Royal Bastards

What connect David Cameron, the 12th Duke of Grafton and Diana, Princess of Wales? They are all descendants of royal bastards, the illegitimate children of kings from across the centuries. Their illegitimacy barred them from succession to the Crown, but family ties ensured they would be granted titles, lands, wealth and power. And some started dynasties that thrive to this day.

Over nearly a thousand years of royal history since the Norman Conquest, the monarchy has augmented its power, wealth and influence by marrying well and producing children. The legitimate children of kings and queens are only part of the story; a surprisingly important role is played by the progeny of the illegitimate offspring of England’s monarchs.

Well into the twenty-first century, descendants of royal bastards occupy some of the top branches of the aristocracy, the Establishment and even Number 10.

If anything, it is surprising that there are not many more people with royal blood. With estimates of 160 royal bastards over the course of the past 900 years, their known direct descendants are relatively limited. A decent number of illegitimate children died without issue or their lines became quickly extinct.

There are other reasons why the total number of royal bastards was relatively low. Long periods of female reign have ensured that male infidelities have been kept away from the royal bloodline. The end of the House of Stuart’s royal position also stymied a batch of royal bastards who, instead, found influence in Spain and France

In pre-Tudor England, royal bastards were not necessarily acknowledged or accorded the privileges their successors would enjoy. There is a scarcity of records that reflects both the period and the discretion with which extramarital affairs were handled. Adultery was, of course, sinful but more worryingly for the medieval monarch was the possibility of publically acknowledged bastards upsetting royal succession.

There were undoubtedly royal bastards for as long as England (or any other country) had kings. Records are skimpy, and it is unsurprising that writers and chroniclers did not risk royal wrath by bringing the existence of illegitimate children (and their attendant sin of adulatory) into public view.

It is known that King Edward IV fathered Arthur Plantagenet and made him Viscount Lisle. Henry VII belied his austere and devoted public image by fathering Roland de Velville, whose mother is only known as a ‘Breton lady’.

The one notable royal bastard of Tudor times was Henry FitzRoy, the Duke of Richmond and Somerset. He was so beloved of his father, King  Henry VIII, that many thought he was a candidate for the succession. The taint of bastardy was strong, but Thomas Fuller was of the opinion that it was only his untimely death in 1536 that denied him the crown:

‘Well was it for them [the legitimate children of Henry VIII] that Henry Fitzroy his natural son … was dead, otherwise (some suspect) had he survived King Edward the Sixth, we might presently have heard of a King Henry the Ninth, so great was his father’s affection and so unlimited his power to prefer him.’

Despite this fertile start, the golden age of royal bastards was still to come. Three lusty and fertile kings, Charles II, James II and William IV, would each father a clutch of bastards. And, unlike their medieval predecessors, these bastards were acknowledged and raised to the peerage.

Charles II had fourteen acknowledged bastards but could easily have sired over 20 illegitimate children. This included a number who were not only publically acknowledged by showered with honours and elevated to the peerage. A number of his children took the surname FitzRoy, designating their exalted father.

Several of these titles are extant, including the Dukedoms of Grafton, St Albans, Aubigny and Buccleuch:

  • Henry FitzRoy, 1st Duke of Grafton (extant)
  • George FitzRoy, 1st Duke of Northumberland
  • Charles FitzCharles, 1st Earl of Plymouth
  • Charles FitzRoy, 2nd Duke of Cleveland
  • Charlotte Lee, Countess of Lichfield
  • Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St Albans (extant)
  • Charles Lennox, 1st Duke of Richmond, 1st Duke of Lennox, 1st Duke of Aubigny (extant)
  • James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth (Buccleuch extant)

James II was almost as fruitful as his brother. His children, who would take the surname FitzJames, included 13 bastards. Although none of his children’s titles survive in the English peerage, James FitzJames’s title as Duke of Berwick was recognised by the Spanish crown in 1707. His direct descendent, the Duchess of Alba, has the unwieldy and partially English name Doña María del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y Silva.

There was then an interlude of over a century before the next and final great philanderer, William IV. His children bore the surname FitzClarence and the FitzClarences were set to extract as much title and prestige from their position. Their time in the sun wouldn’t last – William IV’s successor, Queen Victoria, banned royal bastards from court as ‘ghosts best forgotten.’

Amongst the titles that emerged from William’s brood included the Earldom of Munster, which only became extinct in 2000 and the Earldom of Erroll.

As is very well known, adultery and the monarchy is not a long forgotten practice. One of the neatest ironies is the infidelity that connects Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria, and Charles, Prince of Wales. Edward VII had an infamous fling with Alice Keppel and was beset by rumours that he had fathered Alice’s daughter Sonia. Sonia Cubbitt née Keppell is Camilla Parker-Bowles’s grandmother and, of course, Camilla went on to become Prince Charles’s mistress and then wife.