There have been many medieval kings who have produced a string of illegitimate children. Henry I is perhaps the most infamous of them all. He was so prolific in exercising his sexual appetites, that the number of bastard children is almost impossible to know for certain. At best guess, the suggested numbers are as high as nineteen; and we only know this because these are the ones he acknowledged. Record keeping for legitimate royal births itself was fraught with inaccuracies or omissions, so keeping an account of the king’s offspring from the other side of the bed sheets was nigh on impossible. Only if a medieval king formally acknowledged a child as his own was there the remotest chance that the name would be noted down in history and thus be available to us today; and only of course if that record survived the centuries.
Before we jump to judgement, it is important to place ourselves in the medieval mindset. The somewhat modern notion or formal expectation of social monogamy is just that, a relatively modern application. Despite church teaching, extra marital affairs in the medieval world were common place and almost expected. Nobles, kings and even bishops freely spread their proverbial oats without fear or much in the way of penalty. Bishops were more susceptible to criticism, but this did not appear to be much of a deterrent in most cases. This was especially true when those in the higher social order were engaging in sexual encounters with those from the bottom end of society. It was in the medieval context, a sign of a man’s virility and virility meant masculinity, an important part of understanding the medieval notion of what it was to be male. In the fourteenth century, it was social norm if not quite what the church preached from the pulpits.(1)
Women, who have for centuries had a much tougher end of the draw, had no social freedom to seek sexual encounters beyond the marriage bed, nor indeed before their nuptials. The most prominent reason was the risk to succession and the subsequent shame of social ostracisation. Making a cuckold of a man was, in a male dominated world, strictly off limits. The production of children secured dynastic descent, and with children came the transmission of power from one generation to the next. It is important to remember that land was literally power and only legitimate offspring could maintain or expand that power base. Any land owner needed to be certain that their heir was in fact their own. Therefore, the penalties for women who were found guilty of adultery were severe, including having their heads shaved, they could be expelled from their homes, ostracised from their community and/or paraded naked through the streets of villages and towns as a mark of public penance.(2) Think Cersi Lannister in Game of Thrones fame.
Edward II, despite his propensity for male favourites – Piers Gaveston being chief amongst them – did on one known occasion have an illegitimate son called Adam. Edward, one of England’s more sexually fluid kings, appears to have fathered a child before he ascended the throne on 7 July 1307. It has recently been suggested that following Edward I’s marriage to Marguerite of France in September 1299, the king’s son, later Edward II, may have had a brief encounter with Alice de la Croix or another of the queen’s ladies in her household, resulting in the birth of Adam sometime around 1305/6.(3) The prince of Wales at this point may have been pressured by those around him to seek out female company, as he and Piers Gaveston were already boon companions, having been in each other’s close company since 1300. There may have be no pressure applied and so it may be simply that Edward was more than comfortable with seeking out his own encounters with both men and women. Confirming his personal motivations in 1305/6 in this regard are however nothing more than pure speculation either way, and we will never know for sure. In the end Edward appears to father no more bastard children, which is either because they were not recorded and therefore unknown to us today, or that Edward did not seek out the company of women more generally over any sustained period. In 1308 he married his wife, Isabella of France, a vital act for securing the succession and the dynasty beyond, and they went on to have four children. The relatively conservative number of offspring itself is much at odds with the array of legitimate children produced by his father Edward I and son Edward III. The reasons potentially could be many of course, but given Edward’s behaviour and reliance on men, it is not hard to see where his interests often went.
We get only a fleeting glimpse of Adam himself, and that is somewhat from the shadows. In 1322, following his fathers victory over his long standing enemy and cousin Thomas of Lancaster and the Contrariant rebels, Edward set his sights on victory over Robert the Bruce in Scotland. During this campaign, the records show that Adam, himself now possibly sixteen or seventeen, acknowledged as the king’s bastard and listed as ‘the kings son’, was to serve in the campaign. Provisions of arms were made for him which was overseen by Sir John Sturmy. Adam’s master was one of Edward II’s squires, Hugh Chastilloun, which would indicate that Adam was at court and was welcomed there by his father who sought to look after him. A letter written around this time, noted that Adam had ‘all good qualities and honour’ which the author proudly declared were ‘increasing’ in him.(4) He followed in his father’s retinue and was last recorded alive on 18 September when he was with his father’s army at Newcastle.
But for Adam his life was to be short-lived. The Scottish campaign of 1322 was a disaster, hampered by poor provisioning of foodstuffs, piracy in the North Sea which attacked Edward’s ships, and the outbreak of illness, including dysentery. Adam became sick and died before 30 September that year. What Edward’s reaction was is unknown. Adam’s young body was taken south to the mighty fortress of Tynemouth, which occupies a prominent position on the headland, surrounded on three parts by the North Sea. On 30 September the king’s wardrobe paid for a silk cloth with gold thread to be placed over Adam’s body at his burial.(5) Edward’s wife, Isabella of France was in residence at Tynemouth during the Scottish campaign and may well have presided over Adam’s interment.
(1) Brundage, James A. “Sex and Canon Law.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage, eds. New York: Garland, 1996, 33-50.
(2) Ibid. 462-63.
(3) Phillips, Seymour. Edward II, 82, 102.
(4) Ibid, 429.
Further reading: F.D Blackley, ‘Adam, the bastard son of Edward II’, BIHR, xxxvii (London, 1964)
One: An Intimate Moment. British Library.
Two: BL Royal 20 C V F96v