History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

27 September 2007

The wrong side of the royal blanket:

English Royal Bastards in the Middle Ages

Today, we think of illegitimate children as easy to identify. In the early Middle Ages, however, marriage itself was not well defined. Consent between two people could constitute a marriage recognized by the church. Unfortunately, such clandestine marriages could also easily be denied if they proved inconvenient. Thus, whether a child was “legitimate” or not often depended on the father’s desire to acknowledge the marriage and/or the child.

By the early thirteenth century, the church attempted to bring the act of marriage into the public arena, dictating a reading of the banns and a blessing in church. Eventually, the church became the arbiter when a true “marriage” had taken place. This was a gradual process, however, and in England, it wasn’t until 1843 that the presence of a church official became a requirement for a marriage to be legal.

Therefore, in the early centuries, there was not the same stigma attached to illegitimate birth as we know it, and a child’s success could depended on his or her talents as much as status at birth.

There was no doubt, of course, about the marriage of a king. Yet royal bastards were very much a part of life and history in medieval England. Some 40 illegitimate offspring of English kings have been identified between 1066 and 1485, with a nearly equal number possible or suggested. (Henry I is in a class by himself, responsible for half of the bonifides.) This number doesn’t include those fathered by princes or dukes, which surely would more than double the numbers.

If he chose to acknowledge an illegitimate offspring, the king could insure that child a life of privilege and power. Some of these lucky sons and daughters were treated as well as the legal issue. (Henry II’s wife Eleanor ostensibly raised one of his by-blows with her own children.)

This acceptance was driven by more than familial affection. An extra son was an extra ally. Many became military or church leaders. Though less prominent, the extra daughters were given in marriage to allies and foreign dignitaries in order to cement relationships. Thus, the bastard children of the king served the same function as legitimate children.

Yet this acceptance would only carry a bastard son so far. William the Conqueror might have been a bastard, but he was the first, and last, from 1066 to now to actually sit on the throne. (We are ignoring here that Queens Mary and Elizabeth were declared illegitimate by Parliament in Henry VIII’s multi-marriage quest for a male heir.) Even for non-royal children, by the twelfth century there was a clear legal distinction between bastards and legitimate heirs in the inheritance of property.

And for a royal bastard, of course, the prime “property” was the throne. After the death of the king, a bastard son could be a potential rival for the throne and a threat to his half-brother. Some managed to navigate the transition, but for many, the king’s death meant the end of a life of privilege and perhaps the end of life itself.

Such was the fate of Geoffrey Plantagenet, son of Henry II. Henry apparently thought his bastard son Geoffrey Plantagenet more talented than either of his legitimate heirs and used him as his first minister during his life. He prepared the way for Geoffrey to be a bishop of Lincoln, a role with as much secular as religious power in those days. (As a bastard, he had to receive dispensation from the Pope assume the office.)

But on his death, Henry had two legitimate sons alive and well: Richard the Lionhearted and John. Both eventually sat on the throne. Rocky relations with his half brothers forced Geoffrey into exile in Normandy.

By the fourteenth century, reported numbers of illegitimate children were down considerably, to one, two, or three per king. Some had no identified bastards at all.

History records nothing about children of the queens. By English common law, any child born to a wife was presumed to be the husband’s unless he was proven impotent or obviously not with his wife at the time of conception (e.g. at war abroad). As with so much history, most of what we know revolves about men’s stories.

Perhaps the most famous bastard family in medieval English history were the Beauforts. They were the children of John of Gaunt, a younger son of Edward III, and his mistress of many years, Katherine Swynford. (Their story is immortalized in Anya Seton’s Katherine, the book which sparked my lifelong interest both in this subject and in the fourteenth century.) When, at long last, he and Katherine wed, their four children were legitimized, but barred from being considered for the succession. Despite this prohibition, within four generations, the great, great grandson of this love match sat on the throne as Henry VII, founder of the Tudor line.

Blythe Gifford has turned a life long interest in English royal bastards into THE HARLOT’S DAUGHTER, October 2007, Harlequin Historical. For more, see http://www.blythegifford.com/. Much of the information here comes from The Royal Bastards of Medieval England by Given-Wilson and Curteis.


Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Interesting, Blythe, that illegitimate birth in the early centuries didn't carry the stigma that it would later on. Even then, it seems like the stigma was applied mostly if it was politically convenient.

But what where would the romance genre be without our bastard heros and illegitimate sons and daughters? ;-0

1:53 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Finished reading your book this past weekend, Blythe. Very, very nice!!

3:12 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

What fascinating research. More stuff for me to tuck away for future reference. I love it!! (I don't get out much. Can you tell?) Your book is on my TBR stack. I am really looking forward to it. My great aunt is continually doing research on our family's history. My maiden name is Bolton. Imagine how thrilled I was to discover we are related to the Earl of Bolton. Then how funny it was to discover, our branch of the family is from the wrong side of the blanket!! Oh well!!

7:02 PM  
Blogger Blythe Gifford said...

Keira, glad you enjoyed the book. And Doglady, hope you do, too! One interesting tidbit I found in my research is that "bar sinister" does not exist in heraldry. There is no such mark. But, as you said, Kathrynn, where would we be without our bastard heroes?


5:37 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

"One interesting tidbit I found in my research is that "bar sinister" does not exist in heraldry. There is no such mark."

That is utterly fascinating, Blythe! I had no idea. So does this mean that the chivalric conceits for symbols of bastardy are the stuff of fiction?

I'm reading about the Beaufort children now ... and they seem to have had no problems with royal preferment from Richard II.

6:16 AM  
Blogger Blythe Gifford said...

Amanda: It was actually Richard II's successor, Henry IV, who barred the Beauforts from the succession, largely, I'm sure, because he was descended from John of Gaunt's first (legitimate!) wife and didn't want the competition. (Remember - bastards get in trouble AFTER the father dies. John of Gaunt was alive and well during almost all of Richard's rule.)
I originally wanted to include the heraldry information in my article, but it gets complicated. There were marks of cadency: each son had a different symbol on the family shield, usually denoting birth order. A baton (not bar) sinister was recognized as a bastard symbol by the herald of the Duke of Burgundy in 1463, but this was a "may" not a "must" and not universally used. (It all gets much more complicated. Maybe I should do an article on that someday!)


9:44 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Free Web Site Counter
Kennedy Western University Online