On Sunday night, season 4 of Downton Abbey will kick off on PBS. The show about the lives of privileged aristocrats and their servants in the early 20th century has proven to be global phenomenon. Figures as diverse as Prince William, President Obama, Joan Rivers, and Katy Perry admit to being fans.
Beyond attracting millions of viewers, Downton Abbey may soon have an impact on British law. As the show’s fans are well aware, hereditary titles can only pass through the male line. On Downton Abbey, a fictional aristocrat named the Earl of Grantham has three daughters and no sons. Thus, his heir is a distant relative named Matthew Crawley. All is set right when Matthew marries the eldest of the daughters, Lady Mary.
The same laws are still in place in Great Britain today. Earlier this year, a real-life Downton Abbey scenario played out when Lady Sarah Carnegie, 30, the eldest of three daughters of the late Earl of Northesk lost her bid to inherit her father’s title. The title instead passed to an 8th cousin, Patrick Carnegie.
It’s unlikely these two will follow Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary’s example because Patrick Carnegie is already married. Moreover, he’s 72 years old. He has no children of his own. Thus, it’s likely that the title will die with him. He told the Daily Telegraph that the circumstances of his inheritance are “rather embarrassing.”
Women have gained legal equality in most areas of British life, but daughters of aristocratic families are still passed over for titles. Now it seems that change is finally afoot. A new piece of legislation, The Equality Titles Bill, is slowly gathering momentum and support in the British Parliament. Unsurprisingly, the bill is being nicknamed “The Downton Law.”
“I think the Bill is getting more support in [Parliament] than people realize; the problem is that very few people had any idea this still existed. Anyone I spoke to about it felt incredulous that still, today in this day and age, girls and boys and were not given equality of opportunity in terms of heredity peerages and estate,” said Mary Macleod, a member of the British Parliament and a sponsor of the bill told the Daily Telegraph.
When Kate Middleton’s pregnancy was announced, the British government changed the law so that girls would have equal succession rights to the throne. If baby Prince George had been a girl, she would automatically be the future queen. But that law only applies to the royal family, not the aristocracy (Dukes, Earls, Barons, etc.). Many people regard this as unfair.
In May, two-hundred members of aristocratic families published a letter in the Daily Telegraph which said, “We believe if gender equality can be granted to the Royal Family, it is only logical and just that it be granted to all families, including the 1,000 families who carry Britain’s hereditary titles.”
Progress on the bill has been very slow. A Parliamentary committee already recommended a “Downton Law” two years ago. The delay is partly because this problem affects only a tiny segment of the population of Great Britain. Macleod says it’s the principle that matters. “It only affects a few people, but it’s symbolic. It’s saying that right now, do we think that men and women are equal?”
The bill has also moved slowly because it is very complicated. Succession for the British monarchy is fairly straightforward. However, aristocratic titles have a different, more complex legal structure. Each individual title has a special set of rules governing inheritance. As recently as May of this year a government spokesman said there are “no plans to change the rule on hereditary peerages during this parliament.”
Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, has voiced his support for the new legislation. The matter affects his family directly. His wife’s uncle is an Earl. If the new bill is passed, she will inherit his title. Otherwise, the title will die with the Earl because he only has female descendants. “The point is not whether or not you approve of hereditary titles, but given the fact that they do exist, the exclusion of women from them under English law is absolutely bizarre,” Fellowes said in an interview with Radio Times.
Another woman who would benefit from the bill is Virginia Stuart Taylor, 24. Her father is a baronet. He only has two daughters. Under the status quo, her father’s title will go extinct when he dies. “I have been brought up believing that girls are equal to boys, often getting better grades at university,” Virginia said. “Everything is equal and it seems kind of ridiculous that we are trying so hard to make it fair for women in other areas of life but not in this one.”