Questions about Illegitimacy

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Brigid Barry

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My understanding (and correct me if I'm wrong) is that being an illegitimate child (IC) didn't carry a huge stigma until the last couple of hundred years. I know of a few famous IC - William the Conqueror and Henry Fitzroy - who their status didn't affect them at all. Members of the clergy even had "natural" children.

I don't know when being born on the "wrong side of the blanket" became an insult? Is my assumption that IC weren't automatically social outcasts correct? Did it make a difference if the parents were noble vs common?
Was it something that wasn't discussed because it was impolite?

I know this is odd, I appreciate any assistance anyone can offer.
 

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Well, illegitimacy during the Tudor period meant the difference between Princess Elizabeth and Lady Elizabeth, and one of the questions re: that lady as queen was whether her cousin Mary Stuart was rightful queen of England since Elizabeth had been declared a bastard at one time. Royal bastards often enjoyed a level of recognition and privilege that common bastards did not, but they were still bar sinister.
 

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Not a researcher, or expert, or remotely intelligent or necessarily self-aware, but would the stigma/non-stigma of illegitimacy depend on the cultural importance placed upon marriage (presumably as a means to ensure lines of succession)?

Is there a specific culture or era you're interested in?
 

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Take a look at Shakespeare's plays. "Bastards" don't come off too well.

And someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm under the impression that William the Conqueror wanted the throne of English precisely because he could make his own rules there without regard to his status. Despite which, I don't think English nobles born out of wedlock could inherit titles after the Norman Conquest. Unless their fathers acknowledged them. (As in the Dukes of Northumberland.)

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If your father is a royal, you're way ahead of the game, illegitamate or not.

But it's going to vary widely. Are you talking about ancient Egyptian priests? The Hittites? Roman legions? The Chinese T'ang dynasty? Indian lower-caste 'untouchables'? Spartan soldiers? Regency-era England? Pope Alexander VI?
 

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I suspect there were two factors: did the child's father acknowledge them? Whether high or low born, if the father is out-in-the-open about it, it's hard for others to make a fuss. Illegitimacy was always more of a concern for the well-born, with family names and inheritances to protect. The rest of society just aped their betters.
I would think that the shame of cuckoldry was the chief reason for mockery, otherwise.
 

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In patriarchal societies, it'll be tied up with inheritance. If a man sires a child on his mistress, that child may be able to claim partial inheritance. If a wife births a firstborn sired by a man who is not her husband, the man risks his estate leaving his genetic line.
 

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My understanding (and correct me if I'm wrong) is that being an illegitimate child (IC) didn't carry a huge stigma until the last couple of hundred years. I know of a few famous IC - William the Conqueror and Henry Fitzroy - who their status didn't affect them at all. Members of the clergy even had "natural" children.
William the Bastard was called William the Bastard in his lifetime, though not to his face. It was an issue. THe fact that the sobriquet Fitzroy was used for royal bastards indicates, right off, that there was an issue.

The entire reason for marriage was to control inheritance, historically. It wasn't even a sacrament at first. But having the church officiated over marriage meant the church could declare heirs legitimate or not.

A lot depends on the specific era, the specific place, and the social classes involved.
 
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Tocotin

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Members of the clergy even had "natural" children.
That's true. But that didn't mean it wasn't frowned upon. Until the beginning of the 20th century, a man who was born out of wedlock could not become a priest in the Catholic Church. One of the reasons is that the church did not want to become a haven for social outcasts, because it would have lowered its prestige and cause it to lose the respect of the populace.

As others have said, perhaps it's better if you specified the time and culture you are researching. The issue of legitimacy was different even in various patriarchal cultures. A lot of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean rulers were children of concubines. Same for historic Islamic rulers, who were often children of slave women; under Islamic law, the child was considered legitimate if the father recognised it as his.

:troll
 

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I am mostly curious about medieval/Renaissance Europe. As my characters in WIPs hail from that time and general location (more or less).

If there is a stigma around illegitimacy, I assume someone would tiptoe around it rather than come out and ask?

Thanks for the clarification!
 
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Tocotin

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I am mostly curious about medieval/Renaissance Europe. As my characters in WIPs hail from that time and general location (more or less).

If there is a stigma around illegitimacy, I assume someone would tiptoe around it rather than come out and ask?
Do you mean asking directly whether someone was born out of a wedlock or not? As in, "excuse me, but was your mother married to your father when you were born"?

