The phrase ‘Women in Country Life’ conjures up ladies of the manor showing off their stately homes in Country Life, the magazine which published photographs of their marriageable daughters. It also reflects the back-breaking toil of most rural women down the centuries.
In Medieval and Early Modern life women were prized as heiresses because family lands passed through them to the next generation. The custom of primogeniture, the inheritance of family manors and estates by the eldest male heir became established in the century after the Norman Conquest. Women were the glue in the feudal system, giving birth to the next generation of male heirs for their husbands’ families. When their own families died out in the male line, women as co-heiresses – the sisters or daughters of a deceased lord – carried their estates to new families when they married. This was also true for the peasants. By the 16th century farms were generally leased out for three lives. In the absence of male relatives, women’s names were added to the lease to transfer the property down the generations. A new life could be added at any time – for a fee – as births, marriages and deaths changed the family structure.
The manor and its courts organised agricultural labour. Manor court rolls and books record the names of the lord or lady of the manor who received the profits from the land, and the tenants who rented farms and grazing rights on the common fields and pastures. The lord of the manor had the right to prove tenants’ wills and a surprising number are found in court records – a treasure trove for the family historian!