As a child growing up in rural England, Tanya Field came to suspect that there was something unusual about her family.
Her father was a farmer, as was her uncle and great uncle, who all lived in close proximity to each other, but her grandfather lived in a castle and, as the Earl of Macclesfield, she understood, he was, important (in fact, he was one of the most senior aristocrats in the land).
Field also accepted, unquestioningly, the principles of male primogeniture, which meant that on her grandfather’s death, in 1993 (when she was 21) her father became the Earl of Macclesfield and inherited Shirburn Castle, a dilapidated but magical medieval fantasy, surrounded by a moat and three drawbridges, but that on her father’s death, she would not become Earl of anything, because she was female.
“You’re told it’s normal, they were told it’s normal, so the conditioning is very deep,” she told The Daily Beast.
Now, however, Field is taking a sledge hammer to that deep conditioning, and suing the British government in the European Court of Human Rights to be allowed to inherit her father’s title and privileges when he dies, instead of seeing it pass to his next male relative, his brother (Field’s uncle).
If the five disenfranchised daughters do achieve their goal, a change in the law would prove beneficial to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s first-born child, if it were a girl, as she would then inherit the Dukedom of Sussex instead of it skipping her and passing to a younger brother (or dying out, if Harry and Meghan had no male heirs).
British newspaper The Times reports that the four other women who have put their name to the test case as well as Field are Lady Willa Franks (a descendent of Lord Balfour, the British prime minister who in 1917 declared the government’s support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people”), Hatta Byng, eldest daughter of Viscount Torrington, and the editor of Britain’s House & Garden magazine, Lady Eliza Dundas, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Ronaldshay, and Sarah Long, eldest daughter of the 4th Viscount Long of Wraxall.
Shirburn Castle had featured in films and television programs, but its glamorous exterior belied a sorry reality; it was in such an advanced state of disrepair that candles and electric torches had to be used instead of electric light in some of its further reaches.
“It wasn’t a large castle, but large enough that my father and his mother could quite happily live separate lives in it,” Field – who never uses her title – said.
An even greater problem, however, was that other family members were not content for the new Earl to be given the castle and launched legal proceedings contesting his right to be there.
In 2005, following a long and bitter dispute that ultimately reached London’s high court, her father was evicted from the castle by a group of family members which included his brother. He moved out and now lives in a modest house in a nearby town.
Field was spared a ringside view of this tawdry battle, by dint of the fact that her parents had divorced when she was 11, and she had spent the intervening years first living with her mother, and then, when she was 18, she inherited enough money to buy a "bog-standard between-the-wars semi-detached three bed house" on the outskirts of Oxford, where she has lived ever since.
For many years, Field thought, that was that.
She felt she was lucky to have received enough money to buy her own house – and knew she would not inherit any more money, or the title, which, as her father did not have any sons, would pass to the brother with whom he had argued.
Field told The Daily Beast that she "got on with living a normal life with normal people." She works for a local Community Association. “We do loads of stuff, coach trips, food banks, education and fitness classes, transport schemes,” she said.
As a quasi-social worker, often engaging with troubled and in-trouble youths, she was acutely aware of the absurdity of her title. “I don’t use the title because it is actually a hindrance when what you are trying to engage with people, because if they hear that they then have this preconception that you are something elite. And actually I live the least grand existence you could ever imagine.”
Now, however, aged 46, and after a lifetime spent trying to keep the Earldom of Macclesfield as far from her waking thoughts as possible, Field is a key part of a new battle to challenge one of the last state-sanctioned areas of gender discrimination in British law, and allow women to inherit these titles from their fathers.
Field is not, as one might imagine, inspired by hopes of great wealth, revenging her father or reclaiming the family seat.
The reason she wants her father’s title after he passes away is because it is the key to something she sees as much more valuable – a seat in in the upper chamber of the British parliament, the House of Lords.
Amazing as it might seem, hereditary peers (as titled aristocrats in the UK are collectively known) can still have considerable influence on the lawmaking system as 92 seats (and their associated votes) in the House of Lords, are reserved for peers.
But as the law currently stands, only sons can inherit the peerages – and the right to stand for these seats – from their fathers.
While acknowledging that many people find the fact of an accident of birth allowing anyone a privileged route into Parliament absurd, Field believes that, the system being as it is, it makes sense to try and work inside it.
She believes her extensive work as a community activist would make her worthy for consideration for one of these seats and allow her to gain attention for important issues—and she shouldn’t be barred from standing just on the basis she was not born a man.
While acknowledging that the hashtag #ElectLordsWomen will have only ‘niche’ appeal, the campaigners behind the lawsuit, daughtersrights.co.uk, told The Daily Beast they are confident that they will succeed.
Charlotte Carew Pole, whose husband Tremayne will one day inherit a baronetcy, the most minor of British hereditary titles, which she hopes can be passed onto her eldest child (a daughter) said, “I think we will succeed because the government is clearly in breach of article 3 protocol, 1 of human rights law, which prohibits discrimination based on gender.
“The House of Lords has 92 seats reserved for hereditary peers, and the law as it currently stands means those are effectively ring-fenced for men.
“Whatever you think about the House of Lords or hereditary peerages in general, while they exist they need to be in line with 2018—not 1618—thinking.
“It is outrageous that progressive, modern Britain is keeping back these seats for men. We just want equal rights for women.”
The law prohibiting property and estates passing to female offspring (which is a major plot driver of many great British stories, from Downton Abbey to Pride and Prejudice) was changed after the second world war (although, in practice, many estates are still passed to sons ahead of elder daughters).
Carew Pole said that the royal family were ‘very sneaky’ when they succeeded in 2013 in getting enacted gender-blinding changes to the law of succession, ahead of Kate Middleton’s first pregnancy.
“They did it only for the direct line of succession, so the changes don’t affect, for example, Harry or Meghan’s children. If she has a daughter, the daughter won’t inherit the title. I think people are very surprised this is still the case.”
They might well be—but not half as surprised as hundreds of well-bred men around Britain are going to be if the suit succeeds, and they find out their older sister is getting the title instead of them.