Search This Blog

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Guest Grace Burrowes on Illegitimacy During the Regency

Linda Banche here. Today I welcome New York Times best-selling author Grace Burrowes and her second Regency historical, The Soldier. Devlin, the hero of The Soldier, is illegitimate. Grace tells us how the illegitimate have fared throughout English history.

Leave a comment with your email address for a chance to win one of two copies of The Soldier which Sourcebooks has generously provided. Grace will select the winners. Check the comments to see who won, and how to contact me to claim your book. If I cannot contact the winners within a week of selection, I will award the books to alternates. Note, Sourcebooks can mail to USA and Canada addresses only.

The winners are Suzanne Barrett and Anonymous! Anonymous, I have no address for you. Please send me an email at If I do not hear from the winners by July 5, 2011, I will select alternates.

Welcome, Grace!

Grace Burrowes:

This is a fascinating topic, particularly when traced down through centuries of English history. William of Normandy, known to us as William the Conqueror and founder of the modern English monarchy, was illegitimate. By law and by custom, Queen Elizabeth I was illegitimate, and by my count, Queen Victoria had close to twenty illegitimate cousins thanks to Prinny’s siblings. His successor to the throne, younger brother William, was responsible for eight of those cousins.

When I first came across facts such as these, I’d set each one aside and think, “Well, that’s an exception. Illegitimacy was heavily frowned on. We know that.” But the facts kept piling up: King Charles II is said to have had as many as twelve illegitimate children, and of the eight who survived to adulthood, he created six of them as “first duke of something,” and the lone female in the pack ended up a countess. The case of the eighth child, Charles Fitzroy is illuminating.

This young fellow was born to the Earl of Cleveland’s wife, and thus became the Second Earl of Cleveland, though he was also titled First Duke of Southampton. Not surprisingly, his legal parents separated upon his birth. Upon the death of his mother, through a special remainder in the dukedom, Charles Fitzroy became Second Duke of Cleveland in addition to First Duke of Southampton—a double duke, though clearly illegitimate.

Fitzroy inherited his dukedom through his mother, something we’re often told cannot happen; he was given a title though illegitimate, something else we’re told isn’t likely; and though illegitimate, he inherited a very exalted title as a function of special wording in the dukedom’s letters patent, something I’ve been confidently assured is “impossible.”

The longer I nosed around in the history books, the more examples I found of illegitimacy in high places not following the rubrics we’re told are historically inviolable—the Duke of Devonshire’s infamous ménage being another case in point.

I think two forces have combined to give us a somewhat skewed view of those born on the wrong side of high ranking blankets. First, illegitimacy was indeed frowned upon, legally and socially. An illegitimate child could only inherit from a parent through an explicit, specific, uncontested written bequest, and inheriting a title from a parent was rare indeed, though not, as we’ve seen, quite impossible. For the common folk, illegitimacy was a significant problem. The mother had custody of the child, but the father had no legal obligation to care for his illegitimate progeny whatsoever. Paternal honor or family resources were the only safeguards for offspring of non-sanctioned unions, regardless of social rank.

And we have no way of knowing how many illegitimate children the nobility and peerage left to dire fates, and yet, with no reliable means of contraception, no practical access to divorce, and a sense of entitlement rampant among the upper classes, we do know illegitimacy happened.

The second factor that might be affecting our view of aristocratic illegitimacy is the Victorian reaction to Regency excesses generally. King William did not create his Fitzclarence progeny as dukes and duchesses, he gave them courtesy titles, as if they were the children of a marquis.

Princess Sophie’s illegitimate son, Tommy Garth, was raised by his father, given a military commission, and never acknowledged as royal offspring (and the debate is not entirely resolved among historians). William Wordsworth took financial responsibility for his illegitimate daughter (conceived in France during the Peace of Amiens), but as poet laureate of Victorian England, he kept her existence very quiet.

We see the Regency period in part through those Victorian eyes, which cast a long, stern shadow over the history immediately preceding them. Peeking under that shadow at some of the facts and figures in history, gives us a different, more interesting, and sometimes surprising picture indeed.


Even in the quiet countryside he can find no peace...
His idyllic estate is falling down from neglect and nightmares of war give him no rest. Then Devlin St. Just meets his new neighbor...

Until his beautiful neighbor ignites his imagination...
With her confident manner hiding a devastating secret, his lovely neighbor commands all of his attention, and protecting Emmaline becomes Devlin’s most urgent mission.

Grace Burrowes is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of The Heir, also a 2010 Publishers Weekly Book of the Year. She is a practicing attorney specializing in family law and lives in rural Maryland, where she is working on the next books chronicling the loves stories of the Windham family. Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish will be in stores in October 2011, and The Virtuoso will be in stores in November 2011, with more to come in 2012! For more information, please visit


Linda Banche said...

Hi Grace. I never thought about seeing the Regency through a Victorian lens. Then again, nobility's power decreased after the Regency, so they couldn't do exactly as they pleased as they could up until 1800. When you have all the money and power, you can pretty much do what you want, even today, although there will always be limits.

Betsy Love said...

I love blog hopping! And I love knowing who wrote the amazing article on the blog. You should definitely put "By So-and-so" at the top of the blog, that way I know who to give kudos to. Good article.

