What Were the Prospects for an Illegitimate Child in Late Medieval England?

Helen Matthews

4 mins

08 May 2019

The dispossessed scheming bastard, such as Edmund from King Lear, is familiar from literature. But how far did it reflect the reality for illegitimate children of the landed classes?

Status

When Henry IV was crowned King of England in 1399, he was served with a silver-gilt cup by Sir William Argentine. Sir William performed this duty in his capacity of lord of the manor of Wymondley in Hertfordshire, which was held ‘by sergeanty’ – that is in return for performing this specific service.

The arrangement, which dated back to the reign of Henry I, featured in the silver cups of the Argentine coat of arms. William’s father, Sir John Argentine, had performed a similar service at the coronation of Richard II.

Despite this long tradition it was not a foregone conclusion that Sir William would perform this service, for he was illegitimate. But illegitimacy was not so much of a disadvantage in the late Middle Ages as you might think.

It had not prevented Sir William Argentine from exercising his role in society. He represented Suffolk in parliament as a knight of the shire in 1393, 1395 and 1399 and his appointment as sheriff for Norfolk and Suffolk at the end of 1393 provides further evidence of his standing in the local community.

A painting of King Lear by an unknown artist. The dispossessed scheming bastard, such as Edmund from King Lear, is familiar from literature.

Inheritance

As an illegitimate son Sir William could not legally inherit his father’s property. But by the late 14th century there were ways by which landowners could exert control over the descent of their property after death.

Legal devices such as the ‘entail’ (a form of conditional grant) and the ‘enfeoffment to use’ (a form of trust) enabled landowners to control the distribution of their estates after death in accordance with their wishes, as well as creating work for the burgeoning legal profession.

Sir John Argentine, Sir William’s father, had entailed the greater part of his estates, including Great Wymondley and the family seat of Halesworth in Suffolk so that they would pass to William, rather than being divided between his legitimate heirs: his daughter Maud, who was married to Ivo Fitzwaryn and his two grandchildren, Margaret Naunton and Baldwin St George.

In this episode Dan visits Lincoln Castle to learn more about this fortification's fascinating history and its central role in Britain's national story.Watch Now

It was not entirely plain sailing. After Sir John’s death on 25 November 1382 his legitimate heirs were not prepared to allow themselves to be disinherited without a struggle. William was of age however and he proved well able to look after his own interests.

In the subsequent legal proceedings Ivo Fitzwaryn and his wife claimed that the Prior of Wymondley was set upon by ‘certain evildoers’ whilst he was on his way to Halesworth perform Sir John’s funeral and held captive until he sent for and handed over to William Argentine deeds that had been entrusted to him by Sir John.

How much truth there was in this version of events is not clear as court records such as this often used a standard formula, but William was certainly able to use these documents to prove his right to the property. He was able to obtain livery of all the entailed properties within around 18 months of his father’s death.

In 1399 Fitzwaryn claimed the right to act as cup-bearer in the right of his wife, but William was secure in possession by this stage and in May 1400 strengthened his position by obtaining royal confirmation of a charter granted by King Stephen to one of his ancestors.

Sir Ivo’s challenge probably represented a final attempt to secure the property, since the two were indivisibly linked.

A medieval depiction of a cup-bearer.

Family connections

Sir William’s story is not unusual. There were other examples of illegitimacy within his wider family network. Sir William’s grandmother was Agnes Bereford, daughter of the Chief Justice of Common Pleas, Sir William Bereford.

Her brother Edmund who had no legitimate children settled his estates successively on his two illegitimate sons John and Baldwin rather than allowing the property to revert to his sisters.

Sir William’s wife, Isabel Kerdiston, was the daughter of Sir William Kerdiston, who was also illegitimate, having been born prior to his parents’ marriage.

The latter’s father, another Sir William, had chosen to settle his property on William rather than on his legitimate grandson, John de Burghersh, whom he considered to have sufficient estate. Sir William Argentine may have found his father-in-law’s experience helpful.

When he died in 1419, Sir William Argentine’s left his two granddaughters as heiresses. His widow sold the wardship of the two girls to William Allington, and they were later married to Allington’s two sons (one of whom was illegitimate).

The example of Sir William Argentine and his extended family shows that the prospects for illegitimate children in late medieval England could be good if their fathers acknowledged them. There are many similar cases. The villainous bastard of literature is simply a useful plot device.

Helen Matthews studied medieval history at UCL and Royal Holloway. A chance remark in a footnote inspired her to embark on the thesis on medieval bastards on which her first book, ‘The Legitimacy of Bastards‘ is based. It was published by Pen and Sword on 25 April 2019 and is available from all good book stores.