The oldest human stories contain tales of secret identities, hidden pregnancies, and illicit affairs. Babies have always been born in and out of wedlock, but attitudes toward these births have been fluid, influenced by the prevailing medical, moral, and cultural contexts in which they happen. Yet an out-of-wedlock birth does not necessarily create a brick wall for family historians. Read on to learn more about the meaning and significance of provable heredity.
Finding our ancestors can be more challenging when they are born out of wedlock; family historians must address brick walls, dead-end paper trails, and the cultural stigma of a birth considered by some to be “illegitimate.” It can be an emotional issue for families, too.
Questions of paternity first entered the European historical record in the 13th century. “Legitimate marriage or its absence was not the key factor in determining quality of birth,” writes historian Sarah McDougall, author of Royal Bastards: The Birth of Illegitimacy, 800-1230. “Instead, what mattered was the social status of the parents – of the mother as well as of the father. Being born to the right parents, regardless of whether they were married according to the strictures of the Church, made a child seem more worthy of inheriting parents’ lands, properties and titles.” The historical record reflects that even after the 1200s, European kings and queens were able to rise to power despite their questionable paternity status, and lower-status people were also often able to inherit wealth despite being born out of wedlock--as long as their acknowledged parents were respectable in the community.
Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), for example, was herself considered by many Catholics to be illegitimate, since the Catholic Church famously refused to acknowledge her father King Henry VIII’s marriage to her mother, Anne Boleyn. When Henry died in 1547 his crown passed to a series of royals of varying degrees of consanguinity over the next eleven years until, having essentially run out of legitimate Tudor heirs, Henry’s daughter Elizabeth Tudor was crowned Queen Elizabeth I of England.
In contrast to the brief and violent reigns of her predecessors Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey, and Mary Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I took the throne with unusual support from the general public. The question of Elizabeth’s legitimacy was overwhelmingly trumped by her obvious royal bloodline. Not only had King Henry VIII claimed her as his rightful daughter at the time of her birth, but her distinctive red hair was an obvious inheritance from her notably handsome father. Elizabeth’s blood relationship to Henry VIII meant that she also inherited something else: the divine right of kings. “I am God's creature, ordained to obey His appointment,” Elizabeth I declared when she took the throne. God knew she was the daughter of a king, and so did everyone else.
Generally speaking, the increasing importance of provable heredity was more closely correlated with the growth of the rule of law in Western civilization than with the power of the church. As the concept of private property developed and changed the medieval economy, the issue of inheritance started to matter to families who might not be handing down crowns and scepters, but nevertheless might have a farmhouse, a barn, and some milk cows to disperse. Births, which occurred at home, were recorded in parish church records or often simply noted in a family bible. With no blood types or DNA tests available, heredity was a largely rhetorical matter.
The more we understand the changing attitudes toward out-of-wedlock births, the sooner we eventually realize that “absolutely everyone will have at least one, if not several, illegitimate ancestors.” Ruth Paley, author of My Ancestor Was a Bastard emphasizes that “making an effort to understand something about the economic, cultural, and legal boundaries that shaped the world of the unmarried mother and her child will at least allow you to make educated guesses about the searches that are most likely to get results.”
There are a few common clues that a birth may have occurred out of wedlock. Long gaps of time between children can be a sign; some grandparents who mysteriously “have” a baby later in life may have taken over the care of their grandchildren and passed them off as their own. Birth names can be a clue to a baby’s heredity as can the address where the child was born. Perhaps no father’s name is provided on the birth certificate. In some communities in England, for example, the care of “bastards” was the responsibility of the local church parish. These institutions often made their own investigations to try to track down the irresponsible father.
Before the advent of DNA testing in the 1980s, science could only guess at the number of out-of-wedlock births. But once the general public began testing their DNA, the genetic testing companies realized they needed to help explain and educate their clients on what constitutes a reasonable expectation of surname stability; that is to say, the likelihood that the father whose surname you share is, in fact, your genetic parent. “We believe that the rate of unannounced adoption or false paternity is about 1 – 3% per generation and compounds each generation,” the FamilyTree DNA testing company states on its website. “When confirming your lineage, we recommend that you test yourself and your most distantly related male ancestor to verify the line back to the common male ancestor.” It is not uncommon for a client to ask for a “do-over” when their paternity results don’t match the genes of the man they call father (a.k.a., a Surname Disruption Event or Non-Paternity Event). In this case, some DNA testing companies will agree to retest the results… but only once. After that, it’s time for a family conversation.
