Are you descended from nobility? We reveal the clues…
We all love the idea that we could be descended from the gentry. Here Ed Dutton helps you spot the clues that could reveal a gateway ancestor on your tree
By 1617, Sir Thomas Egerton (c15401617) was one of the most powerful men in England. Recently elevated as 1st Viscount Brackley, Egerton had been Lord Chancellor for 21 years. But he was no ordinary 17th-century statesman. Egerton was a ‘ bastard’, specifically a ‘gentle bastard’ – an illegitimate child of the gentry. If you’ve hit a genealogical brick wall in the mid-17th century or before, one possibility – especially if the surname sounds French or is a village – is that your ancestor was a gentle bastard as well.
Until the mid-17th century, after which Puritanism led to illegitimacy becoming increasingly taboo, the gentry had as many ‘ bastard’, ‘ base’ or ‘natural’ children as they had legitimate ones. George Owen (1552-1613), geologist and High Sheriff of Pembrokeshire, fathered 20 children of which seven were ‘ base’. Illegitimacy was far more acceptable in early modern England than in the 19th century, with contemporary attitudes towards illegitimates reflected in Edmund, Gloucester’s ‘ base’ son in
King Lear (1606). Though bastards were later believed to embody the immorality of their conception, corrupt the natural order, be prone to idolatry and treason, and weren’t accepted as siblings by legitimate offspring, Gloucester himself raises Edmund, who is more ambitious than his legitimate half-brother.
Gentle bastards took their father’s surnames, were raised in their father’s households, and were educated at their father’s expense. Until the mid-16th century, they were sometimes bequeathed to in wills, though mention of them declines thereafter. Elizabeth I’s Lord High Steward, Henry Stanley, Earl of Derby (15311593) acquired an estate in Kirkby, Lancashire, which went to his base son Henry, though he was absent from the will.
Rarely, illegitimates are even recorded (sometimes incorrectly as legitimate) on the heraldic visitations. Heralds ‘visited’ counties intermittently until 1700, summoning