'Base born' Tudor children could aim high

Fri, 16 Dec 2011 11:24:00 GMT

Tim Thornton BY analysing hundreds of wills left by Northern nobles and gentry, University of Huddersfield historians have discovered that the upper classes of Tudor and Stuart England had a remarkably relaxed and indulgent attitude towards illegitimate offspring.

Children born to mistresses or servants were often comfortably provided for and managed to achieve high office, including positions in the church. And the wives of men who fathered children outside of the marriage were often expected to look after the “base born” results of their husbands’ amorous exploits.

The ground-breaking research, carried out by Dr Katharine Carlton and Professor Tim Thornton (pictured left), means that aspects of elite society in the North from the later-fifteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries need to be reappraised.

“It seems unlikely that we will properly understand gentry and noble society in the early modern North until we understand better the role of unconventional relationships and illegitimate offspring,” argue the authors of the article published by the Huddersfield historians in the journal Northern History.

So far, historians of the gentry and nobility have displayed relatively little interest in the issue of illegitimacy.  Parish registers are of little help, because they fail to reveal much information about bastard children of the elite.  Instead, Professor Thornton and Dr Carlton combed through 876 wills drawn up by nobles, knights, squires and gentry in the Northern counties from 1450-1640.  They uncovered a wealth of information about illegitimacy – with the higher nobility being especially prone to fathering significant numbers of children outside marriage.

In many cases, widows were the executors of their husbands’ wills and expected to administer bequests to bastard children, or even bring them into the family circle.

Illegitimate children sometimes inherited property and could achieve high office – with the church offering excellent career prospects.

Cuthbert  Tunstall One of the leading clergymen of the Tudor age was Cuthbert Tunstall (pictured right), who became Bishop of Durham.  He was an illegitimate son, but received a first-class education which helped him on his way to a glittering career.

The women who gave birth to illegitimate children are less visible in the sources; still, although in a few of the wills, men express repentance, it seems unlikely that they were always the powerless victims sometimes assumed, since in some cases where identities can be established it is clear that they too came from gentry backgrounds and that relationships were sustained over several years.

  • The article, entitled ‘Illegitimacy and Authority in the North of England, c.1450-1640’, is in Northern History XLVIII: 1, March 2011.


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