I think that if there were any questions about someone being a legitimate offspring of their father, all you needed to do was to go and check the parish register. Unless your character is of religion other than Christian, their birth circumstances and the names of their parents would have been recorded by the parish priest. If they were Jewish or Muslim, I suspect their religious community would also keep some sort of records that could be checked.

:troll
 

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I am mostly curious about medieval/Renaissance Europe. As my characters in WIPs hail from that time and general location (more or less).

There was definitely a stigma. Even bastards who were later legitimized carried some stigma. Henry Tudor's marriage to Catherine of Aragon is a good example of this. He came from legitimized Lancastrian blood, while she came from the legitimate Lancastrian line. Their marriage shored up his legitimate claim to the English throne. Of course, Catherine also came from legitimized Trastamara blood - it wasn't uncommon for the Pope to legitimize a bastard, and for them to inherit - but it definitely put a ruler in a more wobbly position than they'd be if they hadn't had to be legitimized to begin with.

If there is a stigma around illegitimacy, I assume someone would tiptoe around it rather than come out and ask?

People were a lot more closely connected then. I think, unless the person is some rando who happened to wander into the local village, everyone knew. (So there wouldn't be any reason to ask. Everyone just knows that Robert the Village Weaver was born on the wrong side of the sheets because everyone knows everything about Robert, anyway, since their town is made up of like 100 people and they don't have TV to entertain them, so gossip is what flies for high entertainment.)

Definitely someone being polite wouldn't throw it in someone's face. But, as noted above, "bastard" is often used as an insult in Shakespeare.
 
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Thecla

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My understanding (and correct me if I'm wrong) is that being an illegitimate child (IC) didn't carry a huge stigma until the last couple of hundred years. I know of a few famous IC - William the Conqueror and Henry Fitzroy - who their status didn't affect them at all. Members of the clergy even had "natural" children.
William the Conqueror/Bastard's father didn't have a legitimate son. Had he had one, William would have been merely 'the bastard' and not inherited any of his father's ranks or honours. He might have been left a bit of land. Note might. As it was, it was only because his great-uncle stood up for him that he got to keep what he'd been left, given William had the double disadvantage of being a bastard and a child. History was not set and could have unfolded very differently.

Henry Fitzroy was strongly disadvantaged because he was a bastard. Had he been legitimate he'd have been the king's undisputed heir from birth. He was created Duke of Richmond but wasn't Henry VIII's heir. There was talk of his being legitimised, because the alternative was a woman, but that never really went anywhere. Henry VIII went down the marry-until-I-get-a-legitimate-son route, not the legitimise-the-son-I-already-have route. Mary had a far stronger claim in the eyes of most people who mattered, even though she was a woman.
I don't know when being born on the "wrong side of the blanket" became an insult? Is my assumption that IC weren't automatically social outcasts correct? Did it make a difference if the parents were noble vs common?
Wealthy fathers could recognise and support their bastards in luxury if they wanted, but that doesn't mean they were on a par with their legitimate children. So no, not necessarily social outcasts but a great deal of stigma none the less. Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor as well as a cardinal, had an illegitimate son and daughter. The son was brought up under an assumed surname as a minor gentlemen (Thomas Winter, from memory) and spent much of his short life in Europe rather than England. The daughter was put in a nunnery as a baby and stayed there until Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell dissolved them. Cromwell's own illegitimate daughter was brought up as a minor gentlewoman. Whilst she wasn't left to starve, she didn't get any of the care and money lavished on his legitimate son, or even his legitimate daughters (both of whom died young before her birth). I don't think he acknowledged her. (note this is based on Diarmaid Macculloch's biography of Cromwell, not the Mantel novels)

There are very few accounts of bastards both to wealthy mothers because the stigma attached to such a pregnancy was so strong. Killing one's wife out of hand for adultery was, well, not right but understandable in most people's eyes. Putting her away in a convent, and the child too, was a good outcome. Getting a woman pregnant before you married her formally was fine; a betrothal ceremony was as good as marriage in society's eyes. This came back to kick Edward IV - or rather his heirs - in the teeth after his death. His marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was (probably) void because of his previous betrothal/hand-plighting to another woman and thus Edward V was (probably) a bastard. The boy's uncle and the church thought so anyway. And thus the Duke of Gloucester became Richard III.

