The Beaufort Legitimacy

You would think that as the author of a book called ‘The House of Beaufort; the Bastard Line that Captured the Crown’, my answer to the question, ‘were the Beauforts illegitimate’, would be a resounding yes. The clue is in the title. But there is a strong caveat to any answer that must be given to such a question, and that is, when exactly are we discussing? Before 1396, then the answer is undoubtedly yes. Thereafter, however, and the situation is altogether different.

By Nathen Amin

Just to give some background information about the Beauforts, just who were they? Well, the four original Beauforts, John, Henry, Thomas and Joan, were all born in the 1370s to John of Gaunt, the wealthy Duke of Lancaster, and Katherine Swynford, a Lincolnshire landowner who had previously served in the duke’s nursery. The foursome, however, were born out of wedlock, very possibly at Kettlethorpe Manor just outside Lincoln, and not in France as is often commonly believed. Katherine was a widow, her husband Hugh Swynford having died in France serving in the duke of Lancaster’s army, while John of Gaunt was married to Constance of Castile, his second marriage. On this basis, therefore, there can be little question that as each Beaufort child entered the world, the children of a duke and his mistress, they were indeed illegitimate in the eyes of the church and the common law.

This would have remained the case for the duration of their earthly lives had it not been for a series of events starting with the death of Constance of Castile in 1394. At the age of fifty-four, John of Gaunt, wealthy beyond measure, the son and uncle of kings of England, and respected across the continent, arguably had a wide range of potential spouses he could have chosen from throughout Europe’s royal houses. The woman he chose to marry in the twilight of his life, however, was Katherine Swynford, with the union taking place in Lincoln on 13 January 1396. It was a remarkable decision; it was almost unheard of during the fourteenth century for a nobleman of his stature to marry his mistress, much less one he had been cavorting with more than fifteen years earlier.

It was inevitable the wedding would incur scathing criticism once it became widely known; Thomas Walsingham cynically noted in his chronicle that the union occurred ‘to the amazement of all at such a miraculous happening, for she had a very small fortune’, before scornfully adding ‘Such was the magnitude of his error’, whilst Froissart believed the wedding had ‘caused much astonishment in France and England as she was of humble birth’. Nonetheless, with their parents now married, focus naturally turned to the Beaufort children and the process of their legitimisation.

In 1396, John was around twenty-four-years-old whilst, Joan, the youngest of her siblings, was roughly seventeen. Despite their maturity, removing the stain of their illegitimate origins was foremost in Gaunt’s mind. The reasoning was clear; the duke only had one legitimate male heir, Henry of Bolingbroke, and it was prudent to solidify the family unit around Henry. The Beauforts were to be of far greater use to the House of Lancaster if they were not hindered by any legal barriers resulting from their birth outside wedlock.

During the fourteenth century, a bastard could not legally inherit any estates or titles, a situation which often led to illegitimate children of landowners and noblemen relying on the good favour and creative fiscal management of their father. Providing he could afford to do so, a father often purchased manors to confer upon his bastards, an effective method already exploited by Gaunt in John Beaufort’s case. Of course, such generosity only worked whilst the benefactor lived. An illegitimate child was also barred from obtaining any preferment in the church, a restriction which may have concerned Gaunt considering Henry Beaufort’s intended ecclesiastical career.

To establish retrospective legitimacy, the petitioner had to appeal to both parliament and church to satisfy common and church law respectively. The common law stipulated that any child born out of wedlock remained barred from legitimisation in the event their parents subsequently married, as was the case with Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, whilst the surprisingly more accommodating law of the church preached the opposite. The duke duly applied to the pope in Rome and parliament in Westminster to seek charters of legitimacy on behalf of the Beauforts, intending to satisfy both courts of law. Papal Letters dated September 1396 disclosed that a petitioner had been dispatched to the Holy See to seek such dispensation from Boniface IX. The entry in the Papal Register for that month recorded the:

‘Ratification and confirmation of the marriage contracted by John, duke of Lancaster, and Catherine de Swynforde, damsel, of the diocese of Lincoln, with dispensation to remain therein, offspring past and future being declared legitimate’.

The entry further noted the petitioner who travelled to Rome on behalf of Gaunt was handed ‘a letter of credence marked by the pope’s hand, and related to them that, as was also contained in the letter itself, the pope had given his consent’. Put simply, in the eyes of the church, the Beauforts were legitimate.

In January 1397, parliament assembled in Westminster, during the proceedings of which ‘the duke of Lancaster had a child legitimised whom he had conceived with Katherine Swynford’. Edmund Stafford, bishop of Exeter and Lord Chancellor, addressed the members and declared on behalf of the king that the pope had ‘enabled and legitimised Sir John de Beauford, his brothers and his sister’, before reading the royal charter which confirmed that:

‘Richard by the grace of God, King of England and France, and Lord of Ireland, to our most dear cousins the noble men, John the Knight, Henry the Clerk, Thomas Domicello, and to our beloved the noble woman Joan Beauford Domicelle, the most dear relatives of our uncle the noble John, Duke of Lancaster, born our lieges, greeting, and the favour of our royal majesty. Whilst internally considering how incessantly and with what honours we are graced by the very useful and sincere affection of our aforesaid uncle, and by the wisdom of his counsel, we think it proper and fit that, for the sake of his merits, and in contemplation of his favours, we should enrich you (who are endowed by nature with great probity and honesty of life and behaviour, and are begotten of royal blood, and by the divine gift are adorned with many virtues) with the strength of our royal prerogative of favour and grace’.

