Bastardy in the Jacobean Age

John Marston, The Malcontent (1604):

 [Mal.] Beleeue me, intemperate lasciuious bastardy makes Nobiltie doubtfull. (3.3)

William Shakespeare, King Lear (1605), in The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed., ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997):


  Edm.  Thou, Nature, art my goddess, to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition, and fierce quality,
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got 'tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word, “legitimate”!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th’ legitimate. I grow, I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards! (1.2.1-22)


The True Chronicle History of King Leir (London: Simon Stafford for Iohn Wright, 1605):


 Cord. Deare father.---
 Leir. Peace, bastard Impe, no issue of King Leir,
I will not heare thee speake one tittle more.
Call not me father, if thou loue thy life,
Nor these thy sisters once presume to name:
Looke for no helpe henceforth from me nor mine;
Shist as thou wilt, and trust vnto thy selfe:
My Kingdome will I equally deuide
Twixt thy two sisters to their royall dowre,
And will bestow them worthy their deserts:
This done, because thou shalt not haue the hope,
To haue a childs part in the time to come,
I presently will dispossesse my selfe,
And set vp these vpon my princely throne. (1.1)


Thomas Ridley, A View of the Ciuile and Ecclesiastical Law (London: Adam Islip for the Company of Stationers, 1607):

Bastardie is an vnlawfull state of birth disabled by diuine and humane Lawes to succéed in inheritance….

Of such as are begotten of single women, by single men, who are in case to marrie them if they will, some are called by the Ciuile Law Filij Naturales, because they were begot by such as they held for their wiues, and yet were not their wiues….

Some other begot vpon single women, if they were begot in vage lust, without any purpose to hold such a one for a Concubine, but vpon a desire onely to satisfie a mans present Lust, whether they were begotten by married men or single men were called Spurij, who for the most part are putatiue children, and their Father is not other|wise knowne than by the mothers confession, which some|times saith true, sometimes otherwise….

But where any was borne of a woman single or mar|ried, that prostituted her selfe to euery mans pleasure, and made publicke profession of her selfe to be an harlot, such as are they whom the Law calleth Scorta, these were called Manzeres….

Those which were begotten of maried women were cald Nothi, because they séemed to be his children whom ye mariage doth shew, but are not….

The most nefarious and last kind of bastards are they whom the Law calleth Incestuosi, which are begot betwéene ascendents and descendents in infinitum, and betwéen collaterals….

The effects of these sorts of bastardies are diuerse.

First, it staineth the bloud, for that he that is a bastard can neither challenge Honour nor Armes from the Father or Mother, for that he was begot and borne out of Matrimonie which is the first step to Honour:… for, albeit it be no sin for a bastard to be a bastard, yet is it a defect in him to be such a one, and a thing easily subiect to reproch….

Secondly, it repelleth him that is a bastard, from all succession descending from the Father or the mother, whether it be in goods or Lands, vnlesse there be some other collaterall, prouision made for the same: for that all such Lawes and statutes as are made to any of these purposes, were intended to the benefit of such as are Legitimat, and are next of kin by lawfull succession, and not by vnlawfull coniunction….

Thirdly, whereas the Prince by his rescript, or the Senate by their decrée, did doe any one that credyt, as to grant them the fauor of legitimation, which was done for the most part in such cases only, wheras eyther the father of the child, or the child himselfe, offered himselfe to be attendant on the Court or Prince.

In this Realme none of the foresaid legitimations take place, as far as I can learne, but only that which is done by Parliament, and that verie rarely; for beside those that King Henry the 8. did in the varietie and mutabilitie of his mind, towards his owne issue, I think there cannot be many examples shewed….

