1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Borough English

BOROUGH ENGLISH, a custom prevailing in certain ancient English boroughs, and in districts attached to them (where the lands are held in socage), and also in certain copyhold manors (chiefly in Surrey, Middlesex, Suffolk and Sussex), by which in general lands descend to the youngest son, to the exclusion of all the other children, of the person dying seised and intestate. Descent to the youngest brother to the exclusion of all other collaterals, where there is no issue, is sometimes included in the general definition, but this is really a special custom to be proved from the court-rolls of the manor and from local reputation—a custom which is sometimes extended to the youngest sister, uncle, aunt. Generally, however, Borough English, apart from specialties, may be said to differ from gavelkind in not including collaterals. It is often found in connexion with the distinct custom that the widow shall take as dower the whole and not merely one-third of her husband’s lands.

The origin of the custom of Borough English has been much disputed. Though frequently claimed to be of Saxon origin, there is no direct evidence of such being the case. The first mention of the custom in England occurs in Glanvil, without, however, any explanation as to its origin. Littleton’s explanation, which is the more usually accepted, is that custom casts the inheritance upon the youngest, because after the death of his parents he is least able to support himself, and more likely to be left destitute of any other support. Blackstone derived Borough English from the usages of pastoral life, the elder sons migrating and the youngest remaining to look after the household. C. I. Elton claims it to be a survival of pre-Aryan times. It was referred to by the Normans as “the custom of the English towns.” In the Yearbook of 22 Edward IV. fol. 32b it is described as the custom of Nottingham, which is made clear by the report of a trial in the first year of Edward III. where it was found that in Nottingham there were two districts, the one the Burgh-Fraunçoyes, the other the Burgh-Engloyes, where descent was to the youngest son, from which circumstance the custom has derived its name. On the European continent the custom of junior-rights is not unknown, more particularly in Germany, and it has by some been ascribed to the jus primae noctis (q.v.). It is also said to exist amongst the Mongols.

See also Gavelkind; Inheritance; Primogeniture; Tenure; Blackstone’s Commentaries; Coke’s Institutes; Comyn’s Digest of the Law; Elton’s Origin of English History; Pollock and Maitland, History of English Law.