Sunday, December 27, 2015

Mrs Gaskell's Tower Part II - Illegitimacy in History

By Annie Whitehead

A few weeks ago, I was at the enchanting village of Silverdale in Lancashire, situated on the northern tip of Morecambe Bay and nestled in an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). I envisaged another photo tour, as I've done before on these pages, but, whilst along with some stunning scenery and some rather large houses with Maseratis parked on the drives, there's plenty here of historical note, there is not much else to connect Mrs Gaskell with the place.

However, it was while staying here that she wrote her novel Ruth and this book is noted for its subject matter - that of illegitimacy. A discussion of this theme in literature would probably be enlightening, but is not for the pages of this blog. Instead I began to think about 'bastards' in history generally; how they fared, whether their illegitimacy hindered them and whether in fact we would know of them today had their parents been married.

Henry I's bastards were many in number and have not remained, to be a bit 1066 and All That, "memorable", but the fact that his only legitimate son drowned had a long-lasting impact on the country, resulting in the civil war between Henry's daughter, Matilda, and his nephew, Stephen, which ultimately saw the Plantagenets ruling until there was a bit of a skirmish in a field near Bosworth in 1485. And speaking of Plantagenets, it's still a matter of fevered speculation that Edward IV might have been a bastard - his mother Cecily seems almost to have confessed as much - but at the time it didn't seem to harm his career. No, what made folks a bit po-faced about him was his marriage to the 'commoner' Elizabeth Woodville. Still, she had the last laugh, as there was more of her blood in subsequent kings and queens than Edward's, if rumours about his mother are true (Elizabeth's daughter married Henry Tudor).

Chucking a bastard son or two into the mix is always bound to muddy the waters - there are those who argue vociferously that Richard I, he with the Lionheart, was homosexual. And yet, Phillip of Cognac was his illegitimate son and may not have been the only one.
While we're on the subject of homosexuality, James I seemed happy to flaunt his preference for men but managed to sire two sons, so perhaps that argument against Richard I's generally accepted proclivities doesn't hold much water.

Conjecture also surrounds the legitimacy of Charles II's most famous 'bastard', James, Duke of Monmouth. Charles was not above acknowledging his offspring and handsomely endowing his children and mistresses with lands and titles. But, like Henry I, he had no legitimate male heir, he was getting old, and trouble was brewing. The problem hinged upon the details of Charles' relationship with Monmouth's mother, Lucy Walter, and the existence, or not, of a piece of paper that would prove the couple was officially married - a marriage certificate kept in a secret Black Box, the existence of which was denied by Charles. Whether or not he believed himself to be illegitimate, (he claimed he wasn't), it didn't stop Monmouth making a bid for the throne upon the death of Charles II. Religion being another 'slight' problem, many people preferred the 'bastard protestant' Monmouth to any legitimate but Catholic offspring of Charles' legal heir, his brother James II.

So, the history of the English monarchy is fairly well sprinkled with bastards, some of whom - like Henry VII's 'natural' son - gained no more notoriety than to be awarded the constable-ship of Beaumaris on the island of Anglesey and some of whom attempted, unsuccessfully, to change the line of succession in their favour.

Of course, a few weeks ago in October, we 'celebrated' the anniversary of one of the most famous battles in English history, and we can say without doubt that illegitimacy was no hindrance to William the Conqueror, or William the Bastard, to give him his proper name. A couple of days ago it was Christmas Day, a significant date for William, for that was when he was crowned in Westminster.

Say what you like about William (and I frequently do), a nice little footnote is that unlike most of his successors, he seems to have remained completely faithful to his wife. Was he a loving husband, or was he simply anxious that no child of his should be taunted by the tilt-yard bullies?

Annie Whitehead is an historian and author of To Be a Queen. She also writes articles for various magazines.
Find her at her blog: Casting Light upon the Shadow
and find details of her novel HERE

illustrations: Mrs Gaskell's tower - author's own photograph
all others licensed under Public Domain via 'commons':
Richard I - author Adam Bishop
Monmouth - portrait by Messing


  1. As usual, really enjoyed this flight through history.

  2. An entertaining post, thank you! Ah, the archer of Rouen, eh? Even if that wasn't true, Elizabeth Woodville did have the last laugh; I believe she has descendants in the current royal family, and not via Edward. Prince William and his brother are, I think, descended from Elizabeth's son by her first marriage via their mother, Diana. And wasn't Diana also descended from some royal mistress? I can't recall the details, but it was in the papers at the time of the wedding.
    William the Conqueror had a lot of younger sons come with him on his little trip to England and I'd bet some of them were bastards themselves, out to get their own lands and titles.

    1. It's difficult to imagine that everyone was faithful to their spouses, and even if the royal lines depended on legitimacy, I reckon lots of people had the 'wrong' blood running through their veins. No DNA tests back in those days, so who could prove anything? Thanks for leaving a comment, much appreciated :)

  3. I'm surprised the descendants of Charles II haven't formed a club. There must be thousands of them!

  4. Fruity and fascinating little dip into royal indiscretions! Thanks Annie for another intriguing read. Shall be sharing this one!

    1. Thanks so much Elaine - I thought I'd keep it light, for the festive period!


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