Royal bastardy, overview

Royal Bastardy in Medieval England
Royal bastardy is a perennially interesting subject, and one which brings to mind the subject of the Princes and the question of their bastardy, as well as that of the bastardy and legitimation of the Beauforts. Both of these topics will be dealt with in future issues of ‘Back to Basics’. In this issue we will touch only briefly on the question of the undoubted illegitimate children of reigning monarchs, except for those of Richard III, which will be dealt with later.

Bastardy, the result of illicit, possibly adulterous union, was frowned on by the Church in the Middle Ages, certainly after the marriage law was clarified by the eleventh century or so. Adultery and the question of the possible succession to estates of someone not the lawful heir was also of importance to civil law. This last was not usually a matter of concern in cases of royal bastardy though. Royal bastards were usually known to be such, and were indeed given such ‘titles’ as ‘Bastard of Burgundy’ or even the ‘Great Bastard’ (son of Phillip II, Duke of Savoy). They were frequently given lands and titles of nobility, although in the case of English kings, not titles, in our period at least. The Tudors resumed giving royal bastards titles; Henry VIII created his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and indeed possibly prepared him for the succession to the crown.

In the fifteenth century the Lancastrian kings of England were unusually (for the period) abstemious in their sexual habits and do not appear to have been repsonsible for any bastards, none have been attributed to them at least, apart from a rather doubtful one to Henry IV, one John Labourde, (see Chris Given-Wilson and Alice Curteis, The Royal Bastards of Medieval England, 1984, p. 142). This book contains an excellent series of chapters on marriage law and illegitmacy but on the actual bastards is much stronger for the early mediaeval period than the fifteenth century.

It is when we come to the Yorkist kings that royal bastards again come to be mentioned in documents. Edward IV was given by the chroniclers a reputation for extreme licentiousness. Mancini in his report written after Edward’s death more specifically accused him of the seduction of many women, a comment echoed by More (Dominic Mancini, Usurpation of Richard III, 1969, p. 67; Thomas More, Richard III, edited by Richard Sylvester, 1967, p. 72). Commines, the Burgundian writer, also mentions Edward’s sensual appetites as does the Crowland Chronicler. (see Charles Ross, Edward IV, 1974, pp. 86, 415). It seems likely that this reputation may have been somewhat exaggerated as we only know of three bastards of Edward’s, although since Edward himself did not bring them into the limelight by giving them offices or grants there may well have been others.

The three bastards that we know of are firstly Arthur ‘Waite’, later created Viscount Lisle for life by Henry VII, following his marriage to the Lisle heiress. Arthur was proabably the child of Elizabeth Lucy (Lucy was her married name). Edward may also have had a daughter by Elizabeth Lucy, said by Leland (in the first reference to her) to have married a Lumley. This was probably Thomas, son of George second lord Lumley, who died in the lifetime of his father. The daughter may have been born about the time of Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. By the time of Sandford she is called Elizabeth, (Leland gives no name) and confidently said to be the child of Elizabeth Lucy. Muriel St. Clare Byrne, The Lisle Letters, (one volume abridgement, 1985) contains much information on Arthur Lisle in the Introduction. For Elizabeth, John Leland, Itinerary, ed. Lucy Toulmin Smith, vol. 4, 1964, p. 118; Francis Sandford,Genealogical History, 1707, pp. 421, 422; Cora Scofield, Edward IV, vol. 2, 1923, p. 161; Complete Peerage, vol 8, p. 274. The third illegitmate child of Edward IV was also a daughter, Grace, the sole reference to whom is that she was present at the death of Elizabeth Woodville in 1492, (Ross, Edward IV, pp. 316-317). Grace may therefore have been brought up in the Queen’s household.

As a matter of interest Henry VII has been credited (if that is the correct word) with fathering a bastard child, Sir Roland de Veleville, while in Brittany. Sir Roland was appointed Constable of Beaumaris Castle by Henry VIII, and as ‘kings servant’ was given a small grant of 40 marks by Henry VII, but it seems unlikely that he was a child of the latter, (S.B. Chrimes, Henry VII, 1972, p. 67)

All of the books mentioned, except Leland and Sandford are available for loan from the Society Library. — PWH