Book Corner: The Legitimacy of Bastards by Helen Matthews

For the nobility and gentry in later medieval England, land was a source of wealth and status. Their marriages were arranged with this in mind, and it is not surprising that so many of them had mistresses and illegitimate children. John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, married at the age of twenty to a ten-year-old granddaughter of Edward I, had at least eight bastards and a complicated love life. In theory, bastards were at a considerable disadvantage. Regarded as filius nullius’ or the son of no one, they were unable to inherit real property and barred from the priesthood. In practice, illegitimacy could be less of a stigma in late medieval England than it became between the sixteenth and late twentieth centuries. There were ways of making provision for illegitimate offspring and some bastards did extremely well: in the church; through marriage; as soldiers; a few even succeeding to the family estates. _The Legitimacy of Bastards_ is the first book to consider the individuals who had illegitimate children, the ways in which they provided for them and attitudes towards both the parents and the bastard children. It also highlights important differences between the views of illegitimacy taken by the Church and by the English law.

I often come across non-fiction books about which I think ‘ooh, this could be handy for research’, but every once in a while I come across a book and I just think ‘wow! This is so useful! Every one needs a copy!’ The Legitimacy of Bastards; The Place of Illegitimate Children in Later Medieval England by Helen Matthews definitely falls in this latter category.

The Legitimacy of Bastards; The Place of Illegitimate Children in Later Medieval England examines the church and lay laws governing illegitimacy in later medieval England, and portrays the reality of bastard children. Based on the author’s own thesis, the book should be the ‘go to’ tool for anyone who needs to study the stigma, status and reality of illegitimacy in medieval England.

Divided into 6 chapters, The Legitimacy of Bastards; The Place of Illegitimate Children in Later Medieval England explores the legal status of illegitimate children and the various types – or categories – of illegitimacy within medieval society; whether they be children of unmarried parents, married parents or of members of the clergy dictated their prospects in life and career opportunities. The book also examines the methods used by parents in order to get around the various limitations placed on illegitimate children, such as legal devices, church careers and, of course, marriage.

One of the challenges of researching illegitimacy in later medieval England is that there is no single source of reliable records of the kind that is available, for example, for some of the Italian city states. It is no accident that the comprehensive study of bastardy in England begins with the sixteenth century and the introduction of parochial registration of births, marriages and deaths in 1538. Even then, the level of detail prior to 1850 is limited. Any attempt to establish the prevalence of illegitimacy in the period before parish registers are available is clearly even more problematic. Illegitimate children cannot be identified by their name alone. Bastards who were recognised by their fathers would very often take their father’s name, though some were known by their mother’s surname. It should be noted that a surname beginning with ‘Fitz-‘ simply means ‘son of’ and does not itself denote illegitimacy, although it became common for royal bastards to have names of this type, for example Henry Fitzroy, the son of Henry VIII (1509-47) and Elizabeth Blount, a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon.

However, some attempt has been made to do so at the level of peasant society by exploiting manorial records, mainly in the context of wider studies of a particular peasant community. As in the Italian city states, it is the existence of financial records that makes this possible. In this case the records concerned are payments of fines. These were either leyrwite, a fine for single women and widows of unfree status who committed fornication, or childwyte, a fine for giving birth to an illegitimate child.

The Legitimacy of Bastards; The Place of Illegitimate Children in Later Medieval England looks into illegitimacy throughout all levels of society, from the royal family to the lowly peasant. Incredibly useful to my own research, Helen Matthews presents the experiences of John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey, as a case study of the practicalities of illegitimacy. This chapter helps the reader to understand the life and limitations of a child born outside of marriage, as well as the extraordinary lengths that parents were willing to go in order to advance the prospects of their children.

I had no idea how complex the laws surrounding illegitimacy in England, not just on inheritance, but also on marriage prospects, on the difference between church and state and on the difference between clerical and lay requirements for the legitimisation of a child.

An easy book to read, Helen Matthews has made good use of the materials and evidence available to build a picture of the realities of illegitimacy in later medieval England, not just for the child themselves, but for their families and the legitimate heirs. Impeccably researched and rich in detail The Legitimacy of Bastards; The Place of Illegitimate Children in Later Medieval England is a wonderful research tool and an engaging read, with none of the dryness that you often find in books developed from academic theses.

The only downside of The Legitimacy of Bastards; The Place of Illegitimate Children in Later Medieval England is that there are no footnotes, which makes it hard for the researcher to follow up some of the details; however, there is an exhaustive and impressive bibliography and an impressive list of the subjects used in the book for ease of cross-referencing.

The further I read into The Legitimacy of Bastards; The Place of Illegitimate Children in Later Medieval England the more I realised how useful this book will be to any researcher, student of history or casual reader around the subject. The impeccable research and engaging writing style make this a valuable addition to anyone’s medieval library.

I cannot recommend it highly enough!

To buy the book:

The Legitimacy of Bastards; The Place of Illegitimate Children in Later Medieval England is available from Pen & Sword and Amazon in the UK and US.

About the Author:

Helen Matthews studied medieval history at UCL and Royal Holloway. A chance remark in a footnote inspired her to embark on the thesis on medieval bastards, on which this book is based.


My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.


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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

7 thoughts on “Book Corner: The Legitimacy of Bastards by Helen Matthews

  1. bitaboutbritain 18/10/2019 / 10:30

    Intriguing! When you think about it, it is only very recently that the unfair stigma of illegitimacy has disappeared (it has, hasn’t it?!) from our society.


    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 18/10/2019 / 10:33

      It’s a very interesting book to read – I didn’t know the half of it. It has always struck me as unfair, that it was the illegitimate child who suffered for the actions of its parents.


  2. Jackie Carrell 18/10/2019 / 11:47

    I just ordered this book. Can’t wait to read it. I’m sure this will be a great reference for my personal use, thanks so much for bringing it to our attention. 👍🏻😘

    Liked by 1 person

  3. coleen561 18/10/2019 / 17:46

    My focus is on the 12th century. Does this book include information about illegitimacy in this time period? I can’t help but think of Henry I and his many illegitimate children.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 18/10/2019 / 20:04

      It focuses on the latter medieval, but did mention various children of Henry I in a number of places. And you may find the details on the development of the laws surrounding illegitimacy and inheritance useful.

      Liked by 1 person

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