Of course, DNA can also reunite children and fathers. Despite the trauma of learning at age 52 that her late, beloved father was not her biological parent, the author Dani Shapiro was consoled when she met the man who was. Shapiro expected they might share some of the same physical features, and they did. “But we also share the same favorite novel: Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety,” she wrote. “We have a similar sense of humor and natural reserve. When I met him, I understood, for the first time, where aspects of my very personhood had come from.” It was a moment of self-understanding available only to those of us born in the post-DNA era.
Illegitimacy was, and sometimes still can be, an extremely sensitive issue. As such, it was common for details of a child born out of wedlock to remain a heavily-guarded secret. Though common practices associated with the births of these children varied greatly by geographic location and time period, fear of social disgrace led people to go to great lengths to hide the truth, creating obstacles for descendents seeking to learn more about their family’s history. If you have reason to believe that an ancestor was conceived outside of marriage, there are methods and records which may light a path of discovery.
The practice of bastardy bonds began in England and became common after the implementation of the Poor Law of 1601 as a means of making the natural father take financial responsibility for the illegitimate child, as opposed to the parish having to absorb the cost of supporting the child. Providing details such as the names and occupations of both parents, this tradition continued in Colonial America. Though not as commonplace as the British practice, bastardy records in the United States continued in some locations into the 20th century. One of the most extensive collections for these types of records is for the state of North Carolina.
In addition to Bastardy Bonds, there are sometimes other court records which exist that may include information on an illegitimate birth. These include, but are not limited to, apprenticeship, orphan, probate, guardianship, legitimations and civil suit records. One such record collection is the abstracted court minutes titled Tennessee Tidbits. This two-volume set is composed of genealogically-pertinent details extracted from the records of select Tennessee counties and is available at the Family History Library.
Indenture and apprenticeship records can sometimes provide the names of the biological parents for the minor child being bound out. When the father’s name is preceded by refuted, that indicates that though born illegitimately, the father acknowledges that they are the biological father of said child. Orphan and guardianship records may also provide insight into the parentage of a child born outside of marriage. These records vary greatly in details included, based on time period and geographic location.
Probate records are an often overlooked source of information regarding an illegitimate child. Sometimes men called out illegitimate children specifically in their wills to specifically include or exclude them as a beneficiary to their assets. In addition, if the court was notified of the existence of an illegitimate child after the death of the natural father.
Another potential resource are civil announcements in the newspapers. These occurred in the cases of bastardy bonds and even release to orphanages. Review the newspapers in the area where the potentially illegitimate ancestor resided as a child. Even if these announcements don’t include a lot of specific information, they can provide a window of time for searching in court records, and the like.
Church records can also be extremely valuable in search efforts. Quaker meeting records may include information of excommunication or disownment of mothers who conceived a child outside of marriage. Catholic baptismal records can be quite insightful, especially in countries that established foundling homes, such as Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, among others. In Italy, specifically, it was common for the priest to provide a child born to an unwed mother or an abandoned child a surname. Oftentimes these surnames alluded to the illegitimate-nature of the birth, such as Esposito (abandoned) or Incognito (unknown), among others. Also be mindful of terms used by the priest, such as reputed (admits the child is his) or refuted (does not accept the child).
When researching ancestors born illegitimately, it is important to compile details from multiple sources in order to determine paternity, or even in some cases maternity. Be diligent in your efforts and pay attention to the nuances of the documents and the meanings of the terminologies used, as they can sometimes differ by time period.
Learn more about analysis of evidence in the article The Human Element. Connecting with others to expand your genealogical knowledge is explored in Motivating Others for Genealogical Results.
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Sara McDougall, Royal Bastards: The Birth of Illegitimacy, 800-1230 (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
Ruth Paley, My Ancestors was a Bastard: A Family Historian’s Guide to Sources for Illegitimacy in England and Wales, (London: Society of Genealogists Enterprises Ltd., 2008), 3-6.
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