Britain's 'Downton Law' Would End Gender Discrimination for Nobility Titles

Soon, you may not need to marry your cousin to save the title.

For all of his wealth, land, servants, and evening jackets, Downton Abbey’s Robert Crawley, the fictional Earl of Grantham, lacked one very important asset: a male heir. Under the British law of entail, which dates back to the Middle Ages, none of Lord Grantham’s three daughters could inherit his property or title.

Instead, his earlship would pass to Matthew Crawley, a distant cousin. So began the plot line of Downton’s most delicious soapy couple: Lord and Lady Grantham’s attempting to fix up Matthew with their daughter Mary, Mary resisting, Mary finally falling in love at an inopportune time, and so forth.

The uncertain fate of Downton provided for hours of crumpet-munching TV drama, but now it’s become fodder for British aristocrats who want to change the country’s anachronistic primogeniture rules.

A new bill making its way through the House of Lords would for the first time allow noble fathers to pass their titles onto their daughters, the Daily Telegraph reports. The name of the legislation? “The Downton Law,” naturally.

The bill was originally written with “peer” titles, such as earls and dukes, in mind, but it was recently amended to include baronets, a non-noble title that’s sort of like a super-knight. The Telegraph describes how the current system impacts baronets and their female progeny, including making parents disappointed that their newborns are girls.

The campaign to include baronets was led by Sir Nicholas Stuart Taylor Bt [the baronet abbreviation], who has two daughters and no heir. If the law is not passed, the Stuart Taylor baronetcy will become extinct.

His daughter, Virginia Stuart Taylor, 24, is a graduate recruit at an international telecoms business and runs an award-winning travel blog in her spare time. Her parents were so disappointed not to have an heir that her mother cried when she learnt she had given birth to a girl.

Miss Stuart Taylor said: “I don’t mind if I am the first, the 10th, the 100th [baronetess] but I’ve been brought up the rest of my life — apart from those first years of disappointment of not being a boy — as completely equal to men.

The newspaper added that not only would the law put an end to de jure sex discrimination among Britain’s upper classes, it will also, “do much to stop the historical titles dying out for want of an heir.” Yes, thank goodness for that.

The legislation would also allow dukes, earls, viscounts, and other hereditary peers to pass their titles along a female line of succession.

Granny will have a conniption, I dare say.

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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