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

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - Ed Dut­ton

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

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