You will not be surprised to discover that I left the family gathered around the big screen Sunday night at 9:00, well before the final play, to watch my precious Downton Abbey in peace.  You will be surprised, if you haven’t yet watched the episode and still wish to, by the spoilers that follow, so read on, or not, accordingly.

The whole glorious Downton affair began with the sinking of the Titanic and the drowning death of Lord Grantham’s heir, Patrick Crawley.  It seems, however, that Patrick has returned.  At least, a badly burned soldier with the well-scrubbed accent of a British actor playing an American has arrived at Downton.  And he claims to be Patrick.  He knows things only Patrick would know, etc.  This all causes trouble for Matthew, the heir presumptive by reason of Patrick’s death, who is now in a wheelchair and is no good for anybody (except, you see, that at the very end of the episode, he hints that HE’S REGAINING THE FEELING IN HIS LEGS AND THERE IS STILL HOPE FOR HIM AND MARY!)

I promise you that my pathetic obsession with Edwardian and interwar England is not the point of this post.  I consider, instead, the problem of the apparent heir.

Patrick’s entry onto the Downton stage ties in nicely with the anniversary of Anastasia Tschaikovsky’s 1928 arrival in New York.  Anastasia, who eventually also called herself Anna Andersen, claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, daughter of Nicholas II. She was beautiful, she told an enthralling story, and she seemed to know things only a Romanov would know.  Who can forget the scene in the movie Anastasia when Ingrid Bergman’s nervous cough wins her the arms of the Dowager Empress?   Nevertheless, mitochondrial DNA testing would eventually prove conclusively that “Anastasia” was not a Romanov.

The history of England- and therefore, of the common law – is the history of probate.  Whatever Boudica might have preferred, the Anglo-Saxons went with male primogeniture.  The need for a male heir gave us separation of church and state, thanks to Henry VIII.   And the need of lesser born sons to make their own riches gave us, among  other things, capitalism, academia and the New World.  Those grand ideas aside, imagine your family in the position of the Crawleys or their literary cousins, the Bennets:  dependent upon the birth of a male heir, and failing that, upon the generosity of distant relatives.  Failing both, poverty, homelessness and ruin.

Our rules of evidence are in large part descended from the sanctity of primogeniture.   Holographic wills are disfavored (if accepted at all).  A document cannot be received as evidence until it has been authenticated.  A child born to a married woman is presumed to be her husband’s.  Hearsay is generally unreliable.

Now imagine yourself again a Crawley or a Bennet, except that a stranger has appeared, claiming to be the long lost son of your second cousin.  You may be delighted: this means you’ve defeated the entail!  Unless this person is not who he claims to be.   That possibility is worrisome enough that,  like the Crawleys, you turn the matter over to your solicitors for further investigation.

I do feel terrible for Lady Edith, though.  Here’s hoping they bring back the BBC Waking the Dead guy to marry her.