Suzanne Barrett said...

Hi Grace:
What a fascinating discourse. I, also, never thought to look at the Regency period through Victorian eyes, and yet, that's what I unconsciously have done. This bears more study for me.

Thank you. I have The Soldier on my buy list.

Vonnie Davis ~ Romance Author said...

I devoured this very informative blogpost. Thank you, Grace, for sharing your wealth of knowlege with us.

catslady said...

It's an amazing subject. It all seems so inconsistent which is maybe what makes it all so unfair. I guess nothing is black and white which is what gives us so many interesting stories. And I am looking forward to your voice on the subject in The Soldier. I very much enjoyed The Heir :)

Grace Burrowes said...

Linda, Then too, Victoria ended with about twenty illegitimate cousins, and she probably had an interest in cleaning up the Royal Family's image--and she had decades to do it.

Betsy--Well, GRACE BURROWES says THANKS, and stop by any time!

Suzanne--I remind myself the Victorians were the ones who cleaned up the London sewers, which had been a growing problem for 1000 years. A little thing like embarrassing grandparents wouldn't represent much of a challenge for such determined people to whitewash.

Vonnie, I wish I had more time to spend on just this topic. It's like a Rubik's cube, you pick it up, you turn it this way, you turn it that way, and three hours later, you're still messing around on Wiki, scribbling down notes and clicking links. It's a wonder some books get written.

And thanks to you all for stopping by.

Barbara Edwards said...

Really interesting post. I look forard to reading your book.

Anonymous said...

The 4th Duchess of Gordon possessed an affinity for matchmaking her daughters (3 Dukes and A Marquess). Supposedly Charles Cornwallis, subsequently 2nd Marquess Cornwallis. Had some reservations, the Marquess had "expressed to the Duchess of Gordon some hesitation about marrying her daughter on account of the supposed insanity in the Gordon family, he received from the Duchess the gratifying assurance that there was not a drop of Gordon blood in Louisa."
It seems that as time passed the strictires of English society became ever more pious or maybe more deeply hidden in the closet?

Jennifer F said...

I have always assumed that history has recorded the "ideal" but the actual behavior did not live up to it! I have looked back to the Roman era where Augustus tried to do reforms since everyone was so debauched and families were not having enough "legitimate" heirs. Then he finally realizes that one of the most promiscuous women around was quite possible (according to a couple sources) his own daughter Julia! It just makes sense that human nature will not change over time--just the way we accept different mores and values. I mean, look what happened when a certain "beloved" governor's wife recently discovered he had an illegitimate daughter with a mistress he had been intimate with for years...does that change what he has been doing politically for his state for that last few years? Not really, but Americans don't really go for the whole keeping the mistress and illegitimate kid in the closet thing. I can't wait to read your book--it sounds exciting and you really sound like you love the historical time periods!
Jennifer jlfarkas(at)hotmail(dot)com

Chelsea B. said...

Intriguing post, Grace! The past was so very complicated in so many things.
I am looking forward to reading your new book!


inddee said...

Interesting topic. I would think that the dynastic marriage would have a higher chance of illegitimate offspring in part due to a sense of entitlement. Likely even the middle class or merchant class brokered marriage would adhere more closely to church morality. But, people will be people and it makes you wonder how many of the famous figures were really offspring of their parents...

Grace Burrowes said...

Barbara and Catslady, I hope you enjoy reading "The Soldier" as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Anonymous--That is a wonderful story, but as for getting more pious, if I'm not mistaken, the Queen Mum, most beloved member of the royal family in recent memory, was born to a domestic in her titled father's household.

Jennifer--very apt examples of human nature remaining constant over centuries!

Chelsea--Odd, how a lot of the complications of the past are the same complications being raised all over the planet.

Indy--It does make you wonder, but you raise a point: With neither divorce nor birth control on hand, people apparently made other accommodations of marriages made for dynastic reasons.

Liz Flaherty said...

This is so interesting! I'd never be able to keep things straight, but the mention of seeing the Regency through Victorian eyes sure does make sense.

Karen H said...

Hi Grace,

You raised some interesting points about this little known subject. Of course it is mentioned in lots of historical romances but it is always with stigma attached and 'never accepted'. Amazing just how accepted illigitimacy really was. Who knew?! BTW, one author I read a while back (she shall remain nameless for several reasons) wrote a few historicals but she is most known for her contemps. She had an illegitimate character in each of the books in her trilogy. In each book, she referred to that character as a 'natural child'. In her acknowledgements, she mentions that 'natural child' was the standard method of referring to an illegitimate child. I've seen that term in maybe one other book. In your research, did you find that term? You didn't mention it here, so I'm wondering how true that statement is.

Congratulations on your new release. I have your first book on my massive TBR be read very soon!

Grace Burrowes said...

Liz, my take on the whole Upper Ten Thousand thing is was to their society like professional sports to us. They KNEW it instintively, the way you know what a first down is without ever having tossed a football.

Karen, "natural child" was the term Jane Austen used in P&P, so we know it was widely accepted term. I've also seen "love child" used--we can only hope accurately.
Hope you enjoy "The Soldier."