For the matter of Bastardie, what it is, the Ecclesiasticall Law, & the Temporall differ not, but there is a diuersitie betwéene them in the prosecution therof, for the Ecclesiasticall Law bringeth it two waies in Iudgement; the one incident|ly, the other principally, but the Common Law maketh two sorts thereof the one generall, the other speciall: But first of the Ecclesiasticall diuision, then of the temporall. (198-202)

Attributed to Cyril Tourneur or Thomas Middleton, The Reuengers Tragaedie (London: G. Eld, 1607):


  [Dut.]  Let it stand firme both in thought and minde,
That the Duke was thy Father, as no doubt then
Hee bid faire fort, thy iniurie is the more,
For had hee cut thee a right Diamond,
Thou hadst beene next set in the Duke-doomes Ring,
When his worne selfe like Ages easie slaue,
Had dropt out of the Collet into th' Graue;
What wrong can equall this? canst thou be tame
And thinke vppon't.
  Spu.  No mad and thinke vpon't.
  Dut.  Who would not be reuengd of such a father,
E'en in the worst way? I would thanke that sinne,
That could most iniury him, and bee in league with it,
Oh what a griefe 'tis, that a man should liue
But once ith world, and then to liue a  Bastard,
The curse a'the wombe, the theefe of Nature,
Begot against the seauenth commandement,
Halfe dambd in the conception, by the iustice
Of that vnbribed euerlasting law.
  Spu.  Oh Ide a hot-backt Diuill to my father.
  Dut.  Would not this mad e'en patience, make bloud rough?
Who but an Eunuch would not sinne? his bedBy one false minute disinherited.
  Spi.  I, there's the vengeance that my birth was wrapt in,
Ile be reuengd for all, now hate begin. (1.1) 

Robert Aylett, The Valiant Welshman (London: George Purslowe for Robert Lownes, 1615):


  [Codig.] Now swels the wombe of my inuention,
With some prodigious proiect, and my brayne
Italianates my barren faculties
To Machiuilian blacknesse. Welshman, stand fast;
Or by these holy raptures that inspire
The soule of Polititians with reuenge,
Blacke proiects, deepe conceits, quaynt villanies,
By her that excommunicates my right
Of my creation, with a bastards name,
And makes me stand nonsuted to a crowne;
Ile fall my selfe, or plucke this Welshman down.
Cornwall, he kild thy brother. There's the base,
Whereon my enuy shall erect the frame
Of his confusion. Gloster, I know,
Is Natures master-piece of enuious plots,
The Cabinet of all adulterate ill
Enuy can hatch; with these I will beginne,
To make blacke enuy Primate of each sin.
Now, in the heate of all their reuelling,
Hypocrisie, Times best complexion,
Smooth all my rugged thoughts, let them appeare
As brothell sinnes benighted, darkely cleare.
Lend me thy face, good Ianus, let mee looke
Iust on Times fashion, with a double face,
And clad my purpose in a Foxes case. (1.4)


Gervase Markham and William Sampson, The True Tragedy of Herod and Antipater (London: G. Eld for Mathew Rhodes, 1622):


 [Ant.] By birth I am a Bastard, yet my wit
Shall beare me 'boue the true-borne; for 'tis found,
Power makes all things lawfull, all things sound. (1.1)