This first part of the charter concerned itself with the moral qualities and exemplary behaviour of the foursome, providing some rare insight into the character of the Beauforts at this stage of their lives. If King Richard had been responsible for the text in the charter, then he obviously deemed his cousins to be worthy recipients of his favour. The second part of the document focused on the specific consequences of legitimisation, clearly stipulating the Beauforts were now entitled to acquire any estate, attain any office, or inherit any title as though they had been born in lawful matrimony:

‘Hence it is, that, yielding to the entreaties of our said uncle your father, we do, in the fullness of our royal power and by the assent of parliament, by the tenor of these presents empower you, who as it is asserted suffer from the want of birthright, (notwithstanding such defect, which, and the qualities thereof, we take to be in these presents sufficiently expressed) to be raised, promoted, elected, assume, and be admitted to all honours, dignities, pre-eminences, estates, degrees and offices public and private whatsoever, as well perpetual as temporal, and feudal and noble, by whatsoever names they may be designated, whether they be Duchies, Principalities, Earldoms, Baronies or other fees, and whether they depend or are holden of us mediately or immediately, and to receive, retain, bear, and exercise the same as freely and lawfully as if ye were born in lawful matrimony, and you and every of you do restore and legitimise: any statutes or customs of our realm of England to the contrary thereof made or observed (which we consider to be herein expressed) in anywise notwithstanding’.

From the moment parliament dissolved on 12 February 1397, John of Gaunt had therefore established, as far as ecclesiastical or civil law would allow, the legitimacy of his Beaufort offspring. No person in England could invalidate, contradict or dispute the judgement of pope or parliament. The Beauforts were, as far as church and state concerned, to be henceforth regarded as fully-fledged members of the English royal family. They were unquestionably legitimate.

The situation would have remained as it was, were it not for a slight amendment in the parliamentary act exactly a decade later. In 1407, the man sitting upon the throne was the Beauforts half-brother Henry of Bolingbroke, who had usurped the throne in 1399 and was ruling as Henry IV, the first king of the House of Lancaster. It was in 1407 that John Beaufort, now earl of Somerset and one of the foremost nobles in the land, having been able to prosper after his legitimisation, requested parliament re-confirm the legitimacy of the Beauforts. This was duly granted, however there was a crucial caveat added to the original act, three simply words squeezed in clumsily between the existing text – excepta dignitate regali, or except to the royal dignity.

The interlineation appeared after the word ‘dignities’ and before ‘pre-eminences’, altering the Latin text to read that the Beauforts could be ‘raised, promoted, elected, assume, and be admitted to all honours, dignities, except to the royal dignity, pre-eminences, estates, degrees and offices public and private whatsoever’. The inference was clear; the family were entitled to inherit or obtain any office in the kingdom, with the specific exception of one – the throne itself.

What prompted this exemption? Did the king fear his half-brothers, or their descendants, would one-day lay claim to a crown he had understandably earmarked for his own issue? Could this addition be evidence Henry did not fully trust the Beauforts, regardless of the unwavering loyalty they had exhibited? Or was it included at the discretion of a scheming third party attempting to curb the family’s ambitions, such as the archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel, shortly to fall foul of the Beaufort brothers?

It’s unlikely the king had suddenly developed doubts about the Beauforts’ allegiance to the House of Lancaster, and there is no evidence of any obvious breach. Henry had depended on his half-siblings’ service over the previous seven years and although he had survived rebellions, parliamentary criticism, near bankruptcy and repeated bouts of sickness, the one constant had been the faithfulness of his brothers. Providing no third party was involved, the most rational explanation is that the king was simply adding a further protective barrier around his four sons, having grown apprehensive about their ability to retain the throne after his death. The series of rebellions had only served to exacerbate such anxiety.

That the Beauforts ever held hopes of inheriting the throne seems highly improbable when one considers the four Lancastrian princes ahead of them in the line of succession, not to mention any children their nephews subsequently had. If anything, the codicil to the act seems to be nothing more than an increasingly ill king tying up loose ends. If it wasn’t for later events in 1485, and the accession of a Beaufort heir in Henry Tudor, then the exemption would have long been disregarded by historians as of minor importance, and I wouldn’t be here discussing it today.

Whatever prompted the interlineation, it’s questionable whether the curious addition was, in fact, legally above board. The original petition had been ratified by an Act of Parliament in 1397 and was therefore a legally binding document. Any alterations to the act could only be made if parliament repealed the previous bill or endorsed those changes. Although Tudor later claimed the throne by emphasising his Beaufort descent from Edward III, hostile commentators have often pointed out his maternal ancestors were barred from the throne. The truth is the exemption was never sanctioned by parliament, and was therefore merely the will of a king rather than law. If one king could add such an amendment, then another could simply remove it. The original act of 1397, which categorically stipulated, with parliamentary assent, that the Beauforts could be raised or promoted to all and any office in the land remained enshrined in law until the day Henry Tudor became king.

Therefore, this leads us to suggest that the Beauforts, post 1396, were, and remained, a legitimate dynasty capable of inheriting the crown of England until their demise in the male-line in 1471, when any rights passed through the female line, which included, amongst others, Henry Tudor.

We often read Henry Tudor had a weak claim to throne, some even say he had no claim to the throne. Granted, there were others who had far more prestigious bloodlines than the first Tudor monarch, but it is unquestionable that Henry Tudor possessed legitimate Plantagenet blood as a direct descendant of Edward III, through the House of Beaufort. The Beauforts were a bastard line from birth, but that was not a status that would remain in place for long.


Nathen Amin’s book, The House of Beaufort; the Bastard Line that Captured the Crown, is published by Amberley and is available online at Amberley’s website  and at Amazon UK. It will be available in the US on November 1st.

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