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What was a (royal) bastard good for, anyways?

What was a (royal) bastard good for, anyways?


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By James Turner

Family was of the utmost importance in shaping the identity, political affinity and horizons of twelfth century aristocrats. This was no less true for royals with the Norman and Angevin kings of England finding both their greatest supporters and ardent foes emerging from the ranks of their own family throughout the 12th century. This series looks at the lives and relationships of a category of people who due to the circumstances of their birth sat on the periphery of this vast and interconnected dynastic systems – the royal bastards.

As we have explored throughout this series that family was of paramount importance to the twelfth century English aristocracy. It had a dramatic and seminal effect on not only a budding nobleman’s sense of self but the form and formation of their political aspirations. Familial identity provided a crucial conceptual and social framework within which an aristocrat’s identity was formulated. Additionally, who they knew and who they were related to, allowed them to participate in the mishmash of aristocratic networks and affinities.

The position of an individual’s family relative to these networks of affinity were no less influential for illegitimate family members. However, their engagement within these formative identities was complicated by the increasingly codified ramifications of their illegitimacy and the central importance that inheritance played within family identity. Leaving sentiment aside for the moment, in political terms, the family represented a mechanism for the transmission of land and property. In many ways the Family represented the sum total of its member’s wealth and power, a portfolio of resources and intangible connections which defined a sphere of influence through which its identity was reinforced and nurtured. Legitimate family members were necessary for the perpetuation of a family, serving as heirs and curators to a portion of a shared inheritance, expanding and connecting familial landed interests through marriage, acquisitions and their participation in other aristocratic identities. Bastards on the other hand, by a twist of fate and ill fortune, were barred from many of these functions. They could and indeed did contribute to the maintenance and growth of their families’ interests throughout this period but the forms these contributions took and their positions within family identity were heavily caveated.

It is nevertheless important to bear in mind that while shared family political and landed interest were important in orientating an individual within aristocratic networks and fostering a sense of familial affinity, such identities were not necessarily monolithic or exclusive. Instead they usually coexisted with a number of other dynastic connections and regional or political sourced affinities. Both the indulgence of familial rivalries and grievances, as well as the formation of familial power blocks, were legitimate and widely adopted strategies for twelfth century aristocrats, dictated by a wide range of personal and contextual factors.

The Anglo-Norman and Angevin kings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were certainly no strangers to this phenomenon, fighting an escalating series of internecine conflicts against their relatives over the allocation of territory and the kingship itself. William the Conqueror’s sons fought each other with vivere and determination until one was in his grave, one was locked away within a tower never again to taste freedom and the last sat safely upon the throne. No sooner had the victor of this contest, Henry I, died than his daughter and nephew disputed the succession, resulting in decades of bloodshed and the temporary sundering of the Anglo-Norman realm. Nor was the reign of grandson Henry II spared such conflicts as the king was forced to weather a procession of rebellions launched by his own sons.

These kings, when they weren’t beating down rebellions, ruled over large but patchwork hegemonies bound together through personal allegiances and familial connections. To operate effectively within these tangled webs of overlapping dynastic interests and create a consensus amongst their often ambitious, haughty and belligerent chief tenants, the Anglo-Norman and Angevin kings had to find a way to align the interests of their most prominent and powerful subjects with their own. This could be achieved in two primary ways; through the distribution of patronage and the creation of dynastic links which naturally served to conflate and alloy the interests of aristocratic families.

Patronage was no problem, due to the circumstances of the Conquest and the acquisitiveness of early Anglo-Norman kings they were well equipped with an arsenal of offices and financial mechanisms through which they could reward and incentivize aristocratic cooperation. The creation of direct dynastic links, however, were a bit trickier. First off, the strategy required a robust number of siblings or children, neither of which was necessarily a given. Henry I, for example, was for understandable reasons not on the best of terms with his remaining brother and only had two legitimate children. While Henry II had a large number of prospective heirs, both of his legitimate brothers died young, well before the king’s sons were old enough to participate in the advancement of family interests.

Secondly the king’s direct heir and daughters were often more effectively utilized by marrying into the families of surrounding princes to secure borders and win allies. Henry I’s son, William, was betrothed to the daughter of the count of Anjou while his daughter Matilda married the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V. Likewise, Henry II’s daughters married to the likes of the kings of Castile and Sicily or the dukes of Saxony and Burgundy. Finally, embedding legitimate royal family members within existing aristocratic families and affinities had the potential to create rivals either for the king or his successor.

