The series I’ve been working on for the past year focuses on something that has fascinated me while reading “real historical” and “written-right-now historical” romance novels: Bastards.
In modern day America the stigma may not be completely lost, but it is much lessened from what it used to be. After all, now over 40% of first-time mothers in the US are unmarried. This would have been an unthinkable concept in 19th century England, where bastard children were kept a shameful secret. Just think of Sense and Sensibility where Colonel Brandon’s poor ward, Eliza Williams, and her mother both bore illegitimate children and came to a tragic fate.
Many of the great people in history have had bastard children that are either kept secret or exposed. At one point the future king of England was simply chosen from the offspring of the king without regard to legitimacy, until the pope issued a decree saying that the offspring needed to be of a legitimate marriage. Regardless, Athelstan and William the Conqueror where both bastard children. FitzRoy was often the last name of a bastard child of a king, and King Henry I fathered at least 21 bastards and Charles II fathered at least 20—and these are just examples from the royals that were acknowledged. Nobility could be just as promiscuous and often refused to acknowledge their offspring.
In the 19th century bastards were regarded with a mixture of pity, caution, and disgust. People knew that the state of their birth was not a bastard child’s fault, but at the same time they saw the threat that a bastard presented to the legitimate family unit. The general opinion was that a bastard could not help but envy the things that were a legitimate family member’s right and thus they would try to take it, try to sneak in where they didn’t belong. Thus there was a stigma of bastards being jealous, spiteful, and generally malicious (Think Don John the Bastard from Much Ado About Nothing).
Often times people tried to conceal the birth of a bastard child by passing the child off as one of its grandparent’s children or by sending it off to live with a relative in a different part of the country. Nobles often gave their illegitimate children away to be apprenticed or bought off the mother to quietly raise the child far away from them. Occasionally there were Nobles who fell in love with their mistresses and treated their bastard children much as legitimate children, but much more often they were considered nuances to get rid of. On rare occasions, where there was a bastard child and no legitimate children, the bastard was brought up as an heir. Bastards couldn’t inherit titles or entailed land, but they could inherit property and wealth.
In the Noble Bastards series, I had an interesting time exploring the different types of relationships an illegitimate son could have with his parents. Peter Gale, the protagonist of A Noble Secret was sent off to live with an older couple and never even met his father until he was in his early thirties. Astor, another one of the bastards, grew up seeing his father much more often than his father’s legitimate family did. Carrington, the product of his mother’s infidelity, processes the title meant for her husband’s son and heir.
Their different circumstances led to very different relationships with their parents and with the world around them, but they all have one thing in common, one thing that keeps them bound together in brothership: they are all Noble Bastards.