What is a Danish Manor?

Counts’ Estates, Baronies and Entailed Estates


By Carsten Porskrog Rasmussen, DPhil, The Museum of Southern Jutland


From 1671 Denmark had particular kinds of estates – Count’s etates and baronies – and, from 1683, entailed estates too. They were passed on in their entirety like small kingdoms, so they were stable family estates. Counts’ estates and baronies in particular were also large estates, which often encompassed several manor houses. The number increased gradually, so that by 1849 there were about 80 of them. The first Danish Constitution put an end to their creation, but the majority of those that already existed survived until, in 1919, the abolition of entailed estates brought about an abrupt end.



Counts’ Estates and Baronies


Prior to absolute monarchy, the ancient Danish nobility had no formal hereditary titles and differences of rank; unlike the nobility in Southern Europe and England, for example. Danish and other Nordic also had a different hereditary practice than the nobility in most other countries. According to the ancient Danish inheritance laws, land had to be shared among all children. Brothers inherited an equal amount; sisters inherited half of what their brothers did. This meant that, not only were estates constantly being divided and consolidated, but also that few manors passed from father to son for much more than a couple of generations after each other, before 1660.

However, in 1671 the king decided to change this situation by introducing the titles of counts and barons. The king gave these titles to men, on whom he wished to bestow distinction. This meant that counts and barons became closely affiliated with the crown and achieved extremely high status in the hierarchy of absolute monarchy, whereas an ‘ordinary’ nobleman had a somewhat low status. The title of count or baron was hereditary. In order to ensure that, in financial terms, coming generations could also live up to their status, counts and barons had to establish ‘Counts’ estates’ and ‘baronies’. In principle they had to be extremely large: 2,500 tønder hartkorn for a count’s estate and 1,000 for a barony. Compare this with the fact that an average peasant house was 5-6 tønder, an average manor 40-50, and most entire estates 2-300.

Counts’ estates and baronies achieved a different formal status from other estates. Instead of being ‘allodial’ estates that were divided for inheritance, they had to change their formal status to len, which the family in theory could have loaned from the king . Counts’ estates and baronies were a mini version of the kingdom and were intended to be passed on in their entirety according to a specified order of succession. If there were no more legitimate heirs, they would revert to the king. Counts and barons acquired a number of special powers on their estates: for example, the count or baron was the commissioner on his estate. Finally, counts and barons were given substantial tax benefits.



Entailed Estates and Trust Estates


In 1683, anyone who had enough land was given the right to establish an entailed estate. This meant that the estate was passed on in its entirety in accordance with a special order of succession. Entailed estates could not revert to the crown, but nor did they acquire special tax benefits and powers. Furthermore, they only needed 400 tønder hartkorn to become an entailed estate: the equivalent of one or two ordinary estates. Later they also started to establish trust estates, which in practice were virtually the same as entailed estates. Counts’estates, baronies, entailed estates and trust estates were all known as majorater, because they were passed on with jus majoratus: in their entirety to the closest legitimate heir.

The first estates owned by counts and baronies were established as early as 1671-1672. Subsequently, the number grew slowly, but surely. Initially, entailed estates were only moderately successful, but they enjoyed a breakthrough during the reign of King Frederick V (1746-66). In the late 18th century, quite a lot of entailed estates and baronies were sold and replaced by tied up capital: often referred to as a trust. This was a kind of fund, from which the owner got interest, instead of revenue from the estate that was sold.

In the first half of the 19th century, however, the number of counts’estates, baronies and entailed estates grew slowly again, and finally most of the country’s large estates were majorater. These estates also had a more stable inheritance than other estates and, since the laws of inheritance always favoured male heirs over female, these estates were passed on in the same family far more often than other estates. Because majorater were some of the largest and richest estates, and because the owners had the title of count or baron, they often gained the greatest attention during their lives and for posterity. But, even during their heyday, the majorater constituted a minority of the country’s manor houses.



The Abolition of Entailed Estates


The 1849 Constitution prohibited the creation of new majorater. At the time there were 21 counts’ estates, 14 baronies, and 45 entailed estates and trust estates. These relatively few large estates accounted for 20% of Denmark’s land, and more than 50% of the land that still belonged to traditional estates with copyhold farmers. Laws passed in 1851 and 1854 allowed these estates to sell off their copyhold farms and houses, and over the next decades, this happened in most cases. Most of the money from sales was tied up in trust capital, which was usually lent out against a mortgage, guaranteeing the owners high, stable incomes. However, the selling off of copyholds was not the same as the dissolution of the earlier estates: apart from the trust capital, the majorater still included manor houses, tenant farms, woodland and a number of other properties.

The 1849 Constitution had already established that, by law, one should establish how the majorater could make the transition to freehold property. This clarification had to wait for quite some time, and it was not until 1919 that a law was adopted for the abolition of entailed estates. This meant that 20-25% of the value had to be paid in tax to the state. Of the remaining value, 3/5 was allotted to the possessor as freehold, while 2/5 had to be tied up as a so-called successor fund and not released until the next two generational changes to the person who would otherwise have inherited the majorat.  At the same time, it was decided that one third of the agricultural areas should be surrendered for parcelling into smallholdings – though in principle in return for compensation.

The abolition of entailed estates is often regarded as the downfall of the ancient family estates in Denmark. Specifically, it meant a loss of value and land for the estates affected, but mainly it meant that the former majorater were subject to division and taxation when the next generations inherited them. It was far from all these estates that were able to cope.