In a strange way the legal and social ramifications of illegitimacy not only informed but enhanced their potential usefulness in the advancement of family interests. The stain of illegitimacy, as well as their usually weak and incidental maternal connections, compromised royal bastards’ candidacy to the extent that they and their allies could reliably be discounted from mounting direct claims to the throne. Royal bastards were almost always loyal and adhered to their legitimate family members because their exclusion from access to inheritance necessitated a greater dependence upon the patronage of their legitimate family members. This predisposition towards cooperation made illegitimate royal family members an extremely valuable resource to their legitimate patrons who integrated these auxiliary family members into prominent positions within royal governance and political strategy on an ad hoc basis in reaction to their immediate needs and circumstances. The conditional nature of royal bastards’ acceptance within the royal affinity and subsequent general dependence upon the patronage of their legitimate family members for advancement then, was what made royal bastards such a useful and diverse dynastic resource for Anglo-Norman and Angevin kings.

Individual illegitimate royal family members were invested with substantial power and authority by their legitimate family members so that they could better protect and advance their shared dynastic interests. As a result of this strategy, several royal bastards came to occupy prominent positions amongst the aristocratic networks and regional affinities into which they were integrated, while also engaging extensively in royal service, acting as conduits of royal power in operating as proxies for the king in both military and administrative capacities. Anglo-Norman and Angevin kings were able to utilise their illegitimate relatives this way through the use of royal authority and prerogatives through which they were able to deploy and capitalise upon their illegitimate family members in a manner unavailable to other aristocratic families. In functioning as points of connection between the royal family and prominent aristocratic affinities, as well as acting as royal deputies supporting a shared familial enterprise, twelfth century illegitimate male royal family members, in many ways, occupied a supporting role that under different dynastic circumstances could have been occupied by younger legitimate sons. Indeed, while evidently not functioning as prospective heirs in the same way as legitimate sons would, their caveated and conditional inclusion within family identity actually enhanced the utility of royal bastards to their legitimate patrons, since it allowed kings to promote or ignore their illegitimate family members as it suited them.

Henry I’s lack of legitimate heirs and the perceived need to fulfil this supporting role is almost certainly the reason the king provided his two eldest illegitimate sons, Robert and Richard, with extensive educations and lucrative engagements to heiresses, while overlooking many of their younger brothers. Bereft of a legitimate male heir and mired in a dynastic and diplomatic crisis following the death of his heir, William Aetheling, Henry I turned to his eldest illegitimate son Robert, raising him to the specifically created earldom of Gloucester. Robert was established as one of the Anglo-Norman realm’s premier magnates and invested with the power and authority required to support his father and protect their family’s dynastic and political interests, a process which included, and was facilitated by, his integration into the developing apparatus of royal governance and the innermost circle of royal counsellors. Royal sponsorship, predicated as it was upon his personal and familial association with the king, further strengthened this reciprocal relationship and Robert’s engagement with royal familial identity.

Henry I’s promotion of his eldest illegitimate son at a time of political crisis endowed the royal bastard with increased means and motivation to align himself with his legitimate family in the protection of their shared dynastic interests. Interestingly, considering the favoritism which saw Robert rise to become the king’s right hand man while Henry was content to let so many of his other sons languish in obscurity.

Meanwhile, the illegitimate royal daughters were permitted to participate within royal family identity and were active within the royal court. As a result of the king’s severely limited number of legitimate children and his political needs, his illegitimate daughters filled the same dynastic role as his legitimate daughter. The political circumstances of the king and the Anglo-Norman hegemony meant that several of his illegitimate daughters formed highly prestigious marriages despite their illegitimate status, as a result of the advantage or necessity of forming a dynastic connection with the royal family.

King Stephen made only limited use of his eldest illegitimate son, Gervase, by appointing him Abbot of Westminster; details on the identities and activities of other potential illegitimate children are sparse. Yet Stephen’s principal rival, Empress Matilda, benefited from a strong association and political affinity with several of her illegitimate half-brothers, most notably Robert of Gloucester and Reginald of Cornwall, who constituted much of the committed core of the Angevin party’s powerbase within England. Matilda was ultimately unsuccessful in either securing her own coronation or displacing Stephen. It is, however, of the foremost importance to understand the circumstances of twelfth century illegitimate royal family members and their participation within royal governance, to appreciate that they experienced and exercised the greatest level of political authority and autonomy when their legitimate family members and allies were weakest and most embattled.

In contrast to his grandfather, Henry II, not only had comparatively fewer illegitimate children but was forced to contend with the aspirations and tensions of his legitimate sons, which he attempted to resolve by integrating them as junior members within a shared dynastic enterprise. This approach was in many ways necessitated by the hegemonic nature of Henry II’s extensive and diverse domains which encompassed a number of distinct cultural and political identities. Relatively early into his reign, however, and prior to his sons becoming politically active, the king raised his illegitimate half-brother, Hamelin, to the earldom of Surrey, through marriage to the earldom’s widowed heiress, Isabel de Warenne. Hamelin’s empowerment and participation within royal familial political identity came at a time of political instability for the king. Hamelin was effectively substituting for a deceased legitimate relative, stepping into the role envisaged for William within the royal dynastic strategy, by supporting his legitimate half-brother and drawing the aristocratic affinities of his earldom into alignment with royal interests. While certainly benefiting from his inclusion with the royal political strategy and continuing to support his royal half-brother from his position within the aristocracy, Hamelin was not an engaged member of the king’s inner circle and his involvement in royal government was minimal.

