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View Full Version : Illegitimate sons and inheritance in Victorian England



lizo27
05-17-2016, 03:08 AM
I'm writing a fantasy whodunnit set in Victorian England. The infant son of a baron has been cursed. He has an older son, but that son is sickly and unlikely to live into adulthood. He also has an illegitimate son with his housekeeper. The mother of his elder son died in childbirth and the infant son is the result of his recent marriage to a young foreign girl whose family is quite wealthy.

I have it in my mind that the housekeeper should have been the one who cursed the baby, believing him to be a threat to her own son's inheritance. No one but she and the baron know that her son is his, but I had the idea that perhaps he had promised her that he would legitimize her son upon his death, provided he had no other heirs. Plausible or crazy?

CL Polk
05-17-2016, 03:44 AM
He can't legitimize her son. they would have to be married at the time of the boy's birth.

Inheritance depends on a lot of factors, but the housekeepers son can't inherit the title. if no legit heirs exist the title would go extinct. BUT! Both men and women can inherit the title of Baron/Baroness, unlike the titles above them that were only inheritable by men at the time. If the land associated with the title is entailed (and it likely isn't, contrary to popular plot complications in historical novels set in Britain) then the housekeeper's son can't inherit the land associated with the title.

but the father could will any non entailed land or wealth he pleased to the housekeeper's son. choosing not to unless no other heirs exist makes him kind of a jerk. he could purchase an army commission for the son, bequeath him a sum of his capital to establish an income of his own, will him the townhouse in Bath, etc.

lizo27
05-17-2016, 04:02 AM
Well, he is kind of a jerk. He doesn't want to acknowledge her son because that would be admitting a moment of weakness. Her son can't inherit the title, but essentially he's promised her that he would aknowledge her son and leave the family land and wealth to him provided that he essentially has no other choice.

benbenberi
05-17-2016, 09:15 PM
There may be restrictions on what property he can give or leave by will to anyone other than the heir-at-law. English law traditionally made a very sharp distinction between moveable property (money & goods) that could be disposed of freely and real property (land & buildings) that could only be inherited by the heir whose identity was based on automatic rules & could not be changed by an individual. Those rules completely barred inheritance by a bastard or through a bastard line. Over the centuries property-owners & the courts developed a variety of ways to restrict inheritance in particular ways (notably through entails and trusts) & then ways to get around those restrictions & give the property-owner more freedom. By the Victorian period the complications around inheritance & the disposition of property could be very convoluted. A baron's property is almost certainly going to be tied up in some way.

I recommend that your housekeeper enlist the support of some lawyers.

lizo27
05-17-2016, 09:35 PM
Hmmm. Well this is important because it's her motive for the crime. At least he could leave his fortune to him, right? Otherwise I'm not sure how I can make this plausible.

CL Polk
05-17-2016, 09:52 PM
If he's that much of a jerk he could write a will saying that a legit heir would get everything but barring that his bastard son would receive liquid assets with the land reverting to the crown.

but if people know that the housekeeper's son is the baron's bastard then there's a clear motive for murder there, and that will make for a pretty short book.

lizo27
05-17-2016, 10:01 PM
Well, they don't know--although I'm not sure that's possible either. But really this is just getting convoluted. I don't know if this plan will even work. Back to the drawing board, I guess. :e2smack:

Cyia
05-17-2016, 10:06 PM
Is it possible that she's concocted all of these "promises" in her head and that no one knows who the boy's father actually is, including the boy's father?

King Neptune
05-17-2016, 10:21 PM
One way to ruin a legitimate heir would be to leave all of the real estate to him, but not leave anything else, not a penny, not jewels, nothing that could be turned into cash. If the land is heavily mortgaged the poor heir would remain quite penniless, until someone thought of a way out.

lizo27
05-17-2016, 10:58 PM
It might be possible that she concocted these promises in her head, but I can't think of a plausible way my MC would figure that out. I just don't think the scenario I've thought of actually works.