Bastard was certainly an insult at all levels of society. If your father has nothing, or next to nothing, whether it materially affects your life chances may be moot, unless your mother is cast out by her family to die in a ditch, in which case your chances aren't that great.
Was it something that wasn't discussed because it was impolite?
It was an insult. A high level, I shall have your blood for that insult, not only to the person being called a bastard but also their mother. If you're dead set on fighting a duel with someone, call him a bastard.
I know this is odd, I appreciate any assistance anyone can offer.
 

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Getting a woman pregnant before you married her formally was fine; a betrothal ceremony was as good as marriage in society's eyes.

I'm not sure this was quite true, precisely because of the issues you mention. The whole, "Was this ruler betrothed, proxy married, or like, married-married with a papal dispensation, consummation witnessed and notarized, and a pregnancy to prove that the bride absolutely, totally, definitely had sex with someone (unless, y'know, it's another virgin birth scenario)" did seem to come up from time to time.

Generally if the couple was already betrothed, slept together before the wedding-wedding, then the kid came out a bit "early", well, y'know, it's amazing how many premature babies weight 8 lbs and are surprisingly healthy. (This was a common fiction up until like, the '80s in the US?) And it was definitely doable to get an after-the-fact dispensation to legitimize a child born before a marriage became legal, assuming the powers that be thought the marriage was a good idea.

A good example is the latter is that of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. They "eloped" (in quotes as they were betrothed and even had a proxy marriage before ever meeting in person, but it was still against the desires of her brother, who happened to rule Castile at the time so some sneaking around was involved) and promptly had a kid. However, said kid was considered a bastard for a while as the papal dispensation they used to justify their marriage was forged. (Ooops)

Eventually they found a sympathetic pope that gave them the dispensation + retroactively legitimized their daughter. But had the pope felt otherwise, he absolutely could have withheld the dispensation, which would have meant she wasn't married (despite being married in a church, by an archbishop, with a consummation that was witnessed and notarized and a marriage contract that went on for pages. Literally. The Spanish were really interested in contracts during that time period.) And while I think it highly improbable that the pope would have claimed the marriage legitimate but the daughter illegitimate, stranger things have happened.
 

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I'm not sure this was quite true, precisely because of the issues you mention. The whole, "Was this ruler betrothed, proxy married, or like, married-married with a papal dispensation, consummation witnessed and notarized, and a pregnancy to prove that the bride absolutely, totally, definitely had sex with someone (unless, y'know, it's another virgin birth scenario)" did seem to come up from time to time.

Generally if the couple was already betrothed, slept together before the wedding-wedding, then the kid came out a bit "early", well, y'know, it's amazing how many premature babies weight 8 lbs and are surprisingly healthy. (This was a common fiction up until like, the '80s in the US?) And it was definitely doable to get an after-the-fact dispensation to legitimize a child born before a marriage became legal, assuming the powers that be thought the marriage was a good idea.

A good example is the latter is that of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. They "eloped" (in quotes as they were betrothed and even had a proxy marriage before ever meeting in person, but it was still against the desires of her brother, who happened to rule Castile at the time so some sneaking around was involved) and promptly had a kid. However, said kid was considered a bastard for a while as the papal dispensation they used to justify their marriage was forged. (Ooops)

Eventually they found a sympathetic pope that gave them the dispensation + retroactively legitimized their daughter. But had the pope felt otherwise, he absolutely could have withheld the dispensation, which would have meant she wasn't married (despite being married in a church, by an archbishop, with a consummation that was witnessed and notarized and a marriage contract that went on for pages. Literally. The Spanish were really interested in contracts during that time period.) And while I think it highly improbable that the pope would have claimed the marriage legitimate but the daughter illegitimate, stranger things have happened.
I can't speak for Spain, but it was a thing in England (and Scotland). Perhaps not in the absolutely best of circles - Edward IV aside; his hand-clasping with Eleanor Butler (no marriage was celebrated) was the reason/pretext for Titulus Regius that declared his marriage invalid, his children illegitimate, and gave his brother Richard the reason/pretext to take the throne - but the betrothal/hand-plighting was when the paperwork was done and contracts signed. After that, the betrothed couple were perfectly able to sleep together without anyone taking issue (pun intended). The wedding itself was not a sacrament until fairly late in the day (sorry, haven't looked up when the church took over in England - I know it was later still in Scotland).

In Scotland, which follows Roman law, a church wedding wasn't necessary until very late in the 19C. All that mattered was society accepted two people were married. There's a Wilkie Collins novel (Man and Wife; 1870) that turns on the differences - and incompatibilities - in 19C marriage law between Scotland and England that led to the law here (Scotland) being changed. Until then, a legal marriage could exist in Scotland without one or other of the parties realising it did, whilst, at the same time, in England, people could think they were married without actually being so.

Edit: I appreciate the whole was/wasn't there a proper marriage was a Big Deal for Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur, or at least for Arthur's brother in later years. No one questioned it at the time, but they did years later. All the paperwork was in place, of course, and C and A been sanctioned to sleep together by her parents and his father, but when Henry married Catherine the papal dispensation allowed for either eventuality. He accepted that at the time. His doubts crept in later...
 
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frimble3

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I'm not sure this was quite true, precisely because of the issues you mention. The whole, "Was this ruler betrothed, proxy married, or like, married-married with a papal dispensation, consummation witnessed and notarized, and a pregnancy to prove that the bride absolutely, totally, definitely had sex with someone (unless, y'know, it's another virgin birth scenario)" did seem to come up from time to time.
I suspect that this was another unfixed point. If the ruler, or the local lord, was well-liked and had no competitors, a wink and a nudge might be all that happens.
If there were various contenders for the kingship or the lord ship (or the lease on the local pub) then, one of those people might kick up a fuss and make a big deal out of things.
Same as a pretty, sweet, young woman would be more likely to be regarded as having a big, bouncing, 'premature' baby than a hostile, hard-faced harridan would.
 

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Edit: I appreciate the whole was/wasn't there a proper marriage was a Big Deal for Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur, or at least for Arthur's brother in later years. No one questioned it at the time, but they did years later. All the paperwork was in place, of course, and C and A been sanctioned to sleep together by her parents and his father, but when Henry married Catherine the papal dispensation allowed for either eventuality. He accepted that at the time. His doubts crept in later...

I feel like a lot of it came down to what you could hand over to the lawyers to argue your case. If all the details are perfect, it's gonna be harder to get you that divorce than if you, oh, IDK, can prove that the bride might actually be married to someone else or find that someone forgot to cross a t on the Papal dispensation. Everything that isn't quite right is just one more potential loophole to be exploited during your inevitable legal battle.
 

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I suspect that this was another unfixed point. If the ruler, or the local lord, was well-liked and had no competitors, a wink and a nudge might be all that happens.
If there were various contenders for the kingship or the lord ship (or the lease on the local pub) then, one of those people might kick up a fuss and make a big deal out of things.
Same as a pretty, sweet, young woman would be more likely to be regarded as having a big, bouncing, 'premature' baby than a hostile, hard-faced harridan would.

Oh, definitely. Real politick was a thing then as now. That was probably part of the reason consanguinity was expanded to seven degrees. It's a pretty sweet deal for the Church if you can claim that all the children from a royal coupling are actually illegitimate because their parents didn't get the proper papal blessing.

(Of course, papal dispensations didn't apply to the lower classes. But I'd wager you'd find that people were far more willing to overlook things when the couple in question was well loved and inheritance was uncontested. Like, as you mention, the lease on the local pub.)
 

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I'm not sure this was quite true, precisely because of the issues you mention. The whole, "Was this ruler betrothed, proxy married, or like, married-married with a papal dispensation, consummation witnessed and notarized, and a pregnancy to prove that the bride absolutely, totally, definitely had sex with someone (unless, y'know, it's another virgin birth scenario)" did seem to come up from time to time.
It was a principle of canon law from at least the 14c that a binding marriage could be made in 2 distinct ways:
1) the couple exchange "words of the future" with each other -- "I will marry thee" -- followed by a sexual consummation, or
2) the couple exchange "words of the present" with each other -- "I do marry thee," said willingly by each

In the first case, a sexual act was required to make the marriage binding. (This was why proxy marriages were possible but problematic -- the proxy could say the words on behalf of their principal, but the actual individuals had to have sex in order for the marriage to be finalized.) In the second case, it was binding as from the moment the words were spoken aloud, but it had to be the actual people speaking. In neither case was any witness required aside from the couple and God, much less a priest. But it was found difficult to prove in court that a marriage of either sort had occurred if one party denied it unless there was a witness.

