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Illegitimacy and English Landed Society c.1285-c.1500

Illegitimacy and English Landed Society c.1285-c.1500

Illegitimacy and English Landed Society c.1285-c.1500

By Helen Sarah Matthews

PhD Dissertation, Royal Holloway, University of London (2013)

Abstract: This study examines the incidence of illegitimacy among members of the landed classes, broadly defined, in late medieval England and the factors which affected the ability of parents to provide for their illegitimate offspring. Illegitimacy has normally been studied from either a legal or a social standpoint. This thesis will combine these approaches in order to provide insight into the social structure of late medieval England. Illegitimacy was a matter which primarily affected the right to inherit property and by implication, the person’s associated status. The period from c.1285, when the statute De Donis Conditionalibus was enacted, to the end of the fifteenth century saw the development of a number of legal devices affecting the ability of landowners to plan the succession to their estates. The enfeoffment to use and the entail allowed landowners the opportunity to settle estates on illegitimate children, or anyone else, without permanently alienating the property from the family line. By the fifteenth century, this freedom of action was becoming restricted by pre-existing entails and a means of breaking entails developed.

This study begins with a survey of the legal issues surrounding illegitimacy and the context within which landowners were able to make provision for illegitimate children. Subsequent chapters examine wills and estate settlements to consider the actual provision for illegitimate children made by individuals in different circumstances. Particular attention is given to individuals lacking a legitimate male heir of the body and the circumstances in which it was possible for an illegitimate son to become a substitute heir, concluding that illegitimacy was an obstacle that could be overcome, provided a number of conditions were met. A final chapter looks at attitudes to sexual misconduct and illegitimacy generally, concluding that illegitimacy was primarily a legal, rather than social, disability. The overall conclusion is that the fourteenth century provided a particular window of opportunity for bastard offspring.

Introduction: There is a common popular conception of the bastard as resembling Shakespeare’s Edmund in King Lear, or Don John, the ‘plain dealing villain’ of Much Ado About Nothing, jealously plotting evil schemes against his legitimate siblings. The idea of the villainous bastard was a common theme of Renaissance drama. Alison Findlay was able to list 71 plays from the period 1588-1652 which had bastard characters, or characters threatened with bastardy, including many historical plays set in the medieval period. But illegitimate offspring in literature have not always played the part of villains. Contemporary medieval literature displayed a more tolerant attitude to bastards. Jessica Lewis Watson argued that bastardy as portrayed by Chaucer and Malory can be read as symbolic of ‘love, wealth, and sometimes power and honour’. By the eighteenth century literary representations of illegitimacy had once more undergone a transformation. Whilst illegitimacy was still a common plot device, the villainous bastard had been superseded by the ‘virtuous foundling.’


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