 Ant. Goe Herod, happy King; nay Herod, goe,
Vnhappy, cause so happy; happy King,
Whilst th'art a King; vnhappy when no King:
Hangs then mishap or hap vpon a King, or no King?
Then Herod, be no King; Antipater be King:
And what's a King? a God: and what are Gods, but Kings?
Ioue, Prince of Gods, was petty King of paltry Creete;
Men subiect are to Kings and Gods; but of the twaine,
Their Gods than Kings commands, they rather disobay;
Kings greater then; nay, better then, then Gods:
Then but a King or God, naught with Antipater;
And rather King then God; no God; a King, a King.
When I complaine to Eccho but head-aking; it cries, a King:
When I, in mirth, am musique making; it sounds, a King:
Each sight, when I am waking; presents a King:
When I my rest am taking; I see a King.
Last night I saw, or seem'd to see; nay, sure I saw
A Crown hang ore my head; & throgh the Crown a Sword:
I saw, I sigh'd, I cryed, O when? O when?
Fall Crowne; yea fall with Sword; fall both, so one may fall:
But why dreame I of falling, that must rise;
Nay runne, nay leape, nay flie vnto a Crowne?
Gyants heape hills on hills, to scale high Heauen;
I, heads on heads, to climbe a Kingdomes Skye:
But oh, I am a Sonne; a Sunne, O happy name;
A Sunne must shine alone, obscuring Moone, and Starres:
I, but I am a Bastard; what of that?
Men base by birth, in worth are seldome base;
And Natures Out-casts, still are Fortunes Darlings:
Bacchus, Apollo, Mercury; Bastards, yet brauest Gods:
Then, why not I a God, a Demi-God, or Worthy?
You Gods, you Demi-Gods, you Worthies then assist me;
That, as our birth was like, our worth may beare like price:
If they refuse; come Deuils, and befriend me;
My breast lies open; come; come Furies and possesse it;
Hatch heere some monstrous brood, worthy of you and me;
Which all Posterities may know, but none beleeue;
Whereat the Sunne may not goe backe, as once it did,
At Atreus tyrannie; but fall and dye for euer:
Wherat the Heau'ns may quake, Hell blush, & Nature tremble;
And men (halfe mad) may stand amaz'd. So, so, it works, it works;
My breast swels to a Mountaine; and I breed
A Monster, past description; to whose birth,
Come Furies, and bee Mid-wiues. Harke! O harke! (1.1)


Henry Peacham, The Compleat Gentleman (London: John Legat for Francis Constable, 1622):

Whether Bastards may be said to be Nobly borne or not: I answere with Iustinian, Sordes inter praecipuos nominarinon merentur. Yet it is the custome with vs, and in France, to allow them for Noble, by giuing them sometimes their Fathers proper Coate, with a bend Sinister, as Reignald Earle of Cornewall, base sonne to the Conquerour, bare his Fathers two Leopards passant gardant, or in a field Gules, with a bend sinister Azure: The like Hamlin, base sonne to Geoffrey Plantagenet, Earle of Surrey Some their fathers whole Coate, or part of the same in bend dexter; as Iohn Beauford, a Bastard of Somerset, bare partie per pale argent and Azure, a bend of England, with a labell of France. Sir Roger de Clarendon, base son to the Blacke Prince, his fathers three Feathers, on a bend Sable, the field Or. I willingly produce these examples, to confirme our custome of ennobling them; and though the Law leaneth not on their side, yet stand they in the head of the troope, with the most deseruing: yea, and many times (according to Euripides) proue better hen the legitimate. Who are more famous then Remus and Romulus, who laid the first stone of Rome; more couragious and truly valiant, then Hercules, Alexander, our King Arthur of Britaine, and William the first? more critically learned then Christopher Longolius, Iacobus Faber; more modest, and of better life, then Coelius Calgaguinus, the delight of his Ferrara, with infinite others? and where decretals and Schoolemen may beare the bell, those two Grandes, Gratian and Lombard? (9)

21 James I, C. 27 (1623)

John Webster, The Deuils Law-Case (London: Augustine Mathewes for Iohn Grismand, 1623):


 Rom. Yet why doe I
Take Bastardy so distastfully, when i'th world,
A many things that are essentiall parts
Of greatnesse, are but by-slips, and are father'd
On the wrong parties.
Preferment in the world a many times,
Basely begotten: nay, I haue obseru'd
The immaculate Iustice of a poore mans cause,
In such a Court as this, has not knowen whom
To call Father, which way to direct it selfe
For Compassion: but I forget my temper,
Onely that I may stop that Lawyers throat,
I doe beseech the Court, and the whole world,
They will not thinke the baselyer of me,
For the vice of a mother: for that womans sinne,
To which you all dare sweare when it was done,
I would not giue my consent. (4.1)


John Webster, The Dutchesse of Malfy (London: Nicholas Okes, for Iohn Waterson, 1623):

 [Ferd.] Where are your Cubbs?
 Duch. Whom?
 Ferd. Call them your children;
For though our nationall law, distinguish Bastards
From true legitimate issue: compassionate nature
Makes them all equall. (4.1)