22 June 2020

FOOTNOTE: Real Bastards

I recently mentioned the probability that Sir Harry Trelawny, the Sacerdotal Baronet, went to stay in Switzerland with Sir John St Aubyn, his philoprogenitive baronet neighbour from Cornwall. Philoprogenitive? I think, in his case, one might spell the word Phyloprogenitive. He had fifteen children, all of them out of wedlock.

This was the sort of thing the Georgian upper classes did; but not out of a mere mechanical passion for promiscuity. There was a technical reason. Suppose you had a son by an agreeable mistress, and you then decided not to bother to acquire a suitable wife. You now had a strong reason for avoiding marrying the mistress until she had passed the age of child bearing. Because, if you married her now, her next son, being legitimate, would be the automatic heir to your title and to all your entailed property, whereas your eldest, illegitimate, son would get nothing.

If you delay marriage until your lady has stopped having children, you can leave your eldest son, even though he is illegitimate (or even whichever son you may choose) as much of your property as you can rescue from the entail. (The title, of course, will either go to a cousin or become extinct, depending on circumstances.)

Sir John St Aubyn, at St Michael's Mount in Cornwall, and Lord Egremont, at Petworth in Sussex, both did this. As a bastard, you need suffer very little. Any stigma attached to your bastardy rather evaporated, and, after a tactful decade or two, the Crown granted you another baronetcy, or peerage, to compensate for the one you had been unable to inherit.

One group of people, however, did their best to ensure that your bastardy was permanently memorialised ... for all eternity. The hard men and cruel in Queen Victoria Street. The College of Heralds.

The undifferenced coat of arms of a family can only lawfully descend to the legitimate heir, the Head of the Family (don't be taken in by firms which offer you "your Family Coat of Arms" for £20; what they sell you will, almost certainly, at best be the Arms of the Head of some Family with the same surname as yours, to which Arms you are not entitled. Simply because you share a surname with someone, you are no more entitled to use his Arms than you are to live in his house, to eviscerate his bank account, or to sleep with his wife. Or he with yours ...)

So, as a bastard-made-good, off you went to the College to get your armorial situation regularised. And what the Kings of Arms granted you would be the Family Arms differenced, that is, with a change to the Arms to show that you are not the legitimate Head of the Family. And what they granted to bastards was very commonly the Family Arms within a Bordure Wavy.

So you can look out for this wavy border at Petworth or St Michael's Mount ... and probably in quite a number of other places.

I have a fantasy.

In these stately homes, each room is equipped with a Volunteer to keep an eye on the silver and to answer questions. Nice, retired, middle-class people, they are usually well primed with regard to Chippendale Commodes, but a bit vague about Heraldry.

In my fantasy, I will spot an example of some such differenced arms on some artefact and then go up to one of these volunteers and adopt the persona and traditionally-expected manner of an American Tourist. In my best and broadest "Boss Hogg" accent, and in tones loud enough to be heard in all the neighbouring rooms, I will observe "GEE, see here, a BORDURE WAVY! That means he was A REAL BASTARD!!"

I have not so far done this because of apprehensions about Matrimonial Disapproval.


Terry Mushroom said...

Gloriously, beautifully written!

Peter said...

Would a child born out of wedlock and subsequently adopted count as illegitimate? I see that in the (NO) collects, Baptism of our Lord and 3rd Sunday of Easter, that we are filiis adoptionis.
The older translation seemed to drop the reference to adoption.

motuproprio said...

Adopted children do not succeed to titles, only heirs of the blood.

Stephen said...

Dear Father, not everyone in life has the good fortune to be able to know exactly that point in time when he peaked, that singular, spectacular moment that one and all, present and future, would immediately recognize nothing else would be forthcoming from him that could top that exquisite something. I speak, of course, of a statistical certainty for every living person, even though the vast majority have peaks hardly discernible from their valleys, making any identification of the variance rather difficult for everyone else. But you, you whose prognostications are valleys most of us would be happy to call mountains, you who have given us so many peaks over the years as if to form a Himalayan range of tops, to you has been given that very rare gift of knowing that it is truly all downhill from here, for any man who can so artfully - and, to us Americans, stiletto-like - incorporate accurately an image, nay, to call forth in the mind of the reader the very memory of the voice and tone of Boss Hogg alive in such a setting...well sir, words fail me, and with a tip of the hat I can only say well done, oh good and faithful servant.

William Tighe said...

Of course, there would have been none of that appalling (and cruel) rigmarole if they'd still been Catholics, as the modern canon 1139 makes clear:

'Illegitimate children are legitimated by the subsequent valid or putative marriage of their parents or by a rescript of the Holy See.'


Not really. The substance of that canon goes back to a papal decree during the pontificate of Innocent III (1198-1216). In England, the emerging Common Law had already by that period come to restrict inheritance rights, especially as regards land and titles, to the offspring of a lawfully wedded couple, wedded, that is, by the time of the offspring's birth. In 1234 at the "Parliament of Merton" (one of those meetings of magistrates consequent to Magna Carta that, by the end of that century, had taken on a formal institutional existence as "parliament" and which was the first of those later by judges to be entitled a "parliament") a proposal was presented to conform English inheritance law, as regards the criteria for legitimacy and illegitimacy, to the then recent papal decree. The response of the assembly was: NOLUMUS LEGES ANGLIAE MUTARE (we are unwilling to change the laws of England) and so the law remained unchanged. This was, if we need to remind pdm of the fact, centuries before the break with Rome and rejection of papal jurisdiction under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

Josephus Muris Saliensis said...

Oh what fun! Midsummer Day is with us!

Albrecht von Brandenburg said...

And here was I, thinking that bastardy was differenced by means of a BEND SINISTER. What antipodean ignorance ...