts Bay by the charter of 1629; it is a reason which, incidentally, explains the difference between the laws of Massachusetts and the customs of gavelkind. It would seem that the first step in the proof of the proposition that gavelkind had been extended to the Bay Colony by the charter would be to show that gavelkind prevailed in the manor of East Greenwich. It must be stated at once that this has never been proved. In fact, all the evidence points in a contrary direction. It is true, as stated earlier, that a general presumption existed at common law that gavelkind attached to all lands in Kent.581 But this presumption, like many others in law, was merely a general rule to aid the courts; it was presumed, but it could be rebutted by proof.582 Treatises on gavelkind, supported by local records, are explicit to the effect that many lands in Kent were not gavelkind lands.583 Not only had a good deal never been subject to the custom, but much of it was disgavelled by act of Parliament in the sixteenth century, notably by the statute 31 Henry VIII, c.3.584 We may be fairly confident that East Greenwich was not among the lands included in the disgavelling statutes since the successive owners during the period (the Prior of Shene and the King) are not mentioned in the schedule of names attached.585

    Whether the manor was among the lands in Kent which were never subject to gavelkind is—so far as the actual records are concerned—a matter of less certainty. The early history of Greenwich is obscure, and such accounts as exist are unfruitful in this regard.586 Royal grants of the manor, which go back to the time of Edgar in the tenth century, do not mention gavelkind as an incident of the tenure,587 although charters granting gavelkind land frequently mention it specifically.588 The surviving court rolls of the manor are scant and yield no positive information on the point.589 Domesday Book is equally unhelpful;590 so too the answer of the jurors in quo warranto proceedings brought against the tenant of the manor in 21 Edward I.591 The most promising document, one would suppose, is a survey of the customs and tenants of the manor made in the year 1695.592 But it is nearly as disappointing, as far as any direct statements are concerned. It is noteworthy, however, that the jurors do not know of any special or unusual customs;593 in fact, their answers give the impression of a very commonplace group of manorial customs. It is also worth noting that the jurors imply that the King had escheats, and it is well known that gavelkind lands, unlike other lands, never escheated for felony. While these escheats might have been for other causes than felony, it seems likely that the jurors would have specified the exception had it existed.

    In the absence of direct evidence, two circumstances fortify the position that the manor of East Greenwich was not subject to gavelkind. The first is the accepted rule that gavelkind did not attach to lands held since the Norman Conquest in frankalmoigne.594 Frankalmoigne was a form of tenure in free alms by which the Church might hold lands free of all earthly services; but not all Church lands were held in this tenure, so that it is essential always to distinguish between what was held in frankalmoigne and what was held by barony or knight’s-service. In the case of Greenwich we know from the charters of Edgar and Edward the Confessor, as well as from the confirmations by the Norman kings, that the manor of East Greenwich was given as an appurtenance of Lewisham to the Abbot of St. Peter’s at Ghent, in Flanders, free of all earthly services.595 The manor remained in these hands till the suppression of the alien priories in 1413,596 when it reverted to the King. Two years later it was granted in “free and perpetual alms” to the Prior of Shene,597 who held it until 1530, when it again came into the hands of the King.598 Except for the brief period of two years in the reign of Henry V, there can be little question that the manor was held in frankalmoigne and was not therefore subject to gavelkind customs.599

    The other circumstance which strengthens the position here taken is that from 1530, when the Prior of Shene conveyed the manor to Henry VIII, throughout the period covered by the colonial charters, East Greenwich remained a royal manor. Gavelkind lands in the hands of the King ceased, always, to be of the nature of gavelkind until granted again to another tenant.600 Thus, apart from any question of the consequences of frankalmoigne, it would not be possible for any lands held in the seventeenth century as of the manor of East Greenwich to be affected by a custom of descent then in abeyance.

    Finally, there seems reason to question how far descent in one set of lands would affect that in another set. Elton, a high authority on gavelkind, states categorically that the tenure of gavelkind could not be created out of the bounds of Kent; “nor can any customs,” he says, “whether borough-English, partition in descent, or anything else, be newly imposed upon land by any royal grant.” He then cites Coke on Copyholds to the effect that “customs receiving their perfection from the continuance of time, come not within the compass of the King’s prerogative.”601 On its face, therefore, it would not seem possible that gavelkind could be extended to the colonies by royal charter, even supposing that gavelkind did prevail at East Greenwich.

    The error of supposing that a grant “as of the manor of East Greenwich” could carry with it gavelkind customs of descent becomes even more apparent when the very large number of grants as of this manor is considered. Not only were the majority of the charters for the American colonies given in this way,602 but also the charters to Penkevell for discovering and acquiring lands in the East (1607),603 for Newfoundland (1610),604 Bermuda (1638),605 Bombay (1668),606 and Hudson Bay (1670).607 In England itself the number of grants made as of the manor of East Greenwich, in free and common socage, is enormous. The Patent Rolls, Inquisitions Post Mortem, and local records bear elaborate testimony to this fact.608 They are further enforced by an interesting memorial to Queen Elizabeth made in or about the year 1600:

    Synce the death of king Henrye the Eighth all persons for the most part which have purchased any landes of the king or of her Majestie or els exchanged any landes with her Highness, do acustumably (for the ease of their tenures and services and for that they will avoide to be called by writte for respect of homage) desire to holde theire landes in free soccage as of her majesties manor of Estgrenewich, wherebye the nomber of them that holde of the said manor are at this daie becom infinite. . . . There are in England dyspersyd thrugh all the partes of this Realme above ten thousand sundrie tenants that holde landes of the said manor. . . . The landes that are holden of Estgrenwich amounte farr above the sum of £30,000 per annum thrugh the Realme of Englande.609

    Even granting that the number of tenants in this report was exaggerated by one seeking the office of steward of the manor, it can hardly be thought that the lands of these tenants all over England descended according to the custom of gavelkind.

