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.

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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


Book Corner: The House of Beaufort by Nathen Amin

The Wars of the Roses were a tumultuous period in English history, with family fighting family over the greatest prize in the kingdom – the throne of England. But what gave the eventual victor of these brutal and complex wars, Henry Tudor, the right to claim the crown? What made his Beaufort mother the great heiress of medieval England, and how exactly did an illegitimate line come to challenge the English monarchy?

While the Houses of York and Lancaster fought brutally for the crown, other noble families of the kingdom also played integral roles in the wars; grand and prestigious names like the Howards, Mowbrays, Nevilles and Percys were intimately involved in the conflict, but none symbolised the volatile nature of the period quite like the House of Beaufort. Their rise, fall, and rise again is the story of England during the fifteenth century, a dramatic century of war, intrigue and scandal both at home and abroad. Many books have been written about individual members of the dynasty, but never has the whole family been explored as one.

This book uncovers the rise of the Beauforts from bastard stock of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, to esteemed companions of their cousin Henry V, celebrated victor of Agincourt, and tracks their chastening fall with the House of Lancaster during the 1460s and 1470s. The hopes and fortunes of the family gradually came to rest upon the shoulders of a teenage widow named Margaret Beaufort and her young son Henry. From Margaret would rise the House of Tudor, the most famous of all England’s royal houses and a dynasty that owed its crown to the blood of its forebears, the House of Beaufort. From bastards to princes, the Beauforts are medieval England’s most captivating family.

The House of Beaufort: the Bastard Line that Captured the Crown is a masterpiece of historical writing. Nathen Amin has written the story of a family from its very beginning, highlighting the heights of their success, and the depths of their failures. Covering almost exactly 100 years, the book provides a fascinating insight into a family who lived close to the crown, but looked like they would constantly be denied it.

John of Gaunt, father of the Beauforts

From the love story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, through the successes and failures of the Hundred Years War, and the devastation of the Wars of the Roses, Nathen Amin retells the fascinating story of the Beauforts in an insightful, balanced manner, which highlights their weaknesses as much as it does their strengths.

As the fourteenth century came to its dramatic close, the Beauforts were well placed to take advantage of their connection to the new regime. John Beaufort, earl of Somerset and the king’s chamberlain, was in his late twenties and evidently adept at dealing with a wide range of political and martial issues. Henry Beaufort was around twenty-five years old and learning the ropes as bishop of Lincoln, while Thomas Beaufort had recently reached adulthood and was ready to put his body on the line for his king. Their sole sister Joan, Meanwhile, had settled into married life as the countess of Westmorland, establishing a Beaufort-blooded Neville hegemony in the north.

As siblings to the king of England, a promising future beckoned for the foursome. Provided they retained the good grace of their half-brother, they had reasonable expectations of widespread patronage that included money, manors and titles…

The author clearly demonstrates his enthusiasm for one of the most famous medieval families; however, this is not a fan book. Their weaknesses and failings are highlighted just as much as their successes. Actions are analysed and dissected to provide insights into not only the family, but the history and politics of England itself.

The House of Beaufort: the Bastard Line that Captured the Crown is beautifully written and reads like a novel of a family saga. And of course, as with all of us, each character in the Beaufort story has human traits that means their actions are not always understood or easily explained. The author clearly comprehends and demonstrates the fickleness of human actions and brings to vivid life this complex family who had such an influence on English history.

The entire Beaufort family will find their stories told in this book, from the first and oldest, John Beaufort, through his brothers, nephews and nieces, sons and grandchildren. The story of Joan Beaufort  queen of Scotland, is told with sympathy and compassion, as is the original love story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt. Characters who played a part in the lives and history of the family are also treated with fairness and compassion, such as their legitimate royal siblings and nephews, Joan of Arc and Richard, duke of York.

Arms of Thomas Beaufort, 1st Duke of Exeter

Any reader will have their favourite Beaufort, and one they love to hate. Thomas Beaufort comes across as the perfect and chivalrous soldier, whilst Henry is the devious but diligent churchmen. Thomas is my favourite, he’s the hero. However, I love that Henry is such an ambiguous character, he is probably the greatest recreation in the book. Nathen Amin has clearly thought through Henry Beaufort’s ambitions, motivations and his actions. He tells the story of a bishop who was not always in favour with the establishment, his personal ambitions putting him at odds with successive kings, despite the fact his abilities were impressive.

Nathen Amin’s passion for the Beauforts comes across in every page. His persuasive, perceptive arguments are all supported with ample evidence and explanation. These arguments and insight are balanced and reflective, even in the divided loyalties of the Wars of the Roses, there is no bias as the story is told.

