Illegitimacy and English Landed Society c.1285-c.1500

Helen Matthews

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This study examines the incidence of illegitimacy among members of the landed classes, broadly defined, in late medieval England and the factors which affected the ability of parents to provide for their illegitimate offspring.
Illegitimacy has normally been studied from either a legal or a social standpoint. This thesis will combine these approaches in order to provide insight into the social structure of late medieval England. Illegitimacy was a matter which primarily affected the right to inherit property and by implication, the person’s associated status. The period from c.1285, when the statute De Donis Conditionalibus was enacted, to the end of the fifteenth century saw the development of a number of legal devices affecting the ability of landowners to plan the succession to their estates. The enfeoffment to use and the entail allowed landowners the opportunity to settle estates on illegitimate children, or anyone else, without permanently alienating the property from the family line. By the fifteenth century, this freedom of action was becoming restricted by pre-existing entails and a means of breaking entails developed.
This study begins with a survey of the legal issues surrounding illegitimacy and the context within which landowners were able to make provision for illegitimate children. Subsequent chapters examine wills and estate settlements to consider the actual provision for illegitimate children made by individuals in different circumstances. Particular attention is given to individuals lacking a legitimate male heir of the body and the circumstances in which it was possible for an illegitimate son to become a substitute heir, concluding that illegitimacy was an obstacle that could be overcome, provided a number of conditions were met. A final chapter looks at attitudes to sexual misconduct and illegitimacy generally, concluding that illegitimacy was primarily a legal, rather than social, disability. The overall conclusion is that the fourteenth century provided a particular window of opportunity for bastard offspring.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Saul, Nigel, Supervisor
Award date1 Jun 2013
Publication statusUnpublished - 2013


  • England
  • Medieval
  • History
  • Illegitimacy
  • Nobility
  • Gentry
  • Bastard

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