Secular authorities everywhere had problems with these rules -- on the one hand it was too easy for the unscrupulous to game the system, on the other hand the ability of random individuals -- even minors and women! -- to bind themselves willy nilly in marriage to someone unsuitable was a threat to the power of fathers to control their family members, and by extension to the power of the (patriarchal) state. In the 16c both the Reformation and the Counter Reformation saw efforts to bring marriage under state control. In some places (notably England and France) this was more effective than in others, though after the Council of Trent the participation of a priest was at the least strongly encouraged in most of Catholic Europe.
 

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My understanding (and correct me if I'm wrong) is that being an illegitimate child (IC) didn't carry a huge stigma until the last couple of hundred years. I know of a few famous IC - William the Conqueror and Henry Fitzroy - who their status didn't affect them at all. Members of the clergy even had "natural" children.

I don't know when being born on the "wrong side of the blanket" became an insult? Is my assumption that IC weren't automatically social outcasts correct? Did it make a difference if the parents were noble vs common?
Was it something that wasn't discussed because it was impolite?

I know this is odd, I appreciate any assistance anyone can offer.
In the early middle ages, and through the 11c, marriage was largely a matter of local custom and there wasn't a lot of standardization or formal law around it. The distinction between "legitimate" and "bastard" was typically a matter of family politics and inheritance, and largely situational. It was part of a major push for power by the 11c popes and their successors that church authority over marriage and legitimacy was first asserted, then enforced. This was, initially very controversial everywhere to say the least. But royal authorities soon discovered that an alliance with the church against independent-minded nobles was to both their advantage. In the 13c church regulation of marriage was formalized and codified, enforceable in canon courts and supported by the organs of civil or common law in most jurisdictions. And both legal penalties for bastardy and the social stigma against bastards became severe and persistent. Both endured well into the modern age, long after the state had wrested control of marriage from the church throughout Europe.
 

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Being a bastard did not have much of a stigma until the high medieval period. Basically when the catholic church gained power. It was a way for the church to consolidate power by controlling inheritance.

The big thing with illegitimacy in most of history was if the father, legitimized the child (recognized the child as his). Or at least this was true for nobles it seems to have mattered a lot less for commoners. To be fair legit or not a commoner child for most of history was just another farm hand.

It also depend what culture you are talking about. Vikings had it set up if a women was married any child she had belonged to her husband no matter who has fathered it. Because in that culture children were seen as a resource. That and husbands would often be gone on ship voyages for years at a time so there was also a practical aspect to it

It will also make a BIG difference how the culture dose inheritance in societies where inheritance is traced by the female line bastards are not nearly as big a deal as societies that do it by the male blood line.

Also dose the culture have the concept of concubines? They are not wifes but the children they produce are not considered bastards
 

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It also depend what culture you are talking about. Vikings had it set up if a women was married any child she had belonged to her husband no matter who has fathered it.
This is still true in (some states?) the US, and it has suddenly occured to me why it was fine for husbands to go out and sleep around but not wives.
 

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This is still true in (some states?) the US, and it has suddenly occured to me why it was fine for husbands to go out and sleep around but not wives.
It was a core assumption of English inheritance law from the 14c on: any child of a married woman was assumed in law to be the child of her husband. This was true even if the objective facts were obviously different. The foundational case that established the precedent involved a woman whose husband was overseas serving in the king's army in France, and returned home after several years away to find his wife had had a baby during his absence that he clearly had nothing to do with. The court determined, facts to the contrary, that he was nonetheless the child's legal father, the child was not a bastard, and the wife was not an adulteress. Because, the judge declared, the husband might have returned secretly by night to engender the child!

The underlying concern, of course, was the orderly regulation of property inheritance. To legal minds of the High Middle Ages, it was a self-evident good to have clearcut rules that defined correct paths of action without having to reckon with the messy complexity and ambiguity of specific cases. Clarity supported stability and order. In matters of property, above all, it was necessary for there to be no question who the legal heirs were at any time, and for the families and community to know how property would pass well in advance of the fact.

The rule for inheritance as established could not have been simpler: any child of a lawfully married woman (including those born within 9 months of her husband's death) was in law the child of her husband too and therefore qualified for any inheritance that might come from the husband. Any other child was not.

The question of actual paternity was one of those ambiguous complications the law preferred to ignore, at least in part because there was no way to objectively determine the biological facts. If courts were compelled to adjudicate inheritances by teasing the actual truth out of the messy ugliness of high-stakes marital quarrels, the results would always be disputed by the losing side and ultimately the biggest loser would inevitably be respect for the law itself. The risk of introducing cuckoos into the nest of a few property holders was considered an acceptable alternative to chaos.