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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
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
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.
Queen Victoria called the gypsies ‘a cruelly wronged people’
and showed them great sympathy. This was
because a family of gypsies once made a big impression on her when she was only
17 and staying at Claremont House in Surrey.
Here, she became somewhat friendly with the family. She sent food and baskets to one who gave
birth and praised the cleanliness of the newborn. She also drew them. She especially liked
drawing the formidable matriarch, Sarah Cooper. Her sketches have been
criticised as idealised and she described this family as ‘superior’ gypsies, because they were not like the 'fortune-telling, gossiping' ones, she thought. However, her attitude was arguably ahead of its time.
The young princess also often read and underlined The
Gypsies’ Advocate by James Crabb. This
was dedicated to judges and clergymen in the hope that they would develop a
more benevolent attitude to the Romany people.
Crabb helped gypsy children – he looked after some at home and paid for
their schooling – and established a committee with suggestions for reform.
Crabb became interested in changing opinions about the Romanies when he
witnessed a judge saying that he intended to execute horse-stealers, especially
gypsies, even after a convicted man pleaded for his life.
Queen Victoria tried to go out of her way to help the Cooper
family. She not only sent them gifts,
but she employed one of them, Matty Cooper, as her chief rat-catcher at Windsor
Castle. He used to lay them out on the
carpet at the castle, according to his grand-son. Her chief harpist was also a Romani.
King Henry grew increasingly horrified as he listened to the sermon by John Skipp, his wife Anne's Almoner, on Passion Sunday at Greenwich. The man actually had the temerity to insult him! He had talked about King Solomon who was immoral in his last years and took 'wives and concubines'. There was no doubt that Skip was referring to Henry!
Thomas Cromwell was also extremely angry because the sermon was a thinly disguised attack on his bill for the dissolution of the smaller monasteries and it must have been approved by Anne herself. Skipp was obviously defending the clergy who he felt were treated as if they were all guilty. He compared them to the Jews in the Bible story who were persecuted by the evil and greedy councillor Haman. This was certainly meant to be a reference to Cromwell.
The only one who may have been pleased was Anne who Skipp compared with the good Queen Esther who saved the Jews and hanged the mendacious Haman. Unfortunately, she had no way of knowing that her fight with Cromwell would be the beginning of her downfall.
Anne was angry about the dissolution of the monasteries because she had thought that that its purpose was reform and the bill referred to using the confiscated assets for the pleasure of Almighty God and to help maintain people of good learning and educational institutions. Instead, she discovered that Henry and Cromwell were selling the highly-valued assets to the Crown, selling off monastery land cheaply to nobles and merchants and using proceeds to shore up defences. Cromwell may also have siphoned some of the money for himself.
The Queen wanted the monasteries to be reformed or converted to educational foundations. She also wanted the money from any dissolutions to be committed to university bursaries and scholarships to train clergymen or given to the poor. She may even have personally requested the King to preserve Catesby Abbey but he refused because the nuns could not support themselves. (However, Elizabeth Norton thinks that it was Jane Seymour who made the appeal). She also gave English prayer books to the nuns at Syon Priory after giving them a lecture about using Latin primers.
According to Eric Ives, Chapuys wrote that Cromwell actually tried to conciliate Anne by moderating the dissolution, but Henry, seeing the coffers of gold, opposed this. Cromwell's desire for an imperial alliance also boded badly for the poor Queen. The final straw was the King's liking for the quiet and sedate Jane Seymour. Cromwell would have to choose...