    The explanation of grants “as of the manor of East Greenwich,” both at home and abroad, seems to be as follows. The monastic confiscations of Henry VIII so vastly increased the properties of the Crown that lands were available for grants in profusion. At first these were given lavishly to personal and court favorites, to be held directly of the King for some fractional part of a knight’s fee. But as time went on and the available lands at the Crown’s disposal were increased by numerous forfeitures, grants tended to be given more in free and common socage, as of some royal manor. At first the selection of the manor generally depended on the location and proximity of the particular grant; but around the year 1550, in the reign of Edward VI, one manor begins to emerge as that most usually chosen for the superior holding. This was the manor of East Greenwich.610 It was natural in cases where the lands granted were dispersed in more than one county to select one manor for the entire grant since the enrollment procedure would be simplified. It was also natural that a practice for large grants should be followed in the case of small ones within only one county. Why East Greenwich, in Kent, should have been so selected is not absolutely certain, since no order of the Court of Augmentations or other authority has yet been found in that regard. The most likely explanation has been given by Professor Cheyney, who has shown that under the Tudors the manor of East Greenwich became a favorite royal residence.611 Whatever the explanation, the important fact is that the Tudor practice lingered on into the seventeenth century, and countless grants, large and small, were made as of the manor of East Greenwich.

    When the grants were small, they were generally made in free and common socage, rather than by knight’s-service. The advantage to the tenant in socage holding of the King in not being subject to several feudal incidents has been remarked upon earlier in this paper. The memorial, also, just quoted, speaks of the “ease of tenures and services” for the tenant. For another thing, the loss to the Crown was slight when the lands were not of great value.612 Large tracts, conversely, were more likely to be held by knight’s-service because of the greater profits which would inure to the Crown. These facts explain why lands granted for mining, irrigation, or reclaiming schemes should be given in free and common socage, as of the manor of East Greenwich.613 Profits were bound to be slight at first, and the promoters needed inducement; whereas the loss to the Crown in such cases in taking a small rent was negligible, for otherwise there might have been no revenue at all. Similar reasons would explain why the charters for colonization projects in the New World should follow the same pattern, where profits to the adventurers would be small or nonexistent in the early stages.614

    Variations in the free and common socage grants appear both in England and in the colonies. For example, the Inquisitions Post Mortem speak of lands held of the King “as of his honour of Amthill in co. Bedford,”615 or “as of his manor of Steeple Ashton.”616 Maryland and Pennsylvania were granted in 1632 and 1681, respectively, as of the Castle of Windsor in Berkshire;617 Georgia, in 1732, as of the Honour of Hampton Court.618 Such instances further bear out our understanding that no special significance attached to East Greenwich as such; it was simply a matter of practice and convenience going back into Tudor times. Indeed, it is an ironic fact, conveniently overlooked by those supporting the “gavelkind theory,” that Pennsylvania, which was granted as of the Castle of Windsor in Berkshire, where we know there was no gavelkind, should have had a system of partible inheritance similar to that in Massachusetts Bay!619

    The explanation of the Massachusetts law of partible inheritance is not, then, to be sought in a transplantation of gavelkind customs from the manor of East Greenwich, imitatively, or by means of the royal charter. The “gavelkind theory” grew up partly because historians and others were deceived by the superficial resemblance between the Massachusetts law of partible inheritance and gavelkind. They failed, in their eagerness to find a simple explanation of partible inheritance, thoroughly to consider the historical evidence. They were also deceived by the occasional expressions of the colonists themselves that gavelkind prevailed in Massachusetts.620 These expressions, however, were made long after the rules of partible descent had become established.621 Moreover, when we find the East Greenwich clause referred to by the colonists to explain the law of descent, it is usually by way of legal argument622 or by way of inquiry on the part of one unversed in the technicalities of the English law of tenures.623

    The reference to the manor of East Greenwich in the Massachusetts charter is perfectly normal and not unusual. It is a part of the description of the tenure of the grant in free and common socage. It is in no way unique and is paralleled not only in a very large number of grants in England but also in contemporary charters for English colonies in the New World.

    The origins of partible inheritance are not explained simply or easily. But the difficulties of the problem justified first an inquiry into the gavelkind claims. The present discussion must not obscure the fact that the East Greenwich clause of the Massachusetts charter has a setting in the colonial law of intestacy and in the general question of the transplantation of English laws and institutions to colonial America.624