Henry II later received considerable support from his eldest illegitimate son, Geoffrey, an acknowledged and prominent participant within the royal court and the beneficiary of a considerable personal affinity with his father. Initially earmarked by his father for a career in the Church, this plan was made untenable as a result of complications arising from Geoffrey’s illegitimate status and reluctance to engage in the role. Instead, Geoffrey was promoted directly within the apparatus of royal government, being awarded the position of Chancellor while emerging in a less formal capacity as one of his father’s most prominent military deputies and proxies.

Such relationships often persisted across multiple reigns or were redefined and renewed as the familial and political context changed. Geoffrey was arguably his father’s favourite child and certainly the most loyal of his sons but despite being elevated to the Archbishopric of York, soon fell out with his legitimate royal half-brothers. Hamelin on the other hand, as a senior member of the Angevin royal family and the highly connected figurehead of powerful aristocratic affinities in northern England was far more engaged in royal service and governance on Richard’s behalf, particularly during the reign’s opening years when the king was still attempting to consolidate his authority. Following his return to England after a lengthy absence, Richard further promoted his illegitimate half-brother, William Longespée, who had been too young to participate within aristocratic society or meaningfully support his legitimate family members during their father’s reign, to the earldom of Salisbury. William subsequently became a central figure in the royal government of his other royal half-brother, John, primarily as a result of his competency, friendship and personal affinity, serving as one of the king’s principal deputies and military commanders

Several royal bastards occupied positions of authority and prominence throughout the twelfth century, participating at a high level within aristocratic society and functioning as royal deputies. From their overlapping and interlinked capacities, they supported their legitimate family members in a mutually beneficial dynastic enterprise. This inclusion within royal familial identity was highly conditional and throughout this period there existed a great deal of variance in the extent to which illegitimate royal family members were permitted to participate in, and subsequently benefit from, inclusion in the familial enterprise. As a categorisation then, royal bastardy was descriptive rather than prescriptive in that it denoted an individual’s close familial connection to the king and their illegitimate status but did not imply a set function or role within the royal household or wider aristocratic networks.

As the twelfth century progressed, the cultural and legal bias against illegitimate individuals became increasingly formalised throughout secular society but this wider cultural trend did not prevent English kings during this time from manoeuvring their illegitimate family members into advantageous positions or integrating them into existing aristocratic affinities. Rather than outweighing the disadvantages and stigma of their illegitimacy, the potential value of illegitimate family members to their legitimate patrons, which was derived from their close familiar alignment and personal affinity, was actually enhanced by it. To an extent the position and role of twelfth century illegitimate royal family members within aristocratic networks and courtly society was fluidic, predicated upon the vagaries of royal patronage which was deployed in reaction to the varying political and dynastic circumstances of their legitimate family.

This is not to say, however, that those illegitimate royal family members who were permitted to participate within royal family identity and were integrated into aristocratic networks for the benefit of their legitimate family members simply functioned as royal servitors or appendages of a larger dynastic strategy. Royal bastards within the twelfth century, particularly those who had been empowered by their relatives to contribute to a shared dynastic enterprise, could and indeed did pursue their own interests and construct their own power bases either in alignment with their relatives or separately from them. In a few situations, certain illegitimate royal family members even abandoned their personal and political royal affinities in order to better secure their own position within aristocratic society. The extensive cooperation between empowered royal bastards and their legitimate patrons throughout the twelfth century is simply the result of the mutually beneficial nature of a close political alignment between family members. This relationship was, of course, inherently balanced in favor of the Anglo-Norman and Angevin kings but ultimately so were all of their political relationships, including those shared with their principal supporters within the aristocracy and other legitimate members of the royal family.

It has been said by wise men that any society or system can be judged on its treatment of its most vulnerable participants. For twelfth century England that certainly was not the royal bastards, as we have seen many came to be counted amongst the upper echelons of the aristocracy while the rest were left wanting more for opportunity than security. Yet by taking the time to reorient ourselves to the perspective of the royal bastard, half hidden in the shadow of the throne, we are able to glimpse not only the form and function of the machinery of medieval kingship but just briefly the men who operated it.

This is the tenth and final in a series of articles known as A Bastard’s Lot: The Illegitimate Royal Children of 12th Century England, by James Turner.

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

Top Image: British Library MS Royal 14 B V Membrane 6


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