Mistresses and Bastards at Court

In part three of ‘Sex at Court’ , Laura considers the status of mistresses and bastards.  Throughout the medieval period, there was little stigma attached to being the close kin of a powerful man, whatever side of the blanket you might have been born on, and many mistresses were tolerated by royal wives…


Rosamund kneels at a window whilst Eleanor peers from behind a tapestrry

John William Waterhouse, Fair Rosamund. 1916

Eleanor, attended by demons, casts a spell over Rosamund

Evelyn de Morgan, Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund. c. 1880-1919

Courtiers and kings did not dally with whores, but as more befitting their status, maintained mistresses. The mistress of Henry II of England, Rosamund Clifford, a famous beauty, became legendary enough to inspire later Victorian art.

In the thirteenth century, the royal palace at Woodstock contained a ‘Rosamund’s Chamber’, named after her. Later legends suggested that Henry’s wife, the great patron of troubadours and courtly love, Eleanor of Aquitaine, tried desperately to poison ‘the fair Rosamund’. Henry II supposedly hid his mistress inside a labyrinth in the gardens of Woodstock palace, but the wicked Eleanor found her way in.


Unfortunately for fans of soap-opera history, the story is completely false. At the time that Rosamund was Henry’s mistress, Eleanor was in fact living under house arrest, on the orders of Henry II. The only person she might have wanted to poison would have been her husband! After her relationship with the king ended, Rosamund retired to Godstow Abbey, a nunnery just outside Oxford. Her tomb- paid for by the king and her family- even became something of a local shrine.

The foundations of Godstow Abbey from above

Godstow Abbey Ruins, © Dave Price

Although Henry and Eleanor’s marriage was a turbulent one- the queen was imprisoned for around sixteen years by her husband, after supporting a rebellion against Henry in 1173- it is most unlikely that Eleanor was particularly upset or disturbed by Rosamund’s existence. In the first place, Rosamund was only one among many.  It has been suggested that Henry also bedded Rosamund’s aunt, Ida of Hainault, and Ida’s own daughter, Ida de Tosny. Another known mistress of Henry II is a woman called Ykenai, who gave birth to Geoffrey Plantagenet, a future archbishop of York. Geoffrey was even brought up in Eleanor’s household, suggesting great tolerance for her husband’s affairs.



Table drawn within an illumination of a human figure

An illuminated ‘table of consanguinity’ Getty Centre, MS Ludwig XIV 2, f.227v)

Why might Eleanor have brought up her husband’s bastard child in her own household? She may have seen in the infant Geoffrey a useful future ally. Mere mistresses, and the bastards they produced, were no threat to Eleanor’s power and position as Henry’s wife. Nor would they challenge the inheritance rights of her own children. Unlike in the early middle ages, the strict teachings of the church now gave illegitimate children no claims to the royal succession.

As a result, illegitimate kin could be relied upon. Henry II’s legitimate sons all rebelled against their father. His bastards did not. Henry II was the fount of all their wealth, power and position. Without him and his dynasty, they were nothing- so understandably, they were some of the staunchest supporters of the Angevins. Courtly half-brothers and sisters seem to have got on very well, no doubt for this reason.

Nor was Henry II unusual. His grandfather, Henry I, fathered at least twenty-four illegitimate children. Henry I’s eldest natural son, Robert of Gloucester, became a great magnate. Another natural daughter, Maud FitzRoy (literally, ‘son of the king’) married Conan III, Duke of Brittany.


Illuminated family tree with portraits

King Henry II of England and his children. (British Library, Royal 14 B VI)


Jean de Dunois

Jean de Dunois

Bastards provided kings with spare ‘assets’ to be disposed of in the international courtly marriage market, helping establish peace treaties and cement wavering allies. They also provided proof of a ruler’s continuing virility. Giving birth to heirs was an essential part of a ruler’s job description. In another public display of power, the existence of many bastard children provided continuing, public proof of a ruler’s ‘manhood’- and silently implied that any problems producing legitimate heirs were due to his wife, and not to him.

The fifteenth-century nobleman Jean de Dunois was widely known as the ‘Bastard of Orléans’, in recognition of his status as half-brother to Charles VII of France. Anthony, the natural son of Philip III, Duke of Burgundy, was known as the ‘Bastard of Burgundy’ or simply ‘the Grand Bastard’. All such nicknames may seem incredibly rude to modern ears- but were in fact markers of great respect.

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