The Royal Bastards of Medieval England

Rob Vest

Royal Bastards in Context
    Succession to the English royal throne in the middle ages was often a contentious affair. Important factors to consider in a royal candidate were familial links to the previous king, amount of support from the noble class, personal power, and leadership ability. In addition, it was also important that the claimant be of legitimate birth. Accusations of illegitimacy were sometimes used by rivals to smear a royal candidate, and a proven bastard had little chance of wearing the crown, unless he was named William the Conqueror.

About the Authors
    The Royal Bastards of Medieval England by Chris Given-Wilson and Alice Curteis was first published in 1984 by Routledge and Kegan Paul, London. Dr Given-Wilson is a professor at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, where he is Deputy Head of the School of History. Ms Curteis also works at the University of St Andrews, in the English Language Teaching Centre.

Thesis of Royal Bastards
    The Royal Bastards of Medieval England explores bastardy in the English royal family during the middle ages, and how bastardy was viewed at the time by English society as a whole. The book touches on marriage, divorce, love, and sexuality among the royals, and gives an overview of each monarch's actual, probable, and unlikely bastards, from Henry I (1100-1135) to Richard III (1483-1485).

    The first three chapters of this book provide general background information on England's royal family in the Middle Ages, the political aspects of marriage and divorce, medieval perceptions of sex and love, the role of bastardy in medieval law, and heraldic rules for bastards.
    The remaining twelve chapters of Royal Bastards... each detail either a group of bastards attributed to one or two monarchs ("the bastards of Richard I and King John"), the bastards of a royal line ("Yorkist royal bastards"), or individual royal bastards of renown ("Gervais of Blois").
    During the period of 1066-1485, the English kings spawned at least forty-one verifiable bastards, though many more have been speculated. Generally speaking, there were worse fates than being branded as the king's bastard in medieval England. Several of the bastard sons became earls, one became abbot of Westminster, and another archbishop of York. Illegitimate daughters were often married into other royal and noble families in order to cement political alliances. The only rung of the social ladder forbidden to English royal bastards at the time seems to have been the kingship itself (though several royal bastards in other parts of Europe did succeed to the throne). Though the paternal legitimacy of a few English kings, such as Richard II, Edward IV, and Edward V, has been contested and open to speculation, the last undoubted bastard to wear the English crown in the Middle Ages was William the Conqueror.
    On all social levels in medieval England, there was little stigma attached to bastardy, though the Church did often advise against the fathering of illegitimate children. Bastards were often recognized by their fathers, and as long as they did not inherit their fathers' property, were viewed much the same as legitimate children. In some cases, bastards were loved even more than the legitimate children of their parents, as in the case of Geoffrey 'Plantagenet,' whom Henry II, on his deathbed, called his "only true son"-not a tough call, considering Henry's legitimate sons, Richard I and John (both future kings who would father their own bastards), had both plotted against their father.

Views on Royal Bastards
    For the most part, I found this book an interesting read. Though quite dry in a few places, such as the chapter on marriage and divorce, I still found this information useful in creating a sense of context for the rest of the book. Other parts this book I enjoyed quite a bit. Some of the more colorful characters in Royal Bastards... include: Henry I, who fathered nearly half of the bastards mentioned in the book; Henry II's eldest bastard, Geoffrey 'Plantagenet,' archbishop of York, who became his father's most loyal and trusted advisor, and would later remain a constant thorn in the sides of his half-brothers Richard I and John; William Longsword, another of Henry II's bastards, who, unlike Geoffrey, got on well with his brothers and often gambled with King John; Sir Roger de Clarendon, bastard son of Edward the Black Prince, who served his half-brother Richard II as a knight of the king's chamber, but was later hanged for treason by his half-cousin, Henry IV; and Richard III, who was able to formally claim the English throne by declaring his brother Edward IV's sons, Edward V and Richard of York, were products of an invalid marriage.

Useless Trivia
    Perhaps the most interesting piece of useless trivia I discovered in Royal Bastards was in how bastardy was noted in heraldic law. A bastard was permitted to display the coat of arms of his father with a bend sinister ( a diagonal line across the shield, starting from the upper left </>, as if the shield were being held) used as a mark of cadency, to denote between the arms of the father and those of legitimate sons. In some cases, a bordure wavy (a wavy border around the perimeter of the shield), a bordure compony (a border divided into segments), or a canton (a miniature shield of the father's or mother's arms superimposed on the main shield) was used to denote bastardy.