Spurious rumours about illegitimacy in Wales

In my last post I discussed the case of Mary Morgan and the ways in which the community of Presteigne has remembered her. Anyone curious about Mary will not be at a loss to find websites conveying various versions of her story, many of which are based on myth and conspiracy theories and not evidence. Such are they perils of the internet. Unfortunately information leaflets available at the Judges Lodgings Museum are also, at least in part, informed more by myth and assumption than by evidence.

Those who know me can attest to the fact that it doesn’t take much more than a misinformed assumption passed off as ‘fact’ to wind me up, so this post is dedicated to my travel companion who patiently tolerated my post-visit, fallacious leaflet-invoked rant.

The author of said booklet, which I can only imagine has captivated many a wide-eyed schoolchild over the years, correctly made the connection between illegitimacy and infanticide. The author in question also correctly stated that illegitimacy in Wales in earlier centuries was relatively high, but then went so far as to say that mothers of illegitimate children were given a preferential place on the marriage market. Yup. That’s right. Women with illegitimate children were MORE favourable than women who had not bore children out of wedlock. My reaction to this can only be described as ‘gobsmacked’.

Now, in all fairness this was not an academic publication, so some unsubstantiated erroneous statements are to be expected, and perhaps even forgiven given that it has served as a convenient segue from my last post to the current one.

I can only assume that the anonymous author’s assumption is based on a combination of a misunderstanding of the concept of ‘bridal pregnancy’ and the ‘Treachery of the Blue Books’. I feel confident in addressing this misunderstanding because to my knowledge I am one of only a small handful of academics (if I may use that term) to carry out a study of illegitimacy in early modern Wales.

Using parish reconstitution techniques several historians have been able to demonstrate that it was not uncommon for brides to arrive at the altar with a bun in the oven. This can be deduced by comparing the date of marriage to the date of the birth or baptism of the couple’s first child. If the birth occurs less than 8 months after marriage (making room for some degree of survivable prematurity) then it was likely the child was conceived prior to marriage. In many instances a birth occurred well under 6 months, making it clear that the couple had engaged in premarital sex. It has been argued that this was typically the result of marriage being more of a process than a single event, with coitus permitted after a certain level of commitment was made, but before the final vows.

A misunderstanding of this phenomena is the closest I can get to an explanation for the leaflet writer’s misguided statement: If in some communities under certain circumstances engaging in prenuptial sexual activity was permissible, and perhaps even encouraged as a form of fertility testing, then maybe an illegitimate child in any context could be an attractive asset, right?

*Face palm*

Needless to say, this is a pretty big and ridiculous leap.

Furthermore, a study of premarital conception is dependent on the bride/mother and groom/father being clearly identifiable in parish records. Anyone familiar with Welsh records will immediately recognise the problem of this approach for Wales – the limited pool of Welsh patronymics makes parish reconstitution a virtually insurmountable challenge. The ancient tradition of using a father’s first name as a surname has led to a large number of individuals bearing the exact same name, making identification in records problematic.

The author does appear to be correct in stating that illegitimacy in Wales was high, as was reported in the infamous Report of Commission of Enquiry into the State of Education in Wales in 1847. Research conducted within the past 10 years supports the argument that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries some areas of Wales did experience significantly higher rates of illegitimacy – sometimes as high as three to four times the average in England.

The Blue Books assumed that the reason for increased illegitimacy in Wales lay in the endemic immorality of the Welsh people.  Fortunately that argument has fallen out of fashion, and has been replaced by a call for research into Welsh courtship and marriage customs as a means of understanding why Wales experienced higher rates of illegitimacy. This is a call I’ve attempted to answer in a very small degree in my forthcoming article in Welsh History Review ‘Illegitimacy in Eighteenth Century Wales’.

Welsh History Review

The main sources for information about illegitimacy in early modern Britain are parish baptism registers. At no point were parish officials ever ordered to record illegitimate children, but most do so. The reasons for this were the potential economic impact an illegitimate child could have on the parish – a fatherless child was at risk becoming a burden on the parish. Therefore it was in parish officials’ best interest to list fathers of illegitimate children whenever possible so fathers and not the parish could be held accountable for the child’s maintenance. English records from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries suggest that many fathers fled, or out of shame were not named by mothers, as fathers appear in most records less than 50% of the time, and in some areas less than 7%.

What’s immediately striking about Welsh records is the sheer number of fathers of illegitimate children who are identified in registers. For example, in the parish of St. Peter’s in Carmarthen between the years 1700 and 1800 67% of entries for illegitimate children list a father or indicate the identity of the father was known. During the same period in the parish of Hawarden in Flintshire the rate of identifiable paternity is as high as 72%.

This analysis can be taken a step further by looking at the ways in which fathers are identified, which allows for a cautious distinction to be made between relationships that may have been more permissible in the eyes of the community and illicit relations that were not acceptable. Once such a distinction has been made the rates of illegitimacy resulting from illicit encounters drops significantly, which makes ‘illegitimacy’ in Wales that much more intriguing. Terms such as ‘legitimate’ are ‘illegitimate’ are loaded terms that reflect the values of individuals and communities. To understand what is and is not deemed ‘legitimate’ is to understand what is at the core of a community’s values. Therefore, to understand how and why illegitimacy in Wales was unique is to more thoroughly understand the rich social and cultural landscape of early modern Wales.

My purpose here has not been to summarise or repeat the substance of my article, and I would encourage anyone interested to read and comment on it once it has been published. My purpose has instead been to demonstrate that misconceptions about Wales and the Welsh that are based on pernicious conclusions drawn well over a century ago persist and are perpetuated, perhaps most harmfully, in places dedicated to revealing the lives of every day Welsh men and women from the past. This demonstrates how deeply embedded these myths are, and how important it is to dispel them by continuing to chisel away the fiction from the fact.

*Steps down from soap box*

Further Reading

Richard Adair, Courtship, Illegitimacy and Marriage in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).

Anna Brueton, ‘Courtship, Illegitimacy and Marriage in a Rural Community: the Upper Tywi Valley, 1760-1860’ (MA Dissertation, Trinity University College, 2007).

P. E. H. Hair, ‘Bridal Pregnancy in Earlier Rural England Further Examined’ Population Studies, 24( 1970), pp. 59-70.

Martin Ingram , Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England 1570-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

Peter Laslett , Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations: Essays in Historical Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen, Richard Michael Smith, eds., Bastardy and Its Comparative History (London: E. Arnold, 1980).

Alysa Levene, Thomas Nutt, and Samantha Williams, eds., Illegitimacy in Britain, 1700-1920 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Belinda Meteyard, ‘Illegitimacy and Marriage in Eighteenth-Century England’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 10(1980), pp. 479-489.

Angela Muir, ‘Illegitimacy in Eighteenth Century Wales’, Welsh History Review 26(2013), pp. 351-388

Stephen Parker, Informal Marriage, Cohabitation and the Law, 1750-1989 (London: Macmillan, 1990).

Catrin Stevens, Welsh Courting Customs (Llandysul: Gomer Press, 1993).


One thought on “Spurious rumours about illegitimacy in Wales

  1. Pingback: Illegitimacy and the Medieval Laws of Hywel Dda | and after that the dark

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