Comprehensive and compelling, this is a book that should grace the shelves of any fan of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, of the royal Houses of Lancaster and York, and the Hundred Years War, or even for a simple lover of medieval history. This book will become a powerful research tool for anyone looking into the Beaufort family and their links to the crown of England and the momentous events of the Wars of the Roses

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About the author: Nathen Amin grew up in the heart of Carmarthenshire, West Wales, and has long had an interest in Welsh history, the Wars of the Roses and the early Tudor period. His first book Tudor Wales was released in 2014 and was well-received, followed by a second book called York Pubs in 2016. His third book, the first full-length biography of the Beaufort family, the House of Beaufort, was released in 2017 and became an Amazon #1 Bestseller for Wars of the Roses. He is currently working on his fourth book, Pretenders to the Tudor Crown, for release in 2019.

Nathen is also the founder of the Henry Tudor Society and has featured discussing the Tudors on BBC radio and television, as well as in print and online media across the UK. He has a degree in Business and Journalism and now lives in York, where he works as a Technical Writer.

The House of Beaufort: the Bastard Line that Captured the Crown is available from Amazon UK and Amberley Publishing and will shortly be released on Amazon US on 1st November.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Guest Post: The Siege of Rouen by Nathen Amin

Today it is my pleasure to welcome author Nathen Amin to the blog. Nathen has stopped by on the last day of his blog tour with an extract from his wonderful new book, House of Beaufort, focusing on the Siege of Rouen which took place between July 1418 and January 1419 as part of Henry V’s attempt to conquer Normandy, and ultimately claim the French throne.

The Siege of Rouen (Extract from House of Beaufort by Nathen Amin)

By the summer of 1418, the king’s army was camped outside the gates of Rouen, the final obstacle in reconquering the duchy. Although the city was the second largest in France, it had suffered from the intermittent civil war between the Armagnac and Burgundian factions and had been brutally occupied by both forces. Now, it was to be harassed once more, this time by the English.

In mid-July, King Henry dispatched his uncle Thomas Beaufort to seek the city’s surrender, accompanied by ‘a fayre manye of men of arms and archers’. The duke of Exeter had spent the first few months of the year in England but on 3 March received a summons from his nephew requesting his services once again in France. By May, the duke was back on Norman soil, attended by a force of 500 men-at-arms and 1,500 archers, and on 1 July was appointed Count of Harcourt after capturing the town’s castle. He was also given custody of Lillebonne Castle, situated halfway between Harfleur and Rouen and timely motivation for the exhausting task that lay ahead.

According to the Brut Chronicle, upon arriving outside Rouen, Exeter set up camp and ‘displayed his banner’ before sending ‘herodes into the toun, and bade them to yeld it’. If they chose not to submit, then the duke promised they would ‘deie an harde and sharped deth, and withoute eny mercy or grace’. A small skirmish occurred when ‘a grete meny of men at arms, both on horsbak and eke on foot’ emerged from the town, although Exeter’s resilient force managed to ‘ovirthew an hep of them’, capturing thirty prisoners in the process . It was clear the Rouennais were not going to yield to the duke, who promptly departed south to Pont-de-l’Arche to inform his king. An unimpressed Henry V swiftly mobilised the remainder of his troops and returned to Rouen alongside his uncle.

The siege began in earnest on 29 July 1418, with the city well defended by large numbers of crossbowmen and artillery weaponry. English siege equipment, which had proved effective throughout the campaign, was rendered useless as Henry’s soldiers could not get within range of the city walls to create any discernible damage. Since brute force was not an option, the king resolved to starve the citizens into surrender. Henry spread his commanders around the city to block any attempts by French relief forces bringing supplies, with himself based in the east and his brother Clarence in the west. Exeter was positioned ‘on the north syde, before the Port Denys’, and the three chief commanders were capably supported by John Mowbray, earl of Norfolk, James Butler, earl of Ormond, the lords Harrington, Talbot, Roos, Willoughby and Fitzhugh, and Sir John Cornwallis.

King Henry V

The English expected the Rouennais to surrender after a token resistance, whilst those within the walls stubbornly awaited the arrival of a French army to come to their rescue. Neither occurred. Although outbreaks of dysentery and disease afflicted both Rouen and the English camp, commanders of both sides refused to back down. At one stage, an Englishman known as Sir John le Blanc, Governor of Harfleur and a member of Exeter’s retinue, challenged a French captain named Langnon, the bastard of D’Arly, to a jousting duel. Langnon agreed to the contest and emerged from the beyond the walls with around thirty companions. Although the intention of both men was to run the joust three times, Langnon ferociously unhorsed his adversary at the first attempt, who was then dragged into the city where he succumbed to his injuries. The Frenchman was urged by the English to return le Blanc’s lifeless body, for which he was begrudgingly paid four hundred nobles, possibly from the purse of a presumably demoralised Exeter himself.

By December, the citizens of Rouen were feeling the effect of the siege, having consumed most of their provisions. By Christmas they had ‘nothir bred, ale, nor wyne’ and were forced to survive on horsemeat and the flesh of dogs, mice, rats and cats. The city’s despairing commanders ordered all women and children, along with any old or sick men, to be evicted from Rouen at once as they were deemed to be of no military value. Considering many of those expelled were related to soldiers left behind, it seems likely the commanders intended for them to be honourably received into English hands as prisoners of war, to be fed and watered until the siege was over. They had not counted on the ruthless disposition of the English king.

Although several of King Henry’s soldiers initially endeavoured to feed the evictees from their own rations, he dispatched orders that no assistance was to be provided to the pleading masses. His command was adhered to, and the beleaguered citizens were left to starve in ditches halfway between the English and the city walls, slowly perishing in full view of both camps. It was an utterly brutal decision and intended to demotivate the watching garrison of Rouen, who could only look on shamefacedly as those they had expelled screamed for help that was not forthcoming.

A chilling insight into the horrors of the siege is found in a lengthy poem written by John Page, an English soldier present during the sustained attack. Page’s compassionate poem barely conceals the anguish he experienced during the winter of 1418, or the significant pity he felt for the innocent women and children of Rouen. In one resonating couplet, Page records how he witnessed a starving, orphaned ‘chylde of two yere or three, go a boute to begge hyt brede, fadyr and modyr bothe were dede’, whilst he also came across ‘women holdyn in hyr armys, dede chyldryn in hyr barmys (bosoms)’. After the citizens were expelled, a despondent Page noted how ‘women with their children in their arms’ were begging the soldiers to ‘have marcy uppon us, ye Englysche men’.

Arms of Thomas Beaufort, 1st Duke of Exeter

There could be no mercy until the English king was placated, and as Rouen could not withstand the tenacious monarch indefinitely, dialogue was finally opened between the two parties after Christmas. The city accepted terms of surrender on 19 January 1419 when, after six months of ‘toilsome siege and many assaults’, Thomas Beaufort was handed the keys to Rouen. The duke galloped into the city, ‘a valiant captain mounted on a goodly courser’, to formally seek the submission of the council. Trumpets, clarions and pipes heralded the duke’s arrival, with his English soldiers, perhaps charged with adrenaline, provocatively shouting ‘St George! St George!’ as they passed through the gates. Page reported the inhabitants were but ‘bonys and skyn’ and beheld their conquerors with great fear, prompting some of the residents to nervously ransom their lives ‘for fifty thousand pounds in gold’. Money was not enough to save a commander named Alain Blanchard; he was promptly executed for having hanged English prisoners from the walls in preceding months.

One can only wonder at the horror which greeted the duke as he rode through the disease-plagued, death-infested streets. Rotting corpses littered the roads, with Page confirming ‘in everyche strete lay dede’ whilst those who had only just survived the ordeal, ‘dyde faster than cartys myght cary away’. The stench alone must have overwhelmed Exeter and his men, forced to navigate their way through grim pandemonium. Even so, Thomas had a duty to perform, and so the duke ‘to the castelle fyrste he roode’ and ‘ryche baners up he set’, including those of St George and the arms of France and England. As the flags fluttered in the wind, their presence above the city represented not only a hard-fought English victory over Rouen, but also the duchy of Normandy.

With Exeter having secured the city, the king followed his uncle into Rouen the following afternoon, and whilst ‘the bells of all the churches were rung’, the surviving ecclesiastical figures emerged to greet the intimidating figure that had reduced their places of worship to rubble. Alongside his commanders, Henry offered thanksgiving in the cathedral before settling into his new lodgings within the castle. His nobles dispersed into the city to find accommodation in any buildings English cannons had failed to destroy.

Exeter finally had the opportunity to rest his weary body, and to reflect on events of previous months, particularly the waste of life that had occurred on both sides of Rouen’s walls. Tragic losses had not been limited to the Normans, for death had also struck at the heart of the Beaufort family. Accompanying his stepfather Clarence on the campaign had been the seventeen-year-old Henry Beaufort, 2nd Earl of Somerset, heir of John Beaufort, and Exeter’s nephew. Information about the youngster’s life is scarce, although his upbringing was overseen by Clarence and partly funded by his namesake uncle, the bishop of Winchester.

Likewise, young Henry’s death is also poorly documented, although later inquisitions in the summer of 1425 place the date of his demise to 25 November 1418, just as the siege of Rouen reached its climax. It’s unclear whether the cause was warfare or disease, or if his uncle Exeter was present at the time having been posted near to the Clarence forces in which the teenage earl served. There is no record of what happened to Henry’s body, whilst his earldom passed to his brother John who became the third Beaufort to hold the Somerset title within a decade. At what point Bishop Beaufort, or the boy’s mother Margaret Holland, became aware of his demise is also uncertain, as is his final resting place. This Henry Beaufort remains an enigma, something of a lost Beaufort, and his death was a sad consequence of the fall of Rouen.

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Nathen Amin grew up in the heart of Carmarthenshire and has long had an interest in history. He has a degree in Business and Journalism and runs the Henry Tudor Society. He has an active social media presence promoting historical sites in Wales. He now lives in York.

The House of Beaufort is available now from both Amazon and Amberley Publishing.

And here’s the links to catch up with the rest of Nathen’s blog tour.

Day 1: The Medievalist.net; Day2: On the Tudor Trail; Day 3: Lila’s Vintage World; Day 4: kristiedean.com

 

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly