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


Isabella de Warenne, Queen of Scotland?

John Balliol and Isabella de Warenne
John Balliol and Isabella de Warenne

Whilst researching for my post on Ada de Warenne I discovered that 100 years later, a kinswoman of hers also, briefly, made an appearance on the stage of Scottish history.

Isabella de Warenne was the daughter of John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey, and Alice de Lusignan. Alice was the daughter of King John of England’s widow, Isabella of Angouleme, and Hugh X de Lusignan and half-sister to Henry III of England. Isabella was, therefore, Henry’s niece. Through her paternal grandmother, Maud Marshal, Isabella was also a great-granddaughter of the ‘Greatest Knight’ William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and Regent of England in the early years of Henry III’s reign.

Isabella was one of 3 children; her elder sister, Eleanor, married Henry Percy and was the mother of Henry de Percy, 1st Baron Percy. Isabella’s younger brother, William de Warenne, married Joan de Vere, daughter of the 5th Earl of Oxford, and was father to 2 children, a son and a daughter; John and Alice. John de Warenne was the last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, whose marital and extra-marital situation led to the extinction of the senior Warenne line. It was through John’s sister, Alice de Warenne, that whom the title earl of Surrey would eventually pass to her son Richard Fitzalan, 10th Earl of Arundel.

John Balliol, King of Scots

Alice de Lusignan died in 1256, shortly after giving birth to her youngest child, William. Isabella was born around 1253 and was married to John Balliol, Lord of Bywell, sometime before 7th February 1281.

In the early 1290s, John was one of the 13 Competitors for the Scottish throne. He was the great-grandson of Ada de Warenne’s youngest son, David of Huntingdon, by David’s daughter, Margaret. John and Isabella were, therefore, 4th cousins, both descended from William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Surrey, and his wife, isabel de Vermandois.

With 13 claimants to the Scottish throne it was Edward I of England who was given the duty of selecting Scotland’s next king. Isabella’s close family links to the English crown may have helped Edward decide in John’s favour and he was installed as King of Scotland in November 1292.

John and Isabella had at least 3, but possibly 4, children together.

A daughter, Margaret, died unmarried. There is mention of another daughter, Anne; but there is  doubt as to whether she ever existed.

Their eldest son, Edward, was born around 1283. With English support, Edward made his own bid for the Scottish throne in the 1330s, and was crowned king following his defeat of David II‘s forces at the Battle of Dupplin Moor in 1332. David’s supporters and Edward struggled against each other, until they eventually triumphed over Edward and he was deposed in 1336.

Isabella’s son, Edward Balliol, King of Scots

Edward finally surrendered his claim to the Scottish throne in 1356 whilst living in English exile; he died in Wheatley, Doncaster, probably in 1363 or 1364. Although his final resting place has recently been claimed to be under Doncaster Post Office, the former site of Doncaster Priory, it remains elusive.

John and Isabella’s possible younger son, Henry, was killed on 16th December 1332 at the Battle of Annan, a resounding victory for supporters of David II against Henry’s brother, Edward.

Although Edward was briefly married to Margaret of Taranto, the marriage was annulled. Neither Edward nor Henry had any children.

Very little is known of John and Isabella’s life together. Her death date and final resting place are both unknown. It is by no means certain that Isabella was still alive when John became king, so may have died before 1292, when John succeeded to the Scottish throne. She was no longer living, however, when her own father defeated John and the Scottish army at the Battle of Dunbar in April 1296; John abdicated in July of the same year and died in French exile in 1314.

John’s claim to the Scottish throne was supported by the Comyns, which led to the murder of John Comyn, in the church at Dumfries, by Robert the Bruce, the other leading competitor to the throne who eventually succeeded as King Robert I and won a resounding victory over the English at Bannockburn in 1314.

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Picture: John Balliol and Isabella de Warenne from britroyals.com.

Further reading: Nigel Tranter, The Story of Scotland; britroyals.com; royal.gov.uk/HistoryoftheMonarchy/ScottishMonarchs; Alison Weir, Britain’s Royal Families; David Williamson, Brewer’s British Royalty; Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens; englishmonarchs.co.uk.

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

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly