The Stigma of Illegitimacy in Medieval England and Wales

The stigma of illegitimacy is a mark that remained prevalent up until the late twentieth century, yet none more so than in the England of the 13th century. Due to the Catholic Church of the 1200’s condemnation of sex outside marriage, fornication with the result of an illegitimate child was a sin. However within the royal circles of England even with the potentially damning notion of being a bastard child of a king or courtier this did not prevent the possibility of reaching greatness, notoriety or under Welsh law, the throne.

Despite the Catholic Church preaching against sexual relations out-of-wedlock illegitimate children born to kings is nothing new. William the Conqueror himself was an illegitimate child of the Duke of Normandy, Robert I, and this did not prevent him from gaining the crown of England through conquest and good leadership. In the days before 1066 when general primogeniture came in, Anglo-Saxon rulers chose their successor by who they thought best could rule often meaning their own children could be over-looked in favour of their siblings regardless of social stature in legitimacy. Technically under English law, an illegitimate line could not claim the throne unless done so by conquest or they were the only line left by way of heirs. Only a will left by their predecessor could over-rule this law under special circumstances. But even then an illegitimate line would have an unstable hold to the crown unless they create a proven dynasty much like when Henry VII took the throne in 1485. His tenuous link as a great-grandchild of John of Gaunt, the royal uncle of Richard II, was only solidified by the victory at Stoke battle, and the siring of a male line by his wife Elizabeth of York.

Although illegitimate children are a subject that confuses a lot of general history and the notion of building a long dynasty, it is a particular problem when discussing those who reigned during the 13th century in England and Wales. King John of England and Llywellyn the Great of Wales (Llywellyn Fawr) are contemporaries of each other and are linked through their treatment of their illegitimate offspring. In this era marriages are made for political and economic reasons and for securing a male line to succeed the throne, they were hardly ever made for love. Therefore it is almost natural that most men would seek to find love matches outside of marriage in terms of a mistress or concubine. There is hypocrisy here as women, particularly queens or those of the aristocracy, were forbidden from taking lovers as this would damage future dynastic ambitions if her child was not that of the kings, while a man could sow his wild oats as he wills to without repercussions.

Between John and Llywellyn the discussion on their children begins with whether he acknowledges a concubine’s child as his. There is a long history of illegitimate children being unrecognised as a royal bastard and the mother cast out of society as being unchaste and no longer a maid. Usually a mistress is a married woman so if a child is conceived it would be given out to be the cuckolded husbands but rarely are the people at court fooled. A prime example of this would be the two elder children of Mary Boleyn, Katherine and Henry Carey, who are reputed to be the fruits of Mary’s liaison with Henry VIII which is widely discussed and argued by historians today. All of John and Llywellyn’s children that they knew of were acknowledged and given places at court and societal honours. The main link between these two men would be John’s illegitimate daughter Joan (Joanna – born to a woman named Clemence), who was married to Llywellyn in 1203.

King John of England had continued the reputation of the Angevin kings in keeping mistresses and being open with favours of the sexual kind. Himself being the last child of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the third king in the House of Plantagenet, he had grown up surrounded by half-brothers born from his father’s mistresses after his marriage to Eleanor fell apart. Usually John is portrayed by historian as a harsh temperamental man, but many ignore the fact that his family including his children in and out-of-wedlock never wanted for anything. Looking at sources it can be confusing picking out those born before either of John’s wedding as he had a tendency to give his children the same name. His marriage to Isabelle of Angouleme gave him five children including his son Henry III but his brief trysts made him father to at last seventeen. Here though it can be seen that even if his illegitimate children were barred from the throne, they at least gained offices, baronies and in some case earldoms. Most of John’s children were boys, it is in fact known that Joan was his first daughter and he doted on her exceedingly. All children were well-travelled, Joan is known to have spent some years in Fontevrault with Eleanor of Aquitaine in the years before she died in 1204.

John’s illegitimate boys, in particular Baron Richard of Chilham, were all involved politically and socially in the realm’s state business including some military careers. It could be said that even if they did not gain glittering marriages, they were married well to women of substance and of good dowries considering the black mark that would usually smear their names. After careful research, historians have discovered that John’s children ended up scattered across Europe holding positions in the papal legate, an abbess, clerks and knights. This causes to question whether it is because of John the stigma is held lightly or whether the church was not as unforgiving as previously thought. Under papal rule a country could only pass their crown to a legitimate heir

In Wales, however, the mark of illegitimacy was thought of in a different light. In the Snowdon Mountains the eldest male born to a prince is heir, regardless of the legitimacy. Llywellyn ap Iorwerth of the House of Aberffaw, and later the House of Gwynedd once he was invested Prince of Wales, had eight children but only two of whom are considered to be born from his wife Joan. Llywellyn is known to have had two or three of his children from a mistress called Tangwystl ferch Llywarch, who died in childbirth with another of Llywellyn’s children. The eldest Gruffydd ap Llywellyn (‘ap’ – son of) became infamous during the wars following Llywellyn Fawr’s death with Dafydd ap Llywellyn, his half-brother. He was born in 1196 and in being the eldest child of Llywellyn he was named heir despite being illegitimate. This came into dispute when Llywellyn married Joan of England as she was Norman French and John’s daughter. England followed the church’s teachings in not allowing illegitimate lines to rule, so when Joan had Dafydd ap Llywellyn in 1212 the English backed Dafydd’s right to rule Wales in the place of Gruffydd. This was deemed strange to the Welsh considering that Llywellyn had twin sons by a concubine Cristyn, Angharad and Tegwarad, who were also older than Dafydd and technically came second and third in line under Welsh law.

Here you can see the issues when two countries on the same land who followed different laws in regards to continuing a dynastic line. Gruffydd was thought to be thoroughly displaced at the birth of Dafydd as under English law it diminishes his status, and his resentment of Joan has come down through history purely for being Norman-French and having a son who has papal following as well as the backing of two countries. Llywellyn Fawr foreseeing the problems of his two sons, particularly the flaws in Gruffydd, started to work towards declaring Dafydd as his sole heir. He followed Lord Rhys of Deheubarth’s lead by rewriting Welsh law favouring children born into a church sanctioned marriage to promote Anglo-Welsh negotiations for future descendants. The Welsh however have been known in the Middle Ages to prefer a Welsh leader signifying the beginning of a war that lasts until Gruffydd fell from a tower in the Tower of London trying to escape in 1244. The bricked up window can still be seen today. Dafydd then rules exclusively until his death in 1246 when Gruffydd’s second son Llywellyn ap Gruffydd became effectively the first ‘Prince of All Wales’. Welsh independence only lasted until Llywellyn ap Gruffydd’s death as then Wales was subsumed by the English crown, through the right of Dafydd ap Llywellyn’s heirs, and the conquest of Edward I of England, a somewhat cousin of Dafydd ap Llywellyn.

The last of the Welsh Prince’s line was a daughter, Gwenllian of Wales, who was kept in confinement for her entire life by Edward I to prevent her from marrying and producing more Welsh heirs. She died alone in Lincolnshire aged fifty-five in 1337, despite being the great-granddaughter of John of England as well as Llywellyn the Great, due to being of the legitimate line of Dafydd.

The Legacy of Edward I: Beyond Robert Bruce and the Scots

This is something I worked on sometime ago. Now I am a medievalist but Late Medieval England is certainly not my thing. I had to do some research about Edward I as an undergraduate and I found it quite tough, as I wasn’t all that interested…However, the approach I took helped me understand a monarch and period in English History which is sometimes too focused on the events up in Scotland, and the quarrels between the English crown and Scotland. So, in the following lines, I invite you to consider this subject with different eyes, under a different light.

Continue reading “The Legacy of Edward I: Beyond Robert Bruce and the Scots”

The Formation of the Kingdom of Serbia

The Kingdom of Serbia was a medieval Serbian Kingdom that existed from 1217 to 1346. It was ruled by the Nemanjić dynasty and was formed from the previous Serbian Grand Principality that was based in Raška. The Kingdom lasted until 1346 when it became The Serbian Empire.

The Grand Principality of Serbia in the Raška region had already been in conflict with the Byzantines for many years, and there had been a long history of Byzantine control over the area. However, it is partially thanks to the Byzantine attacks on the previously most powerful Serb region of Duklja that Raška rose to the top. There would have been another invasion on Raška, but through diplomatic ties with the Kingdom of Hungary, Serbia managed to keep independence.

In the years shortly after this, Serbian leaders fought against the Byzantines, and continued to turn towards Hungary for support. However this was planned to be stopped by the Byzantine Emperor who put a new Grand Prince on the throne in 1166 called Stefan Tihomir, who was of a lower line of Serb nobles. Tihomir ruled jointly with his brothers, the most important of which was Stefan Nemanja. Nemanja swore allegiance to the Byzantine emperor and became a vassal of Byzantium. He aided the Imperial army in many campaigns, including one against the Hungarians. Tihomir saw the tie between Nemanja and the Emperor as a threat.

Stefan Nemanja was eventually imprisoned by his brother. This was supposedly because Nemanja had ordered the construction of two monasteries without the Grand Prince’s permission. However, it is most likely that Tihomir felt threatened by his brother’s allegiance to the Emperor and thought that he was trying to assert his own independence. Nemanja’s supporters conspired to the church that Tihomir had done this because he disapproved of church building in general, so the church turned on Tihomir, which allowed Nemanja to escape.