ULTRAGOTHA
05-18-2016, 02:24 AM
I'm writing a fantasy whodunnit set in Victorian England. The infant son of a baron has been cursed. He has an older son, but that son is sickly and unlikely to live into adulthood. He also has an illegitimate son with his housekeeper. The mother of his elder son died in childbirth and the infant son is the result of his recent marriage to a young foreign girl whose family is quite wealthy.

I have it in my mind that the housekeeper should have been the one who cursed the baby, believing him to be a threat to her own son's inheritance. No one but she and the baron know that her son is his, but I had the idea that perhaps he had promised her that he would legitimize her son upon his death, provided he had no other heirs. Plausible or crazy?


Well, he is kind of a jerk. He doesn't want to acknowledge her son because that would be admitting a moment of weakness. Her son can't inherit the title, but essentially he's promised her that he would aknowledge her son and leave the family land and wealth to him provided that he essentially has no other choice.


Hmmm. Well this is important because it's her motive for the crime. At least he could leave his fortune to him, right? Otherwise I'm not sure how I can make this plausible.


If there is no entail on the real property, the father can leave all his property to whomever he wishes. Entails were common but not universal. But leaving all his fortune and real property to an illegitimate son while disinheriting his legitimate sons would be a large social stigma. Privately acknowledging and providing for an illegitimate son would be less of a social stigma. (Granted few would know about the former until after he dies.)

Depending on when in the 19th century your story is set, he also owns everything his wife "owns" down to the clothes on her body, unless there is a trust set up for her, or a contract drawn up before the wedding. So not mentioning her in the will would also be a large stigma.

He cannot, by Victorian law, legitimize his son by the housekeeper nor can the boy inherit his title.

I will note that you're writing a fantasy and it's possible for you to decide the laws were slightly different in your world. That might even make more sense than keeping the laws the way they were in real life, depending on what your fantastic elements are.

lizo27
05-18-2016, 04:03 AM
It is a fantasy, but the fantastic element don't really have much to do with inheritance laws. I could have the laws work differently but I'd have to explain why they were different and that could get really distracting. I don't know. I'm starting to feel like this idea was pretty dumb to begin with.

King Neptune
05-18-2016, 04:51 AM
You could change the matter of investigation to: Which child can inherit? Create question as to whether the presumed legitimate heir is legitimate. Did the Baron actually drag the housekeeper to Gretna Green (or some similar place) and marry her? And was the other marriage legal? Or which child is the bastard? There are enough questions to keep that in court for decades.

benbenberi
05-18-2016, 08:34 PM
Here's a summary of the main rules around wills in effect in the Victorian period, from Wikipedia:
The Wills Act 1837 affected both the making and the interpretation of wills. Excluding the latter for the present, its main provisions were these:


All property, real and personal, and of whatever tenure, may be disposed of by will.
If customary freeholds or copyholds be devised, the will must be entered on the manorial rolls (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manorial_roll).
No will made by any person under the age of twenty-one is valid.
Every will is to be in writing, signed at the foot or end thereof by the testator or by some person in his presence and by his direction, and such signature is to be made or acknowledged by the testator in the presence of two or more witnesses present at the same time, who are to subscribe the will in the presence of the testator. It is usual for the testator and the witnesses to sign every sheet.
Gifts to a witness or the husband or wife of a witness are void.
A will is revoked by a later will, or by destruction with the intention of revoking, but not by presumption arising from an alteration in circumstances.
Alterations in a will must be executed and attested as a will.
A will speaks from the death of the testator, unless a contrary intention appear.
An unattested document may be, if properly identified, incorporated in a will.

lizo27
05-20-2016, 08:11 PM
Thank you for this information, benbenberi. I think I'll have to change the motive and the investigation. I think something along the lines of what King Neptune suggested might work better.

benbenberi
05-20-2016, 09:47 PM
Plenty of scope for litigation & investigation around wills for Victorians -- see Jarndyce v. Jarndyce! :e2writer: