The Stigma of Illegitimacy in Medieval England and Wales

The stigma of illegitimacy is a mark that remained prevalent up until the late twentieth century, yet none more so than in the England of the 13th century. Due to the Catholic Church of the 1200’s condemnation of sex outside marriage, fornication with the result of an illegitimate child was a sin. However within the royal circles of England even with the potentially damning notion of being a bastard child of a king or courtier this did not prevent the possibility of reaching greatness, notoriety or under Welsh law, the throne.

Despite the Catholic Church preaching against sexual relations out-of-wedlock illegitimate children born to kings is nothing new. William the Conqueror himself was an illegitimate child of the Duke of Normandy, Robert I, and this did not prevent him from gaining the crown of England through conquest and good leadership. In the days before 1066 when general primogeniture came in, Anglo-Saxon rulers chose their successor by who they thought best could rule often meaning their own children could be over-looked in favour of their siblings regardless of social stature in legitimacy. Technically under English law, an illegitimate line could not claim the throne unless done so by conquest or they were the only line left by way of heirs. Only a will left by their predecessor could over-rule this law under special circumstances. But even then an illegitimate line would have an unstable hold to the crown unless they create a proven dynasty much like when Henry VII took the throne in 1485. His tenuous link as a great-grandchild of John of Gaunt, the royal uncle of Richard II, was only solidified by the victory at Stoke battle, and the siring of a male line by his wife Elizabeth of York.

Although illegitimate children are a subject that confuses a lot of general history and the notion of building a long dynasty, it is a particular problem when discussing those who reigned during the 13th century in England and Wales. King John of England and Llywellyn the Great of Wales (Llywellyn Fawr) are contemporaries of each other and are linked through their treatment of their illegitimate offspring. In this era marriages are made for political and economic reasons and for securing a male line to succeed the throne, they were hardly ever made for love. Therefore it is almost natural that most men would seek to find love matches outside of marriage in terms of a mistress or concubine. There is hypocrisy here as women, particularly queens or those of the aristocracy, were forbidden from taking lovers as this would damage future dynastic ambitions if her child was not that of the kings, while a man could sow his wild oats as he wills to without repercussions.

Between John and Llywellyn the discussion on their children begins with whether he acknowledges a concubine’s child as his. There is a long history of illegitimate children being unrecognised as a royal bastard and the mother cast out of society as being unchaste and no longer a maid. Usually a mistress is a married woman so if a child is conceived it would be given out to be the cuckolded husbands but rarely are the people at court fooled. A prime example of this would be the two elder children of Mary Boleyn, Katherine and Henry Carey, who are reputed to be the fruits of Mary’s liaison with Henry VIII which is widely discussed and argued by historians today. All of John and Llywellyn’s children that they knew of were acknowledged and given places at court and societal honours. The main link between these two men would be John’s illegitimate daughter Joan (Joanna – born to a woman named Clemence), who was married to Llywellyn in 1203.

King John of England had continued the reputation of the Angevin kings in keeping mistresses and being open with favours of the sexual kind. Himself being the last child of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the third king in the House of Plantagenet, he had grown up surrounded by half-brothers born from his father’s mistresses after his marriage to Eleanor fell apart. Usually John is portrayed by historian as a harsh temperamental man, but many ignore the fact that his family including his children in and out-of-wedlock never wanted for anything. Looking at sources it can be confusing picking out those born before either of John’s wedding as he had a tendency to give his children the same name. His marriage to Isabelle of Angouleme gave him five children including his son Henry III but his brief trysts made him father to at last seventeen. Here though it can be seen that even if his illegitimate children were barred from the throne, they at least gained offices, baronies and in some case earldoms. Most of John’s children were boys, it is in fact known that Joan was his first daughter and he doted on her exceedingly. All children were well-travelled, Joan is known to have spent some years in Fontevrault with Eleanor of Aquitaine in the years before she died in 1204.

John’s illegitimate boys, in particular Baron Richard of Chilham, were all involved politically and socially in the realm’s state business including some military careers. It could be said that even if they did not gain glittering marriages, they were married well to women of substance and of good dowries considering the black mark that would usually smear their names. After careful research, historians have discovered that John’s children ended up scattered across Europe holding positions in the papal legate, an abbess, clerks and knights. This causes to question whether it is because of John the stigma is held lightly or whether the church was not as unforgiving as previously thought. Under papal rule a country could only pass their crown to a legitimate heir

In Wales, however, the mark of illegitimacy was thought of in a different light. In the Snowdon Mountains the eldest male born to a prince is heir, regardless of the legitimacy. Llywellyn ap Iorwerth of the House of Aberffaw, and later the House of Gwynedd once he was invested Prince of Wales, had eight children but only two of whom are considered to be born from his wife Joan. Llywellyn is known to have had two or three of his children from a mistress called Tangwystl ferch Llywarch, who died in childbirth with another of Llywellyn’s children. The eldest Gruffydd ap Llywellyn (‘ap’ – son of) became infamous during the wars following Llywellyn Fawr’s death with Dafydd ap Llywellyn, his half-brother. He was born in 1196 and in being the eldest child of Llywellyn he was named heir despite being illegitimate. This came into dispute when Llywellyn married Joan of England as she was Norman French and John’s daughter. England followed the church’s teachings in not allowing illegitimate lines to rule, so when Joan had Dafydd ap Llywellyn in 1212 the English backed Dafydd’s right to rule Wales in the place of Gruffydd. This was deemed strange to the Welsh considering that Llywellyn had twin sons by a concubine Cristyn, Angharad and Tegwarad, who were also older than Dafydd and technically came second and third in line under Welsh law.

Here you can see the issues when two countries on the same land who followed different laws in regards to continuing a dynastic line. Gruffydd was thought to be thoroughly displaced at the birth of Dafydd as under English law it diminishes his status, and his resentment of Joan has come down through history purely for being Norman-French and having a son who has papal following as well as the backing of two countries. Llywellyn Fawr foreseeing the problems of his two sons, particularly the flaws in Gruffydd, started to work towards declaring Dafydd as his sole heir. He followed Lord Rhys of Deheubarth’s lead by rewriting Welsh law favouring children born into a church sanctioned marriage to promote Anglo-Welsh negotiations for future descendants. The Welsh however have been known in the Middle Ages to prefer a Welsh leader signifying the beginning of a war that lasts until Gruffydd fell from a tower in the Tower of London trying to escape in 1244. The bricked up window can still be seen today. Dafydd then rules exclusively until his death in 1246 when Gruffydd’s second son Llywellyn ap Gruffydd became effectively the first ‘Prince of All Wales’. Welsh independence only lasted until Llywellyn ap Gruffydd’s death as then Wales was subsumed by the English crown, through the right of Dafydd ap Llywellyn’s heirs, and the conquest of Edward I of England, a somewhat cousin of Dafydd ap Llywellyn.

The last of the Welsh Prince’s line was a daughter, Gwenllian of Wales, who was kept in confinement for her entire life by Edward I to prevent her from marrying and producing more Welsh heirs. She died alone in Lincolnshire aged fifty-five in 1337, despite being the great-granddaughter of John of England as well as Llywellyn the Great, due to being of the legitimate line of Dafydd.

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