Eventually, Stefan Nemanja formed an army with Byzantine help in order to overthrow Tihomir. This was a success, and Tihomir and his other two brothers were banished from Serbia. They went to Byzantium in 1167. In the next few years, Nemanja became a powerful figure as the single ruler of Serbia. However, the Byzantine Emperor did not approve of this, and turned to Tihomir and his brothers. Planning to see Serbia divided between the princes in order to keep it weak, The Emperor provided Tihomir with an army to take back Serbia. In 1171, Nemanja had gathered his own army and defeated his brother’s forces at the battle of Pantino. Tihomir was killed by drowning in the Sitnica river at the end of the battle, and Nemanja made peace with his other brothers, returning their old lands to them. After this Nemanja was recognized as the only ruler of Serbia, and at this point begins the Nemanjić dynasty.

Stefan Nemanja planned to gain full independence from Byzantine rule, so he joined the anti-Byzantine coalition with the Kingdom of Hungary, the Venetian republic and the Holy Roman Empire. However, this alliance was short-lived, as Venice faced mutiny and an outbreak of plague destroying their fleet, and the Hungarian King was replaced by a pro-Byzantine successor. Shortly after this, Byzantine Emperor Manuel I launched an attack on Raška, and defeated Nemanja’s forces. Nemanja surrendered to the Emperor, and was imprisoned and brought to Constantinople to be his personal slave. During his time in Constantinople, Nemanja befriended Manuel I, and vowed to never again attack him. In return The Emperor recognized Stefan Nemanja as the rightful ruler of Serbia, and let him return. However, this peace only lasted 9 years, until 1180 when Manuel I died, and Nemanja no longer considered he owed any allegiance to the Byzantines since his vows were to Emperor Manuel I and not the Empire.

Over the next decade, Nemanja worked on the expansion of his territory, and continued to fight with the Byzantines successfully. Although, in 1191, a large Byzantine army led by the new emperor Isaac II Angelus fought and defeated Stefan Nemanja. Nemanja retreated into the mountains with his remaining men and began raiding the Byzantine forces in the area. Nemanja had the tactical advantage at this point, so this prompted the Emperor to negotiate final peace treaty, in which Nemanja had to give up most of his Eastern conquest, and recognize the Emperor’s supreme rule.

On March 25, 1196, Stefan Nemanja summoned a council where he officially abdicated in favour of his second son, Stefan II. Although Vukan was his eldest son, Nemanja preferred to see Stefan II on the throne due to him being married to a Byzantine princess, which allowed them to have peace with Byzantium. Stefan Nemanja would later begin to establish the Serbian church in 1199 with his third son; Sava. Sava would later become ‘Saint Sava’, and Stefan Nemanja himself also later became a monk and took up the name ‘Simeon’, eventually becoming a Saint of Serbia too.

During the beginning of his reign, Stefan II had to deal with the heir conflict with his older Brother Vukan. While Nemanja was still alive, Vukan didn’t oppose Stefan II’s rule, but as soon as Nemanja died in 1199, he started to plot against Stefan II in order to become Grand Prince himself. Vukan used the help of the Hungarian Kingdom to overthrow Stefan II in 1202 and became ruler, while Stefan fled into Bulgaria. Vukan later became a Hungarian vassal and promised to convert to Catholicism if the Pope would give him the title of king. However, Vukan became involved in the Hungarian conflict with Bulgaria, leading to Stefan taking the opportunity to return to Serbia and overthrow Vukan, becoming ruler once again in 1204. The conflict power struggle between the two brothers only ended when the third brother, Sava, returned to Serbia from his work on founding Serbian Christianity. Sava brought with him the remains of their father, Stefan Nemanja, which convinces Vukan and Stefan II to make peace. Sava subsequently asked to stay in Serbia by Stefan, and he does so, starting his widespread education of the people of Serbia. In the following years, Stefan II still had to deal with the tension between himself and Vukan’s son Đorđe after Vukan’s death in 1209. This eventually led to Đorđe’s lands being taken from him in 1216.

In 1217 Stefan, Stefan II managed to secure the title of king from Pope Honorius III. Sava brought the regal crown from Rome, and crowned his brother himself as ‘King of all Serbia’. In 1218, Sava began the real formation of the Serbian Church, and was consecrated as the first Archbishop of Serbia in 1219. In the same year, Sava published ‘Zakanopravilo’; the first constitution of Serbia, thus acquiring the Serbs both political and religious forms of independence. The Nemanjić dynasty continued to rule Serbian lands for the next 200 years, which emerged into a powerful state that would dominate the entire Balkan peninsula, eventually becoming the Serbian Empire on 1346.