Illegitimacy was once regarded as a great stain on one’s character, except in royal circles where illegitimate children sometimes became favorites of their fathers for various reasons. Even if they weren’t actually favoured, they often led interesting and successful lives. Many won famous battles or married royalty. (Some even became kings or queens themselves!) Here are ten of the most fascinating.
John of Austria
Don Juan of Austria (1545 -1578) was the bastard son of the Emperor Charles V and his wealthy mistress Barbara Blomberg. The Emperor recognised him in his last will and provided a handsome income for him. He was also publicly recognised by his brother Phillip II and raised as a member of the Spanish royal family.
Don Juan became a great naval officer. After being chosen as admiral of the fleet by his brother, he won the monumental Battle of Lepanto against the Turks who were practically invincible with their huge navy of 300 ships with 120,000 men on board, including Christian slaves. He led the fleet to a decisive victory causing over 25,000 deaths and incapacitating most of the Ottoman ships. During the battle, many of the slaves escaped and helped to fight against the Turks. Highly praised by the Pope, John of Austria was now regarded as a hero who had saved Europe from the Ottomans.
Phillip 11 eventually appointed Don Juan Governor of the Netherlands but he failed to gain control and he agreed to the withdrawal of the Spanish troops so that they could invade England. Both ambitions came to nothing, and John of Austria died while there was still conflict in the Low Countries.
Margaret of Parma
Charles V had another powerful illegitimate child, Margaret of Parma. Even when she was just a teenager, Margaret wanted her own way. Widowed at fourteen, she caused a great scandal when she was married off to Ottavio Farnese, a pimply, shy boy two years her junior. She refused to consummate the marriage for years, hoping for an annulment. When that didn’t work out, the couple lived separately.
Margaret became the Governor of the Netherlands on behalf of her half-brother brother Philip II of Spain and proved a successful regent. According to Henry Kamen, her brother’s biographer, “Duchess Margaret of Parma was . . . an excellent choice to govern the provinces which traditionally had thrived under princesses of the ruling house. After she retired, she lived in Italy where she became a great patron of the arts and music.
Lady Janet Stewart
Lady Janet Stewart, the illegitimate daughter of the Scottish King James 11 and the countess of Bothwell, was regarded as a great beauty and asserted her power at the French court. The widow of Lord Fleming who died in the Battle of Pinkie, she accompanied the young Mary, Queen of Scots to France as her governess and charmed the men of the court. The Venetian Ambassador called her “a very pretty little woman.”
King Henry 11 also found her very attractive, and when he got Lady Fleming pregnant, she was absolutely delighted! She told the court that: “I have done all that I can, and God be thanked, I am pregnant by the King, for which I count myself both honoured and happy.”
The French Queen, Catherine de Medici, was most certainly not pleased, however, and packed Lady Fleming back to Scotland. Here, she gave birth to a healthy son Henry who was brought up with the French royal children when they eventually returned to France. He became Abbé de la Chaise-Dieu and Grand Prior General of the Galleys.
Marie Ann de Bourbon
Marie Ann was also successful at the French court. Louise de la Valliere had to hide the birth of Marie Anne, her illegitimate daughter with Louis XIV, from the Queen. When she was in labor, she yelled out “Colic, Madame” as the Queen passed through her bedchamber on the way to the chapel! (Link Ten) Louis legitimised the pretty little girl when he made her mother a duchess and she also became Mademoiselle de Blois.
This favourite daughter of Louis grew up to be beautiful and an excellent dancer. She achieved success in marrying the Prince of Conti, a Prince of the Blood, but the naughty girl, only 13, complained that he “lacked force” after their wedding night, and said that she preferred his brother! After the Prince died when she was only 24, she never married again.
Another illegitimate Stewart, James Stewart, the Earl of Moray, also led a fascinating life. The illegitimate son of James V and Lady Margaret Douglas, he was Mary, Queen of Scot’s half-brother. She made him the Earl of Moray when he supported her after she returned to Scotland as Queen.
However, as he was a strong Protestant and she was a whole-hearted Catholic, the pair soon fell out and he led a rebellion against her after she married Darnley. James governed Scotland when he became Regent for her little son after Mary abdicated and he finally defeated her forces at the Battle of Langside. Unfortunately, James came to a tragic end when he was assassinated by James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh, a supporter of Mary.
James Scott, Duke of Monmouth
James Scott, Duke of Monmouth also became extremely powerful but came to an unfortunate end. Handsome and charming, James was the son of Charles II and one of his many mistresses, Lucy Walter. The “naughty” teen liked racing, gambling, drinking and dancing. A marriage was arranged for him at the incredibly young age of 14, but he was popular with the women and had many lovers.
An excellent soldier, he became commander of the British troops helping Louis XIV fight the Dutch, and took the seemingly impregnable fortress of Maastricht in 1672. He eventually became the commander of the British army, but he was upset that James, the Duke of York, the King’s brother, wanted him to be named a “natural son” of the King in the order that installed him. This was just one of several conflicts with his father.
After Charles II died, the Duke of York became King James II. The Protestant Duke, horrified by a Catholic taking the throne, was persuaded to take part in an invasion against him. Defeated at Sedgemoor, he was executed as a traitor.
James FitzJames, the bastard son of the Duke of York (later James II) and Arabella Churchill, also became an excellent military commander. Raised a Catholic in France, the young man was created Duke of Berwick on Tweed when his father came to the throne and served in several military campaigns, including the Battle of the Boyne against Ireland. He eventually returned to France and became a naturalized French subject.
He became the commander of the French force sent to assist Louis XIV’s grandson, Phillip V in Spain, and he also became captain-general of Spain’s army. Created a Marshal of France, his supreme achievement was winning the Battle of Almanza against the English in 1706.
Joan, the Maid of Kent
Joan, the illegitimate daughter of the bad King John and one of his many mistresses, became an extremely powerful woman at the Welsh court and a peacemaker. She married the greatest Welsh prince of all, Prince Llewellyn the Great. Several conflicts arose between Llewellyn and King John and Joan was often sent to make peace. After John hanged several Welsh hostages in 1212, Joan managed to intercede with her father for the release of the hostages who remained in England.
However, Joan’s career as a diplomat and her marriage almost crashed when she was found committing adultery with William de Briouze, a former prisoner of her husband. Llewellyn was naturally furious. He hanged William and placed Joan under house arrest. Remarkably, he forgave her a year afterwards and they got back together. She also started attending conferences between her husband, her son and the English king at Shrewsbury. After Joan died, Llewellyn founded a house for Franciscan friars and dedicated it to her.