I found the following story in Margot Finn, Michael Lobban, and Jenny Bourne Taylor’s Legitimacy and Illegitimacy in Nineteenth-Century Law, Literature and History.
Do you guys like stories about vicious course cases, aristocrats, and issues of dodgy paternity? OF COURSE YOU DO, because we’re all a bunch of voyeurs who want to know what’s going on in other people’s bedrooms.
Let’s talk about the Gardner Peerage case of 1825. When Captain Alan Hyde Gardner died, his barony descended to his eldest legitimate son, as is the custom under the laws of primogeniture. The only problem is . . . there were two women who declared that they each had his eldest (legitimate) son: his first wife, and his second wife.
Captain Gardner was a naval captain of a ship called the Resolution in 1802. The first Mrs. Gardner was traveling on board with him. In January of that year, she left his ship, presumably leaving him and their marriage. The text doesn’t make it explicit if she walked out of the marriage, or if she merely returned home while he continued his naval travels. Regardless, in December of 1802, more than ten months after their last interaction, she gave birth to a son named Henry Fenton Gardner.
You know you’re not going to root for Henry Fenton, because Fenton is the name of the bad guy on the Gone with the Wind sequel, Scarlett, played by Sean Bean, back in the ’90s when he was your go-to guy for evil.
They divorced in 1805, with Captain Gardner citing her adultery as the reason. Some sources say that she gave birth to the child in secret and Captain Gardner didn’t discover it until much later, which led to their divorce in 1805. I am more inclined to believe that he knew about the child (or maybe even the adultery before the child) and started divorce proceedings right away–divorce was often a hellishly long and expensive affair in those days, so it would probably take a full 3 years to be enacted.
Regardless, he remarried four years later and had two children in rapid succession. It was SO rapid that within 22 months of marrying, his new wife had given him a son, and then a daughter, and then was ill for three months, and promptly died. This son, Alan (Jr.), was next in line, as far as everyone was concerned.
Now, I’m not entirely sure what happened in the 10 years between Captain Gardner’s death in 1815 and the court case in 1825. Presumably Alan Jr. was allowed to inherit the estate right away, and it was only as an afterthought a decade later that the first Mrs. Gardner tried to get Henry Fenton to oust Alan Jr. The result was a messy, publicized court case that was given probably way more attention than the issue deserved.
The whole thing centered around the length of the first Mrs. Gardner’s pregnancy. She fervently vowed that Henry Fenton was Captain Gardner’s son.
“Could a pregnancy really last 311 days? After much medical evidence was heard on the length of gestation, the title passed to the second son” (8). Y’all, did we really need to bring in “much medical evidence” to have this nonsense thrown out of court? Basic counting skills: helping paternity cases since the dawn of time.
So Alan Jr. inherited, and Henry Fenton was formally declared illegitimate, and I have no idea what happened to him, but Alan Jr. led a long life in British politics and had scandals of his own. He married a respectable girl, but took up with an actress and had several children with her out of wedlock. When his wife died, he married his mistress the red-hot second his mourning period was over. Obviously people were scandalized and the new Lady Gardner was simply not received by decent society.
Here’s the other issue of inheritance: he had had no children by his first wife, but had three sons out of wedlock with his second wife. They couldn’t inherit, and he needed an heir. Now that he and his mistress were married, it would be their fourth son who could inherit. Only they didn’t have a fourth son. They had two legitimate daughters instead. So the barony became extinct upon Alan Jr.’s death. Thankfully, his third son, although illegitimate, was raised to a barony in his own right in 1895, becoming the 1st Baron Burghclere.
So everything worked out well. Except for Henry Fenton. And his mother. And Alan Jr.’s first two illegitimate sons. And Alan Jr.’s scandalous actress wife. But whatever.