Assisted reproductive technology could undermine inheritance rights of British aristocrats

At first glance you’d think that the Tatler, Britain’s lifestyle and gossip magazine for the upper crust, must be a chapter in a P.G. Wodehouse novel. However, subscribers seem fonder of pictures of private jets, jewellery and costume parties than of words, so that's out -- it's hilarious, but it's not a novel. Readers of the digital edition have an average household income of US$250,000.

The latest issue strikes a surprisingly serious note by highlighting a wrinkle in laws on assisted reproduction. IVF and surrogacy are a minefield for the British system of peerages. It is one of those rare instances where there is a law for the rich and a law for the poor – but for once the poor might be said to get a better deal.

To cut to the chase, Emma Thynn, née Emma McQuiston, the Marchioness of Bath, married to Ceawlin Thynn, the 8th Marquess of Bath, is the chatelaine of Longleat, in Wiltshire, the ancestral seat of the Marquesses of Bath, which has 9,000 acres, including its own safari park. It dates back to 1580. Mrs Thynn is a socialite, fashion model, media star and the United Kingdom’s first black Marchioness. Her father is a Nigerian oil billionaire.

Their wealth notwithstanding, the couple has had trouble having children. Their second child was born with the assistance of a surrogate mother in California.

For the aristocrats of the realm, this could pose a problem. As the Tatler points out: “While in the last half a century of family law has seen reforms designed to remove barriers to inheritance or status based on illegitimacy, sex, adoption, donor conception, or being carried by a surrogate, these reforms have mostly excluded succession to titles.”

For the purposes of succession, children conceived with donor gametes are regarded as “illegitimate”. This means that they will not succeed to the title or even rights of inheritance. The law is still untested for surrogacy. Tatler observes:

“As there are approximately 3,000 hereditary peers and baronets collectively entered on their respective Rolls, given the increasing prevalence of surrogacy or assisted reproduction in family building, it is likely that some of those families will be taken by surprise on the ramifications upon their title. It is equally plausible that these ramifications may not be appreciated for some time, perhaps after a number of generations.”

This is not hypothetical. Socially acceptable assisted reproduction and DNA testing together could create nightmarish scenarios for the readers of Tatler.

Take the sad case of Simon Pringle, the presumptive 11th baronet of Stichill and the son of Sir Steuart Pringle.

In 2016, he was deprived of his claim in favour of his second cousin, Murray Pringle. Simon’s great-grandfather, Sir Norman Robert Pringle, married Florence Madge Vaughan in 1902. She gave birth to Simon’s grandfather Norman 30 weeks later – prompting whispers within the family. Florence signed a statutory declaration in 1920, after the death of her husband, asserting Norman’s legitimacy. One hundred years on, it appears that she perjured herself.

There was some suggestive documentary evidence but only a DNA test could clarify matters.

Murray therefore approached Sir Steuart for help in a genealogy project to establish the rightful chieftain of the Pringles, an extinguished Scottish clan. Sir Steuart, bamboozled by the technology – he could not even use email -- agreed. In a remark which, in retrospect, appears clairvoyant, he said: “your faith in DNA is touching, but what happens when (if?) a male cuckoo enters the nest?”

Murray then used DNA analysis for what appears to have been his true purpose -- to establish conclusively that his uncle Norman had been illegitimate. He thereupon applied to succeed to the baronetcy of Stichill. It was an underhanded trick, but the Privy Council declared that it was legal. Norman had never been heredibus masculis de suo corpore, a male heir from his body, as specified in Charles II’s grant in the 17th century. Therefore, the title must go to a descendant of Sir Norman’s second son. (No land or property is attached to the title.)

It must have been devastating for Simon Pringle.

The judges of the Privy Council sympathised with “the late Sir Steuart Pringle, a distinguished officer, who faced an unwelcome challenge in his autumnal years, and also Simon Robert Pringle, the heir presumptive, who had grown up in the belief that his father was rightfully the 10th baronet and that he would in time succeed to the baronetcy.”

The authors of the Tatler’s analysis warned about issues arising from reproductive technology: “When titled families resort to surrogacy and assisted reproduction, there is a real risk that some heirs may well be caught out and displaced by the ‘distant cousin from South Africa’, particularly where scientific evidence may well be conclusive.”

And the Privy Council, even more ominously, declared that DNA testing could lead to dramatic upheavals:

“In the past, the absence of scientific evidence meant that the presumption of legitimacy could rarely be rebutted and claims based on assertions that irregular procreations had occurred in the distant past were particularly difficult to establish. Not so now. It is not for the Board to express any view on what social policy should be. It notes the ability of DNA evidence to reopen a family succession many generations into the past.”

Does it matter? After all, nobles and royals are the same as the rest of us: they eat, they drink, they marry and give into marriage. True, but, at least in Britain, preserved in the aspic of aristocracy, scraps of humanity’s original marriage conventions continue to resist the corrosive solvent of modernity: family does matter, bloodline does matter, marriage does matter, fidelity does matter. There you can see how catastrophic modern tinkering with the family has been, is, and will continue to be.


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